Before he was a director of spectacles like “Deadpool 2,” David Leitch did stunts for dozens of productions, often doubling for Brad Pitt in films including “Troy,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Fight Club.” Leitch puts his stunt background to good use in the action film “Bullet Train,” in cinemas now, in which he reteams with Pitt, this time as director.
Based on a Japanese novel, the action comedy revolves around five assassins from around the globe who find themselves on a fast-moving train. Pitt stars as Ladybug, alongside Sandra Bullock, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Shannon, Zazie Beetz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bad Bunny. Leitch aimed to deliver a character-driven story that captures the action in camera rather than relying on CGI and green screen. It was up to Greg Rementer, the film’s second-unit director and stunt coordinator, to deliver the helmer’s vision.
In designing a fighting style tailored to Pitt’s character, Rementer worked closely with Leitch to understand Ladybug’s backstory and motivation. The character frequently carries a briefcase, so Rementer had the fight choreography include the prop. “He wants to avoid fighting at all costs,” Rementer explains. “He’s there to obtain his objective and escape unseen. There was a lot of defending, swift evading, moving silently and tactically. We drew on inspiration from Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton in the way that we wanted Brad to do the majority of his hand-to-hand choreography.”
Pitt was eager to do his own fight sequences, and Rementer had no objections: “He’s a natural athlete, and there was no reason why he couldn’t do his fights based on his background.” Moreover, Pitt’s preference fit well with Rementer’s philosophy. “Whenever I design action, I always try to get the cast to perform their fight scenes as opposed to their stunts” and help them to “safely push those boundaries,” he says, explaining that he’d rather not see a star in scenes where their character gets hit by a car or thrown out a window.
Rementer had more than 16 weeks to prep. While a few scenes shot in Japan, much of the work came together at Sony’s soundstages in Culver City. “We would bring in the stunt team, our wire team and camera team. We’d put up two-by-two boxes so that it was like train seats and film it,” Rementer explains. “It was so we could understand the space.”
He worked with the whole cast, with each member learning their own skill set. “We put the cast through fight boot camp,” Rementer says. He taught actors how to throw punches and kicks from either side to allow Leitch the freedom to move set-pieces around. “If David wants to put a chair over there and a punch with the left hand would be better, well, if we’ve only taught them how to punch with the right hand, then we’re in trouble.”
The weeks of prep included Rementer working with the film’s production designer David Scheunemann and costume designer Sarah Evelyn Bram. “Sarah gave us more stretch in the pants so we could put a wire harness in if we needed to,” Rementer says.
Once on set, Rementer could push the boundaries on the moves Pitt and the cast had learned. “We’d teach them to Brad, and he would work on them maybe two moves at a time. He could work on two or three beats or whatever was achievable.” The idea, he adds, was to let Pitt focus on acting and not worry about punching. But Rementer notes that Pitt was able to combine seven or eight moves and praises the actor, who he says performed at least 95% of the action in his fight scenes. “Brad leading pushed everyone to excel,” he says. “It was a great marriage of trust and safety.”