When you're trying to break into Hollywood, you take your fair share of hits – quite literally in the case of David Leitch, who started as a stuntman taking and giving out punches and kicks for the likes Brad Pitt, Jean-Claude Van Damme and many more.
Now, he's less in the business of taking hits and more in the business of making them as one of the most sought-after action directors currently working in the industry, co-helming the beloved franchise starter "John Wick" and now going behind the camera for bone-crunchingly entertaining actioners like "Atomic Blonde," "Deadpool 2" and, most recently, this weekend's "Fast and the Furious" spin-off "Hobbs & Shaw."
And it all started in Kohler.
Before the movie bombastically brings the 2019 summer blockbuster season to an end, OnMilwaukee got a chance to chat with Leitch about his Sconnie origins, bringing his own style to a globally-appreciated action franchise and whether or not the "Fast and the Furious" should take the family out into the final frontier: space.
OnMilwaukeee: So how does a kid from Kohler become a Hollywood stuntman?
David Leitch: It was a long road, but when I left Kohler before college, I went to the University of Minnesota and fell into a martial arts school I really loved. At that martial arts school, I traveled a lot to seminars and competitions, and it took me to L.A. for one summer while I was competing. I met some young stunt guys that were just starting off in the business, trying to figure out what this would be.
I remember coming back to Minnesota – at that time, I’d already graduated, and I was teaching second grade; it was my first year out of college, and I had a teaching degree – and I was like, "There’s this business where I can do all this martial arts that I know and have fun and create these fight scenes and get paid for it. Holy crap! While I’m still young, I have to go figure this out!" So after that year of school, I flew out to L.A. and tried my hand at the stunt industry.
Like anything in Hollywood, it takes a long time to break into, but I had a core group of people that were really talented, and we just set our minds to training, training, training, getting to become the best stunt performers we could in the hopes that an opportunity would arise. Over two years or so, I got a job on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and a stint on a TV show called "Martial Law." You start to gain momentum as people know who you are and what you can do.
Twenty years later, I’m a stunt double for a lot of people, I stunt coordinated many movies, I action directed a bunch and then we ended up shooting "John Wick."
Were you always a fan of action movies back when you were in Kohler?
I was obsessed with martial arts as a kid. There wasn’t a lot of places to train, so my martial art was wrestling. I wrestled since I was in second grade and all the way through high school and into college for a year. That was my outlet. But I was a fan of martial arts movies and action movies. I must’ve worn out my VHS tape of "Lethal Weapon" watching it, as you can see by "Hobbs & Shaw."
With your origins, starting at as a stuntman and directing "John Wick," how do you blend your grounded action style with the signature cartoonish-ness of "The Fast and the Furious" franchise? How did you want to go about doing that?
Well, the answer’s in the question. It was sort of new ground for me. I mean, the second "Deadpool" was kind of a stepping stone, because there’s a lot of visual effects components in that, so I had to sort of spread my action wings and embrace visual effects in action movies. As an action director and a second unit director, I shot many visual effects sequences, but it was never where my heart and soul was. I like practical stunts and visceral hand-to-hand stuff.
But I knew when you come into a franchise like this, you’re servicing the fans, and you really need to be aware of what they want. I knew they would appreciate my brand of fighting, but I also knew that we needed to bust out some creativity and have some big CG set pieces that pushed the laws of physics. So I took on the challenge, and I think we did some great integrating of practical stunts in those sequences that people may not even realize.
What’s the hardest part of directing a movie like "Hobbs & Shaw": the action sequences or getting the action/comedy tone right?
The tone is the hardest part. Because there are three things going on in this: There’s the crazy spectacle action, there’s this comedic tone and then there’s this family drama, heart and soul, pull at the heartstrings sort of thing. To keep the roller coaster going and have the movie falling forward so your audience is engaged is the challenge. So that starts at the script phase, and then in production, you try to give yourself as many choices as possible and then you really finesse that in editorial.
Action movies are not daunting to me, but dramatic scenes and comedy, I pay attention more because those things matter more. If you don’t laugh or you don’t care about these characters, that action’s never going to mean anything. There’s more at stake with the performances delivered.
One more question for you: Do you think the "Fast and the Furious" franchise should go into space?
(Laughs) I think that the "Fast and the Furious" franchise has always been really great at reinventing itself. I wouldn’t be surprised. They can do anything they want to do as long as they’re true to those characters. They’ve done such a great job of making those characters beloved to their fan base – and that’s a testament to (screenwriter) Chris Morgan and Justin (Lin, director of 4-6) and all of the directors who’ve taken a stab at it. Characters mean everything. And you could take those characters to the bottom of the ocean or anywhere because you care about them and you’re on a journey with them, and that’s all that matters.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.