EXCLUSIVE: David Leitch and Kelly McCormick and their 87North production label tomorrow launch their latest high-octane action film. The Ilya Naishuller-directed thriller Nobody is the attempt by Better Call Saul‘s Bob Odenkirk to make the action hero done by actors from Liam Neeson to Keanu Reeves. For 87North, the film furthers momentum build with films Leitch directed, most of which McCormick produced. Leitch started his rise co-directing John Wick with fellow stuntman pal Chad Stahelski. Leitch followed with Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, and the recently wrapped Bullet Train. An adaptation of the Kotaro Isaka novel about five assassins engaged in mayhem aboard a fast moving train, the Sony film stars Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Zazie Beetz, Michael Shannon, Joey King and Hiroyuki Sanada. A Will Smith vehicle, Fast & Loose, is also percolating. Here, the duo discusses why Odenkirk will sneak up on audiences as a convincing screen killer, how Leitch evolved from Brad Pitt’s longtime stuntman to his director — and the stories Pitt holds over Leitch’s head about their wild early days. Leitch and McCormick also press the case for the unfairness that stunt teams are ignored by Oscar.
DEADLINE: Turning Bob Odenkirk into an action hero in Nobody is a neat trick, but maybe not as daunting as shooting a big budget Brad Pitt action film, Bullet Train, smack in the pandemic. How did that work out?
DAVID LEITCH: Pretty good. Being able to get out there and direct a movie during all that, we were grateful we got to work. A lot of people didn’t. I can’t say enough about Sony helping us mount that. It takes place on a train, going from Tokyo to Kyoto, on the Japanese bullet train.
DEADLINE: And where did you shoot that?
KELLY McCORMICK: On the Sony lot. I think it’s the first feature shot on the Sony lot in almost a decade, because the stages were available when the TV guys shut down and we were able to take over a bunch of their stages. We only had seven days off lot, basically.
LEITCH: Yeah, it was mostly a stage movie.
DEADLINE: The biggest challenge in shooting a big Japan-set movie on Culver City soundstages?
LEITCH: It was all challenging, but everyone was up for doing something during Covid. So we designed it to be a stage movie, using elements of virtual production, a new buzzword out there.
DEADLINE: What does that mean exactly?
LEITCH: Shooting plate material and then projecting that on LED screens to create the environment, the location, and so we did that through virtual production. We had a great art department that built incredible sets. Movie crews can do remarkable things. We definitely took a unique approach. We’re excited at how it turned out. You feel like you’re in Tokyo, on a train, and you’re moving through this crazy world, and it’s a really fun ride.
DEADLINE: Next time you propose a movie in a far flung location, they’re going to say, why go there? Look at Bullet Train.
McCORMICK: There’s talk of that, that virtual production is changing the world. But I think there’s nothing that really replaces going to a location.
LEITCH: We had so much fun on Hobbs & Shaw, going to Hawaii for Samoa and going to London for London, and shooting practical locations. That’s where our heart is, but it’s really fun to play with the new technology and see where it can go.
McCORMICK: It felt safer, being on the lot in this moment. They tested everyone. The feeling of safety was worth the trade-off, this time.
DEADLINE: Did you have to shut down at all?
McCORMICK: We didn’t. There was one small scare where we pivoted to other stuff we needed to shoot for three days. It happened to land right before our Christmas hiatus, so we were unable to take a break to wait out the scare, since production was about to shut down for the year anyway. It was our biggest closest-to-our-actors kind of scare, but we were able to cobble together a couple of extra days with people who weren’t affected, and then moved into hiatus. We were supposed to start again January 5, and we asked Sony to take the week because that was when Covid was surging, and all these headlines there were no beds left in all of Los Angeles. It felt wise to give LA a minute and be sensitive to what was happening in town.
LEITCH: The protocols Sony put in place were really effective, but this was a testament to the discipline of our crew that they took them seriously. We were all so grateful to be working, everyone wanted too follow the rules.
DEADLINE: Bob Odenkirk is a fine actor but does not scream action hero. How did Nobody come about?
McCORMICK: It was Bob, an idea of his that he came to us with, based on an experience he had, a home invasion of his own. It inspired a movie idea. Honestly, he is exactly kind of what we’re looking for at 87North. A completely atypical action hero who allows us to do different kind of action than when you have the typical action hero. It ended up being perfect.
DEADLINE: He has not really been willing to discuss the home invasion incident; hopefully nothing that bad happened, but I’m assuming he didn’t respond by going out and killing 200 evil Russians, but…
McCORMICK: Yeah. I think he wishes he would’ve handled the situation differently. It came from that sense of vulnerability where it’s like, somebody showed up at his home. I don’t know the details, but…he felt invaded. He felt vulnerable, like he wished he could’ve protected his family in a different way. Of course, I’m sure he handled that situation perfectly.
LEITCH: He handled it correctly.
McCORMICK: So this is his wish-fulfillment movie, what he wished he would’ve done. The message is in that scene, what do you need to do, minus the violence, feeling that vulnerability, wondering if you’re doing your best, and being your best self, protecting your family as best you can. That is the real arc, and the real message behind it.
DEADLINE: Those things are dealt with in the film, the question of, do I try to deescalate this and hope it doesn’t go to far? And then people around him saying, you did the right thing. Your family is fine. But the man is left with the feeling of shame and rage. How dare these people break into my home?
LEITCH: That definitely was the kernel of the idea, and then we go into this wish-fulfillment version of what he did and who he was, and getting his mojo back. I think it’s an accessible idea for a lot of people, and like Kelly said, wanting to be able to protect the people you care about and wanting to stand up for yourself and wanting to deal some of this cowboy justice. So you go on that journey with a character who had the skills to back it up. I think there’s that fun mystery of a guy like Bob. He’s an atypical action hero. He’s not muscled up. He’s not The Rock or Jason Statham. He’s Bob, and seeing him have those skill sets is far more satisfying for our audience because it’s a shock.
McCORMICK: There is a different kind of satisfaction, something more accessible. For us, it becomes about heightening the action, and having it be fun and more melodramatic as far as punctuating what the arc really is. It makes that journey easy to add action and add fun.
DEADLINE: How long from Odenkirk pitch to finished film?
McCORMICK: It took a minute. Movies take a long time, and sometimes they don’t take a long time. This one, three years. We got Derek Kolstad interested, and set it up as a pitch at STX. Ilya Naishuller joined then. When it was time to budget this great script, STX wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger, and they allowed us to take it out. We were making our deal at Universal, and I sent it over to Peter Cramer, who read it within a week and said, there’s something here, how soon can we go? He actually wanted us to go into production sooner than we were able to. We had to wait for Bob to finish a season of Better Call Saul. That took a minute, and the kind of cool part in the middle of that is probably before the script was totally written, Bob got going on the training.
McCORMICK: He just was so excited about converting into an action hero and knew he needed to figure out how to do it. So, we connected him with Daniel Bernhardt, who’s on our team, an action actor in his own right and an awesome guy. They just trained on and off for literally two years.
LEITCH: Learning martial arts, fitness training, and choreography, which is a sort of a special skill set, and…
McCORMICK: And finding confidence that he could do it.
DEADLINE: What surprised you most about this transformation?
LEITCH: His tenacity. His work ethic is pretty insane. It shows in his work as an actor, a writer and comedian and all of those things that he is, but he took that discipline and applied it to being an action star, and it was really impressive to see him keep that vigil up over two years. It was on and off but with the mindset, I know I’m going to play this guy one day, and I want to be prepared. It was impressive.
McCORMICK: We were like, you might not play this guy one day, Bob, there’s a chance that…
LEITCH: We might not get this set up. I mean we’re trying, but…
McCORMICK: He’s like, I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m focused, I’m going to still train. And he fell in love with it a little bit. In the moments when we were shooting, it was really sweet because he’d come in like a young boxer, and Daniel would be behind him, rubbing up his muscles, and then we’d do some awesome sequence and all of us are like, wow, look at this guy. Because again, he’s not the typical action star.
LEITCH: We knew, at that moment, if we’re feeling it on set, you know that the audience is going to feel the same way. You see a guy like him being able to deliver the punches like that, it was going to translate. We really felt we had something here.
DEADLINE: Without giving much away, he is the son of an FBI agent played by Christopher Lloyd and he has a brother [RZA] in the shadows, and there is a whole mythology unexplored and an opportunity to build more mayhem. Much like the John Wick movies, I could watch this one on a loop. So do you wait for the results — as much as you get them in a pandemic theater-going moment — or have you started the sequel script?
McCORMICK: It’s this fine line of not jinxing it…
DEADLINE: I just knocked on wood…
LEITCH: You plant the seeds, and we’ve planted them before, but you try to have cooler heads prevail and wait for the results. You want the audience to want to go on another journey with Hutch and his family, but I don’t know…
McCORMICK: I was looking at the home entertainment clips the other day to approve them, and there’s a whole character through-line about his past that didn’t actually hit the movie. Derek and Ilya created more seeds than we were actually able to plant, interestingly enough, because it was kind of more Wick-ian. It’s the mystery of who this guy is, and the movie ended up being so satisfying on the journey where he is now, in the present. Going back into the past and delving into who that guy was wasn’t necessary, because you just bought into the arc, and you wanted to spend the time there.
LEITCH: For this first film…
McCORMICK: All that’s great fodder for what we can do in the future. And the way Connie Nielsen played Becca allows for more. She’s in on it but not so much; she’s open to it but doesn’t want to really quite put her toes into the water just yet, but she could. She totally could. That nuance that she added in her performance. There is a warmth to that couple, but they obviously weren’t in their best moments in their relationship. But she was still open to finding a path back.
DEADLINE: David, your trajectory to A-list director with billions in global grosses is remarkable. We could say you came out of nowhere were it not for about 82 stuntman credits. I was reminded of this great Deadline interview with Burt Reynolds, a terrific athlete and great friends with all the stunt guys on his movies. He seemed almost embarrassed to ask them to take the hits for him. He really felt it in his later years and said when something ached, he recalled exactly what movie and stunt caused it. You take a lot of hits on those 82 movies?
McCORMICK: What was your nickname, rubber man? What was it?
LEITCH: I think you made that up. Look, you take a lot of hits. It’s not easy on the body. I’ve been fortunate to…I mean I had a couple surgeries and things that were related to stunts. It’s funny, you often get hurt more in rehearsal, preparing to make it safe, than you do on the actual camera, because by that time, you’ve done the R&D to make it safe, especially as stunts become more modern and the approach becomes more technical. But look, that experience, having the access that you have as a stunt performer to all the filmmakers and the physical production process, it was invaluable to me becoming a director.
You talked about Burt loving his stunt friends. When you are doing stunts, the directors like you. The crew likes you. You have this sort of unfettered access to the filmmaking process that you wouldn’t get if you were in some other department or if you were some other person. It was really a great learning ground for me to be a director someday. I just soaked it in. I loved being on set, I loved making movies, and I loved doing my part as a stunt performer. But I was always looking towards the bigger picture, and was always fascinated by how this is made.
DEADLINE: At what point in your stuntman run did you say to yourself, “Man, I should be behind the camera”?
LEITCH: It was a slow build. There was a core group of us, including Chad Stahelski, and we were getting known as fight choreographers. We were choreographing, shooting, and editing our fight scenes, and presenting them to the director and the stunt coordinator. We were getting hired a lot for fight choreography. Well, that process of shooting and editing, I got really excited about it. I got to tell the story visually, through the camera. And then, I started to pay attention more to my mentors on set, the Wachowskis, and working with directors like Fincher and seeing how they’re doing it. I knew then that I loved telling these stories through the camera as well as in my action work. That led to the second unit directing, where you’re directing a mini-movie, a set piece within a movie. You’re dealing with all the logistics in every department, and you’re telling a story from the time that you get in the car to the time that car crashes. There’s a nonverbal storytelling that just sometimes is more difficult than words. You need to tell a lot about what’s going on. So it was second unit and action directing, and then, John Wick.
DEADLINE: That first John Wick, and the sequels, they come on TV all the time and I just stop and watch. This new film, Nobody, could become one of those. The Wick plot was simple: Assassin pried out of retirement when the son of a crime lord kills the puppy given the killer by his late wife. There was a whiff of mythology that could build in future installments, which is present in Nobody. When did you realize you had something special on that film you and Stahelski directed?
LEITCH: John Wick?
DEADLINE: That first one, yeah.
McCORMICK: It’s a funny story.
LEITCH: For Chad and I, that movie was a struggle financially. We were first-time directors, co-directing, but we were very cohesive in our vision of what we wanted. I think that we just knew with all the restrictions we had, we wanted to get real good material every day and stay true to the character and get the great performance out of Keanu, and just keep focused on that. Because at that financial level, for all the things that we wanted to do in our minds, we’d had second unit budgets that were bigger than this production’s budget and so our appetite was always to pushing the box out. We got the movie cut and edited, and we had a great editor who helped us carve out the story.
McCORMICK: Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir.
LEITCH: Elísabet, who works with me still. We presented that movie to the buyers, and….
McCORMICK: Nobody bought it.
McCORMICK: Yeah. It was financed through Lionsgate International, but not Lionsgate Domestic. That meant that then once the movie was done, it could go to market…
LEITCH: For domestic.
McCORMICK: You guys finished it early summer, late spring, and instead of waiting…people didn’t even believe in it enough to hold it until Toronto, for it to play Midnight Madness and sell for a trillion dollars. People didn’t even believe in it that much…
LEITCH: We were kind of getting beaten down. But we thought it was really cool and we were excited about it.
McCORMICK: It was like, it seemed really good, but you guys [Lionsgate] don’t really like it. CAA was repping it, because they repped Basil Iwanyk, who’s still producer of the films. They showed it to all the buyers, in July, when, by the way, most of the people who could actually buy were on vacation. Junior executives filled the theater, and some of them were like, this seems pretty cool, and they’d like take it up to the next level. And everyone passed on it, and Lionsgate ended up going, we’ll take a roll on this because we had international. It was a five million…I’m telling the stories now, but it was a five million dollar MG for P&A alone. They didn’t pay a single dime for the actual film. They took it to Fantastic Fest, and they went through the roof for it, bonkers, and then they were like, I think we’re onto something.
LEITCH: That’s where things changed. The first night we screened it, it was the first real screening we had. Test screenings had gone well, great for a movie like this, but this was like the first real screening at a festival, and it went crazy.
McCORMICK: Some reviewers saw it, went crazy for it and that made a big difference.
LEITCH: I remember, in the car, driving back, we were looking at the Twitter feeds, and Lionsgate publicity was like, oh my god, we have something here, we have a hit.
DEADLINE: So nice to see your vision validated. It looks like Keanu really learned the weaponry and blades John Wick uses to slice and dice his enemies…
LEITCH: We were all vested in doing something different with the action, not using the stunt double, staying with the character and doing these longer takes. We needed an actor who was going to go on the journey with us and commit to that. Keanu’s work ethic is off the charts. The training he put in, and continues to do for the Wicks, it’s insane. There’s no other actor like him who puts in the time and effort like for the training of that, the character.
McCORMICK: One of the things that he has become really known for is how proficient he is with gun technique, the specificity of loading and unloading. We hear gun fanatics go crazy over how he is so proficient, and guns or not guns, what’s cool about that is it’s a character who’s very precise and technical. This weapon is his weapon of choice, and he’s figured it out front, back, up, down, and that speaks about the specificity of character and it’s something people have responded to.
DEADLINE: You just directed Brad Pitt in Bullet Train, but your collaboration with him goes well past that split second cameo in Deadpool 2. You were his stunt guy on five films before you became a director. The obvious question: How close was your relationship with Brad back then, to the one that Brad had with Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?
LEITCH: Well, that was a different era, for stuntmen and actors, I think. My relationship with him was not that, although we did have a great relationship and we did some big movies. Troy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Fight Club…
McCORMICK: The Mexican. That was a good one…
LEITCH: The Mexican. Yeah. So, we did a lot of movies together, and we trained a lot, and he did a lot of fight choreography. Brad’s also one of those guys that does a lot of his own stuff. He’s so supportive of the stunt community, as you saw last year at the Academy Awards, when he spoke briefly about their need for recognition, but he’s also one of those guys who can get in there and do it. He’s a great athlete, and he wants to do as much as possible. So, we had a blast.
DEADLINE: Should there be an Oscar for stuntmen and stunt choreography?
LEITCH: I think it’s undeniable at this point. I look at modern stunt coordinating and action design and how important it is to the industry, whether it’s a comedy or a drama or a thriller. The stunt coordinator and the stunt department is as essential as any costume, hair, makeup, special effects, visual effects, all of whom are recognized. It just…hard, you know? The Academy night has always been bittersweet because you watch your colleagues and your peers and all the below the line departments celebrate the film that you all worked on, and you, as the stunt coordinator, aren’t really in the celebration, and you’re like I was there, the reason…I was…and some of these movies that are nominated for the Academy Award, like Mad Max, 90 percent of the people onscreen are stunt performers. And the other 10 percent are actors. I think that the amount of technical coordination to pull that movie off is amazing. The audiences are getting smarter, and they understand it from all the behind the scenes. It’s a real skill, and it deserves to be recognized by the Academy, and it’s important.
DEADLINE: Now that you mention it, it doesn’t seem fair they’re giving out trophies to everyone else on your film, and your souvenir is a limp…
LEITCH: Kind of. Have you seen me on set, by the way? Yes. That is me on set, like limping around, and everyone’s like, what happened?
McCORMICK: To your earlier point about the Academy…there’s less viewership for the Academy Awards every year. Having the stunts recognized could give them an advantage; it allows for more mainstream films to have a moment, a presence, and a lot of them are incredibly great films and really well-done. I know they get recognized in other ways with visual effects and such, but it’s another way to kind of acknowledge some amazing work and help maybe get more viewership.
DEADLINE: David, you had this long actor-stuntman relationship with Brad Pitt, and now you directed him in this big-budget action thriller. You and Chad Stahelski were stunt guys who dreamed of being directors, and now here you are directing Brad Pitt. What did that mean to you? What were those first interactions like with Brad in this new role?
LEITCH: It was a bit surreal. Brad and I are friends, and he’s a gracious guy, supportive of my directorial career and vision. But it’s so weird, because our relationship was like, I’m there to support you and make you look good as a double, and how can I help you with the action, and how do we get this character to be strong, action-wise? And now we’re like, I’m here to support you as a character, but we’re telling the whole big story now, and how do we do this together, and get you to that place? There are similarities in some respects, but it was odd at first. But he was just a great partner and a collaborator and he made it as not as awkward as it could’ve been, I guess.
McCORMICK: It was pretty cute. I think you were a little intimidated. You had a lot to prove, as the dynamic changes, and it’s like, I got to show this guy that I can be a whole different partner in a process with him, right?
McCORMICK: It was really cute to watch them to find their lane, together, and then see this partnership develop in this different way. I wasn’t around for the stunt years, so I don’t know how that went, but this was really cool, actually. Brad comes with a lot of ideas, and David is a super-collaborative director. And together, they shaped the character, and ultimately shaped the movie into something we’re really excited about it. It was really fun to watch them work together.
LEITCH: It was such a dream to come full-circle with him. It had been so long since we’d worked together, and I remember how fun our collaboration was in that earlier form. I just was excited to see what it would become in this form, and it turned out it’s been great.
McCORMICK: And Brad was super gracious to not tell all of the crazy stories that had happened on various sets. There’s a couple that are like absolutely hysterical that Brad was like, yeah, I’ll save that one for when…
LEITCH: When I need you to take my notes.
DEADLINE: So, now you’ve opened a door; you have to tell us one.
McCORMICK: The Mexican story?
LEITCH: OK. There was a story where I came down to stunt double for him on The Mexican. I’d just gotten off the plane, and they’d rushed me to second unit. I hadn’t even spoken to Brad yet, and I was really excited because this was second movie I was doing with him, and to even get the call to be there…and he’d recommended me which was so cool because…
McCORMICK: It’s Brad Pitt!
LEITCH: It’s Brad Pitt, and I’m going to stunt double him, and hopefully this’ll be a long-term gig. And I get in the car, and not to give myself excuses, the speedometer doesn’t work in the car.
McCORMICK: The El Camino.
LEITCH: The El Camino.
McCORMICK: And you’re out in the middle of nowhere.
LEITCH: We’re out in the middle of nowhere. We’re in the desert, and I really have to basically drive this El Camino, kind of hot, through an intersection.
McCORMICK: You probably remember it from the movie.
LEITCH: And I have to beat the light that’s switching from green to red. I go through the intersection, but I’m not realizing how fast I’m going because the speedometer’s broken. I see the stunt coordinator go, “Slow down,” and I could see him out in the distance, and I hear it on the radio, and I’m like, “What?” So, I hit the brakes, and because we’re in the desert, there’s a lot of sand on the road, and I just stabbed the brakes, and I start to slide the car, and I’m drifting it, like, “Oh, I’m kind of losing control. I don’t want to go that way.” So, I crank the wheel … because there’s the video village. So, I go this way, and there’s the other El Camino, and I smack right into the other…
McCORMICK: The only other El Camino.
LEITCH: The only one. And they’re all beautiful, airbrushed, and I just remember them screaming at me through the window. I was sitting in the car. They’re like, “Get out! Right now, get out!” I’m like, “But…the speedometer.” So, yeah that was funny, and then it wasn’t until like the next day that I saw Brad, and he said…
McCORMICK: Well, everyone thought you were going to get fired…
LEITCH: I didn’t think I was going to stay in that job very long, and fortunately, I got to stay a couple more days before…
McCORMICK: And Brad wrote you a note.
LEITCH: He did. He wrote me a note and said, “We’ll see you tomorrow.”
McCORMICK: “I heard you had a great first day.”
LEITCH: Yeah. “I heard you had a great first day. See you tomorrow”…
McCORMICK: He didn’t share that one on the set of our movie, but he had it…
LEITCH: He spared me the embarrassment that will now be known to the entire world.
McCORMICK: It’s too good, though, too good.
LEITCH: That is one of our stories that’ll always sort of bind us together.
DEADLINE: The Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw, feels destined for a sequel. Is that something you want to be in the middle of again as director?
LEITCH: I love that world. I mean there’s never been any real discussions about how it would all move forward, but as a fan of it all, I want it to move forward, with what the team collectively created. There’s just so much opportunity there with Jason and Dwayne, and like all the other characters we brought into that world, you know, Ryan [Reynolds], Rob Delaney.
McCORMICK: Kevin Hart.
LEITCH: Kevin Hart. There’s definitely fertile ground. I think it’s about finding people’s windows and carving out some creative ideas and seeing if people want to come and play and move forward. We’ll see. It definitely would be fun.