After interviewing David Leitch, a director whose films have made $1.73 billion, about his first four movies and his forthcoming film that’s approaching faster than a squirrel on a Bullet Train, I discovered that he’s an action filmmaker who’s not only a legitimate martial artist but also a professional with a surgical approach to fight choreography and fight directing that is consistently groundbreaking. Audiences become so engaged in his film fights that you’d think everybody was getting married.
With mental stamina and philosophical prowess, David Leitch absorbs new technology that is useful, discards the useless howls and yowls of copycat combative complacency, and injects a distinct flair into his fights to make them his own. Martial artists may recognize the foundation of Leitch’s approach to life, martial arts and filmmaking as similar to Bruce Lee’s tenet to continually research your own experience to refine the expression of yourself. Yet in the often harsh and cruel cinematic landscape, Leitch has remained grounded in his roots and from whence he came; he’s a Midwestern Sconnie lad.
Halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wisconsin, four miles from Lake Michigan, Leitch was born in 1975 in the small town of Kohler (population around 2,000). It’s also where he began wrestling in second grade — and wrestled all the way through high school and into college for a year.
Leitch said the first martial arts film that impacted his life was Enter the Dragon (1973). “Bruce Lee was by far one of the most influential martial artists that exposed me to martial arts,” he shared. “I’m a child of the ’70s and ’80s. He made me want to study jeet kune do and inspired me to search for and find Dan Inosanto. That was about 1984 [or] ’85. It was a really big film for me as a kid. When I wrestled in high school, I remember playing scenes from the film to get me psyched up for matches.”
Yet Leitch’s fondness for martial arts films bloomed from a most peculiar and surprisingly important part of American pop culture. “Some local stations on Saturday night aired Kung Fu Theater,” he said. “I loved all the Shaw Brothers movies. Some of my close high-school friends and I would hunker up at one person’s house, and we’d stay up to two or three in the morning watching kung fu films on Channel 18.”
I couldn’t help but mention that dubbing those kung fu films into English was my first job in Taiwan in 1979. After reciting several lines in different voices from a film I dubbed, with a snicker Leitch commented, “That’s funny.”
Since there were no martial arts schools in Kohler, Leitch came up with a neat and sweet plan. “I was obsessed with martial arts, would buy Black Belt magazine and Inside Kung Fu, and would order books from the back ads like James Lew’s The Art of Kicking and Stretching and Jeff Imada’s The Balisong Manuel. I’ve worked with James in martial arts movies, and Jeff is one of my mentors in stunts and we have a 25-year friendship. I was pretty crazy as a kid, buying all these books, hanging a heavy bag in my garage and using PVC pipes to make a wooden dummy.”
The drive to learn martial arts continued, and when Leitch found himself enrolled at the University of Minnesota, he discovered a Dan Inosanto affiliate school in Minneapolis. That wound up being where he met his first formal martial arts teacher Rick Faye, an instructor under Inosanto.
“I dove into JKD and trained in everything else offered at the school — kali, escrima, savate, judo and Thai boxing,” he said. “I scheduled my classes for the morning at the university and then trained at the dojo from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day for four years. During the summer, I’d go to Los Angeles — a sort of pilgrimage — to work out at Danny Inosanto’s academy.”
This became one of the most critical junctures in American martial arts movie evolution: the moment when Leitch met his future cinematic fighting brother — where, perhaps in a metaphysical realm, one might argue that they are fraternal twins united by fate for a destined purpose. It’s the sort of thing where seemingly unrelated items, people or sports teams share a powerful emotional bond, and the mind accepts that, on a spiritual level, something in their DNA is responsible for these life changes and newfound realizations.
“That’s when I met Chad Stahelski,” Leitch said. “Chad was one of the premier students at the Inosanto Academy. He was already an uke for Dan. We became good friends, [were the] same age, had the same training ambitions and trained our asses off.”
Just like if you keep your fingers crossed it’s difficult to type, I’ve also learned that training your arse off makes it harder to sit down, which is a good thing during training.
“One summer when I went out there, he was working on a movie and said, ‘Yeah, you can use your martial arts in a movie,’ and I was like, ‘You can?’” Leitch continued. “At the time, I was starting to think that I was going to have a school and teach martial arts, yet I was still in that athletic phase of my life. So I thought, I get to use all these moves that really have no purpose? (laughs) This was amazing. It didn’t take me long after college — one year — when I moved out to L.A. with hopes of being a stuntman and a martial arts choreographer.”
Which brings up another one of the most influential and inspirational individuals in Leitch’s career: Jackie Chan. After his name was mentioned, Leitch’s voice changed. He became as giddy as a schoolboy and spoke with great reverence, a few times becoming tongue-tied. I know this feeling well. In 1993, I spent about 20 hours in one go on the set of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II, watching him do the fight choreography during the finale involving Chan and his real-life bodyguard Ken Lo. Chan detailed how he did his fight scenes, why things were done the way he did them and what pushed him to his limit, then showed edited footage of the previous day’s shoot and taught me many fighting tips of the trade. (When I sang Cantonese opera to him, Chan freaked out and joked, “If you ever do that again, I’ll kick you off my set.” It was a fun and exhausting night/day.)
With an enamored lilt in his voice, Leitch gathered himself and continued: “It’s kind of hard and indescribable to me how much he influenced my career. When Chad and I created 87Eleven (their action-design company) during my formidable years, we watched hours and hours and hours of looped Jackie action scenes where Chad and I had two VCRs hooked up together and we edited all of Jackie’s action and choreography into endless three-hour loops.
“Looking up to him — from being a stunt performer to a choreographer, an action designer to a person in front of the camera to a director/producer mogul — there is nobody in the action space, in my opinion, that’s done it better.
“His ability to study from the masters — Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd — and come from that to make it his own is unbelievable. His capacity to make empathetic characters that are super-relatable pushes against the classic uber-masculine Western trope ‘I’m invincible.’ None of Jackie’s characters are invincible; they’re all vulnerable. He’s the only action star that did that until Die Hard. You can see how much Jackie influenced cinema that way.
“I’m not disparaging great marital artists, yet while [Jean-Claude] Van Damme and [Steven] Seagal were going in one direction, Jackie was going in the opposite direction with his characters. When I look at Jackie’s characters, these are characters I care about, and I want that in my films. They’re way more relatable, vulnerable, emotional. I also appreciate him as a comedian, physical comedian and storyteller. I could go on and on and on about Jackie.”
In Part 2, David Leitch shares which Jackie Chan fight is his personal favorite, how Bullet Train is an homage to Chan and information about a huge project that’s never been done before. Let’s just say … imagine if one does cartoon action like Chan and Leitch, you can improve it by fine-tooning the equipment.
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