I had the great pleasure of talking to David Leitch, stunt coordinator, stunt double, director, and actor. He’s a very talented man that has worked on some very well known movies such as The Matrix Revolutions, 300, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and The Bourne Ultimatum, and the list goes on and on. I actually spoke with him while he was on the set working for the upcoming movie Tron 2.0. So, I guess I am going to pick the coolest stunt out of the whole movie and then tell everyone that I called him while he was working on that particular stunt. Even though he was probably on break and that’s why he was able to talk, but that’s not how it’ll get played out in my head. Anyway, Leitch is a very nice guy and gave some great answers, so now we can all get to know him a little bit better. Thanks, David!
AFC: What kind of movies do you like to watch?
David: I generally like to watch comedies, even though I work in the action movie business. I think my favorite movies are comedies or quirky dramas, Wes Anderson, Cohen Brothers, those types of things.
AFC: Do you still like to watch action movies?
David: I love them. I mean that’s made my living. I still watch 90% of the action movies that hit the theatres, for sure. It’s part of my business, but because I also like the genre. But I like to laugh as well.
AFC: Yeah, laughing always make you feel better. So do you like to watch yourself onscreen in your own movies?
David: No, actually I’m a pretty self conscious person in that way. I guess I do enjoy performing, but… I don’t know. I guess that’s kind of a hard thing to say, “Do you enjoy watching yourself.” Not necessarily, but I like performing. Maybe there’s a dichotomy there. I don’t like to watch myself, but I like to entertain people.
AFC: Some people tend to get a little too critical of themselves.
David: Uh huh, I am in some aspects of my work but not in others. But I wouldn’t say that I’m an actor. Really, there are so many professionals out there that have studied acting and have so much experience. And stunt men, we are physical actors, and we have to do the physical performance; but, as far as the dramatic actor, that’s a skill that you have to study and practice. I will play characters who are really close to who I am and that’s about the extent of it.
AFC: So that makes it easier?
David: Yeah, I think so, for me.
AFC: You are pretty famous for your stunt work. How did you get into that line of work?
David: I did martial arts, and martial arts growing up. When I was in college, I had some friends that were martial artists who I had competed with, and they started to do stunt work. They told me “When you finish college you’ve got to come out and we’re already working in movies, doing stunt work.” I was like, “What is that about?” “Well we get to make fight scenes and use all the martial art skills that we can’t really use anywhere else.” I was like “All right, that sounds like fun.” One summer I went out to work with those guys on a film in Mexico, and just sort of dragged stunt pads around and carried equipment. I got to see what they were doing, and I packed up my car the next month and moved to California. From there, I had the harsh reality of what it took to become a stunt man. It takes a lot of training, and a lot of connections. It takes getting out there and getting to know the right people. It’s kind of like anything in the movie business, it’s who you know at some level and if you can get your resume [or] your demo tape and start rehearsing, you might get a shot at doing some kind of movie, or acting, or whatever. That’s kind of how it happened for me.
AFC: Of all the films that you have done, which film had the most dangerous stunt work?
David: I think for me, Bourne Ultimatum was probably the highest of my performing career. And just being involved in a lot of the stunts from that film is definitely some of the most dangerous stuff that I’ve done. Generally, as a stunt performer, I’m a fight specialist and a wire specialist. I would say the second most dangerous show that I was involved in was probably the Matrix sequels because we did so much experimental stunt work. At that time, we were doing stuff that had never been done with wires or with different special effects rigs. When they’re things that have not been done or proven and you’re sort of like R and D’ing it in the process, that’s when stuff can happen. It’s very rarely when it’s in classic stunts that’s been done a million times that people get injured. Or like pushing the envelope, trying to do something new and innovative, that’s when it [injury] happens.
AFC: Well, how frequently does being injured happen? I know it happens with the new stunts and all but does that happen a lot?
David: You know, it’s really not that bad in our industry. It’s more from training. I think guys get hurt training, or they get hurt in their recreational activities which are often not as thought out as the stunts that we’re doing. Because, to keep your job as stunt coordinator you want to have a great safety record and you want to work closely with the special effects and visual effects departments to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to ensure the safety of the people involved. So we use a lot of wires. We do a lot of things that have been proven. We use a lot of math and physics and chemistry to make sure that it looks really dangerous, but we eliminate as much risk as possible. But it does happen. There are occasional injuries and there’s occasional deaths, but if it’s happening to you, the coordinator, then you’re not going to be working very much.
AFC: Is your safety record pretty good?
David: It is, yeah, it is, and a lot of that goes back to I stick to what I’m good at: the physical stunts, martial arts, wire work, and those sorts of things. I am not someone who does vehicle stunts. I have done shows that with them, but I have always brought in a specialist to assist, which is what a good coordinator does
AFC: Sure, recognizes his weakness and gets help. Milla Jovovich has been known to not be able to pull her punches when performing a fight scene: Does that happen a lot? People punching each other, accidentally of course?
David: It does happen from time to time if you get an actor who hasn’t had a lot of experience and you don’t get a lot of time to train them. Then it’s possible that they get overzealous when they yell action, and they just start swinging. But if you have a lot of experience as stunt coordinator, you try to reduce that by getting rehearsal time with the actors. Putting them under a little stress, getting them to do it at full speed and try to do that weeks prior to shooting, or days, depending on the budget of the film. For films that we’ve done recently, like Ninja Assassin, which is coming out in November, we had three solid months with the actors, and that was just rehearsals. That type of big martial arts movies where you can have that kind of training, those accidents don’t happen. And you get incredible footage too.
AFC: How has stunt work changed over time, like from when you first started to now?
David: It’s become very specialized. Like I said, I am definitely a martial art/wire specialist. If there’s a show with a lot of fighting or a lot of flying, I’m in the running to have that show. It never used to be that way. It used to be that all stunt men were well rounded, and it was all about the physical toughness of the person. But now its become very specialized and very technical. And you have to understand visual effects. You have to understand the physics of special effects, and you really have to be…smart. It’s not so much like the hopper days where it’s about having balls. It’s not like that anymore. It’s changed a lot.
AFC: You really have to study the physics.
David: Yeah, you have to study film making, how scenes are put together, and young directors now a days are so smart in their film making that they understand that they don’t have to do the big explosion. They can do a com shot, and they can use the real actor in front of it and people are used to seeing that. So why hire the stunt doubles and try and do a big stunt that isn’t going to be as dramatic for the film? If you’ve lost touch with that, and you only care about the stunts you get to do as a coordinator or as a performer, once again you won’t be working that long,, because people want the smart coordinators. They want film makers and stunt coordinators now. This business is so visual effects driven, and you have to understand it and work with it and make it better.
AFC: So with all the CGI, and people just being able to put the actor in front of a screen, do you think stunt work is slowly decreasing? Like people actually doing their own stunts?
David: I think it’s going through a transformation right now where people want to see real stunts and they want to see people put their lives in peril. They want to see organic things happen in front of the camera. It sort of goes back to the Jackie Chan films of the 80’s. The reasons they were so popular was because Jackie was doing everything. And that’s another thing we tried to go back to in Ninja Assassin. We tried to just shoot it really wide and make the stunts happen in front of the camera. I think people want that because I think we’ve become so desensitized by CGI that we actually believe that everything, even if it isn’t dangerous or even if it is dangerous, we actually think that there’s no way possible that that guy could actually have done that without CGI. Even when we do stunts for real, a lot of times they love visual effects. So I think its great that the reason the movies like Ong-Bak and D-13 (District 13), where you just see people with raw talent and physicality that can do amazing things and they just put a camera on them. I think that will never go out of style for action junkies. But for the masses, I think stunts are definitely going in a different direction.
AFC: Well, I definitely prefer the real stuff myself. So which film was the most physically challenging for you?
David: Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions were just non-stop. I was doubling Agent Smith, and there was a lot of training involved and a lot of wire rigs and a lot of rehearsals. It was 6 months of just training every day, and hard training. That was probably the physically toughest part.
Stay tuned for part two. It will be coming up soon. David gave me so much information that I decided to split it into two parts. David talks about Confessions of an Action Star, and tells us why the line “We made this movie without Ben Stiller” is in one of the songs.
Continued in Interview with David Leitch (Part 2).
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