Second Unit Director David Leitch reveals what it took to Design and Choreograph the Stunning Martial Arts, the Blistering Action and the Spectacular Stunts
Hugh Jackman returns in THE WOLVERINE.
Set in Japan and directed by James Mangold this is the ultimate story about the adamantium-clawed hero, dealing with themes of destiny, honor and revenge. Vulnerable and alone at the start of the movie, searching for meaning in his life, Logan/Wolverine travels to Tokyo where he is embroiled in a mysterious web of tangled loyalties, deceit and intrigue, fighting bloody battles against deadly adversaries in a world that is entirely foreign to him.
Invincible but deeply troubled THE WOLVERINE finds Logan at his lowest point, out of his element in a culture that he doesn’t understand. Darker, deeper and more exciting than any previous film featuring the clawed mutant, this time he has to confront lethal samurai steel, but also grapple with an inner struggle, coming to terms with his immortality.
With Hugh Jackman reprising his role as the hugely popular character from the X-MEN universe, James Mangold (KNIGHT AND DAY, WALK THE LINE, 3:10 to YUMA) directs the gripping and highly original film, which is set in Japan and inspired by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s 1982 comic book series. The cast includes Will Yun Lee, Hiroyuki Sanada, Brian Tee, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto and Svetlana Khodchenkova.
Second unit director and stunt coordinator David Leitch worked closely with the star and director, designing every complicated and thrilling fight sequence and stunt.
David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are the co-founders and owners of 87Eleven, specializing in action design. The company has become synonymous with Hollywood action at its best and has been involved in dozens of hits ranging from THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM to MR. & MRS. SMITH and THE HUNGER GAMES.
Leitch’s personal credits as second unit director and stunt coordinator include V FOR VENDETTA, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, IN TIME, THE TOMB, PARKER, TRON: LEGACY and HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. Leitch has appeared in many films and has worked in various capacities on a total of 50 movies during his impressive career.
David Leitch sat down to discuss his work on THE WOLVERINE.
By Elaine Lipworth
How did you get started in this aspect of filmmaking?
“I was very athletic as a kid growing up in Wisconsin and loved sports. At school I also loved performing. I went on to be an athlete in college and I have always been a great martial arts enthusiast. But I couldn’t envisage a way of working with martial arts. I wondered how it would be possible to express that passion in a career. I had learned all the techniques but there seemed to be no obvious use for them. It’s not as though I would need self-defense on a daily basis. Then I discovered that I would be able to utilize my skills in the movie business. Working on movies also meant that I could be involved in physical activity long past my college years. As a stuntman and second unit director I am still effectively a professional athlete and I still have a reason to train every day. I love what I do and working on a movie like THE WOLVERINE was a great honor.”
As an action specialist and stunt coordinator what was the specific appeal of THE WOLVERINE?
“I was excited about designing the amazing martial arts sequences in the film. At 87Eleven we work on many big martial arts movies. But this one was different. What really drew me to the project was the Japanese theme: Wolverine versus ninjas! How fantastic, that was like a dream come true (laughs). Everyone knows the X-MEN universe and loves these stories about Wolverine, but for me as far as action design goes there couldn’t be anything more compelling than the idea of Wolverine fighting ninjas. That was like candy to me. It was very exciting.”
At what stage did you get involved in the film?
“I was involved from the very beginning in the pre-production stage. There are a lot of martial arts sequences in the movie and five or six main fight scenes. That initial design work had to be done before filming even began. What we do at 87Eleven is to design a sequence and then choreograph it by making videos with stunt performers. That enables us to map out the action so we can get an idea of what the actual scene will eventually look like on screen. Sometimes we will use stunt doubles in the videos. We worked closely with Jim (Mangold) so that the sequences fit in with his vision.”
What are we going to see that is cool and different in terms of the stunts and action?
“What’s cool about the film is that you’ll see a very different style of action than you would normally see in a comic book movie. Jim was adamant that we ground Wolverine in reality so that the audience can identify with his human, vulnerable side. Logan is coming to terms with his immortality. He is lost and is looking for meaning in his life. That theme gives the movie a different feel and influences everything. We did not choreograph these fights with a lot of complicated wirework. We designed them from a martial arts movie perspective. There are visceral foot chases. The sword fights tend to be influenced by classic martial arts rather than the kind of fights you would see in a regular superhero movie. You still have all the fantastic spectacle that you get in all the big X-MEN films, but this film is grittier.”
What style of martial arts will we see in the film?
“It is a combination of different styles. For the ninjas we used a Japanese style martial arts … but on steroids (laughs)! We had to sensationalize it for Hollywood. We developed a distinct style for Logan. Logan doesn’t learn martial arts formally in the movie. He doesn’t train in a traditional way, but he learns about the philosophy and discipline by observation. He is animalistic in the way he fights, but he’s fighting these super technical, relentlessly disciplined martial arts foes. Wolverine’s fighting style is more ‘berserker’ street fighting than classic martial arts. But the style of the fighting is mostly Japanese. We wanted to give the action authenticity because this is a Japanese themed film.”
Is there any fight that stands out?
“My favorite sequence in the film happens when Wolverine encounters an army of ninjas. I can’t give you exact details but it is exciting and awesome and so much fun. The ninjas use every type of weapon you can imagine and it all takes place in the snow and ice. It is amazing. These ninjas work as a team using their different kinds of weaponry in synchronicity to keep Wolverine on the ropes. They prove to be formidable opponents for Wolverine in a world that is entirely foreign to him. No I’m not going to say whether he wins or loses (laughs). But I will say that Wolverine returns to that ‘berserker rage’ he is known for because it is the only way he can survive this onslaught. He has to start taking these guys out. The ninjas set up trap after trap for him and he has to use his ‘Wolverine’ techniques with his claws: slashing, grabbing and throwing. He also gets help from Yukio (Rila Fukushima). It was a fun set piece to work on; a sort of homage to those classic martial arts movies like 13 ASSASSINS.”
What was it like watching Hugh in action?
“There was one day in particular I remember when we were filming a long tracking shot of Hugh fighting the ninjas. He had to do twelve to fourteen moves without a cut, which is very, very difficult for any actor to accomplish. They normally do three moves then cut. He was even doing fifteen moves without a cut. I wanted one of the moves to be done with the left hand instead of the right hand because it was going to look better for the camera. I say to Hugh: ‘hey can you switch to the left?’ and he says, ‘yeah no problem.’ And I’m like: ‘do you want to rehearse it?’ and he says ‘no.’ Normally when you change a piece of choreography, actors can’t just switch because they have the original move memorized. They need to walk through the new move a couple of times and rehearse it. But Hugh is so skilled that he can change on a dime because of his own natural ability. You can choreograph ‘on the spot’ with him and make adjustments. In my line of work that just doesn’t happen. He’s one of the best actors I have ever worked with.”
Do you have any other favorite action scenes?
“There’s one great gunfight between Wolverine and the Yakuza that turns into a foot chase, which is not something we would normally see in a superhero type of movie. The fight spills out into the streets of Tokyo. We actually shot in Tokyo with Hugh running through the streets and on rooftops. There is also an incredible battle with the Silver Samurai, which feels more like a battle in the X-MEN universe that will be familiar to fans. Without giving away the plot, that battle with the Silver Samurai brings Logan’s journey full circle. There is a spectacular action scene inside an extraordinary laboratory which François (Audouy) the production designer created.”
How much of the action and stunt work does Hugh do himself?
“Hugh will do all the stunts that we allow him to do. He’s not afraid. He cannot do everything because we also have to be concerned with time and safety. But when you have to use stunt doubles you are always compromising the camera position and compromising the character in a sense, because you can’t be close up on the actor’s face and see his or her emotions. Hugh was great, he did a lot of his own wirework and there is a huge action sequence and fight that takes place inside and on top of the train. He flies out of the door of the train. It was very difficult and he had to do it several times. It required him to be completely aware of his body. It was actually one of those moments when you need to trust the performer fully because it is so complicated. It is a sequence where he encounters some Yakuza. It entailed wirework that would have been difficult for any stuntman and Hugh did it himself. He is very committed. He had to be in a harness for weeks, hitting the ground hard. I wanted us to be able to see Wolverine in pain at that moment, so we had to make sure he did hit the ground and that there was a real impact. When you see it you know that it is not a stunt double, it is actually Hugh. There are plenty of amazing shots where Hugh Jackman is hitting the surface of that train very hard.”
Was he complaining?
“Never. He was nothing but gracious the whole time. I’d say ‘sorry you’ve got to go again.’ He would say ‘no problem let’s get it.’”
You were clearly impressed by Hugh’s skills and discipline?
“He’s incredible; he’s super disciplined and he’s super coordinated. He has an amazing work ethic and attitude and that makes everything a pleasure. You can see his commitment when he is working out. Hugh had his own personal trainer but I happened to work out in the same gym as them and they often worked out in our training facilities. Over the six weeks of pre-production his definition changed dramatically to the point where he was so vascular that you could see veins over his whole body (laughs).”
What kind of training did he do with you?
“On top of his regular workouts he had to do martial arts training and fight choreography training with us for an hour every day. We would put him through a warm up exercise and stretching and we’d start to practice the martial arts moves. He would practice basic routines that could be linked into longer pieces of choreography. We design the fight sequences by breaking them down into drills that the actor can learn. Then we make the drills longer and longer. So all of a sudden Hugh will realize, “oh I know this whole fight scene.” It’s like learning a choreographed dance in some ways. Hugh’s really good at choreography because he memorizes entire Broadway shows. It was actually easier for him than for most actors to learn difficult fight sequences because it’s very similar to work he has already done on stage.”
You also worked with some consummate Japanese actors. Rila Fukushima (Yukio) has considerable action, what did she do?
“Rila has a lot of action in the movie and she hadn’t done any previous action films. So our job was to transform her into a badass. It took a lot more time with her but we used the same methodology. We would break down the choreography into drills. Rila’s strength was her commitment. If I asked her to do 30 reps, (repetitions) she would do 50 reps; she wouldn’t stop at 30. She comes across so well in the movie. Her character is badass. For someone who has never done martial arts in her life, she looks like an expert swordsman and an acrobat. She has a great fight with five or six Yakuza and takes them all down. She is a really badass chick and holds her own with the other tough characters in the movie even though she is small and looks delicate. When you see her in action, you go ‘whoa!’”
What about Hiroyuki Sanada the celebrated Japanese actor who plays Shingen?
“Hiroyuki Sanada is an amazing Japanese actor who came from a stunt background. It was actually a pleasure to have him in this movie because he knew how to do fight scenes and choreography. He went way beyond our wildest expectations and it was like having a mentor there. He’s done so many films and so much fighting. I look forward to working with him again.”
Svetlana Khodchenkova plays Viper, how much work did you do with her?
“She does less martial arts. Svetlana relies on her acting ability rather than strength. But she does have a fight with Yukio that is really great fun. It is actually a case of brawn versus skill.”
Can you discuss your experience of working with James Mangold?
“Working with Jim was great, he is very collaborative and he likes everyone to being their ideas to the table. It was also an incredible learning experience. I learned a lot about how to infuse character into every scene and how every scene has to have a purpose and must be moving the characters forward all the time. I’m so psyched about the film because he had a great vision for the film and worked tirelessly on the story. It is like a classic Clint Eastwood western.”
What would you say makes this film stand out?
“The movie is dramatic and emotional; it’s a great story about one man’s journey. It is a lot of fun and it is also a gritty, badass, martial arts action movie. It is cool. You are going to love it.”
THE WOLVERINE IS OUT NOW