With three hit movies in three outings as a director, Deadpool 2 director David Leitch is one part wunderkind and one part late bloomer.
Leitch spent nearly 20 years as a Hollywood stuntman and choreographer before he got his first crack at the director's chair, and he made the most of it: 2014's John Wick. which he co-directed with his long-time creative partner Chad Stahelski, revived Keanu Reeves' career and launched the filmmakers'. With the street-level, side-scrolling brawler as a calling card, Leitch stepped up to direct Charlize Theron in the '80s-set action flick Atomic Blonde, and then graduated to the big budget blockbuster when he took over the mouthy mutant franchise.
If it was unclear whether Leitch could handle stirring the delicate brew of ultra-violence and one-liners that made the first Deadpool such a hit, all doubts were erased when the sequel earned an 83 percent Rotten Tomatoes score and took in $125 in its opening weekend. Leitch spoke to SYFY WIRE about the movie, his early career, and more (oh, and read some of his insight on Deadpool 2 spoilers here).
Deadpool can't really die. How do you keep the tension and stakes in all his fights?
Well, I think as a choreographer at heart and coming from the fight choreography world, it's fun to put yourself in different positions. I do enjoy grounded action. John Wick is a little bit of a superhero, while Lorraine Broughton from Atomic Blonde was more trying to be realistic, but still heightened. I think the fun part about Deadpool is the opportunity of the ultimate healing. Because it's hard to have real stakes if the guy can't die.
But it's also fun to think of, wow, if you couldn't die, how would you fight? And there is all of this self-sacrificing moves that you can do. You can punish him, but he keeps coming back. So we find ways in the movie to make the stakes real. But we have fun with his powers of healing and choreography that I didn't think they got to reach in the first film. They just sort of touched on it.
I wanted to have a little bit of a shock and awe with the audience and, this is Deadpool. This is how we want to play with his powers and you get sick of doing the same punch-kick, punch-kick, or gunfight. So it's really fun when you can say, I'm going to break his arm backward and do a reverse choke or whatever.
And obviously, that requires more CGI than hand-to-hand combat does.
There is a lot of integration with visual effects in this movie. A lot more than, obviously, John Wick or Atomic Blonde. Visual effects is in the DNA from this at the beginning. The first film, I was so impressed with what Tim Miller and Ryan and Rhett and Paul created, especially that sequence on the bridge, action-wise. The CGI work in that was really compelling and I wanted to keep, an essence of that no-holds-barred experience alive. But I can't help but still grounded and sort of more Hong Kong-style fight stuff that I like.
That's how you got started, fights and stunts. What was the first film you ever made, professional or amateur?
Wow. We used to get together in our training facility and we would shoot and fight. We would shoot Jackie Chan sequences and try and recreate them, edit-for-edit. And I don't know why. We were just sort of like, Jackie Chanophiles, right? Obsessed.
So it was Chad Stahelski, director of John Wick; Damon Caro, who is a good stunt coordinator friend of ours; and another core group of martial art guys. And we were just martial art nerds. And we were trying to teach ourselves his filmmaking process, the technical side. And those are some great tapes, if you could get ahold of them.
Early on in your career, you were Jean-Claude Van Damme’s stunt double in a few movies. That guy is a human stunt — what couldn’t he do?
He's a super physical guy. There was a moment in his career, he's a little older than me, he probably doesn't want me to tell you his age, whatever, but he's probably a good seven years older than me. I could do some things that he couldn't do. And there was also on the smaller action movies, you only have a certain amount of time to shoot them so you need a second unit going. You're going to have to shoot material with a double on those movies back then.
I've crashed through glass windows. I've crashed cars. I've jumped off buildings. I've lit myself on fire. I've actually done a lot of stunts for Jean-Claude and that's because those types of movies at that time were all analog. I mean, that was the late '90s, early 2000s. And we were doing them for a price point. They were Nu Image or Millennium films.
What’s the key to playing JCVD?
You just have to speak in the first person. [laughs] "People want to see Jean-Claude Van Damme."
What’s the hardest scene you’ve ever shot, here or on other movies?
There's two. There's one that was really hard and really fun in Deadpool. That scene in Blind Al's in the third act, where all the characters converge for a seven-page scene. It’s irreverent fun and everyone is getting jokes and it's this witty banter... and then it has to turn on its head and become a super-dramatic, emotional scene and then it has to set up the theme of nature versus nurture and still be entertaining and then end on a joke. That was a balancing act of holy crap. But again, good writing and a great template that delivered.
The other scene was, and it’s not like everyone thinks, some of my action scenes. The other one was the interrogation room with Charlize in Atomic Blonde with Toby Jones and John Goodman. There's just a lot of real specific composition that sort of put you in sort of an unstable place and the cameras helping tell a story.
She is in a position of power, telling her own version of the story. And getting that right and planning that out and executing it on this small little set with these great actors who were really patient with me, shooting multiple, multiple, multiple setups was hard but also great and fulfilling. Normally on a scene like that, you would just put two cameras down and run all the coverage and editorial, but it wouldn't have been as special or it wouldn't have moved the narrative.
What's the best day you’ve ever had on a set?
Wow. That's a hard question because I love making movies so much it’s like every day I'm kinda living the dream and I'm pretty blessed to be able to get all of these resources to make art. "Art." I'll put that in quotation marks.
I think finishing the last day of the stairwell sequence in Atomic Blonde when we actually watched it all stitched together and we knew we had made it and this was going to be remembered as a sort of iconic piece of action. That was pretty rewarding. And there was a lot of people involved that sort of made that happen. So for everybody it was a celebration.
I have to ask about the Deadpool 2 mid-credit scene. Ryan Reynolds takes a shot at Green Lantern and X-Men: Origins — where did the idea for that comes from?
The time travel thing, we were circling a bunch of ideas for the coda. The time travel thing I would happily say was my idea, that Deadpool swipes the watch. I was more thinking of like, do we want to bring Vanessa back or leave it open-ended for the audience? Did he save her or did he not save her? And just to give us the option moving forward in the world. And then that sort of put some bells off in Ryan's head, like, "Oh, we're going to change time, we're going to go back and right all our wrongs." And then he started to riff on these other ideas.
That makes me think about the stakes of a movie like this, and the tone — every time there's a dramatic scene, there are also a lot of laughs. How'd you find the balance?
I think a lot of it starts with having a good script. You try and do that first on the page and say, okay, these jokes are landing, oh, wait, now we are going into what is the heart of the scene, what do we need to get narratively out? And then, okay, how do we make it laugh before we leave. Or how do we leave them with emotional pain before we leave and let it linger.
You make discoveries in production, like you always do. And you shoot alts and I like to shoot a lot of alts. Not just comedic stuff but even dramatic stuff. Like I might want this performance to be more light-hearted or I might want this one to really land with you emotionally, please give me another take. And then I think the final rewrite is obviously the edit and that's where you are seeing how it plays and connecting it all together
And I think you just have to shoot those scenes unblinking, knowing that you will subvert them, but that you have a great actor like Ryan portraying it and you believe it. The truth is always in front of the camera. If you are getting sucked in emotionally behind the monitors, then you know it's gonna work.