Don’t say the word “grounded” to director David Leitch. The filmmaker behind Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and most recently, Hobbs & Shaw, wants his big blockbusters to live in a fantasy land far, far away from gritty reality. He wants his escapism to look cool and stylish, not familiar. It’s probably why his sensibilities were suited for the Fast & Furious franchise, which are basically superhero movies with cars instead of capes.
Hobbs & Shaw is probably the most fantastical entry in the series, with minor elements of science-fiction and superhuman acts performed by the titular duo. Realism has no place in this franchise, which allowed Leitch to have as much fun as possible with all the franchise’s toys and staples. While staying true to the family spirit and ridiculousness of the franchise, Leitch also brought his eye-popping graphic novel style to the Fast & Furious franchise.
Recently, at a press day for the Hobbs & Shaw Blu-Ray release, the filmmaker told us about bringing his style to the series, his fondness of John Woo and Jackie Chan, and his distaste of the word “grounded.”
The movie doesn’t have a typical blockbuster aesthetic. It’s very colorful and looks beautiful. With all the locations and characters, which colors did you want to emphasize?
I think we wanted to do something that worked for us creatively, and I think we wanted to give it its own signature style, and there were two distinct pallets going on. One was Shaw’s pallet in London, and you could see it was very cold and grays and muted grays and blues and, and things in the cold sort of palette. Then when we went to Samoa where we shot in Kauai we went to oranges and more saturated, warm colors and even the blues would be saturated. The greens are saturated. And it was a real conscious decision between cinematographer and production designer, David Schueneman, and Jonathan Sela, my cinematographer. We always work closely and do color charts for the movies. I’m not saying every movie we will always do that, but we did it for Atomic Blonde and Deadpool and for Hobbs & Shaw. You layout the color chart for the movie and how it’s going to affect the film and every scene where we want to be color-wise.
Visually, I think both you and Chad Stahelski just have good taste. What is it you draw from? What inspires you guys?
Chad and I are drawing from sort of the… You know, he has to speak for himself, but I think we’re drawing from the great Hong Kong directors and trying to emulate other great directors that we’ve worked with in the past. We’ve had our experiences to work with Zack Snyder, who has a really distinct visual style, and we worked with the Wachowskis on several films. Chad and I both worked with them for years. Their aesthetic style sort of rubbed off on us. Their sort of graphic novel style, but also our love for Hong Kong cinema and how that affects the way we choreograph action and tell stories. It’s not necessarily always the conventional Western way.
Which Hong Kong directors in particular?
I’m a huge fan of John Woo. He has a provocative style and approaches things from a sense of cool. It may not make total grounded reality sense, but it’s a really interesting way to see something. I like to approach storytelling that way. Like a lot of times, you go into these meetings, and you know the word that the executives use, we got to “ground” the movie. “We got to make it grounded.” Grounded is like, we want to make it realistic but you know, we want to also take the audience on a ride. You want to give them something that they don’t necessarily experience in real life. Like with Hobbs & Shaw, we want to suspend belief with the action. It’s over the top. With Atomic Blonde, although it’s a spy noir, we created a sexy wish-fulfillment 80s Berlin, and you just want to, I don’t know, you want to…
You want fantasy.
Fantasy and bold choices and, like, Charlize is staring at the camera in Atomic Blonde and talking about Berlin and smoking, like we’re breaking the fourth wall in this noir spy movie. Why? Because it’s cool, and I think making those choices is okay in cinema. I’m really tired of hearing the word grounded. I hope it’s going away. Honestly, some movies work great being gritty, but some need to be more stylish. I think I like to make things stylish.
What else in action movies just speak to you? What do you see a director do, whether with the camera, lighting, or choreography, that you just love to see?
The thing I nerd out about is great cinematography and great composition when I look at certain directors’ work like Fincher or Paul Thomas Anderson or the directors that I love. I love the minimalist composition or anything Roger Deakins shoots, basically. The Coen brothers can tell a story in a very simple way by putting the camera in the right spot, and that sort of graphic sensibility of it all. I geek out about that stuff, and when it comes to fight scenes that way, there’s no one better in the history of fights than Jackie Chan. If you really sort of break down his style of action, especially his fights, he’s very precise. The angle is working specifically for the three moves, and then he cuts. It’s not like traditional Western cinema where they put five cameras on it and then everybody does the fights and then the editor cuts it up.
Jackie, he put the camera here, three moves. I know that this piece of action is going to be better from over there. And then I know that that piece of action is going to be better from over there. You know, Chad and I and from years of studying Jackie’s movies, you realize how genius he is in like telling the physical story.
I was just watching Police Story two weeks ago. He really is like the high-octane Charlie Chaplin.
Yeah, he’s amazing. I mean he’s Charlie Chaplin. He’s Buster Keaton. He’s Harold Lloyd. He has emulated all of them and transcended them, in his eighties, the pantheon of films. You know, he bested them.
Which action set pieces have impressed you recently?
I think the stuff that Mission does is pretty insane, and I think that Tom getting into the action as he does is like really, really fucking cool and really amazing. Granted, like Chad and I do a great job of getting actors trained up, and Keanu does his own action and Charlize in Atomic Blonde did all her own action. Jason and Dwayne do their own stunts, but there’s not a series like Mission where they have twice as much time as we had on Hobbs & Shaw, and they have an actor that’s committed to being in every single frame of the action and going out and training for months to fly a helicopter. It’s insane. That’s great. It really impresses me, his commitment to it, and I think that’s why the Mission movies do so well.
With the action you’ve done, do you have a healthy competition with your work at all? Do you ever think in terms of trying to top what you’ve done before?
I don’t think I ever have to top myself with the action. I think I have to top myself with the movie and again, I really just want to make movies that audiences respond to and that are worthy of the $10 you got to pay to see them, and they work for what they are. I think I’ve done that. I don’t feel like, “Oh my God, I got to do a bigger stunt. I want to do a more clever stunt.” I want a great stunt that works for the story and works for the characters. I don’t ever look at it like I can’t wait to jump the Snake River Canyon. I’m not like the Evil Knievel directors.
So you don’t have like a Holy Grail of stunts in your mind? Something in your head you’d love to see one day?
I honestly don’t. I think the stunts for me come out of the need to make something that works for the story, and it’s thrilling for the audience and within the context of what we’re telling. It always has been that way. I never had this big idea like, Oh, I want to do a slide for life from these two buildings, from here to here, but when it comes up as an idea to move a character from A to B and okay, how do we do it, and how do we escalate it? And that’s where the inspiration starts to come.
With Hobbs & Shaw, what was completely new for you as a director?
Well, I really got to work even more extensively with the visual effects and special effects, collaborations. The sequence in Samoa was such a detailed puzzle of practical helicopter stunts and car stunts meshed with CG cars under a practical helicopter. That learning curve was great. We had 1,600 visual effects shots in Hobbs & Shaw, and it was just a really good experience for me to handle that massive undertaking. I think I was prepared for it more than most directors who would be in that position because I’ve worked with that stuff all the time, but we were trying to do it in a way that you would feel the integration better than practical and digital.
This is a random question, but I’d love to one day see Dwayne Johnson cracking skulls and breaking bones in an R-rated action movie. Do you ever fantasize about what you could do with an actor like himself in an R-rated movie?
Yeah, in a rated R-version that fight with the clubs would be very different. You know, that fight scene is a PG-13 version, but imagine doing a rated R sort of version of the charge and the weapons don’t work and it’s Dwayne and Roman Reigns, like really messing those guys up. That could be really cool. I fantasize about that.
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