For director David Leitch, who previously brought style and flair to such movies as Deadpool 2, the chance to direct a movie that was unlike any other presented an unmissable opportunity. He was attracted to the boldness and originality of Bullet Train: “That’s the kind of movie I like to make. It has a tone of relentless fun and snappy dialogue. But the most important thing to me was that it had well-defined characters that gave the actors a lot to chew on. It’s a fun action-thriller with crazy, bombastic characters – and it’s a meditation on fate. Really.”
In Bullet Train, directed by David Leitch from a screenplay by Zak Olkewicz, based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, Brad Pitt stars as Ladybug, an unlucky assassin determined to do his job peacefully after one too many gigs gone off the rails. Fate, however, may have other plans, as Ladybug’s latest mission puts him on a collision course with lethal adversaries from around the globe—all with connected, yet conflicting, objectives—on the world’s fastest train.
Ladybug is an intuitive and skilled but burnt-out operative whose string of bad luck has taken its toll on him. Cajoled into taking what sounds like an easy pick-up job, he unwittingly stumbles into a vipers nest of the most notorious elite assassins in the game.
“Ladybug is going through an existential crisis,” says Brad Pitt, who stars as an assassin just trying to do his job peacefully in the comedic action thriller Bullet Train. “Too many of his recent jobs have gone sideways and he’s starting to think that the one thing all of those jobs have had in common is him. He thinks he’s brought bad luck to every aspect of his life – it’s affected his work, and he’s trying to find a way to turn it around through peaceful resolution.”
Leitch had gained Pitt’s trust by serving as his stunt double on several of the actor’s classics – Fight Club, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Troy, and more – before making his mark as a director. Pitt knew he’d be in safe hands. “It was a little funny to me, watching Brad play a stuntman in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. I can tell you that the relationship between actor and stuntman that was part of that movie is real,” says Leitch. “You develop a close and collaborative relationship. We went in different directions for a while, but fate wasn’t done with us, and I’m so glad it’s brought us back together.”
“You may think Brad Pitt and not necessarily think comedy, but he’s a very smart comedic actor who makes great choices with his physicality and delivery,” says Leitch. “More importantly, Brad plays Ladybug in a way where you do care about him. He thinks he’s unlucky, but really his luck pays itself forward and proves to be good luck that rubs off on everybody else.”
Bullet Train brings together seven characters, all with connected, conflicting, and at times, confusing objectives
“Fate brings these people onto this train, and their energies combine in the craziest, most gonzo way possible,” says producer Kelly McCormick, who is Leitch’s partner both professionally as a producer and in life as his wife. “It was important to David to make a film that would invest you emotionally. When he saw his opportunity to do that, with these characters, he was all in.”
“All of these characters show their humanity,” says Leitch. “Ladybug wants to be a better person. But you also see it in the characters played by Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in their brotherhood – they clearly care for each other. Joey King’s character is a sociopath, but she has a dynamic with her father that we can all connect with. You can go on this journey with these remorseless killers and still feel for them, have fun, laugh at the jokes.”
That makes it a movie that fits squarely into Leitch’s vision as a director. “It’s hard these days to strike out and make an original movie – not a sequel or a superhero story – but we’re up for the challenge,” Leitch continues. Through his company 87North, Leitch is seeking to bring his own personal stamp to action movies and the way action is portrayed. Having entered the business as a stuntman, and rising to become a stunts supervisor and choreographer before staking a groundbreaking directorial style with the films Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, and John Wick, Leitch says that there are boundless opportunities to stretch the action genre. “There’s action in comedy, there’s action in thrillers, there’s action in horror,” he says. “My entire adult life has been action on film. Action is in my DNA. So I’m excited by the idea of taking big, provocative swings and making bold choices, as we keep it action-adjacent.”
Bullet Train is based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, one of Japan’s most popular and acclaimed mystery authors
Two of the film’s executive producers, Yuma Terada and Ryosuke Saegusa, are co-founders of the Tokyo-based management company CTB, whose mission is to bring contemporary Japanese storytelling to Hollywood. It was their idea to adapt Bullet Train as a film with a highly diverse cast as assassins from all over the world, with a stylized Japan backdrop, and they fully supported the film Leitch made.
“It was so exciting to watch the stellar cast bring such energy and passion to this story,” says Isaka, the author of the book. “This unique vision of Japan is utterly surprising and so much fun – it made me very happy to see it, and I know audiences will feel the same way.”
For screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, who adapts the novel, bringing out the theme of fate was an important part of the adaptation. “I really responded to that,” he says. “Ladybug views his bad luck as a curse, but it’s actually a catalyst of good luck for other people.”
In fact, it’s Ladybug’s bad luck that has made him an expert in his field. “Something does always seem to go wrong in the craziest ways, and he has to react on the fly, which ultimately makes him very effective,” says Olkewicz. “The irony is that because he’s able to react when something goes awry, Ladybug is better than everybody else on the train.”
Creating meaningful arcs for seven characters was one thing. Just keeping track of where each of them are on the train was another. “At one point, my whiteboard looked like I was tracking a serial killer,” recalls Olkewicz with a laugh. “There were so many lines of string denoting everyone’s movements on the train at any given time. It was the only way to ensure everyone knew where people were.”
To create the adventure, Leitch’s design team created a heighted reality inside and outside the train. “Part of the fun was creating the environments that we wanted to be in,”says Leitch. “A lounge car, a quiet car, a Momomon car… We were driven by the idea that these were all places where we could do something different, but as it turns out, all of this research led to special discoveries that led not only to bold design choices, but character and plot. It’s more than just a place to walk through. They’re little journeys, little miracles.”
To create Bullet Train’s unique vision of Japan as seen through the train’s windows, the team started by capturing the Japanese countryside between Tokyo and Kyoto. With this high-definition footage in hand, Leitch’s design team built each of the cars of the train – the quiet car, the café car, the themed Momomon car – on soundstages, projecting Japan outside the train windows on LED screens. “Normally, you’d do this through visual effects. You’d put up a blue screen and comp the plates in later,” Leitch explains. “With the LED screens hung along a hundred meters of train, we could shoot the train journey in-camera while we were on the train. It’s called virtual production and I think it was a huge benefit to the actors and their performances.”
Of course, in the movie, it’s meant to be a stylized version of Japan. When you see the movie, expect something different. “This is Bullet Train world,” says Leitch. “We’re making a modern fable about fate, so it’s fitting to immerse you in a story where you escape to that world. It’s filled with wish fulfilment and heightened characters. We defy physics.”
A California native, Zak Olkewicz’s (Screenplay) first spec screenplay Ink & Bone landed on the 2013 Blacklist after being preemptively sold to Dimension Films. From there, he quickly sold the original horror pitch Elimination to Fox Searchlight/21 Laps, adapted the Boom! Studios comic Malignant Man for Fox, wrote an adaptation of the novel Time Salvager for Paramount with Di Bonaventura producing for Michael Bay to direct, as well as an adaptation of the Stephen King short story The Monkey for James Wan’s Atomic Monster, to name a few.
Olkewicz recently helped the Fear Street trilogy become a hit for Netflix, has an adaptation of the novel Influx in the works at Sony, and co-wrote Amblin’s The Last Voyage of the Demeter, with Andre Ovredal directing, which comes out Summer 2023.
KOTARO ISAKA (Based on the Book by) is the best-selling and award-winning author of Bullet Train(2010). A leading voice of contemporary Japanese fiction, Isaka has authored Audubon’s Prayer (2000), Lush Life (2002), Golden Slumber (2007), The Rest is Vacation (2012), Seesaw Monster (2019), and Gyaku Sokuratesu (2020), among others. Isaka’s books have been published in eighteen languages and have been the basis of film or television productions in four languages. Isaka is represented by CTB Inc.