Brad Pitt is no stranger to getting into fighting shape for a role. Nearly 20 years ago, he set the shirtless standard in Hollywood playing underground boxer Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Since then, his athletic physique has made several more noteworthy appearances, like when he played Greek warrior god Achilles in Troy or tank commander Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier in Fury. The feedback from Pitt’s trainers over the years has been consistent: It’s not all looks with Pitt; he also possesses impressive athletic prowess and trains consistently, even when not filming.
So when Pitt was cast as the ex-military stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the base physicality was already there. The script had a number of epic fights for Booth, including one with Bruce Lee—and it was decided early on that those sequences wouldn’t involve stunt doubles. That meant Pitt had to be prepared for all-out (onscreen) war. To accomplish this, stunt supervisor Zoë Bell set up a training space by the movie’s production offices in Los Angeles where Pitt and veteran fighter coordinator Rob Alonzo could practice martial arts at all times of the day.
“We were ready for him whenever he was free,” says Bell, who has worked with Tarantino since the Kill Bill franchise. That meant before or after a full day of shooting, but Pitt always came ready to play. Starting as a stunt actor herself, Bell was well aware of the effort it takes to build a great fight scene, having earned multiple nominations for her knife battle in Kill Bill: Volume 1. Since the scope of Bell’s job was all-encompassing for the production, she left the majority of Pitt’s training in Alonzo’s capable hands.
Instead of just running Pitt through the beats of each piece of fight choreography, Alonzo focused on authentically training the actor in martial arts as much as possible. “I didn’t want him just going through the motions,” Alonzo says. “I knew that if Brad learned the principles of martial arts—like timing, spacial awareness, and range—he would be able to flow in the scenes much more naturally, like a real fighter would.”
Each day started off with a dynamic warmup flow, which Alonzo calls “yoga for combat”. The challenging flow includes foundational martial arts positions like horse stance, back stance, and front stance. “It’s more than a warmup or a stretch,” says Alonzo. “It was a way for him to prepare mentally, and it’s also great for conditioning. If you’re doing it right, you’re sweating by the end.”
Because Booth was a soldier in World War II—with a speciality in knives and close-quarters combat—Alonzo put a special focus on Filipino martial arts. “Brad loved getting into the Filipino stick work,” he says. Drilling Pitt made him more adept at closing distance and protecting vital organs while fighting. “It was a great way to practice blade awareness.”
Since it was important to prevent the training from becoming too routine, they also did traditional mitt work, which Pitt was more familiar with from his work in Snatch and Fight Club. “I was impressed with his combos,” Alonzo says. They also took his boxing to the next level by incorporating hammer fists and more reactive work, like counter-for-counter flows.
They would film the sessions on video so that he could review them when he got home. The sequences really started to come to life, though, when they brought in Mike Moh, who portrays the legendary Bruce Lee. Being a Taekwondo practitioner for over two decades allowed Moh to sync into the movements with Pitt effectively, and eventually they were able to do it all in one take. The fight scene is wholeheartedly entertaining, and no doubt worthy of the era.