Imagine your day job being Brad Pitt‘s stunt double. That’s the gig David Leitch scored back in the 90s for a little film called Fight Club. He then went on to take some hits in Troy and is bringing to life more in-your-face action scenes in the new assassin-adventure epic Bullet Train. Although this time around, Leitch isn’t just Pitt’s stunt double, he’s his director.
These days Leitch is a big-time Hollywood filmmaker, with credits like John Wick and Deadpool 2, so while he provided oversight throughout, Pitt’s physicality in Bullet Train was primarily left in the capable hands of veteran stunt coordinator Greg Rementer.
“The sky’s the limit when you’re working with Brad and he really responded to the character,” Rementer says. Pitt plays Ladybug, a fill-in assassin ready for retirement who finds himself trapped on a bullet train to Kyoto with the world’s deadliest killers while trying to complete a seemingly simple gig.
“Brad wanted to do majority of the stunts himself, which isn’t always the case,” Rementer says. “For him it was possible because not only is he a great comedic actor, but he’s also a physically gifted athlete. So we started by putting him on our program.”
Despite being in his mid-50s during production, Pitt continued to defy his age by throwing himself fully into training for the months leading up to filming. The primary focus of those sessions was preventative maintenance, preparing his body for the damage it would inevitably take. Rementer was a fitting guide through the process, no stranger to suffering for the shot when he was doubling for people like Chris Evans and Josh Brolin in the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Men’s Journal spoke with Rementer about those training sessions with Pitt, designing his fight sequences, and the drills they did to prepare for the brutal brawls of Bullet Train.
Men’s Journal: How did you first hear you were going to be working with Pitt on this project?
I’m around David [Leitch] often so he’s always keeping me updated on what he’s working on, and I enjoy working with him because of how seamlessly he ties together drama, dialogue, and action. Of course when Brad Pitt’s name came up, I was that much more excited to take it on, and just a bit nervous. Luckily, David always gives the action design team extra time to suss out the fight scenes. I knew we had a few months after reading the script to figure out how to make the action fresh despite spending the majority of the runtime on a single train.
Where do you even begin when filming a movie like this?
It starts with the pre-visualizations of the scenes at our stunt facility 87North, then on location once we’re able to get there. David wanted to pay homage to the classic action movie legends like Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. We went to their movies firs to build a library that would inform the movements and physicality of Brad’s character Ladybug. We looked at everything from Buster Keaton riding on the front of a train to Jackie Chan fighting on rooftops in Who Am I? From there, we had to take into consideration the character that Brad is playing in the movie. He doesn’t want to fight and is taking more of a zen approach to life. And because of those things, he’s mostly on the defensive.
What kind of training or preparation did you do with Brad before arriving on set?
I got to train with Brad quite a bit before filming. During that time, we explored his strengths and utilized those to build the choreography. He’s in such great shape. For the traditional weights, Brad was handling all of that himself. But for everything else he graciously let us come to his residence so we could set up a stunt shop to train together specifically for the fights. Other cast members would come and join us at his place, too. It was a great time to work with Brad, get his input, then get input from David. That was being done a few times a week in the months leading up to filming. There was nothing he wasn’t prepared to do.
Guessing you’re not doing a quad stretch to warm up for something like this, huh?
I personally don’t like to do specific static warmups. I like to get active and get the blood flowing through the whole body because everything is going to be used. Jumping jacks. Jump rope. Sprints. [Anything] to get the heart rate elevated. From there, we prepare the neck by rolling it out and turning side to side. The idea is to start slow and work our way up to the intensity of the actual fights.
So what did a day of training for Bullet Train look like?
The issue a lot of people have when they’re attempting stunts is how taxing it is on the core. There’s a lot of twisting going on when you’re throwing punches and taking them. That’s the first thing that’s going to be sore. To address a number of elements, we’d have Brad stand in horse stance from martial arts where your legs are wide outside of your shoulders and you’re sitting into the position with your back straight. From there, we’d have him throw punches from side to side and crosses and hooks to get his body comfortable with the movement. We would do 4 sets of 10 like that, mixing it up constantly. For hours we had him throwing every kind of punch, so we weren’t stuck with one combination. We could have him come up with new combinations to bring to the team. We want him prepared for any scenario.
The next thing is neck strengthening, because the whole day is spent taking close, fake punches all day. We did that with a variety of stretches, practicing how to throw the neck safely, and even using towels or bands to build the neck muscles with resistance. From there we mix in fast intermittent cardio exercises. We would get boxing gloves on Brad and just have him do short bursts of combinations. He already has a skillset in boxing from his previous movies, so he was also good at the centering and footwork drills we’d do. We kept things tight knowing this was going to be taking place inside of a train car.
Once you got on set what were your responsibilities when it came to these stunts?
I have done a number of gigs in the world of stunts over the years, but for Bullet Train my main role was stunt coordinator. I have a background in martial arts and choreographing fights. I also oversaw everything else like the car stunts, big explosions, and big falls. I have been working with David long enough that he trusts me to also be a second unit director, where I get to go off with a crew and shoot fight scenes with various cast members. The goal in those situations is to film the sequences David, Brad, the cast, and I all planned together before ending up there. I have an incredible team of stunt doubles I’ve worked with over the years and we had a core group that helped perform the more intense pieces of action for everyone when necessary. I’m fortunate to be able to pass along the same kind of opportunities that were given to me.
Outside of the challenge of being in close quarters, we also had a prop in the middle of all the action, a heavy-duty aluminum Tumi briefcase that’s transporting a handsome ransom.
That was fun for us to work with. Brad’s character Ladybug is just trying to take the briefcase and leave, but there are a few enemies trying to take him out while he’s carrying it, so we had to build a library of movements or strikes he could do with it. The majority of the action with the briefcase is in the beginning, so you’re also getting to see Ladybug when he’s fresh and not so banged up.
The first idea of course is to use the briefcase as a defensive instrument, and he’s using it to block knives or punches. Eventually, he’s using it to strike as well, flipping it up and hitting people with it. That was another place where we could see how strong Brad is because it weighs over seven pounds, which means tossing it around with one arm multiple times starts to add up. We were having him do certain exercises before and during to build his familiarity with the weight for those moments. For the rehearsals, there were also soft and semi-soft versions where we could brainstorms ideas before Brad was doing it with the real thing. Those pieces took a beating, as did the people they were being used against.
The action in your and David’s movies hit a little harder than others. How do your stunt doubles and actors recover from a day of production?
Doing stunts is the science of making pain look beautiful. I hate to say that David and I laugh at pain, but we do, only because we know that it’s being done safely in the end. The goal was for us to have fun, be a little violent, and ground it in some sort of reality. That goes back to working with the suitcase, because it’s really rewarding to have the support from David and everyone to push the envelope. You research everything that’s ever been in a movie with a suitcase, physically, then you put that extra time in to find something that hasn’t been done. The actors all came to play and they put everything into these fights. Brad was in it, and there were scenes where we would try to give him a pad to hit or fall on, and he wouldn’t take it. I think the ability for our actors to get through this shoot was really the work that we put in before we showed up, building up that strength and putting in the training. We were ready. For the bumps and scrapes that happen, ice is always a good idea.