Hobbs & Shaw director interview: the making of a stunt-packed buddy movie

David Leitch talks about raising the action stakes for his Fast & Furious spin-off, and working with The Rock and The Stath…

The onscreen chemistry between action-movie alphas Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Jason Statham proved to be dynamite for the last couple of Fast & Furious movies – an ass-kicking dream team, if you will. The draw of their banter-fueled rivalry is a phenomenon not lost on the Japanese distributors of the pair’s new spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw – so much so that they’ve retitled the film Wild Speed: Super Combo.

In the movie, Johnson and Statham reprise their roles as hulking DSS Agent Luke Hobbs and rogue elite operative Deckard Shaw respectively, an odd couple of frenemies who are forced to come together to stop the bionically enhanced terrorist Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) – “the only guy who might be badder than themselves,” as the film’s official blurb goes – from unleashing a devastating virus on the world.

It was the double act’s dynamism that also attracted incoming director David Leitch – a newcomer to the franchise who was fresh off a huge success with Deadpool 2. A Hollywood stunt veteran turned successful filmmaker in his own right, Leitch felt that it was the focus on Johnson and Statham’s characters that made Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw such an appealing prospect.

“Their dynamic was my favourite thing about the last few Fast movies,” Leitch tells Den Of Geek when we catch up with him in a hotel slap bang in the City of London financial district, where a lot of the film’s early action sequences take place. “The script screamed of those classic buddy cop movies like Lethal Weapon. And I just saw that opportunity of extrapolating those great scenes from the Fast movies where they’re together into an entire movie. That’s what I wanted to do.”

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The bonus of recruiting Leitch for a film like this is his extensive stunt experience. Before he made his solo directorial debut with Atomic Blonde, he was an uncredited co-director on the original John Wick – alongside his fellow stuntman and business partner Chad Stahelski, with whom he co-founded Hollywood ‘action design’ company 87Eleven. 

He was a regular double for Brad Pitt on several of his films (including Fight Club, Troy and Mr & Mrs Smith) and has worked as a stunt performer and choreographer on the likes of The Matrix, 300, V For Vendetta and Statham’s own The Mechanic. He even directed the second units on films such as Captain America: Civil War and The Wolverine. Safe to say, he knows a thing or two about big-screen action.

Here, Leitch talks about wrangling The Rock and The Stath, coordinating the film’s larger-than-life set-pieces and how he managed to pay homage to the core Fast & Furious series while taking Hobbs & Shaw down a different road…

What’s your history with the Fast franchise – were you a fan and did you ever cross paths with them in a professional capacity?

I hadn’t really. Being a stunt performer, it’s pretty odd that I’d never worked on one of them, because they probably hired every stunt person in Hollywood – they’re just so big. But our paths never really crossed. I enjoyed the films and the premise of them. And I also like that those types of big action movies are celebrated, because they are great for the stunt industry.

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How much of a challenge is it on a spin-off like this, linking it to an established franchise while still making the film its own thing?

It was a lot like when I took on Deadpool 2 – obviously, these films are beloved and you need to respect the franchise. But I was pretty clear before I took the job that I wanted to make sure that my voice comes through as a filmmaker. The studio was really supportive of that, and I think they wanted to make sure that this struck its own pose. And I think we did that. I mean, we really embrace the comedy in Hobbs & Shaw. But we also swung for the fences in terms of the heightened world that Fast likes to do. We paid homage to the action of the cars and the themes of family, which were really important. We made sure that we delivered those.

How much does your background as a stunt performer and coordinator give you an advantage as a director?

It’s a huge advantage. For years, I had worked as a second unit director or an action director for many directors. But when you saw someone who didn’t have the knowledge of physical production, it was hard. It becomes hard for them to understand what their department heads are asking for, or what different people need. I spent 20 years in the business below the line, as we say, on the sort of blue-collar workings of a physical production. And so I really do understand what everything costs and what everything takes to get done and all of that logistical stuff that I can’t imagine not knowing. That’d be scary. I use that knowledge every day to solve problems, to make things look more expensive than they are, and to avoid the pitfalls that I’ve witnessed over the last 20 years.

Obviously, Jason and Dwayne are well-versed in this action world – how were they to work with?

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Great. I had actually done a lot of work with Jason in the past as an action director and choreographer, and as a stuntman. So I knew that that would be easy. He’s great in a fight scene. He actually loves to train at 87Eleven in between gigs or if he’s getting ready for a film. And it was a pleasure to choreograph him and actually do this from the first unit chair. And Dwayne is the same – he’s been doing action movies for years. And because of his time fighting in the WWE, he knows his way around the story of a fight as well. That was really interesting, like learning the classic wrestling story – the hero shows up, he gets a few punches in, he gets knocked down, he’s not going to make it, and then he rises from the ashes. He’s really good at finding those beats in a fight and in the action and highlighting them.

They’ve obviously got really good chemistry, which has been developed over the last couple of movies. How much did they improv their insults to each other?

It’s less like improv, it’s not that spontaneous. But we’ll do a take, and then one of them will go, “Oh, I’ve got a better idea” and then write it down, or they’ll come in with a couple of ideas that they want to try out. They both really understood their characters’ voices – because it’s not unlike themselves in a lot of ways [laughs]. So Dwayne would come with his list of alt-lines and insults, and Jason would do the same. It was really fun. 

You’ve also got Vanessa Kirby playing Shaw’s sister, Hattie, who gets just as involved in the action. How is it directing someone who perhaps isn’t as used to the action side of things?

I’ve never gone wrong by betting on a great actor. And I think when you have such a talented actor as Vanessa, she’s going to put her heart and soul into making the character come to life. And part of it was the physicality that Hattie needed to live up to – obviously with Jason’s fighting prowess. The whole premise is that she’s a chip off the old block. So she had to put in the time and to get in the gym with the stunt team and to train. She also had an aptitude for it. And then because she excelled early, she got into it and loved it, we created more scenes with her fighting because of it. 

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The car chases must be incredibly logistically challenging on a film like this, especially when you’re tearing around the City of London – it can’t be the easiest place to film scenes like that.

Again, going back to the logistics and understanding what things take and what they cost – fortunately, I have an understanding of it, but it’s really brutal. [Laughs] To find a strip of road that you can block off. By the time you get the cars up to speed, and then you’re shooting that moment, and then you’ve got to decelerate them – you need like 10 blocks of area just to photograph great car stuff. We did a lot in London, but we also did a lot in Glasgow, where we could block off more of the streets. We did some in the backlot at Universal, too. So there’s a mixture of places that all play for London. You just need to do that with a big sequence.

There are some elements of this that seem to be moving away from the main franchise in that it’s leaning quite heavily into sci-fi elements, especially in terms of Idris Elba’s baddie…

If you look at the Fast world, it’s done a really good job of always kind of reinventing itself. That’s why it has sustained through all these different films. I would say it isn’t as sci-fi as maybe we point it out to be in the design of things. But in terms of like, near future, us connecting with technology and augmenting ourselves is not that far off – compared to some of the other crazy things we do in the Fast world [laughs]. With Idris, it was important that we found a character that could be physically formidable to Hobbs and Shaw. Idris alone is that, but then if you enhance him with these biomechanics, he becomes even more so. So that’s why we leaned into it.

And how much did Idris get involved in the action on set?

A lot. He trained hard – and he’s got a martial arts background, too. It’s really fun to work with him, and I’d love to do more fights with him in the future. I mean, he’s a really talented guy.

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What would you say was your biggest challenge on this film, perhaps that you hadn’t encountered before?

I think time. I mean, granted, you might say, “Well, you have all this money and all these days, but it was really time. And it wasn’t in the physical production of it all – that we handled pretty well. It was challenging, but that’s what we do. But the post-production on this was hard. We had so many visual effects shots to do in a 22-week post-production period – it was really condensed to get it out to the public. And so having time to cut the film down, react to it, reflect on it, get the shots in – we were kind of moving at Mach speed. You would probably have an additional month or two on a normal movie, but some release dates today just sort of put you in a position where you just have to get it done.

What was your favourite scene to film?

I think my favourite one to film was that first day in the CIA office in London where Hobbs and Shaw are brought together and are insulting each other. It was the first day that Dwayne was on set with Jason, and you could feel the chemistry was real and palpable. And we were doing some of those alt lines that we were talking about earlier. It was so funny. And it was really just fun, seeing that play out and getting goosebumps, knowing that this was going to work and knowing that we had the rest of the movie to go and seeing the potential of it.

Were there any good insults that didn’t make the cut that you wish you could have sneaked in there?

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There were. And I’m going to save them for the Blu-ray. We’ll get to see them on home entertainment [laughs].

The Fast films have always been focused on the family that you make for yourself, but this one is really about the family that you’re born into, and the scenes set in Samoa feel very personal in a way, even in a massive film like this. For someone like Dwayne who’s obviously very proud of his heritage, how was it for him shooting those?

I think it was really important to him. At the beginning of the movie, our characters are both estranged from their family. And sort of the thing I wanted to ask and confront the audience with was like, it shouldn’t take global stakes to pick up the phone and reconnect with your family. So I think by the end of the movie, you hope these characters learn the lesson that it shouldn’t have taken all this to just pick up the phone and call your brother. In terms of connecting with his heritage and his family, that was also important to Dwayne – going to Samoa and having that presented in such a positive, natural way was interesting for him.

In terms of your future projects, what are you looking forward to working on after this?

I mean, there are so many projects that we’re circling that I’m excited about. I’m really grateful for the position that I’m in. We’ve got a project at Netflix, The Division [based on the video games inspired by Tom Clancy]. The script should be in imminently and we have two great artists attached to that, obviously, with Jake [Gyllenhaal] and Jessica [Chastain]. It’s a world that’s so compelling and again, like the Fast franchise, it’s so beloved, so I’m really excited to be involved in that.

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As someone who has an extensive background in physical effects, and seeing the way films are made now compared to even 20 years ago, how has the stunt industry had to adapt in the face of all the technological advances? Was there ever a point you were worried that computer graphics might take over?

Well, that’s a good point. The stunt world has always kind of been at odds with CGI – we want to do our things for real, but then the VFX guys want to fake it. And I think that what we really needed to do in the industry was to come together, which we have done. Look, even in John Wick, as analogue as the original was, we still had the help of our visual effects brothers. On those small, moderately priced movies, generally you lean into more analogue stunts, but with these big set-piece-driven movies like Hobbs & Shaw, it’s more of a collaboration. I took my practical approach to stunts and made as much of it practical as I possibly could. And then I think that that’s what drove the CG effects to work harder. You challenge the visual effects artists to adapt to the reality of this stuff. Those cars are all flipping for real, right? So if that looks real, then the CG effects that you’re adding better match that. And so the combination of the two is what makes for greatness.

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw is out in cinemas from 1 August.