David Leitch made his directorial debut, after years as a stuntperson and stunt coordinator, on 2014’s John Wick (with Chad Stahelski), and he’s been tackling even more ambitious projects behind the camera ever since. With 2017’s Atomic Blonde and 2018’s Deadpool 2 both under his belt, he has turned this year to one of the biggest franchises out there, the Fast and Furious series, to helm its first standalone spin-off movie — Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.
The film stars Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham as Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw respectively, who started in the mothership series as sworn enemies and — while not exactly the best of friends — now end up as unlikely allies in a race to stop a literal supervillain named Brixton Lorr (Idris Elba). The genetically and technologically enhanced Brixton and his employer, the mysterious Etheon corporation, want to get their hands on a virus that can wipe out half of humanity — a virus now waiting for activation in the bloodstream of Shaw’s sister, M16 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby).
Leitch’s action and stunt chops are undeniable and put to their best use in Hobbs & Shaw, but he and his cast also find plenty of humor and fun in the over-the-top proceedings, while also maintaining the themes of family that have been a cornerstone of the Fast and Furious canon — most notably in a trip to Samoa to meet Hobbs’ extended family.
Strangely, Leitch’s likely next project is Netflix’s The Division, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain, based on the Ubisoft game about a viral pandemic and its aftermath. But first we wanted to talk with him about joining the Fast and Furious family and working with three of the best action stars around, and see what we could pry out of him about the future of the (now Marvel-owned) Deadpool franchise.
Den of Geek: When you came onto this, what were your expectations about what you wanted to do, and also what the mandate was from the people who’d been doing this series for all these years?
David Leitch: I had some particular things in mind. When we approached John Wick, we wanted to take the action programmer thriller and turn it on its head. With Atomic Blonde, it was take the classic spy noir and turn it on its head. Having this buddy/cop dynamic was so good in the last three films, I wanted to take the classic buddy/action movie and blow it out in a contemporary way, and the studio was fired up about it.
There weren’t a lot of mandates. I think there was some really good guidance from (producer/writer) Chris Morgan and what the Fast fans would gravitate towards, and I really wanted to make a movie that appealed to the Fast audience. We have a movie that has a real family center. Both of our characters at the beginning of this film are estranged from their siblings, and they’ve got to make their way back, and it’s a good message. It shouldn’t take the fate of the world to call the ones that really matter most. We had a really emotional, family driven plot. Then, the crazy set pieces that Fast fans love, I wanted to blow those out in proper fashion, in the same style as that world.
At the same time, did you have room, because this was a spinoff and just the next Fast & Furious movie, to move in some different directions?
Yeah, we did have, obviously, the leeway to push it in a different direction, and I think that the studio wanted to push it in a different direction. What the Fast world has been really good at is reinventing itself, and as long as the characters work, we can go on these different journeys. We wanted to dovetail it into more of a spy type franchise. We, in particular, wanted to take the tone in a little bit more fun and comedic way, so you could just have that element of family, but also have that element of fun and just be on a roller coaster of escapism throughout the movie. It’s a big summer popcorn movie. That’s what we intended to do, and they were like, “Make it your own.”
This film also has a strong comedy aspect to it. Do you think it still surprises people how skilled both Dwayne and Jason are at comedy?
It may surprise people, but if you really look back at their careers, it shouldn’t. I mean, Jason has been playing comedy in all different forms. In his early Guy Ritchie stuff, Snatch is a very comedic film in the sense that he plays it. Although he plays it straight, he’s really funny. Obviously, his work in Spy was very more satirical and on-the-nose. And Dwayne, I mean, SNL, his work with Kevin Hart…he’s really good at comedy. So when these guys are together, there’s a real chemistry that is undeniable, and I think that’s what we centered the movie around. Hobbs & Shaw set the bar for the type of tone and fun we want to have. We got to make sure that we’re paying that off with the cast that we’re surrounding them within, and with the tone of the world.
Was Idris in the mix from the start as the villain?
He was. There wasn’t really many names brought up. It’s hard when you’re looking for someone who can physically stand up to Hobbs. Now, Hobbs and Shaw together, who the hell’s that going to be? So you find this actor who’s come to the table who not only has the physical gifts — he’s got a martial arts background — but he also has the acting chops to hold his own, and to bring a gravitas that you wouldn’t expect in this type of movie. Man, we were lucky to have him, and the minute he said yes, we got him in and we collaborated, and tried to give layers to Idris’ character.
He is also a DJ and rapper, and he wrote and performed a song — in character — that’s in the movie (“Even If I Die,” with Cypress Hill).
That is correct. It is in the car chase, at the bottom of the CIA building. That song kicks in, and the Cypress Hill bit comes in first, and then you hear a bit of Brixton’s rap as well. That was a really fun moment on set, when he was working on his iPad and rough sketching out the song. He’s like, “Hey, I have this idea for a song. I want to get it all together, and then I want to present it to you.” He would work on it, and then he went into the studio. He got Cypress Hill to rap on the track, and it became a real point of pride for him. It was really perfect for the scene in the movie.
That’s not the only instance of blurring the line between fiction and reality in this film. The most notable one is getting into Hobbs’ background, and going to Samoa, which plays into Dwayne’s own personal background.
I think we wanted sort of a rich backdrop for both Hobbs and Shaw. With Hobbs, it’s like, where do we take it? It was Dwayne’s idea to say, “Why don’t we explore Samoa? We don’t know who Hobbs is, but for me Samoa’s very personal, and I think it would be such a great backdrop for the Hobbs character.” I thought that was great, and it provided a place for us to go explore a culture that maybe hadn’t been presented on screen for the first time.
Obviously, it was personal for Dwayne, so he could really dig into Hobbs’ character and connect it to family and his real roots. We cast a great bunch of actors who were all from Pacific Islander heritage, and he even got to bring in his cousin, Roman Reigns. It all made sense, since the Fast movies are built on family. We need to make sure that these families have rich worlds that we can explore, moving forward.
How game were your four leads, in terms of getting their hands dirty and doing as many of the stunts themselves as possible?
They were all super into it, and I think part of that comes from my stunt background. I think they know my history, and they know what I’ve been through. I think if I ask them to do something, it’s because it’s necessary for the scene, and it’s going to be better for the action. Plus they’re all seasoned veterans. That being said, Vanessa had to step up and do a lot more of the training, and she delivered tenfold. She put in the time. Six weeks out, we were already starting with her. Again, she showed up like great actors do. They want to portray the character physically, as well as emotionally. When a good actor shows up, they’ll put in the time.
Who breaks character first on-set?
Wow. It’s funny, they’re so close to their characters anyway, in a lot of ways. But I’ll say this, Dwayne, he loves to laugh, and he’s the first to make a practical joke, or to crack up. He’s definitely out to make the set fun and have a good time.
The movie leaves lots of breadcrumbs to follow, so have there been ideas already tossed around about the next chapter for these guys?
There have been. Chris Morgan and myself, we’ve been keeping stuff close to our vest. We wanted to leave it more open-ended than previous films. I think, obviously, there’s a lot of opportunity with a lot of characters…Vanessa, she holds her own, and I think that there’s a potential for her to live in Shaw’s world, if we wanted to do a spinoff. There’s a lot of ways to go, and it’s just seeing how the audience responds and what the appetite of the studio is.
Marvel is starting to map out their next phase of movies, but Deadpool 3 is not on the schedule yet. Have you heard anything on your end?
I haven’t. Honestly, I haven’t been in the loop, but I’m really excited about the potential of it. I was kind of bummed that I didn’t see it on the slate, but from what I know about how movies go in Hollywood, that doesn’t really mean anything. I think that people love the Deadpool world so much, and they love that character, that I’m sure that Kevin and his group of creatives over there are going to find a way to put it into motion in the Marvel Universe. But I really don’t know any specifics yet.
And by the way, I would love to be involved. It’s really just been…I’ve had my head down, working on this film, and now we’re up for air and we’re looking for what we do next.
Are you still doing The Division for Netflix?
Totally, and we’re waiting for the script to come in. I know Netflix is really motivated, and I think so are Jake and Jessica. We really love that world and that property.
Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is out in theaters Friday (August 2).
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye