Today, David Leitch and Kelly McCormick are partners in both work and life. As a directing and producing duo, they have worked on films like Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Their latest project, Nobody, comes to theaters March 26. But David and Kelly’s paths couldn’t have begun more differently.
David started his career as a stunt performer with no intention of directing. He had competed in martial arts throughout college, and soon after, connected with Chad Stahelski, who was working on fight scenes in movies in Los Angeles. “We had a core group of us that were all training stuntmen-to-be. We loved martial arts movies,” David says. “Fortunately for us, there was a boom of martial arts in American cinema and television at that time. So we were working on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Power Rangers.” (Chad and David are now frequent collaborators.)
Whereas the old guard was “all about horse falls and car jumps,” the new stunts were more steeped in gymnastics, martial arts and wire rigging. “We entered the world at that time and sort of took over,” David recalls. That martial arts-savvy crew helped bring this form of action and choreography stateside from Hong Kong. And it was a huge added bonus, Kelly says, when the double for Brad Pitt or Matt Damon or Keanu Reeves could also help “inform how the character could move and teach the actors how to really dig in and make something special.” That’s how, as a choreographer, David began stepping into a more directorial role.
“When we would choreograph, we would shoot and edit our own fight scenes and show them to the director,” David says. “That was something no one ever did.” David says he never understood how you could separate the choreography of a scene from the shooting of it. “We were just directing a mini-movie inside of a movie—and a distinctly difficult one.” David transitioned from stuntman to second-unit director, directing action sequences for big productions, before filling the director’s chair himself on John Wick, alongside Chad.
Kelly, meanwhile, grew up wanting to be a documentarian. “I realized that so much of TV documentary at the time was not true,” she says. “And they ended up hurting the participants as much as helping them. Fifteen minutes of fame for your life story is a horrible idea.” So she turned to finding truth in fiction. She worked with Scott Rudin as a director’s assistant, and then in the development department. But it was while working at the management company Circle of Confusion that she crossed paths with David and Chad. “When we met, they decided that I was the person to work for them, in part because I just kept throwing stuff at them. And I was tenacious about getting their attention,” she says. She went to them with the script for John Wick, around the same time that Keanu Reeves did, and the rest is history. Ultimately, she moved to producing for David. “And we fell in love in the middle of there somewhere, didn’t we?” Kelly recalls.
A creative partnership
Today, David and Kelly are leading the charge in action films, having just signed a first-look deal with Universal Pictures. But to them, action is so much more than car flips and explosions. “Really, I’m a sucker for melodrama—and David is too, in spades,” Kelly says. “What action allows you to do is punctuate the highs and lows in a way that is melodramatic and really fun. It allows you to go a little bit higher, go a little bit lower, and allow for the tension and release to be a wilder ride. That’s kind of our lane.”
Of working with Kelly as a creative producer, David says, “It’s really great to have a creative partner and someone who’s solving those big issues when you’re trying to dig in.” Aside from making movies together and sharing custody of their dogs and desert tortoise, the two also started a company, 87North, through which they produce a whole slate of projects, among them Universal’s Nobody, starring Bob Odenkirk. “It’s really Kelly running the show from her past putting together slates of material and developing that material,” David says, “and I focus on action and character and story—and mentoring filmmakers as well.”
“There’s a lot of movie business in our house. Film is our life.” —David Leitch
David and Kelly’s latest feature as producers, Nobody, stemmed from Bob’s experience with two different home invasions. He felt vulnerable—and it inspired a series of “what ifs?” What if Bob Odenkirk was an action guy? In the film, he plays an underestimated dad who intervenes as a woman is getting harassed and thus becomes the target of a dangerous drug lord. It’s a story of wish fulfillment, of the everyman who first chooses not to engage with danger, with keeping his family safe—and then gets a second chance. Bob embodies that character, one who, through a series of trials, gets his mojo back. And David and Kelly think that’s more relatable now than ever.
“We can all be lulled into our everyday lives and almost turned off and just go through the motions. If COVID isn’t that, what is?” Kelly says. Then something flips a switch. “Granted you don’t have to do it through violence—I hope people don’t do it through violence—but the message is: Stand up, get your mojo back, be your best self for your family.”
All about the character
For Kelly, when producing any movie, the best work comes down to putting together the right team for any given project. On action films, stunt teams are critical. So are safety measures on set. Kelly can sigh a breath of relief only once shooting wraps and everyone comes out unscathed. “Even the smallest stunt can be quite scary for me just sitting there watching it,” Kelly says, “even though I know that we work with the safest and best and most prepared teams in the world. It’s still dangerous.” As Kelly notes, the stunt teams can be what make or break a film crew. “Who’s going to be able to infuse the movie and inform the characters’ journey through the action? It’s as important of a component as your hairstyling, makeup, costume, anybody else,” she says.
Ultimately, it comes down to what best serves the character. And that’s the same approach David takes when he directs. “Whether it’s a thriller, a comedy or a drama, you’ve got to care. And the action should stem from developing that character and arcing that character.” While spectacle is important, the number one element of a great set piece, as David sees it, is how it contributes to character growth, how it takes them from point A to point B.
“How do you find fulfilling moments in the action that work without undermining the most important thing, which is the character’s journey?” It’s not all that different from directing a film of a different genre, David explains, but it involves a whole lot more physics and wire rigging and choreography. “Another one of the many reasons why we believe that there should be a category for stunts in the Academy,” Kelly says. “There’s an art to it, there’s a skill to it, there’s a craft to it that’s as complicated and nuanced as any other department anywhere on a film set.”
The stunts we see in David and Kelly’s work are nothing short of spectacular—but sometimes stunt teams have to get creative to make it happen. On Atomic Blonde, the duo had to blow up a car in one scene, and there were no backup vehicles. By the fourth take, the team created a ramp so the car could just roll into the wall. “It was already a burned-out shell, but when you lit it on fire, you couldn’t see how destroyed it was,” David says. Other times, you get lucky. In another Atomic Blonde scene with a car crash, the team set up eight cameras to ensure coverage on their single take. They ended up with the perfect shot, thanks to one of the “just in case” GoPros.
“You’ll see the stunt team on an action movie be integrated in almost every department in some way,” David says. “You have stunt doubles who are working with hair and makeup and wardrobe. You have car effects, so you’re working with special effects to build cages. You’re designing choreography, so you’re working directly with the director on how to shoot this safely.” In each of their projects, David and Kelly honor and elevate the work of their stunt teams. After all, they know what it takes to pull off an incredible trick onscreen. But that doesn’t keep them from kicking back and watching a good action movie just for fun. “We go in eyes wide open and as film lovers and as action lovers, excited to see what people are doing,” Kelly says.