Bullet Train May Take Place Aboard a Japanese High-Speed Shinkansen, But It Was Filmed in L.A.

·5 min read

Warning to anyone planning to see the new Brad Pitt thriller Bullet Train: This film is violent. But even if gunshots, stab wounds, snake bites, and poison concoctions that cause blood to pour from the victim’s orifices are not your cup of tea, it is impossible not to marvel at the choreography of the fight scenes in this flick or to chuckle at some of the dark humor. Directed by David Leitch (Deadpool 2), the movie takes place almost entirely aboard a fictionalized version of the Shinkansen, or Japanese bullet train, heading from Tokyo to Kyoto.

Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the assassins Lemon and Tangerine

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Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the assassins Lemon and Tangerine
Photo: Scott Garfield

An ensemble cast including Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bad Bunny, and more are all aboard for different—and conflicting—reasons, getting in each other’s way as they each try to do what they came to do. For Ladybug, an assassin with bad luck who dreams of retirement (played by Pitt), this means retrieving a briefcase full of cash currently in the possession of a dynamic duo of assassins played by Taylor-Johnson and Henry. For King and Bad Bunny’s characters, respectively, it’s revenge. A crime boss known as the White Death (Michael Shannon) is the looming figure at the center of it all.

The extensive stunts were a major factor in every aspect of the film, with all departments working closely together to make it look seamless. And fun fact, director David Leitch was once Brad Pitt’s stunt double.

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The extensive stunts were a major factor in every aspect of the film, with all departments working closely together to make it look seamless. And fun fact, director David Leitch was once Brad Pitt’s stunt double.
Photo: Scott Garfield

Based on the book Maria Beetle by Japanese crime novelist Kōtarō Isaka, the film is a somewhat loose adaptation that utilizes an international cast of characters and has faced whitewashing accusations, particularly from David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League. Isaka, however, responded to this backlash in a recent interview with The New York Times, and said that the characters are “not real people, and maybe they’re not even Japanese.” And though the setting is clearly Japan, production designer David Scheunemann tells AD, “We were not interested in copying reality.”

A first class car on the titular train

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A first class car on the titular train
Photo: Scott Garfield

There’s a gag involving a Japanese toilet, and there’s an entire train car dedicated to a fictional anime character, but overall, the titular bullet train is a cartoonish (on purpose) and heightened amalgamation of different design influences, with distinct cars helping the viewer to keep track of characters as they move about. On a Los Angeles soundstage, the team built one economy car and one first-class car, plus “a couple of extra bits and pieces, like the lounge car and all the bathroom connectors, entrances, and exits,” Scheunemann explains.

One entire train car is branded with a fictional anime character called Momomon conceived by Scheunemann, concept artist and illustrator Marcos Weiss, and graphic designer Kelly Hemenway.

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One entire train car is branded with a fictional anime character called Momomon conceived by Scheunemann, concept artist and illustrator Marcos Weiss, and graphic designer Kelly Hemenway.
Photo: Scott Garfield

They then dressed the cars as needed, turning the sets into distinct spaces. Elements of Japanese modern architecture such as wood slats and screens, along with “good Nordic minimalism” served as Scheunemann’s inspiration for the first-class car. “I’m a huge fan of Japanese architecture,” he says. “And I mean, everyone talks about Bauhaus and other people inventing modern architecture, but the reality is actually that the Japanese have been doing [what we’d now call] modern architecture for 500 years.”

Set decorator Elizabeth Keenan became “like a furniture manufacturer” on this film, Scheunemann says. “Almost everything was custom made.” Here, the lounge car is dressed in rich greens and reds with pops of gold.

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Set decorator Elizabeth Keenan became “like a furniture manufacturer” on this film, Scheunemann says. “Almost everything was custom made.” Here, the lounge car is dressed in rich greens and reds with pops of gold.
Photo: Scott Garfield
Andrew Koji plays a man who was lured onto the train by Joey King’s character, and becomes a part of her plot. Here, he stands in the first class bathroom on the train, which Scheunemann dressed in the same rich color palette as the lounge car.

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Andrew Koji plays a man who was lured onto the train by Joey King’s character, and becomes a part of her plot. Here, he stands in the first class bathroom on the train, which Scheunemann dressed in the same rich color palette as the lounge car.
Photo: Scott Garfield

To help the actors feel like they were really aboard a high-speed locomotive, LED screens with video footage of the Japanese countryside were hung outside the windows of the train set, as opposed to being added during post-production. “We could shoot the train journey in-camera while we were on the train. It’s called virtual production, and I think it was a huge benefit to the actors and their performances,” Leitch said.

Most of the snacks, drinks, and products used as props were shipped to L.A. from Japan for the film. The Fiji water bottle that is an integral part of the storyline, however, is product placement.

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Most of the snacks, drinks, and products used as props were shipped to L.A. from Japan for the film. The Fiji water bottle that is an integral part of the storyline, however, is product placement.
Photo: Scott Garfield

The way Scheunemann puts it, the film will have succeeded if it holds viewers’ attention from start to finish, and it manages to do so for the most part, despite a few moments where it falls flat. “We spent a lot of time in basically the same environment, which makes every detail pop,” he says. “Every mistake [will be seen], but also every beautiful piece and detail [will be] there for a lot more time. It’s not the average movie where you design 50 to 80 sets for an entire film. My entire team, the set decorator with her team, and a ton of people in construction and paint really gave their best work.”

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest

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