“Bullet Train” producer and 87North co-founder Kelly McCormick’s guiding principle in filmmaking has been “finding the truth in fiction,” a response to earlier documentary work, where “it was not uncommon to twist stories to make them more entertaining.” So she pivoted to producing content that packs a different sort of emotional — and physical — punch.
McCormick’s latest film, “Bullet Train,” directed by her husband and 87North partner David Leitch, stars Brad Pitt as a hitman who finds himself on a snatch-and-grab job that grows more complicated by the minute. Pitt leads an ensemble cast, including Sandra Bullock, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry and Bad Bunny, in a wild ride that showcases the company’s signature blend of hyper-violence and heart.
“I look at action as melodrama,” McCormick explains. “It’s about how to punctuate the highs higher and the lows lower with physicality as much as with dialogue.”
Variety caught up with the producer via phone earlier this month as she raced to the airport following a fan screening in Berlin, Germany with the film’s stars and Leitch. The filmmakers have been running full-tilt lately, going from a location scout in Sydney, Australia on “The Fall Guy” — the upcoming big-screen take on the 1980s television show, starring Ryan Gosling — to begin their world tour promoting “Bullet Train.”
“I definitely am the type of person who likes to be head down and working towards the next one and I’m learning to appreciate the release experience,” McCormick says.
While it’s been an adjustment from the day-to-day grind of getting an idea packaged and prepped for production, McCormick has embraced the marquee moment for 87North, the dual production company and premier stunt training and design studio with a brand-new workspace in Hollywood.
“I got a DM from a fan in Paris today that had just gotten out of the movie, loved it and had to write me. It was so sweet,” she shares. “As a producer, you don’t get that direct outreach often.”
McCormick and Leitch’s filmography boasts such action hits as “Nobody,” “Atomic Blonde” “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” and “Deadpool 2,” which have amassed more than $2 billion worldwide. Under 87North’s first-look deal with Universal, “Violent Night,” a holiday action-thriller starring David Harbour and directed by Tommy Wirkola, and “The Fall Guy” are up next.
Married since 2014 and professionally linked years before that (McCormick previously managed Leitch and fellow stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski), the couple divide duties on their projects: Leitch focuses on the creative aspects, while McCormick handles story development, packaging cast and other big-picture elements.
“My brain is wired toward story and packaging, but I definitely like to get in there and solve scheduling or budgeting problems as they arise,” McCormick observes.
It’s a skill-set she’s honed over the course of her career’s “zig-zag trajectory.” McCormick also served as EVP of production and acquisitions at Sierra Affinity, a foreign sales and financing company, where she packaged and produced Academy Award-winning and nominated films including “Hell or High Water,” “Whiplash,” “Nightcrawler” and “Manchester by the Sea,” plus the 2021 comedy “Poms.” That amalgamation of work experience, she explains, “helped me incubate all of the aspects of producing, that can flow into what a project needs at any given time.”
Plus, the projects are served by her perspective as a woman.
“I do have a tendency to really connect with the female characters,” McCormick says. “There’s just this safety, or this ability, to make sure that they’re also heard and handled in a way that feels really strong and powerful, but also emotional.”
She also credits “Bullet Train” editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir — who’s worked on nearly every one of McCormick and Leitch’s films since “John Wick” — with teaching her “what women can do [as action filmmakers] and about the sensitivities and how to focus on all the right emotional things that don’t get too sweet and saccharine, so that they feel real to the genre.”
87North’s upcoming slate of films also includes “Dakar Rally,” the life story of Jutta Kleinschmidt, the only woman to win the brutal off-road endurance race, at Amblin; and “Ruby,” a female assassin action feature written by Kat Wood for Amazon.
“It’s always been a priority for us to grow and mentor the next generation of filmmakers and stunt people, with an eye toward recruiting more women and people of color,” McCormick notes. “Action is generally known to be a white male-centric genre, which is why it’s extra important to me to make space for people who haven’t been historically represented yet love action too and want to be part of this business.”
She adds: “Action is a stronger, more vibrant genre when we are inclusive.”