Atomic Blonde director David Leitch discusses this Friday’s Cold War action thriller
This weekend, Academy Award winner Charlize Theron headlines Atomic Blonde, a new action thriller from John Wick‘s David Leitch. Leitch co-directed the original Wick with Chad Stahleski, with whom he owns and operate 87Eleven Action Design, a Hollywood choreography studio that builds fight sequences and trains stuntmen for some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. With Atomic Blonde, Leitch makes his solo directing debut and has already started filming his next project: 20th Century Fox‘s Deadpool sequel!
Based on the Oni Press graphic novel The Coldest City by writer Antony Johnston and illustrator Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde boasts and adapted screenplay by Kurt Johnstad that follows MI6’s most lethal assassin through a ticking time bomb of a city simmering with revolution and double-crossing hives of traitors.
CS: I know “Atomic Blonde” started as the graphic novel “The Coldest City.” When did that book come your way?
David Leitch: It’s a great story. My wife was a producer on it before I became involved. Her name is Kelly McCormick. She had been repping Chad and I. She was always sort of looking and eyeballing properties. She brought it to my attention. It was a sort of challenge to me because it was this Cold War noir, but was there way to take it on with fresh eyes and extend the world or make it heightened or infuse it with action. I just had to find a way in to look at the property differently. Then I loved the script and saw a way to heighten it.
CS: Where does that process begin?
David Leitch: It began very quickly because I needed to put together a presentation to Charlize, who was also a producer. Her company had met with a lot of directors, so I wanted to make sure it was clear what I wanted this thing to be. Also, when you enter a project, it becomes like two years of your life. So you have to really, really want to do it. I immediately started crafting the more punk rock, pop culture mashup that has ultimately become “Atomic Blonde.” The idea was basically to pull in everything cool from the ’80s and make this movie ’80s cool. Add a soundtrack and make it entertaining, but still keep some of its noirish sensibilities and then add some of the action that 87eleven is known for. Inject all that into a spy thriller, and then see what happens.
CS: You’re obviously someone who knows stunt choreography very, very well. When you’re envisioning a sequence, does it come very naturally, or is building out a fight scene a long and detailed process?
David Leitch: I think what’s really important is to challenge yourself. You can very easily fall into the rut of, “We know it works! We’ll use that old chestnut.” Just like any department, you can always fall back on your tricks. But there are still a lot of ideas that go into every action scene. I mean, there’s still a lot of ideas I want to try, but you really have to approach action from the story and the character first and from the spectacle second. I think that if you’re serving the character, you’re halfway there.
CS: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” makes an interesting cameo, playing at a movie theater within the film. How did that come about?
David Leitch: I’m a fan, naturally, as I think anyone is who is a fan of cinema. It turned out that that movie was actually playing in East Berlin at the time. That part is true. We were looking for a movie that could be there and David Scheunemann, our production designer, found out “Stalker” was actually playing. I said, “That’s amazing. We need to have the posters.” Then a bunch of the other ideas grew from there. So it was both a great inspiration and a very intentional choice.
CS: Because it’s a world that creates its own rules to a degree, how important was it for you to have based-in-fact touchstones like that?
David Leitch: We knew we were doing a sort of revisionist history version of the wall coming down. That’s a very important story and it’s why, at the beginning, we have a title that comes up that reminds us this isn’t that story. We wanted to make a sort of wish fulfillment version. It’s this very big moment for these characters in their lives. While the exterior of the world is celebrating, everything that they know and understand is falling apart.
CS: The comparison to the James Bond franchise is one that has been coming up a lot. When you were making “Atomic Blonde,” did you have to consider the character as a potential franchise player?
David Leitch: I don’t think we initially set out to make anything particularly franchisable. Like I said, it’s sort of this punk mash-up action movie. But when we came out the other sider, we had such a great character that Charlize had helped deliver. She’s iconic in her look and people were responding to the action. She does have the potential to be someone that people would like to see go on multiple adventures.
CS: You’ve already moved from “Atomic Blonde” to another comic book adaptation in the now-filming “Deadpool” sequel. How influential are comic books to you as an filmmaker?
David Leitch: I’m a fan of the sensibility of comics and I love the escapism of them and the defining of good and evil. They’re just so creative, too. You can sometimes break rules in comics that you can’t necessarily break in cinema. It’s fun to find something cool in a comic and then try and find a way to break the same rule in another medium. There’s also this great graphic sense of the artist and the framing. That speaks to me as an artist as well. It’s something I think about when I’m shooting. I don’t know if I’ll always do that, but it’s something that has worked for the stories I’ve done so far.
CS: You’ve been involved in filmmaking for quite a long time, but directing is something relatively new. What was the biggest surprise you found taking on “Atomic Blonde” solo?
David Leitch: I’ve been doing second unit for years, which is sort of like directing mini movies. Now that I’m directing entire films, it’s really just more of everything. There are a lot more questions that need answers. One of the things that I think really benefits me as a filmmaker is that I’ve been in production so long that I understand my department heads’ needs. I understand their concerns and am coming from a place of wanting to find a creative solution since I’ve been on the other end of that for a couple decades. It really is something much more collaborative than being the director on high and shouting “I want my vision!” Movies just don’t work that way.
CS: What is a dream project for you as far as directing goes?
David Leitch: I know it’s a cop out answer, but I think it’s already happening. I’ve really been living a dream the last couple of years. Honestly, “Atomic Blonde” is one of the best film experiences I’ve had in 20 years. Now, stepping into a beloved franchise with “Deadpool,” I’m having the time of my life and I’m just really, really grateful.