After years as a fight coordinator, stunt coordinator and second unit director ranging from Fight Club to The Bourne Ultimatum to Captain America: Civil War, David Leitch made his directorial debut as co-director (with Chad Stahelski) on John Wick, the Keanu Reeves revenge thriller that upped the standard for action films and created a whole new and surreal cinematic universe at the same time. Now branching on his own, Leitch has directed Atomic Blonde, a spy thriller starring Charlize Theron and set in Berlin in 1989, just as the Cold War is about to end with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a high-level British operative for MI6 who is sent to Berlin to investigate the death of a fellow agent and finds herself besieged by assassins at every turn as she tries to help another agent, the decadent Percival (James McAvoy) extract both dangerous information and the man who possesses it. Broughton is precise, coldly capable and unstoppable in her mission, pushing herself to the edge of collapse as she navigates the chaos and turmoil of Berlin at a crucial moment.
For Theron, Atomic Blonde firmly re-establishes her action hero credentials after her astonishing turn in Mad Max: Fury Road. For Leitch, the film gives him the chance to tell a certain kind of story he’s wanted to explore and also push the action to new levels, including an eight-minute, one-take sequence — that has to be seen to be believed — in which Broughton fights a procession of killers in an abandoned building and in the streets.
Den of Geek spoke with Leitch — who is currently directing Deadpool 2, with Ryan Reynolds reprising as the Merc with a Mouth and Josh Brolin portraying the mutant cyborg Cable — about making Atomic Blonde come to life, working with Theron and how much fun he’s having with Deadpool 2.
Den of Geek: You definitely delivered a fresh look at the action genre with your previous film, John Wick, so what were you looking to do with your next project when this came your way?
David Leitch: When this came my way I was wondering if there was a way to approach — not unlike approaching Wickand that sort of ’70s revenge movie or exploitation film — how could I take a noir spy thriller and infuse a commercial sensibility and a pop culture sort of style? As I went down that process I started to attach to a few things to it –like how do we aggregate ’80s cool in terms of the music and the look and the style of the costumes, and then how do we make the city of Berlin a character in addition to this other sort of crazy cast of characters that we had. So that started to kick it to another direction.
How were you able to kind of visualize what you wanted to do with Berlin, especially since it’s quite a different city now than it was 28 years ago?
Well, having done six movies in Berlin, the city appealed to me, and I spent a lot of my life in that city. So I knew a lot about the history. Not as much as some, but more than most. I knew the locations that we could use practically that were really authentic and that would bring us back, and that we could still photograph. But in terms of researching it, there was this one photograph that just encapsulated the whole film. It’s shot on a train and it’s this East German Stasi officer sitting next to this punk rock kid who must have been like 18, 19, and he’s got the spiked hair. They’re just sitting next to each other in a sort of candid moment that was caught in a famous photo of Berlin of that era. That was the east and west I wanted to portray. Inspirations come from all different places and a lot of them are from knowing Berlin but some of it was from the research.
In the movie it’s a city on the edge of either complete anarchy or transcending itself. Do the city and Charlize’s character, Lorraine, mirror each other in the sense that she’s always kind of living on this edge of breaking herself down?
I’m glad you noticed that. There are subtle things I don’t get to talk about in a lot of these interviews because I think a lot of the action has people talking, and I’m grateful for that, but what I was really trying to do with the wall was a bigger metaphor for our characters’ existential crisis. The world that they understood of lies and secrets and untruths and backstabbing, which was their truth, was about to be shattered and the world is about to experience something great. There’s a juxtaposition between the wall and them but also sort of this bigger metaphor that they’re all on the edge of collapsing.
When you work with someone like Charlize or now with Ryan Reynolds, and they’re not just the star or an actor in the film, but also a creative partner in a bigger sense as a producer, is there a difference as opposed to an actor who’s just there to play a role? That’s not to say that actors don’t show up and give it 100 percent because we know they do, but is it a different situation when they’re also invested as more than just an actor?
I know what you’re asking and it is. It’s a very different situation. I mean, when you’re dealing with an actor who’s a producer, they’re wearing a different hat and they are obviously servicing the bigger franchise moving forward and for me, that’s absolutely fine. As a filmmaker, I’m a collaborator first. Look, they’re hanging their butts out literally every day on the screen and at some point when the movies have been successful, they deserve their voice in how they want to move forward. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences from those collaborations, so for me it’s great.
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Let’s talk about that centerpiece scene, the fight on the stairs. It feels like everyone upped their game on that one.
I think what we wanted was to find a way to ground the action and make it as realistic as possible. I think that was something that as a producer Charlize was really fascinated by, and so the choreographer side of me was like, “How do we achieve that? What’s the challenge?” So I started to think about this set piece. I see this stairwell in that particular part of the movie where now we’re sort of spinning darker and darker and darker and darker and how we’re getting into this pivotal point. How do we make it realistic? How do we make it heightened? How do we make it also provocative and stand out?
It added a lot of technical challenges and we needed the will of the crew, and the will of the creatives, and actually the will of the actor/producer to say, “We’re going to do this.” Because there’s really no editorial outs. It was just making bold choices, and we were able to do something that I think is really compelling for the movie and then actually serviced her character really well.
Charlize was on a panel at Comic Con last weekend, and the interviewer asked her if she could see herself playing James Bond if they wanted to change that character’s gender. Her response was along the lines of, “Well, you know, let Daniel Craig or Idris Elba play James Bond, but Lorraine is someone who can stand alongside him in that same space.” Do you see this potentially as that kind of franchise?
I do and I think that we, and Charlize in particular, hope to create this iconic character. I think people would love to see her go on multiple adventures. You know, the Atomic Blonde universe is its own universe. There’s influences obviously of Bond and Bourne and Wick, all the things I’ve been exposed to, but it is its own universe. It is something I think people would want to see her take part in again.
We’re almost out of time, so I’m obligated to ask you about Deadpool 2. There is a lot of excitement about Josh Brolin playing Cable obviously. What’s the chemistry like between him and Ryan and is this film going to be based around that relationship in the way that the Wade/Vanessa relationship was the core of the first movie?
Well, there’s certain details that I can’t give out but I can give you this: we were shooting Friday night until 1:00 A.M. before I flew to Comic-Con and both of those guys were on set and the chemistry was amazing, and it’s actually the most I’ve laughed on set in my entire life so I was kind of grateful to be involved in it. I’m grateful to have an actor like Josh that brings a humanity to Cable. We’re having fun with it and people are going to have fun with it too.
Atomic Blonde is out in theaters Friday (July 28).