Atomic Blonde is the year’s best action film — and it confirms director David Leitch has few equals when it comes to crackling cinematic beat-‘em-ups. After years working as an A-list stuntman and second-unit director, and then co-helming 2014’s superlative John Wick with Chad Stahelski, Leitch has gone his own way with this Charlize Theron-headlined Cold War espionage tale, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City.
A twisty-turn spy saga in which Theron cracks skulls and woos women (namely, The Mummy’s Sofia Boutella) while trying to unravel a mystery involving her former beau’s murder, it’s a showcase for its alluringly fearsome leading lady, who, following Mad Max: Fury Road, has established herself as the reigning queen of the kickass genre.
With its centerpiece stairwell skirmish — go ahead, try to convince us it’s not the greatest American fight scene ever committed to film — Atomic Blonde is more proof Leitch is elevating the action form to new heights, perfecting a bruised, bloody approach that prizes inventive choreography, protracted takes, and a visceral (to the point of blackly comic) sense of pain and punishment. It’s no surprise, then, that for his next venture, he’ll be teaming up with Ryan Reynolds for summer 2018’s foul-mouthed superhero sequel, Deadpool 2. With Atomic Blonde blasting into theaters on Friday, we spoke with Leitch about flying solo behind the camera, the chances of an Atomic Blonde/John Wick crossover, and how much of his signature style he’ll be bringing to the Merc with a Mouth’s return.
Atomic Blonde is your first solo directing effort, after co-directing John Wick with Chad Stahelski. How difficult was that transition?
It wasn’t as a big of a transition as one might think. Co-directing Wick, Chad and I went back to work together. We had been doing second-unit directing apart. Even though we had a company together [87Eleven Action Design, their production company/stuntman-choreography studio], we had been doing our own movies for 5-6 years. So when we went back to do Wick, it was sort of like we had to find our footing again as partners, on-set. That was a great experience, and I loved it.
But jumping into this, Atomic — and I’m sure Chad would say the same — it did feel natural to just be taking the helm of directing, and just moving on, and digging in with your other collaborators.
Was it always your plan, after John Wick, to go your own way, directing-wise?
I think we always had the sort of plan that we would just take every project as it comes, and if we both responded to it, we could talk about whether we wanted to do it together. We have different interests. It was always a plan that, yes, we could always direct apart or together, or produce people, or develop 87Eleven as a brand bigger and beyond us.
So how did you decide which one of you got to keep the proverbial kid (i.e., John Wick, whose sequel was directed by Stahelski)?
[Laughs] It was really just a matter of taste, and then the schedules of the two movies [Atomic Blonde and John Wick Chapter 2] started to come together, and we realized there was no way we could do both. They had to be done in this specific window of time. So I had a way into Atomic that I was really excited about, and I think Chad really had a way into the Wick sequel that he was excited about. And we were like, “Cool, let’s do it.” There weren’t a lot of big discussions. It was pretty easy to make those decisions at the time, because we both really liked the material.
How did you get involved with Atomic Blonde? Was Charlize Theron already attached when you came aboard?
Charlize was attached to the movie already., Kelly McCormick, the producer at Sierra/Affinity — my wife, by the way — happened to bring us the script. I read it, and I really liked it and its noir-ish sensibilities. It was her challenging me to look at it in a different way — is there a way to heighten this and bring it more into the genre space, and to add an action flair and add some of your world-building? Because the original conceit of the movie was very Cold War spy-trench coat-fedora. That [action] part sort of became a bigger pitch.
Charlize, as a producer, had met a lot of directors, and I was lucky to just get in the door and have a little bit of a special idea about where we could take this.
‘Atomic Blonde’: Watch a trailer:
Action is obviously central to Atomic Blonde. What’s the process of integrating large set pieces into a film with such a tangled-web spy narrative?
That’s usually the second-unit action director’s job on bigger movies — you read what’s on the page, and then you go, “How do I make this fresh, interesting, expanded. Make it more relevant to the story. Find some gimmicks that are going to drive it and make it new for audiences.” As a first-unit director, it’s what I bring to the table. I look at the action scenes as placeholders when I arrive on a script, knowing that I’m going to expand on them when I understand the constraints of the movie, the locations of where we’re shooting, the abilities of the actors, and where we want to go with the characters.
With something like The Coldest City, there really weren’t many action sequences at all [laughs]. It was really gunshots and poison and spycraft. And so we replaced a lot of the spycraft ideas with visceral action that could maybe reach more of a genre audience.
How did you think about differentiating the action, style-wise, from John Wick? I assume some of that was dictated by Charlize herself.
It’s always driven by the actors’ aptitude, and skill set, for action. You’re always choreographing into their strengths. You always want to do that. But I think more importantly as an action director, you’re designing things that are working for the narrative and the world you’re creating. With The Coldest City, I think we were trying to do some stuff toward the end of the movie, as we’re spinning into this darker and darker rabbit hole, and the existential crisis of being a spy, where we wanted to get realistic, and see consequences, and see bruising and damage and exhaustion, and sort of this totality of the violence manifested in our protagonist and the people she’s up against.
How was working with Charlize on those action set pieces — and how much training was required for the shoot?
It was a lot of training — 3-4 months probably, four days a week, 3-4 hours a day. Very consistent training, coming into our workshop 87Eleven and getting in front of the stunt team and getting your ass kicked. That’s just kudos to her for having the will and the determination to go through that process.
The stairwell sequence is, to my mind, the greatest fight scene in American movie history. How did it first come about?
Part of the reason that came about was that we were working on an independent film, and you’re always looking for ways to break out of the noise that is in the space — you know, there are a lot of genre films that come out and there’s a lot of action films at this level. We were looking for ways to be provocative. I will say, again, producer Kelly McCormick sort of presented this idea of, “What about this single shot that you’ve been talking about forever? Maybe this is an opportunity to do something like that.” When you have the will of your crew, and you have an actress that’s this talented, and you have a stunt team that’s with you for the run of the show — the planets aligned that we were able to execute this. You need all willing participants.
Given that much of it is shot in unbroken takes, how long did it take to execute it?
It’s an accomplishment on a lot of levels. There are a lot of old-school tricks — stitching together bigger pieces — but ultimately, it’s several pieces, right? But it gives you the illusion that you’re staying with the character the whole time. So we would do 15 to 20 takes for any given section, to get it right. Because you couldn’t mess up in the middle; it’s not like editorial, at that moment, could save you. It could only save you at the end. It was quite a process. It was like four days to finish the stairwell, and probably two-and-a-half days for the car sequence.
Comparisons are inevitable between Atomic Blonde and John Wick. Any chance for an eventual big-screen crossover?
I love both of their worlds so much that I’d like to keep them separate. But maybe several sequels down the line, we figure out how to get John Wick into a time machine [laughs]. As artists, it’s great to work with both of them, and maybe there’s a project where they could work together which would be interesting, and which wouldn’t be John Wick or Atomic Blonde — it’s something else they do together.
Reeves does have some experience with time machines…
[Laughs] He does. I did avoid the Bill and Ted’s reference.
Now you’re working on Deadpool 2. What’s it been like to transition into a big-budget superhero universe — in this case, one that was already established before you came aboard?
Every movie you attack has its challenges, and I was excited about the challenges presented by Deadpool. I was a huge fan of the original, and I think as a director, you have to put the script first. With this movie, we just want to be true to the new material that’s been created, be true to the script, and be true to the original DNA of that universe, which is so widely accepted. So I’m up for the challenge. It’s been such a great process so far — I mean, we already started shooting. It’s crazy.
How much room is there for your own action style in a project like Deadpool 2?
I think there’s room in that universe to bring signature style, especially in the action space. When my name came up, the studio knew where I was coming from. So you’re going to see elements of me as a filmmaker, undeniably. But again, the material is so self-referential, and the DNA of the material is still there, and Ryan Reynolds’ portrayal of that character — it’s f—ing amazing. He has a handle on Deadpool like no other.
Was the humor of Deadpool 2 part of the appeal to you, given that John Wick and Atomic Blonde are less overtly comedic in nature? Or was it the bigger canvas on which to work?
It was all those things. As a director, just to be able to jump in to do something that’s different, and to explore comedy and be challenged by that, is great. Some directors never get that opportunity. So when it presented itself, I was like, yeah, let’s do it.
Is there any major way in which the sequel will distinguish itself from the original film?
I think it’s line with what I said before, which is that, as a director, you want to be servicing the script, and then the love for the original franchise. I think we’re doing that ten-fold. And as a filmmaker, I’ll have my imprint on it, within the world as it goes forward.
Have you had any thoughts about revisiting Atomic Blonde for a sequel, once Deadpool 2 has wrapped?
There’s talk, and I think hopefully people want to see more adventures. I think we’ll leave that up to the audience. It’s show business at the end of the day, and if the movie proves successful for the studio, then we’ll get to make future chapters. And be excited to do so.
‘Atomic Blonde’ Instant Commentary: Director David Leitch Narrates Movie’s Craziest Car Stunt: