Stunt Casting: Charlize Theron kicks ass in David Leitch’s 'Atomic Blonde'

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A breakout hit when it premiered at SXSW this past spring, Atomic Blonde built even more buzz after its trailers amassed millions of views on YouTube. Starring Charlize Theron, the Focus Features release opens on July 8. Director David Leitch took time off from Deadpool 2 to talk about putting together one of the toughest action films of the year.

A longtime stuntman and second-unit director, Leitch stepped up to features by co-directing the surprise hit John Wick with his partner Chad Stahelski. Their graphic, realistic approach to action led to a sequel (helmed by Stahelski) and a planned TV series.

"I was introduced to the Atomic Blonde project by producer Kelly McCormick," Leitch says by telephone. "The schedules for this and John Wick 2, for Charlize and Keanu [Reeves] were colliding. If Atomic Blonde was going to be done, it would be at the same time as John Wick 2. So I stepped off that one because I really responded to this material."

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde takes place primarily in Berlin in 1989, just as the Wall is falling.

"When I got the script, it was a very Cold War-noir story," Leitch notes. "I started to think about Berlin, what I know about Berlin, what was relevant there at the time. If you were a spy there in 1989, would you really be this stuffy guy wearing a trench coat and a fedora? Or would you be strung out in nightclubs?"

Leitch reworked the story with screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, injecting a punk-rock sensibility, adding music cues that cite everyone from David Bowie to "99 Luftballoons," and aiming for a visual style that at times evokes music-videos.

Cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who also shot John Wick, became a key collaborator in establishing the movie's minimalist, graphic style. Like John Wick, Atomic Blonde has a stripped-down look, with a bleached color palette and angular compositions. And for icing on the cake, Sela built several ravishing, impeccably lit close-ups of Theron in profile.

The director admits that casting became easier with Theron on the project. Toby Jones plays an intelligence interrogator, Sofia Boutella shows up as a French spy, Eddie Marsan as a Stasi turncoat and John Goodman as an imposing CIA agent.

"I was a stunt coordinator on one of John's projects, he was someone I always wanted to work with," Leitch says. "When we approached him, not only did he want to do something small in between these big blockbusters, I think he wanted to work with Charlize. She was obviously a big draw, that can't be denied."

James McAvoy has a central role as David Percival, head of British intelligence in Berlin. Leitch felt he understood Percival—mercurial and untrustworthy—so well that the actor incorporated several ideas into the shoot.

As for Theron, who was so impressive as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Leitch admits that she may not have realized what she was getting into as trained assassin Lorraine Broughton. In press junkets she has spoken about the demands of working out with eight trainers (and sparring with Reeves). The pressure of her action scenes affected her so much that she cracked two teeth.

"She approached the training professionally, and that was great," Leitch says. "She went after it. But I don't think she thought it would be as tough as it was. When we decided to do the scene in the stairwell, I don't know if she had any idea of how much of a challenge it was in terms of working with the stunt performers and coordinating with the camera crew."

Theron is introduced nursing her bruises in an ice bath, "and that's par for the course in a way. When you want to put actors in more realistic settings, there are going to be some bruises. You're doing choreography on beats and once in a while you're going to bump elbows, hit a forearm or something. She toughed it out."

The "stairwell" refers to the movie's centerpiece, an action scene that starts in a building lobby, traverses up and down several flights, into and out of apartment rooms, before spilling onto the street and into a car chase.

Designed to look like one take, it is intense, brutal, percussive, shockingly intimate, with Theron turning everything she has—her gun, someone else's gun, knives, car keys, stereo equipment, broken doors, feet, arms, hands, head—into a weapon. Nothing is spared, and there is no pretense of chivalry, especially when Theron fights at length with opponent Daniel Bernhardt.

Unlike most Hollywood movies, this action takes place in a real world. It follows the laws of physics and logic. It makes sense, no matter how painful. The sequence is also an encyclopedia of stunt moves, delivered with expertise and precision that evoke Hong Kong choreographers like Corey Yuen and Yuen Woo Ping.

"Atomic Blonde and John Wick were reactions against our second-unit life, where you often have to hide actors' abilities," Leitch says. "You shoot things, you shoot a lot of pieces, and then edits hide a lot of mistakes. The edits become a distraction in a way. Really all you've created is sort of an impression of a fight.

"But being a fan of Hong Kong cinema, there's a precision in the way that you shoot. You never separate the camera from the choreography when you design it. So every piece has a meaning, every piece has a purpose, and you're telling a story through the action. It's not like modern, Western action films where you put a lot of cameras on it and try to solve problems in editorial. Hong Kong style is a story with a plan, and there's an individual piece for every beat."

Kelly McCormick actually persuaded Leitch and his team to develop the scene from a quick encounter into a showpiece. "We had the resources to do a limited amount of action, but not much more," Leitch explains. "She said we needed to dig in and create something special, that has its own look. So we bought a little extra rigging for the camera department, we bought a little more rehearsal time for the stunt department, we figured out how to do this long piece that normally everyone would have caved in on. But because of her we got it done."

A couple of effects were added to the car footage; otherwise, the sequence was all practical, shot on existing locations. Stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave and his team took two weeks to design their moves. They had four days to choreograph the sequence on-site with Sela's camera team, and then two days to actually shoot it. Getting out to the street and into the car took another two days of shooting.

"A lot of long rehearsals for Charlize," Leitch remembers. "A lot of the stunts were inspired by having limited resources, but at the end of the day there's something to be said for just staying with the character and going through the experience and allowing the audience to see it all on her face."

Atomic Blonde and John Wick are notable for how lean their narratives are, how all the boring parts have been removed. One Atomic Blonde shot in a Berlin subway has three levels of action unfolding in a shifting depth of field.

"In terms of trimming out fat, that goes back to my editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, who has always held me to the fire. When you're in that close process, you have to kill a lot of darlings.

"I'll say this too, I just believe that some superhero films are way too bloated. I think a good film, you want to tell the story with pictures and visuals. Minimalism all around is something that I adhere to. We try to tell our stories in a really efficient way."

The crew shot most of Atomic Blonde in Budapest, with two weeks on location in Berlin. "Budapest today looks remarkably a lot more like Berlin '89 than Berlin does," Leitch points out. Budget issues shouldn't be as much of a concern for Deadpool 2.

"Oh, I wish," Leitch says, laughing. "All movies have their challenges and their privileges. There are more resources in these big comic-book movies, but there are also a lot more expenses. And bigger expectations for spectacle. Those are the conditions we work in, and I don't think they're a bad thing. When you're working on an Atomic Blonde budget, it forces you to be creative. At least it does for me."

Leitch and Chad Stahelski started 8711, an action design company, in 2006. Relationships they have formed over the years pay off in unexpected ways today. Daniel Bernhardt, Theron's Atomic Blonde nemesis, also appeared in John Wick. Leitch worked on one of his first films, Perfect Target, back in 1997.

"Being in the stunt business for twenty years, you definitely approach action differently than other directors," Leitch observes. "I think what's made 8711's brand stand out is, we always approach action from story and character first. We try to add drama, try to add personal space, that sort of dovetails into directing as a whole. It's not spectacle for spectacle's sake, it's for the story.

"There's also the pragmatic approach. Being a stunt coordinator for like forever, I can approach action and understand the technical side of action, how much we can achieve, how much the actors can do, see what's relevant and incorporate what's out there that's innovative. Shooting that way can be harder because it's very specific, but at the end of the day it's much more rewarding."