'Atomic Blonde' Director Brings Stuntman Skills To His 'Punk Rock Spy Thriller'

Jul 30, 2017

In the new film Atomic Blonde, British agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) shows up in 1989 Berlin and gets a very violent reception. The film shows Lorraine punching, stabbing and shooting her way through the murky world of Cold War espionage — not exactly surprising considering Atomic Blonde was directed by former stuntman David Leitch.

Leitch did stunts for Fight Club, 300 and The Bourne Ultimatum, among many other films, before jumping into the director's chair. He describes his new feature as "a punk rock spy thriller."


Interview Highlights

On how he assesses an actor's ability to do their own stunts

We start showing them sort of like choreography, fight moves, with the idea to see their aptitude and checking up their ability to match motion or to remember choreography. And then you start to build sequences based on their ability, and obviously there's a training progression that goes along with that.

On Charlize Theron's aptitude for stunts

She's incredible. She's off the charts — in the top 1 percent of all the actors that we've worked with. You know, there are actors, like Keanu [Reeves] and Hugh Jackman, who can just remember this choreography like insane, and she's one of them. You know, 25 moves and you can change the one in the middle on the day and she still remembers it. ...

She really wanted to bring the physicality to it, and she really challenged us to challenge her. And so it was a great collaboration. I mean she showed up every day committed to train hard and to put the body mechanics behind it and not just make it sort of window dressing for a fight scene. It's like she's selling every single punch. And I have to say that that's rare. I mean, people come in and there's a little lack of confidence. You're intimidated standing in a room full of stunt people who do it for a living. And she would, you know, get over that and just go to work and has an aptitude for it.

On how a woman might fight differently than a man

There was a section of the movie we really wanted to ground in some sort of reality where the consequences felt real. And I guess in terms of having someone her [Theron's] size fight a 6-foot-4, 230-pound Russian, you know, there are techniques that you would use that obviously you don't always see in movies, but elbows and knees, you know, body weight throws, leverage techniques. You know, punching with your fists is not optimal when the guy's head is made of granite. So it's better to use weapons of your body that are more resilient and that have a stronger force.

On pitching his vision for the film to Theron, who owned the rights to the graphic novel Atomic Blonde is based on

It was based on a graphic novel which was like sort of Cold War noir, very like The Third Man dark noir. ... As I opened up the script and as I read about Berlin and the city — and having done six movies there — I thought about: This is nothing like '60s noir; this is '89 Berlin. There's rock 'n' roll; there's graffiti. If you were a spy there, you'd be living in this crazy underworld of clubs. And then music started to jump off the page at me that I wanted to infuse into the movie.

So I put together a song list and I put together a series of images that were really sort of based in, like, the street art and the graffiti movement and punk rock. And I said, "I want to take this sort of stuffy noir and make it a punk rock spy thriller." And I think that's what sold her.

On the film's soundtrack, which includes songs by George Michael, the Eurythmics and Duran Duran

I think music transports you immediately. ... As I was reading the script, certain songs spoke for certain scenes and certain set pieces — some to play sort of a juxtaposition to the violence there, you know, to lighten the tone; and others to dive in deeper into really where the spies were in their own personal stories in the movie. ... The other goal of Atomic Blonde was to create this protracted music video vibe throughout the movie. ... How do we make this feel like a contemporary version of [an] '80s music video the whole way through?

On how James McAvoy's broken arm made it into the movie (McAvoy plays a fellow spy in Berlin)

He was going to come onto the movie after Christmas break and I get a call over the holidays. He's like, "I broke my arm." I'm like, "What?" And so there was some shuffling around and then everyone panicking for a second, and then I came up with this idea that we make it part of his character. So the cast in the movie does play a story point. ... And it becomes part of his spy craft at the end of the day, which is fun. You know, the things that happen in production that you just have to react to. The show must go on, as they say.

On what he wanted to accomplish with this film

For me it was really to try to take the [spy movie] genre and give it a different spin. I feel it needed to be dusted off, or at least try to push the boundaries a little bit. I think the infusion of music, the infusion of the type of martial arts action took it in a different direction.

And then obviously the female protagonist of it all isn't seen that often and quite frankly needs to be seen more. I think we have this opportunity on the heels of Wonder Woman's success that maybe more films with female protagonists in the action space can enter theaters and can get made and greenlit into production.

Sarah Handel and Jordana Hochman produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the new film "Atomic Blonde," a British agent played by Charlize Theron shows up in 1989 Berlin just before the wall comes down. And she gets a very violent reception.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ATOMIC BLONDE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You remember Mr. Bremovych, don't you? Of course you do. Well, he's very curious what you are doing here in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Those are the sounds of fighting. And there is a lot of it in the film, as characters punch and stab their way through the murky world of Cold War espionage. That's not exactly surprising because the man who directed "Atomic Blonde" is former stunt man David Leitch. He's worked in films with Brad Pitt, among many, many others before jumping into the director's chair. And he joins us now from Los Angeles. Good morning.

DAVID LEITCH: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've got a challenge for you. Give us a quick synopsis of the plot, and see if you don't give anything away.

(LAUGHTER)

LEITCH: It is - well, let me just give you more of a - it's a punk-rock spy thriller with a lot of action and a really interesting central character with an existential crisis. How about that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds good. That tells me everything and nothing at the same time, which is, I guess, what we're looking for.

LEITCH: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about Charlize Theron first. She is just amazing in this film. You and your team from when you were a stunt director apparently assess actors before deciding how much of their own stunts they can do. And it sounds pretty brutal. So can you talk me through that assessment, first of all?

LEITCH: We bring them in to our facility in Los Angeles. And you bring them in. We start showing them sort of, like, choreography, fight moves. And then you start to build sequences based on their ability. And as they grow, you can start to adapt the choreography to their ability.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. And how did Charlize do?

LEITCH: I mean, she's incredible. And she's off the charts and I'd say in the top one percent of all the actors that we worked with. So it was a great collaboration. I mean, she showed up every day, committed to train hard. And she's selling every single punch. And I have to say that that's rare. I mean, people come in, and there's a little lack of confidence. You're intimidated, standing in a room full of stunt people who do it for a living.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can imagine.

LEITCH: And she would, you know, get over that and just go to work and has an aptitude for it. So it was great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read that you taught her to fight like a girl. And I mean that in the most lethal way. Explain how a woman fights differently than a man in the context of fighting for their lives.

LEITCH: There is a section of the movie we really wanted to ground in some sort of reality, where the consequences felt real. And I guess in terms of, like, having someone her size fight a 6-foot-4, 230-pound Russian, punching with your fists is not optimal when, you know, the guy's head is made of granite.

(LAUGHTER)

LEITCH: So it's better to use weapons on your body that are more resilient and have a stronger force.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So yeah, like taking - like, she does a refrigerator door - and using it to smash someone's head in and stuff like that. Using the stuff that you've got around you naturally to kill Russian spies.

LEITCH: Well, yeah, that's it. I mean, that's sort of what we call the found object sort of principle in the fight choreography world. But it also is a real thing. Like, if you had a glass ash tray, or if you had a telephone, better to hit them with that, you know (laughter)?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. This film is based on a graphic novel. And the rights of that were picked up by Charlize. You had to pitch yourself to her. What was your vision for the film that sold it to her?

LEITCH: The other producer on the film, Kelly McCormick, who happens to be my wife, had brought me the script. And it was based on a graphic novel which was, like, sort of Cold War noir, very, like, "The Third Man" dark noir. And she sort of plopped it in front of me and said, I think there's a way that you can add some of your heightened reality to this project. Take a look at it.

And so, as I read about Berlin and the city, and having done six movies there, I thought about, this is nothing like '60s noir. This is '89 Berlin. There's rock 'n' roll. There's graffiti. If you were a spy there, you'd be living in this crazy underworld of clubs. And then music started to jump off the page at me that, you know, I wanted to infuse into the movie. And I said, I want to take this sort of stuffy noir and make it a punk-rock spy thriller. And I think that's what sold her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I want to talk about the music. It brought me right back to the '80s.

LEITCH: Great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was such an integral part of the film. I want to take a little audio tour so people can get a sense of what's there.

LEITCH: Great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MONDAY")

ORGY: (Singing) How does it feel to treat me like you do?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "99 LUFTBALLONS")

NENA: (Singing in German).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOICES CARRY")

'TIL TUESDAY: (Singing) Hush, hush. Keep it down now. Voices carry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I RAN (SO FAR AWAY)")

FLOCK OF SEAGULLS: (Singing) I just ran. I ran all night and day. I couldn't get away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why bring in these songs in particular?

LEITCH: I mean, I love infusing music into my work and sort of the visuals. And that was definitely the standing orders. Like, how do we make this feel like a contemporary version of '80s music video the whole way through?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charlize, obviously, is the central character. But we should also mention that there is a very buff James McAvoy in this film.

LEITCH: Yeah. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Very buff...

LEITCH: Very buff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Surprisingly to me. When he took off his shirt I was like, wow.

LEITCH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I always think of him in somewhat softer roles. And here, he's all edge.

LEITCH: He transforms. I mean, he's, I think, one of our greatest living character actors. And he melts into this role. I mean, it was made for him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did he do in your stunt challenge, just out of curiosity?

(LAUGHTER)

LEITCH: He also has an aptitude. I wish he had a little bit more action. I mean, maybe down the road, we'll do a sequel. There's a funny story. He was going to come on to the movie after Christmas break. And I GET a call over the holidays. He's like, I broke my arm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh.

LEITCH: I'm like, what? And so, you know, there was sort of, like, some shuffling around and, like, everyone panicking for a second. And then I came up with this idea that we make it part of his character. So the cast in the movie...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

LEITCH: ...Does play a story point. But it's also...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He has a cast in the movie, right. Exactly.

LEITCH: Yeah. And it becomes part of his, you know, spy craft.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of spy movie is this for you? When we think of spy movies, we always think of, I guess, James Bond and that entire franchise. What were you trying to do here that was different?

LEITCH: I mean, for me, it was really just to try to take the genre and give it a different spin. I feel it needed to be dusted off. Or at least try to push the boundaries a little bit. I think the infusion of music, the infusion of the type of martial arts action, you know, took it in a different direction. And then, obviously, the female protagonist of it all isn't seen that often and, quite frankly, needs to be seen more. I think we have this opportunity on the heels of "Wonder Woman's" success - that maybe more films with female protagonists in the action space can enter theaters and can get made and greenlit into production.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Leitch - he's the director of "Atomic Blonde." Thanks so much.

LEITCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLONDIE SONG, "ATOMIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.