Rather than the gray skies, beige overcoats and grim tension of many thrillers set during the Cold War, the new film Atomic Blonde exists in a boldly sensual world of neonstreaked lighting, high-glamour outfits, moody synth-pop and intense action. All of which is used to spotlight the hard-charging performance by star (and producer) Charlize Theron, who does much of her own on-screen fighting.
Adapted by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston, which was illustrated by Sam Hart, the film is set in November 1989 as the Berlin Wall is about to come down.
The focus is British MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron), who is sent to retrieve a list of operatives before it falls into the wrong hands.
Once in Berlin, she makes contact with a fellow British agent (James McAvoy) who may have flipped to the other side, and an inexperienced French spy (Sofia Boutella), who brings out an emotional side of Broughton.
Director David Leitch, a veteran stunt coordinator, fight choreographer and second unit director who made the first John Wick picture with Chad Stahelski, was brought into the project by producer Kelly McCormick (Leitch and McCormick are married.) While the original graphic novel is drawn in stark black-and-white, Leitch was encouraged to inject a more expressive quality and, as he put it, “‘Wick’-ify” the world of the movie.
“It was really a departure from the sensibility of the original material, to make it this protracted 1980s music video version of a spy movie,” says Leitch. “I really took the approach of ‘How can I make this more genrecentric and more commercial than a typical Tinker Tailor noir movie?’ So I added those elements that I’m good at — the hand-to-hand combat, taking an actress like Charlize and throwing her into the deep end of stunt training, giving it a glossy look.”
To that end, he brought together a creative team that included production designer David Scheunemann, costume designer Cindy Evans, music supervisor John Houlihan, composer Tyler Bates, editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir and cinematographer Jonathan Sela. They worked to craft something with a distinctively stylized and unified feel.
“You have to make the world compelling,” says Leitch. “This superagent is in this seedy rock ‘n’ roll underworld in Berlin. There was a standing order that we want an aggregate ‘80s cool, and we want to make it sort of a fantasy ‘80s, what you remember the ‘80s to be.”
Evans drew from the work of photographers Helmut Newton and Ellen Von Unwerth and images of singer Debbie Harry for costume inspirations. She mixed high-end vintage pieces with thrift-store finds to create a gritty but glamorous look for the entire cast.
Dressing Theron to look super-stylish and still be able to perform her action scenes was another concern. For a scene set against a movie screen playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi epic Stalker, Theron insisted on wearing high-heeled boots in a full-frame shot.
“Those boots are high, and David was really concerned about that, and I was as well,” says Evans, “but Charlize wanted that silhouette — and they were stable. There were moments where we thought, ‘Are we crazy or does this look amazing?’ Cool and amazing won.”
“As a stunt coordinator at heart, I was like, ‘We can fake that and frame out the shoes, we’ll figure it out,’” says Leitch. “And (Theron) was like, ‘No, I’m doing this.’ And she did that whole fight scene in four-inch heels like a champ.”
The production shot exteriors for a few days in Berlin, with most of the production taking place in Budapest, which stood in for Berlin, London and Paris. Scheunemann, who lives in Berlin, often passes the memorial there that contains the last remaining section of the actual wall. The production indeed recreated some 250 feet of the Berlin Wall in Budapest, but overall strict realism was never the goal.
“We were trying to be not accurate but very referential,” says Scheunemann. “As soon as we went interior, we went more into character work; we wanted something unique. That’s why you see such stylized interiors.”
When Broughton arrives in Berlin in the movie, she checks into a neon-lighted motel room that Leitch described as “a little Patrick Nagel meets Miami Vice meets Western Europe.”
“Jonathan Sela and I had an excellent partnership,” says Scheunemann, noting that lighting was often built into the sets themselves. “The hotel room is quite an extreme interior; there is so much color going on. And Jonathan, unlike other cinematographers, is not afraid of mirrors and glass. So we almost overdid it. We challenged ourselves in these rooms and used the reflections of the mirrors to trick the audience.”
A final cohesive element is the moody synthesizer-driven music that plays throughout the movie — tracks such as David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” New Order’s “Blue Monday 88,” After the Fire’s “Der Kommissar” and ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.”
Houlihan notes that an original idea was to have the soundtrack be all cover versions of 1980s songs.
“As we got the picture in hand and the set design looked great and Charlize looked so great and captured that era so well, it was immediately clear that the original, iconic recordings were gelling with all those other elements,” he says. “Music is an element that has to work with set design, the era and the script.”
When the film screened earlier this year as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival, audiences went wild for the extended fight sequence edited to look like one continuous shot that takes place on a stairwell inside a building, with Theron charging her way down multiple floors and past numerous henchmen. It’s another example of how the efforts of different departments combined to elevate the film’s storytelling.
“That’s a practical location in Budapest, and it’s one of these sets you’d probably underestimate. It’s kind of just there,” says Scheunemann. “This was a derelict government building in Budapest that we found. We found the space and knew we wanted to integrate it into that sequence, and then the entire action design grew from there.”
Leitch adds that if he had to choose just one sequence from the film, the stairwell fight is the one of which he is most proud. Asked for favorite pieces of work from the film, his collaborators chose things they acknowledged to be among the project’s less flashy elements — a down-tempo cover song, a vintage vest, a sleek interrogation room — that likely won’t stand out to audiences.
“I really like the entire bold stroke of the movie,” says Scheunemann. “This mix of true Berlin grit, that was there in the East and in the West, paired with an ‘80s glam, is probably the secret of the entire package.”
ATOMIC BLONDE Directed by David Leitch With Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella Running time: 115 minutes Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)