We spoke with Atomic Blonde director David Leitch about his vision for the film, the importance of elevated action movies, and Deadpool 2.
Atomic Blonde hits theaters this Friday, and following a special screening for fans of the movie at San Diego Comic-Con, we had a chance to talk with Director David Leitch about what he brought to the film. This is a transcription of that conversation.
You wear a lot of hats, including actor, stuntman, producer, and now director. What draws you to directing, specifically?
I don’t know. I think being in the business for as long as I have and seeing the process done over and over, and spending my entire adult life in film, at some point you just want to be able to tell the story from A to B. As an action director, you can tell a story in a section of the film, during the action sequence, but you don’t really get to expand on the characters outside of that. Granted, that can be some of the most important information you ever get from a character — how they sort of react under the stress of an action situation, and you’re always telling the little mini narrative — but I just wanted to get out there and express myself on the bigger canvas of the film.
The cinematography on Atomic Blonde is so stunning, and it includes a lot of shots where you use very specific lighting and colors. What elements did you really want to highlight to bring this film to life and why?
When I had my initial production [meeting] with Jonathan Sela, the cinematographer — who also did John Wick, by the way — we had a lot of discussions about how to make it feel referential of ’80s music videos, but also contemporary enough that you’ll want to dig in and not be alienated by it being too ’80s. It was like trying to find this calm that was aggregating ’80s cool. My standing order was always, “Hey, cool overrides everything.” Part of this movie is a style piece, and I wanted to make it sexy and fun and really referential of an ’80s fantasy. He was able to deliver on that tenfold, and it’s beautiful.
You have a lot of experience as a stuntman. What was it like being on the other side of that and how did that knowledge help you when you were in the director’s chair?
I think the years of being a stunt performer and then being a stunt coordinator, you understand the logistics of the everyday grind of making a movie, how to do it efficiently, what your department has or needs, [what they] are expecting. Just understanding the nuts and bolts of the group and how it’s put together from top to bottom from being on a set forever is incredibly helpful. In terms of making action, it gives you a lot of credibility when you’re asking your actors to hang in there and do their stunts and do elaborate sequences when they know you’ve done it yourself.
I watched the behind-the-scenes video recently about Charlize Theron doing most of her own stunts. Female action stars are few and far between these days, but it definitely feels like that’s changing. Going into Atomic Blonde, did you realize it would sort of be a gamechanger? Because it kind of is. This movie is incredible.
Oh, thank you. I think we all hoped it would be. We’re definitely making a statement about females in the action space. Everyone involved is making that choice that we want to treat her like we treat any other male actor in this role. There are no apologies for her being a female and she’s going to be as powerful and qualified as any spy we’ve ever met in this genre. And I do think women are grossly underrepresented in the action space and in film in general. They deserve to be represented and hopefully with stuff like Wonder Woman and now maybe Atomic Blonde that we can get more opportunities for actresses to come play in the action space.
As somebody who loves action movies, with the shooting style in this movie, you can definitely tell that you come from that sort of background because you actually see the stunts in full. It’s not just a whole bunch of cut scenes. You see the choreography going behind the fights. How important is it for you to highlight how much work goes into those kinds of sequences?
It’s hugely important. I think it’s from what Chad Stahelski did on John Wick, that was sort of a cathartic film for us action-wise, where we spent years directing second unit where you shoot a lot of material to give the director a choice in that it’s real. And for us, we’re fans of letting the action breathe in sort of the Hong Kong cinema style. We did that with John Wick, and we’re now doing it again, in a different way, with Atomic Blonde. I’d rather see a compelling bit of choreography and really understand the creative beat, than chop it up and give an impression of what happened.
That hallway scene was absolutely incredible. I can’t even imagine what it took to do something like that, but what did go into setting that up because it was obviously a very long shot and a lot of choreography.
There are a lot of logistics involved. Every department had to be on board and on top of their game. The camera department, incredibly important. The grip department in setting up rigs for us to move the camera. The stunt department, to be spot on with the choreography, and actually, in that sequence, the stunt coordinator, Sam Hargrave, operated the camera for a section of the scene because we really needed someone who had an intimate knowledge of the choreography to make sure the camera was in the right place at the right time. There were just so many moving parts that without the help of every department, we couldn’t have pulled it off. And I think that goes back to my experience in the trenches for 20 years. I knew how much I could get out of my departments if I really inspired them and let them sort of take ownership of this special moment we were trying to create.
You’ve obviously got Deadpool coming up. What did Atomic Blonde teach you to prepare you for this new one?
Atomic Blonde prepared me — and sort of John Wick — to stick to your guns, make bold choices, and really follow your vision because at the end of the day the movie needs to have a point of view and it needs to come from you and you have to be passionate about it. It’s such a labor of love and it’s all so consuming. Atomic Blonde is essentially two years of my life and my wife’s life — she brought me the material, Kelly McCormick, who’s a producer on it. We spent two years. And before that, Charlize spent years developing it with her company. You just have to believe in it, your vision, and stick to your vision. And as a filmmaker, that’s your obligation to the movie.
What’s next for you? What challenges do you want to face now?
I want to continue to make movies. And hopefully we can develop things and produce other artists moving forward, but kind of just looking forward to the future of continuing to make great, elevated and interesting action movies. And hopefully there will be more on the horizon if I don’t f— it up [laughs].
Fair enough. Well, as a woman who absolutely loves action movies and really loved Atomic Blonde, thank you for everything you did on that, and I’ll definitely be looking for more from you.
Well, thank you very much, and thank you for supporting it and helping us get the word out there because I do think it’s a special film and it’s at a special time, and I think people need to know about it.