Charlize Theron and director David Leitch have something in common: neither of them are strangers to action films. Charlize's wide-ranging credits include Mad Max: Fury Road and Fate Of The Furious, while Leitch co-directed John Wick and is currently shooting Deadpool 2. Now the two of them have come together for Atomic Blonde.
Set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the expected shift in alliances between the world's superpowers in danger from a spy ring intent on triggering World War III. Enter Charlize Theron's British agent Lorraine Broughton, who teams up with James McAvoy's David Percival, Berlin station chief. Their mission: to keep things on track and prevent that possible war.
In the following exclusive interview, Leitch discusses the appeal of the action genre and his intent on bringing Atomic Blonde, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, to the screen.
FHM: What is it about action films that seems to spark creativity in you?
David Leitch: “I've been in the stunt business for 20 years, and so I think my affinity for action films started at a really young age. Like any teenage boy, it was just sort of wish fulfillment of these heroes and the ‘80s action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. And I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan before maybe people from the mid-west like myself even knew who they were. Martial arts was a big part of my life as well. I was just an athletic teenage boy who grew up in sort of the golden age of action films with Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and name a Stallone and name a Schwarzenegger movie.”
FHM: As amazing as CG is, there's nothing like a well done, well edited action sequence.
David Leitch: “I agree. The reason fight scenes are so important to film is that they're personal and they bring the characters together. They bring you face to face and they can be emotional. CG is great for spectacle, but it really isn't emotional and so it's not as rewarding as when you watch just a great fight scene.”
FHM: So what drew you to Atomic Blonde?
David Leitch: “Talk about visceral sort of analog action, we just dove right in head first. It's all sort of really practically driven action. There's not a lot of CG that drives it, and that sort of fit into the world that we're creating. It's 1989 Berlin and so we wanted to have some authentic take on that and we certainly don't want to embrace CG at that moment, except for set extensions and things like that. The thing that drew me to the piece, though, was it was a script by a friend of mine, Kurt Johnstad, who I've known for a long time and is also an action movie guy. Charlize Theron was already attached. I read it and I'm, like, ‘Oh this is interesting. It's kind of a Cold War Noir. It's based on a graphic novel. It's kind of stuffy.’ When I read it and I thought about the city of Berlin, and I've done six movies there, I'm, like, ‘But Berlin is nothing like this. Berlin is punk rock. Berlin is graffiti. Berlin is gray on one side and colorful on the other. How do I make this rock and roll?’”
“I started to deconstruct what was on the page and tried to make it, as I call it, like a punk rock spy thriller. As we started to add music and set piece ideas, it became it's own beast. I made an outline and I pitched it to Charlize and said, ‘This is the movie I would like to make this into.’ She said, ‘That sounds cool. Let's do that.’ I was making it a sort of wish fulfillment retrospective on the ‘80s. It's aggregating all the cool vibe you could get from the ‘80s and putting in on film and making it very music video-y."
FHM: You’ve stated you were influenced by things like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, which features action heroes rather than heroines. What it is about a female’s point of view that separates it from a male’s?
David Leitch: “What I tried to do on this film is not differentiate the two. They're not gonna say, ‘She's the best female spy we have.’ They're just gonna say, ‘She's one of our best agents.’ We're going to put a female character in there and treat her like a quintessential male character in one of these movies. By doing that alone, it feels provocative to some people. But at the end of the day, it's really satisfying and it's real and it's like there are spies out in the world that are taking the same risks and going through the same hardships as male spies. She's dealing with the same issues of not knowing who to trust. She's dealing with the same issues of where do you find intimacy when everybody lies. It's classic.”
FHM: John McClane had plenty of vulnerable moments in Die Hard, but I'm just wondering does it open up more doors in a sense on that level, on an emotional level, with a female lead?
David Leitch: Maybe still in the modern psyche you might feel more for a female character that's getting beat up by six Russians, especially when your spy's naked. It feels real. I think that it's a trap if you're gonna rely on that vulnerability. I think the character of Lorraine, and you see it in the movie, is complex and she's cold and she's empathetic. She's strong and resilient, but she's got this humanity to her. It's not unlike James Bond. I don't see it working better because she's a female and that might have been our approach. We just didn't want to make it feel different. It didn't matter.”
FHM: What is it you think Charlize brought to the character?
David Leitch: Tremendous acting skills and credibility and being able to thread the needle of what I said earlier; on making a character that's so icy cold and resilient and indomitable, but also vulnerable and mysterious and empathetic. There's so much mystery going on with very little to latch onto until things start to be uncovered. It’s about the amount of emotion that she can give in a look, the amount of risks that she'll take as an actor, that puts her in the right position to make this character come alive. And the amount of trust that she had in me in delivering these ultra violent action scenes that put us in the right place at the right time in the movie. She’s just a great collaborator. She's a tremendous talent. Yeah, she threads the needle and makes it all work, because without an actress like that, you can't do a movie like this.”
Atomic Blonde is now playing in theaters