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How 'Atomic Blonde's' director worked with Charlize Theron to craft an unapologetic badass protagonist

Actor Charlize Theron and director David Lietch on the set of
Actor Charlize Theron and director David Lietch on the set of "Atomic Blonde."
Jonathan Prime

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When producer Kelly McCormick came across the 1989 graphic novel, "Atomic Blonde: The Coldest City," by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, she had the perfect person in mind to direct the movie version: her husband, David Leitch.

McCormick urged Leitch to pitch for the directing job and it paid off. His years of experience as a stuntman, stunt coordinator and second unit director, with credits including "The Matrix" movies, "Captain America: Civil War" and "Jurassic World" helped inform the action-packed fight sequences. 

Together with Chad Stahelski, Leitch directed "John Wick" and founded 87 Eleven, a company that trains actors in stunt work.

Theron – who performs a lot of her own stunts – trained there for "Atomic Blonde." In the film, she plays an MI6 agent based in Germany as the Berlin Wall falls in 1989.


When Leitch stopped by The Frame, he talked about working with Theron, who is also a producer on the film.

Well, fortunately, I think [Theron and I] were on the same page pretty quickly in terms of wanting to do a female protagonist who we weren't apologizing for in any way, and was just a badass spy, but didn't need any excuses about how she could beat up men or how she could do her job because she was a woman, or need any sort of more emotional connection or drive to make that happen.

Despite its stylized action sequences, Theron wanted to make sure the film was grounded in reality. Leitch said it was important for her that the audience would "see the bruises, and we would feel the pain."

We set that up in the front end of the movie, when you see [Theron's character] come out of the tub with all the bumps and bruises. And it's sort of shocking to some audiences to see a female portrayed like that. And for us, it was like, Why can't we portray a female like that?

Actor Charlize Theron in
Actor Charlize Theron in "Atomic Blonde."
Jonathan Prime

Leitch said his work as a second unit director on big films informs his work as a director today. "Atomic Blonde" is the first feature he's directing on his own and he'll soon be directing "Deadpool 2."

As a second unit director, you're entrusted to shoot the action sequences. On every movie it's slightly different ... You would be handed a sequence and [telling] the lead actors, Okay, you're doing this car sequence from A to B, or, You're doing this fight sequence from A to B. See you guys later. You're ultimately telling a mini-story within the movie.

Leitch says that the audience can learn more about a character in a three-minute fight scene than in 30 minutes of exposition. He explains this using an example from the movie, in a scene that takes place in a stairwell:

You learn about Lorraine Broughton and her will to survive. You learn about her physical prowess and her skill set. You learn about her humanity and her need to save this guy, even though he may be a potential threat. So those three things are defined without one word of dialogue ... They're just defined by her actions. I think as a choreographer and an action designer, you're constantly giving your characters problems to overcome. That's what makes it fun for choreography. But it also makes it fun for the audience to see them solve those puzzles and how they are as a human being.

Actor Charlize Theron in
Actor Charlize Theron in "Atomic Blonde."
Jonathan Prime

There's a sex scene in the film including Theron's character and Sofia Boutella's character. Leitch says he planned it the way he would plan a fight sequence, by blocking ideas and shots. And he worked very closely with Theron.

She was 110% included in that conversation. I mean, it's her image up on the screen. It's her body. And kudos to her for being fearless with all the choices we were making in this movie — in terms of the violence, in terms of the sex. You're always opening yourself up to criticism when you explore those things in cinema because there are going to be advocates on one side and the other. But for her, she's like, Can't think about what the critics think, we have to think about what's right for the movie and the material and what are we trying to say. As a producer, she's incredibly supportive.

Actors Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella in
Actors Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella in "Atomic Blonde."
Jonathan Prime

To hear John Horn's full conversation with David Leitch, click on the player above.

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