David Leitch has been behind the camera for two of the last few years’ biggest “original action movie” surprises: John Wick (along with co-director Chad Stahelski) and, now, Atomic Blonde. Leitch has been in the industry since the ‘90s working on stunts (one of his first credited films is BASEketball), but he took that stunt knowledge and has used it to make two of the most stunt-heavy and well-received films of this genre in recent memory. So much, that he got the attention of Simon Kinberg and FOX and they tapped him to direct Deadpool 2.
Atomic Blonde, based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, brings us to Berlin, circa 1989, just before the Berlin Wall comes down. It’s a fascinating spy story set in a city with a western half that is literally surrounded by enemies. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine, a MI6 spy who is sent on a mission to retrieve a master list of spies that, in the wrong hands, could lead to the death of many top agents. Lorraine shoots, punches and kicks her way through Atomic Blonde, which features what has to be one of the best fighting scenes of the year, maybe more – all set to the soundtrack of ‘80s new wave hits.
Ahead, Leitch discusses how he picked his soundtrack, why he fears for the youth of today after a question he received after a test screening, and gives us an update on Deadpool 2 – which just started filming..
People have been talking about Atomic Blonde since South by Southwest. It’s finally here for public consumption.
I know, I know. It’s like nail-biting nervous.
You lean heavily on ’80s music as your soundtrack.
When I’d done my director’s pass on the script with Kurt Johnstad, I started to drop the needle drops into the actual draft, with the idea we would play them on set and we would shoot the sort of action towards the music and it would be sort of inseparable. “Der Kommissar” is one that had to be in the movie. “Voices Carry,” in the way that it was used sort of as a callback to the Lasalle and Lorraine sort of romance was important to me.
I hadn’t heard “Politics of Dancing” by Re-Flex in a while.
That’s funny, right? That was one that was in there from the beginning too – and I was probably the only supporter of it.
Really? That song is great.
A lot of people were like, “Politics of Dancing”? Who is this? Like, what is this? And I’m like, no, this is going to be playing in the club when she meets Lasalle. And we were bumping it that night in the club set.
That’s what I believe clubs in that era would be playing.
So you looked at all ’80s music as fair game?
When the Berlin Wall came down, I remember a lot of Jesus Jones on the radio…
Yeah, I think it was a little after that. And then maybe the Scorpions, “Winds of Change.” We thought we could integrate those, but they were post-Wall – so we really wanted to make sure that it was something before then. And, look, we leaned in a little bit to early ’80s sort of techno synth stuff – and the further you get away from a decade, obviously the more compressed it gets. Yeah, going back to your original idea, that’s exactly what we were trying to do. We were like trying to aggregate ’80s cool and put it into this movie in a stylish way and make it really fun and referential. Like a sort of form of ’80s escapism in a way.
Yeah, I did find myself wondering wondering if kids in Germany were really still listening to Nena in 1989.
Correct. Like they probably at that point would have moved on to something else, but it was just more in tone with everything visually that we were creating.
This era of Berlin is a fascinating setting. I think some people forget that the free West Berlin was completely surrounded in an enemy country…
It was. I mean, from the graphic novel, the movie was set there…
Right. But that had to be the appeal of why you wanted to do it?
Totally. It’s surreal that you’re just surrounded by enemies. And I think we really wanted to get that out to the audience: the historical context of, look, it is an island. West Berlin was an island inside enemy zone. It was crazy. And I think some of the history lesson may have been lost on our younger audience. One of the surveys in a test screening from an 18-year-old was, “Spies? Berlin?” Question mark, question mark…
What? Really? Wait a second, really?
[Laughs] Yeah, it might have been anecdotal and individual, but it was also fun for us to be like, you know, this is an era not everyone’s familiar with. I’m a child of the ’80s, I’ve grown up in this and it speaks to me. So it’s like, how do I reach a wider audience?
You’re not giving me hope for the future of the world with that question that was given to you.
[Laughs] It’s sad. That is sort of a sad remark, but hopefully that person could enjoy the film regardless.
This is your first solo directing job – with the reactions, it’s gotta feel like “so far, so good.”
Yeah, here we are, and it does feel good and it does feel great that people are responding to something that I humbly think is original sort of take on the spy genre. And I think we all set out as filmmakers to be provocative and to stand out in sort of a genre where there’s a lot of noise and there’s a lot of revenge movies. You know, how do you stand out?
Well, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say there are twists in this movie – but you load up some twists. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out…
I think that was part of the fascination for me to take it on. I love movies with twists and I love movies with maybe unreliable narrators and having to really think my way through a movie. And I was like, I want to play in that sandbox for a little bit and see what happens.
And Deadpool 2 just started shooting?
Yeah, we are full on into production. It’s like day 12 or something. And after the premiere tonight, I fly back. We start Tuesday morning, 8 a.m. call time…
Yeah, we’re not stopping the train.
You can’t have too much fun at the premiere party now…
All business. No, it’s good. We’re going to have fun tonight, but it’s exciting actually to have a movie in production at the same time because it takes a little bit of the pressure off you, you know? You’re just sort of wondering what everyone’s going to think or how their reactions are going to be. And you can just like sort of let it go and just say, you know what? It’s out there for the public now and they can respond how they’re going to respond, and we’re off making more fun fare for people.
A movie like Atomic Blonde seems like the perfect segue to Deadpool 2…
Look, I’m excited to dig into that world and I was such a fan of the original that it was like, I couldn’t not take the opportunity when it was given to me. And it’s a fun space to play in, the Deadpool universe. I’m a fan.
And you stepped in for Tim Miller, who directed the first one and left the sequel. This now seems way down the list now of situations like this…
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. You’re right. I mean, you look at what’s happened, it’s pretty crazy.
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