How ‘Atomic Blonde’ Director David Leitch Used Music To Turn A Stuffy Cold War Film Into A Spy Thriller

What’s better than a ’80s thriller starring Charlize Theron as an undercover spy in Berlin? One with a killer soundtrack that highlights her epic fight scenes and sudden epiphanies with classics from New Order, Kanye West, and David Bowie. In case you haven’t been keeping up with the relentless enthusiasm for Atomic Blonde, it is one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the summer — but not just for the film itself.

The movie’s soundtrack, helmed by director David Leitch and composer/music supervisor Tyler Bates, is pushing the boundaries of how music can and should be used in the cinematic experience. For the film, which is set in Germany during the fall of the Berlin wall, Bates and Leitch pulled together an incredible tracklist that features songs from iconic artists like The Clash, Queen, and Public Enemy, but also includes newer artists like noise rock trio HEALTH, who covered New Order’s “Blue Monday” for one of the movie’s most revelatory scenes.

HEALTH’s John Famiglietti, who plays bass and contributes production for the trio, said that it was daunting to cover such an iconic song, but their version lasered-in on some era-specific qualities that help the music and the storytelling mesh together.

“At first we were a little anxious about it,” Famiglietti admitted. “Because Orgy has that very famous cover of ‘Blue Monday,’ and it’s one of the greatest songs ever written, so it’s very daunting. But we wanted to put our own spin on it, we thought it was cinematic to do the track in half time, and there’s a bunch of things we did in the song, like tempo and beat by beat, that were based on the 1988 single version from when ‘Blue Monday’ was pre-released.”

HEALTH’s version of “Blue Monday” has already been released to help direct viewers toward the impact of the soundtrack itself on the film, and you can hear it above. HEALTH began working on their contribution to Atomic Blonde through their relationship with Bates, and created the cover with specific knowledge of how it was connected to the film.

“That 1988 version was what we based our cover off, and then we left turned it to where we wanted to go,” Famiglietti explained. “We really loved how the track was used, and the music in general. We got to see the scene its in, and we were really into it; we’ve seen a handful of scenes, because they were trying to figure out where to place the song, and the action in the film is so awesome. We’re really hyped to be a part of it.”

When it comes to the evolution of the soundtrack and its curation, Bates played a big role, but director David Leitch was also heavily involved in the process; in fact, he was writing needle drops and song ideas into the script back when he first laid eyes on it. I sat down with Leitch to discuss why the soundtrack was such important part of his vision for the film, music and nonverbal storytelling in film, and how the film’s historical setting is a contextual fit for what’s going on in today’s political climate. Read the whole conversation below.

So this is your first feature film solo as a director and, obviously, Atomic Blonde builds on your past work in the action world, but what was it that drew you to this film specifically?

Sometimes you just read a piece of material and you start to see pictures and you start to hear music and you start to see set pieces, and you just can’t explain it. I love, like, nonverbal storytelling and I think there’s a lot of it in the beginning of this script and I started to attach those images and, more specifically, songs to what I was feeling. So I think you just sometimes read something and it’s like, ‘I know how to tell this story in a fresh way.’

Watching the film, I was struck, particularly, how the music comes into play, almost as its own character. When Lorraine [Charlize Theron’s character] first gets to Berlin and she’s fighting in the car, and when she’s plunging in and out of the ice bath, it sort of breaks the fourth wall in this unconventional way, and it brings the songs into focus just as much as the film. Can you talk about what drove that decision for you?

Well, there was, again, it goes back to that initial reading of the material and, like, having to start forming a vision for it. How do you reinvent this stuffy Cold War spy movie? And, like, at least think about the period it’s set in, and the city, and Berlin is so filled with music and art — and then the period is, like, ’89, like the height of MTV. I just started to see music become an essential element and then I was putting together a playlist and as I did my first director’s pass on the script with writer Kurt Johnstad, I started to put the needle drops in there, the specific cues that would help the visual, would be in line with the visual storytelling. I brought that soundtrack to the set and we played the music when we were shooting those scenes.

Wow, so it was that early on? I think you can feel that.

Oh, yeah — it was not an afterthought. It was a forethought, but it’s also a whole ordeal to afford getting fifteen tracks from the ’80s. All my producers were like, ‘Hmm, yup, good luck getting all those songs,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we’re going to get them. We’re going to get them,’ because they were essential to what I had in my head. I think everyone was excited about the idea I had to fight for it a little bit. At the end, it was like convincing Focus to come onboard and give us some money to pay for the additional songs and they… once they screened the film, they believed in it. They were like, ‘Holy crap, we’re paying for these songs.’ If you’re a fan of the ’80s, then they’re going to be a fan of the soundtrack. It’s sort of an impressionistic ’80s mash-up.

I think that’s how a lot of viewers are going to feel. I noticed that an original song will come in, and then, later, newer cover versions will come in. Like HEALTH doing New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Can you talk to me about that decision? It felt like a good way to bring 1989 into now and back.

That was the intention. It was to make a heightened sort of impressionistic view of the ’80s and a contemporized feeling of the ’80s. The idea was that we’d have songs from the ’80s and then we would also reprise them with younger, up and coming artists. Similarly, the fashion in the film was inspired by the ’80s, but there’s some design tweaks to make it feel contemporary. Tyler Bates, the composer of John Wick helped me from the beginning to find a soundtrack that seamlessly stitched the songs together, but also discovered young artists that would want to rerecord, like HEALTH — he produced that song with them, and helped get them involved with the “Blue Monday” track.

With movies like Guardians Of The Galaxy, which sort of has the nostalgic songs as well, and has helped bring back the concept a the movie soundtrack as a stand-alone thing. It’s related to the film, but can also be its own entity. Is that something that you envisioned for this film as well?

I did want to bring that back and it is something I hope that Focus and Universal want to. It was part of the whole nostalgic nature of the film and it was intentional and if they can release a soundtrack, which I think they are, then it’ll be great.

Clearly, the historical context of the music is related to the time period of the film, but it also felt like the songs selected perfectly embody sort of the aesthetic of the film too. How did those interplay for you?

Well, I think there’s something that period-wise, if you’re going to be really specific, a lot of the songs, the new wave songs are a little early ’80’s and we’re talking ’89 Berlin. So they’re not quite, like, on time point, but they are in the spirit and the DNA of what Berlin was and what the new wave movement and the electronic movement embodied. So it felt right, and then the classic Bowie, spending so much creative time in the beginning, in Berlin, it was hard even though there’s a track from him that’s from the ’70s, it’s still right for the movie.

I was actually going to ask you about that because that song from him, “Under Pressure,” is such a well known song and I think a lot of people already have their own memories attached to that song. So it can be almost dangerous to use it in a film. But I felt like it did feel really fresh. What were your thoughts on incorporating it given it’s sort of historical context?

That’s always the risk, but that’s also the reward of having a track like that. You want a track that carries an emotional context so you can transport the audience immediately with a song. One song and a visual can communicate something that pages and pages of dialogue wouldn’t, but there’s the risk that that emotional baggage with the song takes them in the wrong direction. You have to temper it and trust your instincts.

That song, particular, had been in different incarnations in the film and, editorially, it ended up in the end where I think it was served best, but there was another version of Lorraine crossing over from the east, after the big action sequence, and we juxtaposed it to “Under Pressure” and it was also really compelling. I mean, it’s a great piece of art, we probably could’ve dropped it anywhere in that movie and it made it work, yeah.

My favorite moment with music coinciding with a specific scene is when Sofia [Boutella] is in that super violent moment and that song “Voices Carry,” which is such a tender and vulnerable song by ‘Til Tuesday, is in contrast with such a violent moment. But the contrast is really what made that, I think, feel so powerful. Can you talk a little bit about that scene and what you were thinking then?

Yeah, I mean, I think that obviously the metaphor of the lyric was important to me. Also, the juxtaposition of, like, this horrific scene, watching somebody expire, but to this lovely song ,and knowing that we were going to sort of reprise it with Lorraine and her there. So it was one of those songs that, when I was reading the script, I knew exactly what I wanted in there. Then I put together my soundtrack of ’80s songs and that one just kept coming up for that scene. So that was full-on from the second draft of the script, that we were going to use “Voices Carry” for that sequence.

Do you have a specific scene where the song is really meaningful to you or even just a scene where you feel like the music the audience should look out for?

I like the tracks that Tyler and HEALTH did to revive and reprise “Blue Monday,” because that was something that I got to be involved in, creatively, and just watch it grow from, like, in its sort of beginnings. I think Tyler’s such an incredible composer and producer, and to have someone create art for your film like that in front of your eyes is pretty cool. It’s one thing to, like, repurpose somebody’s work and put it in your film, but to collaborate with an artist of that talent and just let him and HEALTH to do their thing — and then it all works — was incredible.

Watching the unrest and all the protests in Berlin, in the film, I was reminded of what’s been going on in America right now. One other thing I noticed about the music is how much it home that often these social movements are started by youth and started by artists and the counterculture — political movements are so often coming from that, and music is often a cornerstone. Did that tie into some of your musical selections at all?

Totally. Berlin is all about the counterculture. I think that’s one of the reasons why it spoke to me from the beginning and I go back to, like, that first read of the script and understand the set piece. That’s when I was thinking, ‘Holy crap. This is taking place in Berlin. This should not be a stuffy noir. This is about counterculture. This is about rebellion. This is about rock and roll.’ That’s why music became such a part of it.

It’s funny, in terms of the political climate and where things are now, we probably had no idea while we were shooting that, you know, some of these themes would resonate with what’s going on today, but I’m glad that it is and a lot of different things. We weren’t necessarily trying to be messengers for today, but history is its own messenger. It repeats itself.

Here is the official tracklist for Atomic Blonde:
1. “Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)” — David Bowie
2. “Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst)” — Peter Schilling
3. “Blue Monday” — HEALTH
4. C*Cks*Cker – Tyler Bates
5. “99 Luftballons” — Nena
6. “Father Figure” — George Michael
7. “Der Commissar” — After the Fire
8. “Cities In Dust” — Siouxsie and the Banshees
9. “The Politics Of Dancing” — Re-Flex
10. “Stigmata” — Marilyn Manson & Tyler Bates
11. “Demonstration” — Tyler Bates
12. “I Ran (So Far Away)” — A Flock of Seagulls
13. “99 Luftballons” — Kaleida
14. “Voices Carry” — Til Tuesday
15. “London Calling” — The Clash
16. “Finding the Uhf Device” — Tyler Bates

Atomic Blonde hits theaters worldwide July 28.