Director David Leitch knows a little something about pulling off action on the big screen.
For over two decades, he and Chad Stahelski have done stunts for the biggest stars on some of the biggest films, through their company 87Eleven. Recently, the two have moved on to directing, and have used their stuntman talents to create impressive action movies.
The two codirected the cult hit “John Wick” in 2014, instantly making them attractive names for numerous projects floating around Hollywood that needed a realistic action feel.
One of those was an adaptation of a recently published graphic novel, titled “The Coldest City.” A pulpy Cold War spy thriller, it follows British MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who is tasked with travelling to Berlin days before the wall comes down, to retrieve a list identifying undercover agents before it’s put in the wrong hands.
Charlize Theron was looking for unique female protagonist roles, so she bought the rights. The Oscar winner then looked for a director, and brought in Leitch and Stahelski for a meeting.
Learning that most of the directors were pitching Theron serious noir-tone story ideas (think 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy“), the duo came in with some “John Wick” flair.
They got the job, but suddenly Leitch and Stahelski were stuck with a major decision. The start date for “The Coldest City” project, now titled “Atomic Blonde,” conflicted with the start for “John Wick: Chapter 2.” The two decided to split up directing duties to complete both projects. Stahelski did “John Wick 2,” while Leitch took on “Atomic Blonde.” It was an easy decision for Leitch, who had become obsessed with the Theron project.
“How do you make this sexy and cool and commercial and infuse my action sensibilities to turn the spy genre on its head?” Leitch told Business Insider. It was the challenge he couldn’t pass on.
Leitch’s pitch for Theron showed a slick action movie, but he also gave a musical presentation that highlighted ’80s classics from the likes of David Bowie and Queen. When fused together these showed his vision for the project.
“After pitching it to Charlize, we were off to the races,” Leitch said.
And Leitch quickly learned that Theron wanted to give the movie an ultra-violent realness by doing most of her own stunts. Especially the fight sequences. He loved the idea, but in Leitch’s experience with actors, he’s learned talk is cheap.
“Not to name names, but some will see [doing their own stunts] as part of their job, and they will come in and have the work ethic, but not the ability. And some will have the ability but not the work ethic,” Leitch said. “You have to have a passion to step in the gym for three hours, four times a week, and get your butt kicked.”
So, to see what Theron was made of, Leitch put her through his stunt team’s introduction course.
“We call it ‘The Evaluation.’ We put her through basic choreography drills, and you see her aptitude for memorization, and ability to mimic motion, and she was scoring off the charts,” Leitch said.
Watch Theron’s fight training for the movie:
A trained dancer in her youth, Theron took to the exercises, regardless of the difficulty level. Soon, Leitch and one of the movie’s producers, Kelly McCormick (who is also his wife), began talking about trying to pull off an elaborate fight sequence in “Atomic Blonde” that they had been discussing for years.
“I’m getting the remote videos from L.A. on how she’s doing every day, and I made a call back to my stunt team and I’m like, ‘Guys, I think we can do this ‘oner’ we’ve always talked about,'” Leitch said.
With only a $US30 million budget (around the same he had for “John Wick”), Leitch was looking for ways to have the movie’s fight sequences stand out with the limited resources. Due to Theron’s abilities, he decided that the movie’s major eight-minute fight scene — which takes place in the stairwell of a crummy Berlin apartment building at the end of the movie — would all be done in one continuous shot.
“When I pitched it to her we were already a couple of weeks into shooting and I walked into the makeup trailer and I was like, ‘I didn’t want to tell you this before because I didn’t want to freak you out, but that stairwell fight, I’m planning to make it all one shot.’ And she’s like, ‘Ah, what?'” Leitch recalled. “I said, ‘There will be some tricks and some movie magic, but it’s going to be hard work and a lot of long takes.’ And she was like, ‘Has it been done before?’ And I said, ‘Not like this.’ And she said, ‘Let’s do it.'”
As Leitch notes, there are some hidden cuts in the sequence (as happens with most “ones”), but the fight (which took two weeks to shoot) is what the movie will be remembered for. It showcases the talents of Leitch and his stunt team, as well as the abilities of Theron, who has wowed audiences recently with her out-of-the-box movie choices.
For someone who has worked with dedicated action stars like Keanu Reeves and Hugh Jackman, Leitch puts Theron in that rare class of actors who can realistically do almost anything a stunt person can.
“Her attitude was amazing and her excitement to come in every day and train and mix it up with the stunt team, and push herself, there’s few that I’ve worked with that have that drive,” Leitch said.
“Atomic Blonde” opens in theatres July 28.
Watch some of the single-shot fight scene in the trailer below: