'Atomic Blonde' Director on Sought-After David Bowie Cameo, Hints for Final Twists

David Leitch - H Getty 2017
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David Leitch talks about his gender-blind approach to the Charlize Theron-starrer's action sequences and the Cold War-era spy film's '80s soundtrack and modern-day relevance.

Director David Leitch first received the script for Atomic Blonde from his producer wife, Kelly McCormick, who challenged him to, as he puts it, "find a fresh world in the spy genre, not unlike you did with John Wick with Chad [Stahelski]."

And he found a way in to the Cold War spy drama, based on the graphic novel Coldest City, in part by using music from the '80s. Indeed, the film features multiple well-known songs from the decade, including 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," used multiple times; George Michael's "Father Figure"; and two David Bowie songs: "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," toward the beginning of the film, and his collaboration with Queen, "Under Pressure," at the end.

But his music wasn't meant to be Bowie's only contribution to the film. The Atomic Blonde team wanted the singer to appear in the film in the interrogation scene that frames the story.

"I think he really responded to the script and that it was about this city and there was music and everything. But at that time, he respectfully declined," Leitch tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Then during the shooting of the film, we heard of his passing, so it was even more special to us that those songs remained in the movie."

The action-heavy Charlize Theron-starrer features multiple twists, particularly toward the end of the film. But while first-time viewers may be confused about what they've just seen, Leitch says the clues are there and can be found on a second viewing.

Leitch talks to THR about Atomic Blonde's late surprises (without giving away specifics), reveals why he wanted his Oscar-winning star (and producer) to be able to match her male counterparts punch for punch and tackles the modern-day relevance of the movie's Cold War setting.

What was it like to work with Charlize as a producer on as well as the star of the film?

It was great. She was incredibly supportive of the ideas, and we had some great conversations about where we wanted to take it, and we were on the same page from the beginning, from that initial pitch of wanting to push this past just being a noirish spy drama with intrigue. She wanted to find a way to make it more action-driven and have a strong female protagonist who we didn't apologize for.

One of the things that struck me about the movie was how Charlize's character is able to match the men she's fighting punch for punch and do almost anything that a male counterpart could do. Is that something that was important to you?

It was totally important, and I think we approached the choreography and the design of the action like we would have approached it if it were male or female. We were never going to find some rationalizations for her abilities or things like that. The way we choreographed it, especially toward the end of the movie as the movie spirals down toward this darker place, by design, we wanted to have real consequences come out in the action, and that was something that Charlize was pushing hard for as a producer. She was like, "I want to see reality, I want to see when somebody gets hit, they get hurt. I want to feel the pain and the punches." So I really took that to heart with the choreography team and the direction of the film and that's how we ended up getting some really stark violence at the end of the movie. I think it's important for her character's cathartic journey.

You can definitely see the bruises and tell that she's been hit. It's not like a movie where there are fight scenes but afterward no one appears to be injured.

The thing that I like about action sequences is that if they're done well, you get to know more about the character in those few minutes than you do through 10 minutes of exposition. You see her will to survive and her intelligence and her durability and her prowess as a spy. You see her humanity. You learn more about her, I think, in that unedited sequence as you do throughout the rest of the film.

Charlize has talked a lot about doing most, if not all, of her own stunts. How did that come about, and why was it important to you to have her do her own stunts instead of using a stunt double?

When you're making these independent films at a price, there are certain constraints, and you can't dress up the action with bells and whistles, and you [can't] do all of the CGI and explosions that audiences want, so you really have to hang it on the physicality of the star. Fight scenes are less expensive to produce, but they can actually be more than spectacle because you're emotionally connected to the character. I told Charlize when we started the training process, when I saw her abilities and her aptitude for stunts and her will to do it, I was relieved because [that meant] we [could] have this production value 10-fold. We have an Academy Award-winning actress, and I'm going to hang the action in the movie on her shoulders and people are going to go nuts and she was like, "Let's fucking do it." If you had someone that didn't have the will or the aptitude or the acting chops, this couldn't have been done.

There are a lot of twists, particularly toward the end. Were you at all hesitant about releasing a movie in the summer that makes audiences think a little bit and evaluate what they've seen, that's not just a popcorn movie?

The movie that we ended up making, which was my original intent, was supposed to be slightly elevated and was supposed to make you think and be a mashup of the action genre and spy noir, and I think we succeeded in that. But, yes, how do you find an audience and where does that audience live? I'm just grateful that the marketing team at Focus and Universal has found a way to get this out there to the public, and this seems like a great date for it. It's hard. Selling art is a lot different than making it. You have to rely on the people who are really good at their job, and we have a great team at Universal and Focus who have found a place to land it, so I'm not afraid. But standing up to these big summer tentpoles is also another thing where this movie has a ton of action but we've made it at the independent price. So it's sort of a catch-22. It is a thinking person's action movie. We released it at a time when people are used to seeing big spectacle movies and it's kind of in-between.

With the final twist, and I don't want to give too much away, did you want viewers to be taken by surprise at that and not put too many clues to that earlier in the film?

Yeah, I think it's a fine line. You want to reach a wide audience and there are people that love spy fare and they will be tracking every little detail and minutiae. And if you go back and watch the film, you'll see the hints for the twist at the end. And there will be other people that may never track those even if they watched it twice and they loved the ride and they loved her character and were willing to go on it for the set pieces alone. Making something that's going to reach a broader audience, we kind of had to toe the line with, how much do you want to give them and how much do you want to reveal. I do challenge people to see it twice because you'll start to go, "Oh, I shoulda saw that!"

How did you decide which '80s songs to use? And specifically, there are a few that are used at crucial points, like "Voices Carry." How did you decide on that song?

When I read the script, I immediately decided to write down songs that were speaking to me. And after the challenge of how do I make this pop-culture mashup in more of a commercial/fun way, the first instinct was "I want to rely on '80s music and sort of transport us." Music emotionally and psychologically transports you immediately. So I put together my playlist and I'd play that over and over and we'd play it on set in the scout van, and I started to slowly drop those specific songs into the list as we scouted, into the actual script. "Voices Carry" came on very early in terms of the ironic lyrics of everybody listening in on each other, and I liked that. "Putting Out Fire" came on really early as well in terms of that bombastic nature and someone who's not afraid to pour gasoline on what is already a fire. It was just that slow process, but it was early on. By the time we started shooting, all of those songs were being played during the sequences as we filmed them so we we would know our edits in terms of like "Der Kommissar," there's maybe five shots that that song goes through. And that was sort of planned and music video-esque.

This is a movie with a Cold War theme that's being released when it seems like there are elements of the Cold War that have been revived. When you first started working on this project, could you have anticipated that that would be the case when this movie came out?

I don't think we could have anticipated maybe some of the cultural relevance this would have in terms of this idea that no one's telling the truth or fake news or that we'd be questioning Russia in this way again and on the verge of another Cold War. No. I think it's interesting that the relevance of this has come to light in the release of this film. But I guess history has a way of repeating itself.