By Iain Blair
Before becoming a director known for his hyper-kinetic, immersive, stunt-driven-style, David Leitch spent over a decade in the stunt business and doubled actors, including Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, on such films as Bourne Ultimatum, Fight Club and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Leitch — a martial artist by trade who co-owns action design and production company 87Eleven Action Design — was also a fight choreographer, stunt coordinator and 2nd unit director on many films, including Wolverine, Anchorman 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Captain America: Civil War and Jurassic World.
Leitch brought all that experience to the table for his directorial debut, the 2014 Keanu Reeves hit John Wick, which he co-directed with Chad Stahelski, his partner in 87Eleven Action Design (@87elevenaction).
For his new film, the pulpy, punk-noir, take-no-prisoners Atomic Blonde, Leitch teamed with Oscar-winner Charlize Theron who plays MI6’s most elite spy, agent Lorraine Broughton, and kicks non-stop ass in the breakneck action-thriller that’s set in Berlin in 1989 with a backdrop of revolution and double-crossing hives of traitors.
Sexy and fearless, Broughton is equal parts spycraft, sensuality and savagery, willing to deploy any of her skills to stay alive on her impossible mission. Sent alone into Berlin to deliver a priceless dossier out of the destabilized city, she partners with embedded station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to navigate her way through the deadliest game of spies. Mayhem and destruction quickly ensue.
The film, which also stars John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones, has a top-notch creative team led by cinematographer Jonathan Sela (John Wick, Deadpool 2), production designer David Scheunemann (Deadpool 2, The Hunger Games series), editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (John Wick), and composer Tyler Bates (John Wick series, Guardians of the Galaxy).
I spoke with Leitch on the eve of its release about making the film, his love of post, and his next movie — the highly anticipated Deadpool 2, starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin and Josh Brolin, which 20th Century Fox and Marvel will release on June 1, 2018.
This is definitely not your usual cerebral, period spy movie. What sort of film did you set out to make?
I wanted to take the cold war spy thriller genre and give it a new polish and add a ton of adrenalin and more of a commercial sensibility. I also wanted to reference all the great ‘80s music, like Bowie, and that whole visual style of music videos. Then we added more action, so it’s an interesting mash-up of all that.
What did Charlize, who developed the project, bring to the mix?
As a producer she had a real understanding of her character and what she wanted to portray – a very strong point-of-view. As an actor and collaborator, she was just so receptive to this wild, pop-culture mash-up I wanted to make. She was the heart and soul of Lorraine.
Her fight scenes are amazing. How hard did she train?
She was totally committed and immersed herself fully in all the stunts and training we did for a three-month period — hours and hours each day learning all the stunt choreography and fight scenes. It was very important, because we had limited resources to do it all with VFX. We had to do nearly all of it for real — real physical action on camera, and we were able to make that work because Charlize is so athletic.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
There were so many as we were shooting on location in Budapest most of the time, and then we shot for a week in Berlin — there were all the logistics involved. We also had a lot of big set pieces, like crazy car chases and then the scene where Charlize’s car gets submerged in a river, and she did all those scenes herself.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Right from the start. We had this great VFX supervisor, Michael Wortmann, who’s with Chimney Group in Sweden, and they not only did all the amazing VFX, but did an all-inclusive overall post deal for us, so they also did all the color and sound mixing and so on. We actually did my director’s cut and first previews in LA and then flew out to Sweden for a month to finalize all the post. Then when Universal came on board, we also did a big Dolby remix on the lot at Universal.
Did you do a lot of previs?
I’m not really a big previs fan, but I do get that it’s a necessity and really helpful for some stuff, like complex action scenes. As a 2nd unit director you often get given the animatics, so I’m used to dealing with it, but I much prefer to be inspired by working on the set with stunts and storyboards. Those are what drive the visuals for me.
You reunited with director of photography Jonathan Sela. How tough was the shoot?
It was tough. It was cold, but it was also a really special experience, going to the famous locations in Berlin and seeing a piece of history. It was very inspiring. Even scouting the film was very inspiring.
Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it. I enjoy the shoot and trying to get the best stuff you can on the day, but then to see it come alive in post with all the sound and music and VFX — that’s the best feeling.
Talk about reteaming with editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir. Was she on set?
Usually she’s not on set, but she was there for the very elaborate stairwell fight scene, which took four days to shoot, and we cut it as we went. Then for the rest of the shoot she was with us on location, but she was assembling from day one while I shot. Then we’d get together on the weekends. The thing is, post schedules are so crunched now with all the VFX and tight turnaround time that you need a partner who’s working while you sleep and vice versa. That’s how we work together.
All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with Chimney Group and VFX supervisor Michael Wortmann.
I really like working with VFX, and they’re so integrated with stunts and action sequences now, and I’m very familiar with the process. Michael was great and understood that I still like to try and get as much of the action in-camera as possible, but we ended up with hundreds of shots and VFX take care of — everything from muzzle flashes and blood to set extensions and wire removal, dealing with period stuff and then manipulation of stunts. Today, you can’t walk away from a film like this without at least 500 VFX shots. It’s all about keeping the illusion alive.
Can you talk about the DI?
We did that with Chimney, and getting the right look was very important. The film has a very distinct visual style, with very different palettes for East and West Berlin, and we had a DI tech on set so he and the DP could plan ahead a lot for post with the digital camera settings. So we all had a very strong impression of what we were after during the shoot.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did – even better than I imagined, which is why I love post so much. We spent nearly six months in post, and every day you’d see the movie get better and better.
Tell us about Deadpool 2.
We’re shooting it up in Vancouver, and we’re about five weeks in. So far it’s been the best film experience of my career. Ryan and Josh are so great and so much fun to work with. And there’s a ton of VFX. Dan Glass, who did The Matrix films and Batman Begins, is my VFX supervisor. DNeg and Method are doing a lot of the VFX. The shoot’s going great, and I can’t wait to get into post next.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.