A blistering blend of sleek action, gritty sexuality and dazzling style.
When screenwriter Kurt Johnstad was approached to pen the script for Atomic Blonde as an adaptation of the initial graphic novel in the series, his interest stemmed from his personal connections to Berlin.
The writer of 300 recalls: “My father had been a pilot for Pan Am and was based in West Berlin during the ’60s, and then again in the ’80s. So I got to spend a lot of time there before the Wall fell. My sister still lives there today with her family.”
Oscar winner Charlize Theron explodes into summer in Atomic Blonde, a breakneck action-thriller that follows MI6’s most elite spy through a ticking time bomb of a city simmering with revolution and double-crossing hives of traitors.
The crown jewel of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service, Agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) 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 MacAvoy) to navigate her way through the deadliest game of spies.
A blistering blend of sleek action, gritty sexuality and dazzling style, Atomic Blonde is directed by David Leitch (co-director, John Wick; director of upcoming Deadpool 2), who has imagined a world as brutal and deadly as it is real. The film is based on the Oni Press graphic novel series “The Coldest City” written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart.
Kurt Johnstad’s teenage years found him in West Berlin’s sectors, but also going over to the East. “Only one train line and one highway connected East and West,” he recalls. Johnstad appreciated how Berlin then was unbelievably colorful. It was this magnet for artists, musicians and anarchists…a pulsing destination set against the oppressive thumb of communism. “Creatively, it was a powerful place to be in; the art and music scenes were thriving. But I also noticed how it felt like an outpost where danger was lurking. I wanted to try and convey that heightened sense of peril.
“I would also travel through other Soviet-bloc countries and see how people were enduring their daily lives behind the Iron Curtain,” Johnstad continues. “Many people gave their lives even to try to escape, and I would always think of them in telling this story. History has always had individuals at its center, especially during an event like the stunning end of the geopolitical chess game that was the Cold War.”
Kurt Johnstad is a product of a Midwestern childhood where he was raised on a working cattle farm and received an arts education from the California School of the Arts. After a decade as an assistant director, Johnstad made the transition to screenwriting. Starting with an early collaboration with Zack Snyder, their groundbreaking film 300 launched Johnstad onto Hollywood’s radar. Johnstad wrote the Relativity Media-released hit film Act of Valor directed by Scott Waugh and Mouse McCoy. This was followed by Noam Murro’s blockbuster 300 Rise of an Empire for Warner Bros. Next to begin filming this winter is the drama The Last Photograph for Snyder. Recognition of his super busy career trajectory came in 2011 as Johnstad was selected as one of Variety’s “10 Screenwriters to Watch.” His ongoing writing work with numerous filmmakers has Johnstad in the business with companies such as Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, New Regency, Sony Pictures, Focus Features, Lionsgate and Legendary Pictures, as well as notable production companies as Cruel Films, Lin Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment, Denver and Delilah Films, Matt Tolmach Productions, Mad Chance Productions, Thunder Road Films, and Imagine Entertainment.
It was also a personal mission for Antony Johnston, who embarked on graphic novel series The Coldest City in 2008, on a creative impulse to explore his long-held interest in Cold War espionage.
At the time, spy thrillers were an uncommon genre for graphic novels, and he had little expectation that the story would be published, much less strike such a chord with readers.
The writer reveals his inspiration: “I’ve always loved the genre, having read quite a lot of John le Carré and enjoyed the James Bond movies and the Harry Palmer movies like Funeral in Berlin. I’ve never forgotten the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember watching it unfold on live television, and it felt like such a momentous occasion—something that could lead to global peace and a brighter future. I figured that the anticipation of it could make for an exciting backdrop to a spy story.”
Antony Johnston is an award-winning, The New York Times best-selling author of graphic novels, video games and books, with titles including “The Coldest City,” the epic series “Wasteland,” Marvel’s superhero “Daredevil,” and the seminal video game “Dead Space.” He has adapted books by best-selling novelist Anthony Horowitz, collaborated with comics legend Alan Moore, and his titles have been translated throughout the world. He lives and works in England.
Sam Hart (Based on the Oni Press Graphic Novel Series “The Coldest City,” Illustrated by) was born in the U.K., and lives in Brazil. His comic art credits include “Starship Troopers,” “Judge Dredd,” “Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood,” “Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur” and “Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc.” He also draws storyboards and teaches narrative and concept art.
At the heart of the series is Lorraine Broughton, a woman who survives at all costs. As a secret agent for MI6, Broughton is the ultimate, unapologetic warrior. She is a skilled, sensual and savage super spy who isn’t just some mindless fantasy superheroine. The chances of her success are slim to none in the Coldest City, and the second she touches down in Berlin, she’s left to her own devices. It’s a mission that nothing she’s ever experienced with MI6 could ever prepare her for. She must rely on gut, resourcefulness and resilience…using every bit of her training, intellect, charm and instinct to make it out alive.
From Page To Screen
Producer Eric Gitter, through his stake in Oni Press, got an early look at “The Coldest City” and fell in love with the world creation. He and his producing partner, Peter Schwerin, had experience adapting graphic novels into movies and television shows.
Still, Gitter admits: “We had never seen one which read so much like a film script as ‘The Coldest City’ did. It was beautifully layered and complex, with a wonderfully nuanced lead character. The story tapped into how this city was hopping with a thriving club scene, an underground punk community and fluid sexuality. Antony is a rock star in his world, and this work was ideal for the big screen.”
“What was so striking about the graphic novel is that even though it was monochromatically rendered, it ripped away years of depictions of the city as dull and dry,” Schwerin adds. “We felt a movie version could depict a colorful and vibrant rendition of a time and place that is so often thought of as dreary and gray. There’s not the usual London Fog-overcoat aesthetic here; this is another world, with an eclectic sensibility and a blast of action and intensity.”
The setting for the story that would become Atomic Blonde represents a singular time and place in history: Berlin, right before the Wall came down after standing for 28 years. Constructed in 1961 by the Communist East Berlin government to separate citizens from the city’s American, British and French sectors—which had been established via the 1945 Potsdam Conference agreement at the conclusion of WWII—the Wall had engendered a cloaked, segregated arena in which spies, operatives and Cold War players would wage battles both official and unsanctioned.
“It was a Wild West atmosphere,” marvels Charlize Theron, who began developing the script almost five years ago, with an eye to perform in the action-thriller. “You had the Soviet KGB and the East German Stasi against the American CIA, British MI6 and French DGSE. Graft, bribery, blackmail, violence—this was the daily diet for those agents at that time.”
The Oni Press team found an enthusiastic champion in Charlize Theron, who joined as producer with her production company, Denver & Delilah, A.J. Dix and Beth Kono in optioning the provocative material.
Theron’s team saw the opportunity to take a story that is relentless and committed, as well as tough and fun and sexy, and explore it fearlessly on screen. In “The Coldest City,” they saw something explosive, wild and incredibly entertaining.
The Art Of Independent Filmmaking
Leading independent film finance and production entity Sierra/Affinity, run by the film’s executive producers Nick Meyer and Marc Schaberg, financed and produced the film, licensing the rights to Focus Features and Universal for much of the world as well as to select high-end independent distributors.
Former Sierra executive Kelly McCormick, who now produces at 87Eleven Action Design, explains: “What makes Atomic Blonde so viable is the strong female protagonist played by Oscar winner Charlize Theron, a terrific story, and a world that was both relatable and iconic—here was a movie that was undeniable.”
The behind-the-scenes team knew Theron would give a performance that was just as blistering as it was intense and committed. The actress has been kicking ass on screen for some time, and the character of Broughton is equal parts sensual, athletic and brilliant. Not only does Theron star, as developer and producer of Atomic Blonde, she’s championed it from the start. “What everyone found is that there is no ego involved in Charlize’s producing,” reveals McCormick. “She’s highly disciplined, hard-working and likes to problem-solve together. She made the experience that much more special for everyone.”
Helming Atomic Blonde
To helm Atomic Blonde, the production would turn to director David Leitch, fresh off the sleeper-hit success of John Wick, which Leitch co-directed with Chad Stahelski. As co-founder of 87Eleven, Leitch has served as the second unit director on blockbusters from Jurassic World and Captain America: Civil War to Logan. Leitch is not simply a “stunts guy.” He has an undeniable and specific command of the intersection between massive action and intimate stories…and has helped to create an entirely new brand of filmmaking.
For his next film, Leitch was searching for another character with which audiences would be surprised by; a fresh take on cinematic action and adventure. In MI6’s Broughton, he knew he had a unique female protagonist ready for her close-up. Along with telling emotionally impactful, character-driven stories, the filmmaker believes in finding action where you wouldn’t dream it exists, and he uses locations and characters to create some of the most unique action in the world. His mission is to get audiences to ask: “How in the hell did they do that?”
Still, Leitch is just as focused on Lorraine’s emotional arc. He regards her as a spy who has seen the worst of humanity, but who is unexpectedly shown how to recapture her own. “Broughton is a terrifically complex character, and through her this story offers a very modern take on the spy genre,” the director reflects. “As a spy, she possesses ruthless resolve and discipline, but also tendencies and traits that most of us would find hard to understand. She’s cool and stylish, maintaining a certain emotional detachment necessary for her deadly job, but there is a caring and pained humanity operating underneath the surface…and that bleeds through.”
Leitch, a longtime friend of Johnstad’s, appreciated the script’s combination of historical drama, espionage suspense and action. The director walks us through his interest: “I grew up in the ’80s and quite clearly remember images of the Wall coming down and the significance of that, so right away I found the subject matter very compelling and interesting…especially because it is relevant with today’s politics. I responded not only to the storytelling but also to the visual possibilities.”
Leitch worked with Johnstad and the film’s producers on the development of the script. The screenwriter describes the process as “hands down, one of the best I’ve had. Dave and I have a shorthand of friendship and respect. I liked how he wanted to move a classic noir spy thriller into something new, to push the envelope and take some risks.”
To incarnate the story’s international intrigue, a cast was convened from around the globe. Accomplished U.K. actors, German film icons and a rising Algerian star were among those signed to charge up the story’s conflicts and confrontations.
Given that the rules of the spy game were being broken almost as soon as they were made up, the character of David Percival was crucial to the story. Johnstad explains: “Cold War Berlin was made for this man’s particular talents and temperaments. As the chief of station for MI6, he operates essentially on his own. He’s got his own small fiefdom, far from the prying eyes of London. He readily sells and trades contraband with his network of contacts and associates on both sides of the Wall…and he enjoys himself!”
As Lorraine’s fellow MI6 operative, Percival is charming, conniving and merciless. He is every bit her match, and she trusts him as far as she can throw him. Percival is also Broughton’s only supposed ally in Berlin. Still, she knows that he is operating with impunity in the city. He runs the contraband game as well as anyone in town, and he has his pick of the illegal trade and relishes the environment that has allowed him to run wild. When Lorraine arrives, he immediately gets alarmed. This has been his territory for the past five years…and he’s not giving up control easily.
Selected for the part was star James McAvoy, whose small film Split recently passed $275 million at the worldwide box office. The actor researched those who MI6 recruited in its early stages and found a telling fact he based his character on: The agency looked for people less likely to live long enough to divulge national secrets in later years.
McAvoy enjoyed the character from the moment he read the script. The actor notes: “Percival is as far away from Bond and Bourne as one can get! There’s a line Percival says, ‘I f—kin’ love Berlin!’ And he certainly does. Percival represents the breed of operative who gets seduced by an environment, in this case the Dodge City of the espionage world. The MI6 chief refers to him as having gone ‘feral,’ which is an apt description—for him and for others in the territory.”
The performer appreciated the edge, attitude and fearlessness of the script and its source material. “It’s a different version of what we think of as the Cold War,” reveals McAvoy. “There are so many interests all crowded into this one location, and the players all know each other. They drink with their enemies and probably sleep with the same people. It’s an exhilarating but dangerous game, and it has caused Percival to morph into an almost self-destructive figure. But he’s all Broughton’s got to go on, and with.”
The film also stars John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane, Kong: Skull Island) as CIA operative Emmett Kurzfeld, Til Schweiger (Inglourious Basterds, Head Full of Honey) as the enigmatic Watchmaker, Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes series, Snow White and the Huntsman) as the brilliant mark known only as Spyglass, Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Kingsman: The Secret Service) as French intelligence agent Delphine Lasalle; Bill Skarsgård (Allegiant, upcoming It) as Merkel, Broughton’s contact in East Berlin; and Toby Jones (Captain America and The Hunger Games series) as MI6 investigator Eric Gray, the film is based on the Oni Press graphic novel series “The Coldest City” written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart.