Atomic Blonde is only the second film David Leitch has directed, and only his first alone (he and Chad Stahelski helmed new action classic John Wick together). And yet, the maiden filmmaker has been an integral part of the industry for some 20 years. Leitch's love for action first manifested in a career as a stunt man, starting with films like Blade and Fight Club. That transitioned into work as a second unit director on blockbusters including recent hits like Jurassic World and Captain America: Civil War.
Now, that tenure has naturally led him to the main director's chair, where, through John Wick and now Atomic Blonde, he's overseeing a revival of sorts of hardcore action in the big-budget blockbuster. John Wick featured action scenes so thoroughly choreographed and fluid that balletic is the only honorable way to define them. We expect the same from Blonde, especially given Charlize Theron's storied commitment to stunt work. Complex hopped on the phone with Leitch to talk Wick, Blonde, and some tentative teases about his next big gig: helming Deadpool's return to the big screen.
This was your first time in the director's seat solo. What was that experience like?
It’s been an incredible experience actually one of the best experiences I’ve had in my 20 years of being involved in movies. And that’s saying a lot because not to name drop films, but I’ve been on these really special moments with great artists and directors and The Matrix movies and 300 and Fight Club and things that define action movies for the next generation. Now be in the director’s chair and have such a positive experience has been great
You mentioned how long you’ve been in the business, it seems like you collected decades worth of lessons to get to this moment. Which of those did you adapt from your former tenure as a stuntman, producer and co-directing John Wick, to make Atomic Blonde?
I think you’re obviously [a summation of] your collective experience thus forth in every aspect of your life and it’s no different for this job. As a stunt performer you have a really unique access to the directors and the other creatives and having stunt coordinated movies you understand the physical logistics really well. And then having been on so many movies for the run of show and having access to the director you get a lot of mentorship from great people. Friends who are directors like Jim Mangold or the Wachowskis or Zack Snyder who whether they know or not have really left a mark on who I am as a director.
How important was it to you to represent that—it almost feels like a resurgence, a lot of blockbusters today lean more CGI than fight scenes themselves.
You know, what Chad [Stahelski] and myself were doing with the first John Wick was sort of a cathartic release of us being second unit directors for so long where you’re shooting and you’re aping styles with the director you’re working with and providing them with multiple angles on the action so they can choose an editorial—and for us as purists, and martial artists, we like to watch the actual choreography and understand the A to B of the movement. You saw that in John Wick and it’s no different in Atomic Blonde, we sort of followed that same template and more in the Hong Kong style of filmmaking.
What were some of your influences in the action choreography perspective?
Jackie [Chan] is probably the biggest influence for me, personally, and coming up as a stunt performer and watching countless fight scenes of his. Chad and I had made this VHS tape [which is dating us] where we edited all the fight scenes that we could find from his catalog of work together and we just watched them on a loop. It was like 4 hours, there was no dialogue, it was just a fight scene barrage and we put it on at night and it became part of our psyche. You learn that he has a real specific style of editing and composition that tells the fights in a very simple but elegant way. I think that’s where you see sort of the expression of our actions recently.
How game was Charlize for all of the stunts?
She was incredibly game and she came to the table with a mandate of "I want it to be gritty and real and I don’t want soft punches." And I want to come from something that’s grounded and visceral and so we put that into the mix when started to design the sequences.
Do you have any interest in exploring more adventures around this character? Or are you looking forward to the next new world already?
I really think that it’ll all come down to if audiences come out and if we can get a great word of mouth and if people are responding to her character. I know I would like to see Lorraine go on more adventures and it’s a fun mashup of ideas to play with. It’s got its own special style that I think deserves a couple more episodes.
Who are some more veteran actors that you’d love to get in and make another movie—which is to say, a movie featuring hardcore action and stunts—like this with?
Obviously, I’d love to work with Keanu again cause he’s amazing. I’d love to work [more] with Charlize, she’s incredible just in terms of actionability and her acting and creating a nuanced character while still delivering this visceral action performance. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Hugh Jackman on The Wolverine with Jim Mangold and that experience was also amazing. There’s just a lot of actors out there that I have worked with in the past that I would love to revisit [from the director's chair].
Is it going to be weird moving from self-contained not exactly franchise projects—at least, not yet—to something huge with a lot of eyeballs on it like Deadpool 2?
It’s a little different but it’s not unlike in the second unit space, I've worked on little, smaller independent films where you do like a gritty visceral fight scenes and then I've worked on Civil War where you have massive visual effects and it’s a whole another sort of set of brushes to paint with. I’ve been really fortunate in my career to do budgets at all different levels. It feels kind of natural moving into the studio space and doing some superhero fare. You just have to be on it, you just gotta serve the script and the material and when you have a great script as a director you go forth and you really try to put your heart and soul into it and serve it.
What’s the approach in filming action scenes for Deadpool 2 as opposed to something like John Wick or Atomic Blonde? How does it differ?
You always start a fight scene or an action scene with what are we learning about this character at the moment and how are we gonna arc him or her in the next three minutes and it’s no different with Deadpool or Atomic Blonde or John Wick. There’s an arc to an action sequence and you need to come out the other end knowing your character better and maybe the story has moved forward in a compelling way. I think—and the audience may not realize it— how much you learn about a character during an action sequence and how much it defines the character. So as long as you’re approaching that with the choreography you’re servicing the bigger movie, then you’re doing your job.
I know you probably can’t say much yet, but how is Deadpool 2 shaping up so far?
We’ve had an incredible first couple weeks and the chemistry with Josh [Brolin] and Ryan [Reynolds] has been amazing. I’m just grateful for the cast that we have and the script that we have and we couldn’t be happier with the collaboration so far.
What are any details you can tease about how Cable is gonna figure into the story?
That’s a big one. I’m gonna have to say no comment. He’s a real complex character and there’s a lot of ways in, so I’m excited for you guys to see our take.