About The Production
Development of the Thriller
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
"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."
Producer Kelly McCormick notes that the structure's function was quite
multifaceted: "The Berlin Wall didn't just hold people in-instead it held
secrets that could endanger intelligence agents, ruin careers and end lives."
The Wall was actually comprised of two separate barriers: the exterior wall on
the West Berlin border, and a heavily guarded interior wall about 30 yards
inward. In between, on the "death strip"-amidst layers of steel and concrete
barriers-heavily armed soldiers patrolled with dogs while sand strips exposed
the tracks of anyone who came too close. The Wall encompassed 70 miles of barbed
wire, 310 guard towers, 65 anti-vehicle trenches and 40,000 Soviet-trained
The production team developed Atomic Blonde from the 2012 Oni Press graphic
novel series "The Coldest City," written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by
Sam Hart. The style, sounds and design of the work reflect a stylistic, elevated
re-creation of Berlin in 1989. Art, music and social expression exploded as the
world watched Berlin play host to the end of the Cold War.
Johnston had embarked on the project in summer 2008 as a personal one, 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
The writer reveals his inspiration: "I've always loved the genre, having read
quite a lot of John le Carre 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."
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.
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
Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, when approached to pen the script as an adaptation
of the initial graphic novel in the series, was eager to be part of the project.
That 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."
The author'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."
The Oni Press team found an enthusiastic champion in 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.
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."
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
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
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."
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