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About The Production
Going Atomic:

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 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."

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 frontier soldiers.

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 with readers.

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 intensity."

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 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."


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