The creatives behind Charlize Theron's Atomic Blonde have explained how they filmed the movie's show-stopping 'one take' stairwell fight sequence. Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller set in the waning days of the Cold War. Theron stars as hardened MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who descends into the murky depths of Berlin to unearth a double agent and retrieve valuable intelligence before it falls into the wrong hands.
The film is packed with great action sequences, with Theron's Broughton engaging in vicious, life or death brawls that leave her bruised and scarred. The quality of the action in the film is no surprise given director David Leitch's impressive pedigree as a stunt performer and coordinator. With Atomic Blonde as his solo directorial debut, Leitch was determined to make its action scenes as exciting and realistic as possible.
A report from Variety sheds light on just how hard Leitch and his crew worked to make the film's best action sequence possible: a nearly ten-minute long (and seemingly continuous) shot that follows Broughton and her opponents up and down a stairwell, before ending in a car chase on the streets of Berlin. Staging the impeccably choreographed (and relentlessly brutal) sequence was no easy task, according to editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir:
“We shot the scene chronologically all the way through [before blending dozens of shots together]. There are all kinds of tricks. Just working on a computer instead of a Steenbeck [flatbed editor], you can blow up the shot a bit or move it around to match it better. You can work within the frame.”
As a seasoned stunt coordinator, Leitch knows the importance of shooting an action sequence just right, which is why he enlisted Blonde coordinator Sam Hargrave to work the camera:
“Chad Stahelski and I operate the cameras in all the fight scenes we direct. You know the timing, so if the actors are off just a second in their punch or if they skip a move, you know to get around it and catch the hit. In a situation like this, it’s just easier to have the guys who have been rehearsing the scene operate the camera.”
It's clear that Leitch brought all of his considerable experience and knowledge to bear on Atomic Blonde, stuffing the film with all of the tricks he's learned throughout his lengthy career. He also enlisted the aid of a trusted crew, including Ronaldsdóttir and cinematographer Jonathan Sela, both of whom he worked with on John Wick. Hargrave was another ideal choice as stunt coordinator, having shown his keen eye for action on films like Captain America: Civil War and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.
As a small scale action film, Atomic Blonde gets full value for its $30 million budget. Theron in particular shines as the deadly but vulnerable Broughton, who takes as much punishment as she dishes out, and limps away with the bruises to prove it. Leitch told Variety that such realism was key.
"She was committed to finding the reality of the situation. That’s why we stay with her and watch her take all the beatings and the bruising and get more tired, to the point she can barely stand. They’ve already tapped their adrenaline, they’ve already used all their energy, they’re exhausted, and in the end it just comes down to human will.”
- Atomic Blonde (2017) release date: Jul 28, 2017