The Genesis of Atomic Blonde

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We chat with the creators of Atomic Blonde, Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, the heroine, Charlize Theron, and a sequel.

The summer of 2017 was a strange time for going to the movies. Much of the press coverage was about bad box office numbers, and yet we also had several breakout hits that saw both critical and commercial success. Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron and directed by David Leitch of John Wick fame, was one of those hits. Set on both sides of the Berlin Wall just before it fell in 1989, this slick action-packed spy thriller rose above our expectations for a summer flick with its throw-back soundtrack, inventive action sequences, and a trope-defying story that rested on Charlize Theron’s considerable chops as both an actor and an action star.

Atomic Blonde releases on DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, Nov. 14 but we sat down with writer Antony Johnston and illustrator Sam Hart, the creators of The Coldest City, the graphic novel Atomic Blonde was based on, to hear their thoughts on the experience of seeing their work brought to the big screen, ‘80s music, and whether we’ll be seeing a sequel to Atomic Blonde.

Den of Geek: What was it like to see your book The Coldest City translated to screen?

Sam Hart: I was amazed at how they managed to visually  translate the narrative. Not necessarily each scene or each drawing, but the narrative obviously is different when you’re reading a page and when you’re looking at a screen with actors, and music and so forth. I’ve seen the movie five times and I’ve loved it every time!

Antony Johnston: Same here, I loved it. I’ve seen it even more times than Sam. I love it, I thought that David [Leitch], Charlize, and everyone involved did a fantastic job at interpreting the story in a way that worked on screen, that made it a great movie. I loved the soundtrack, I loved the visuals, I thought we had an amazing cast. And I loved how they found places in which to insert Dave’s trademark action set pieces, you know in the movie, without sort of shoehorning them into places that didn’t make sense within the story. Of course [Atomic Blonde] is quite faithful in terms of story, but it’s very different in terms of feel. It’s been really exciting, and I was pleased and happy with how it turned out.

You mention the feel of the movie. The aesthetics of the book and the movie are very specific, though they differ. Sam, what were your touch points and inspirations?

SH: Firstly it was film noir. Antony specifically asked for the artwork to be in complete black and white with no tones or grayscale. So I looked at old movies and TV series that could reflect that sort of feeling–the suspense, that you don’t really know what’s lurking in the shadows. That was visually what I was looking for. In comics there are a few old artists who I really like, Alex Toth and Bernie Krigstein, so I was looking a lot at their work at the time.

Antony, a lot of people see Lorraine as a way of flipping the script on a male trope, which is something you’ve done in the past, with Klem from The Fuse. When people do the so-called “woman version” of something there’s both praise and criticism for that.  So what drew you to doing that for Lorraine in particular?

AJ: The decision to make Lorraine a woman, you know, for a woman to be the central character, came about fairly early in the book’s development, because… I was having a bit of trouble [with what I was thinking about writing], to be honest. And then I don’t recall exactly how the idea came to me, but I suddenly had the idea: “What if this central character was a woman surrounded by men, in a very male-dominated environment and profession in the late ‘80s. . But she was a woman in this male-dominated world, and so constantly underestimated, constantly underestimated by all of the men around her and the men she works with. And that of course is what enables her to deceive them and to get one over on them. To win the day. Because they consistently underestimate her and think that she’s simply not as capable as she is.

And so for that kind of character, it made sense therefore for Lorraine to be a fairly cool, calm, and calculated sort of person. You know, not overly emotional, doesn’t have a tragic backstory or anything like that. Because I wanted to show that a woman would probably need to adapt that sort of persona in that world, in order to sort of compete with the men. But also to show that a woman character doesn’t need that sort of overly emotional motivation and personality to be good at her job. She can just be a woman who’s really good at her job.

As so often happens with these things, if that character was a man and did all the same things that Lorraine does, nobody would bat an eyelid. That was very important to me. I wanted her to do everything that a man would do, she just does it as a woman. She’s not held back in any way by her gender.

What has the fan reaction been to the character of Lorraine?

AJ: What we had with the book was a lot of critical acclaim. It wasn’t really a mass-market hit, but we had a lot of critical acclaim and a lot of people said very nice things and about her as a character. But of course it was the reaction to Charlize as Lorraine on the screen that’s been the most widespread and vocal. And I can see why, because I agree with them. I think she portrayed the character really well on the screen. She created this beautiful and very, very powerful and memorable, iconic character on the screen.

But from my point of view, the best thing about it was that [Charlize] got the character. I could tell that immediately. The moment I met Charlize on set and saw how she was playing Lorraine, I realized that she got it; she understood what lay at the core of this character. And that’s what people are reacting to, and I reacted in just the same way. I’m very happy that people are responding to Charlize’s portrayal of Lorraine, because it is very true to the book.

Berlin in 1989 was such a very specific time – both sides of the wall are different, the world is on the brink of something changing, which the book captured well. How did both of you capture that specific time and place?

AJ: I did a bunch of research, but I also lived in Europe in the late 1980s. I remember the wall coming down. I remember being transfixed by the live images from Berlin on the news, of them pulling the wall down. A lot of it to be honest for me was just memory of living through that time. Sam, I know, did a lot of visual research.

SH: I was in Brazil already at the time, I moved to Brazil in the early ‘80s. I remember the wall coming down but from afar. I did a lot of visual research with Google and movies, and TV series.

Were there any specific movies or TV shows, Sam, that you used for inspiration?

SH: I saw an old TV series that Antony recommended me. I don’t remember the name now.

AJ: I think one of them was Sandbaggers, wasn’t it? Which was a 1980s spy series of which I’m a big fan.

The DVD and Blu-ray will be released on Nov. 14. Are there any special features that you’re excited about?

AJ: I may be honest, I actually haven’t seen it yet myself [Laughing]. When I went to the set they interviewed me for the extras, so I assume I’m on it somewhere. I’m most excited to hear Dave Leitch’s commentary, because I know that he’s recorded a commentary for it. Having spoke to Dave over the course of making the movie I’m really interested to hear his commentary on the final product.

SH: I’m interested to hear more from Sam Hargrave explaining the stunts.

Both sound like excellent choices. Earlier we mentioned the amazing soundtrack, but I’m wondering if there are any songs you two had in mind when creating The Coldest City that you wish had been included?

AJ: Not for me. I listen to music when I’m working, but I’m not one of those people who builds a playlist for specific works. And I’m very purist in the sense that when I write a comic or a novel or something without sound, I don’t think of things like a soundtrack, because I want to make sure I’m making the best comic I can or the best novel I can, rather than thinking of it as a movie or a TV show. I will however say that the soundtrack features some of my favorite 1980s music including things like “99 Luftballoons” and my favorite ever Siouxsie and the Banshees track, so I was very happy with it.

SH: Yeah I loved the soundtrack as well. I wish I had thought of the possibility of doing my own soundtrack when I was working on the art. I do like to surround myself with the time period or theme of what I’m drawing, but it just didn’t occur to me that there was so much good music in the 80s.

AJ: See this is because you moved away when you were too young.

SH: We still make music here!

Have you seen renewed interest in the book as well as the prequel since the movie came out?

AJ: Oh yes, yes. There’s absolutely been interest in the book and the paperback edition, which has the movie cover on it, I know has done very well. It’s great that people are getting into the book as a result of enjoying the movie.

SH: Yeah and we’ve had international editions as well. Here in Brazil for example it was published as a hardcover and so I’ve been doing a lot of launches and signings here.

AJ: Yeah we’ve got some translations throughout Europe as well. There’s one in Germany, one in Spain.

There’s been a lot of interest in a sequel to Atomic Blonde. Would you like to see something done with the book prequel, The Coldest Winter? Antony, I’ve heard you’re working on another book focused on Lorraine–is there more from this universe in the works?

AJ: As you say, there is a second book Coldest Winter, which focuses on David Percival, James McAvoy’s character. So, who knows whether something may happen with that. I am working on a third book, which focuses on Lorraine again. Whether that will be the basis for a second movie is kind of out of my hands. I mean obviously I’d be delighted if it were. It’s also possible that if there is a second movie, it may go off completely separate from the books in a different direction. But I trust those guys–if they wanted to do that, I have complete trust in that they would make a great movie regardless.

I know that everybody wants to make another movie, it’s just a question of getting the financing, getting the studio behind it, that sort of thing. But creatively, I know everyone involved would like to do another one.

When might we see that third book?

AJ: I’m literally just sort of planning it at the moment. I don’t want to give any sort of date commitment at the moment, because inevitably I’ll fail to meet it. But rest assured that I am working on it.

Is there anything you can tell us about the book? What it might cover?

AJ: No. Only that it does focus on Lorraine again, and that’s all I want to say.

Is there anything else that either of you are working on?

AJ: My next big release actually is a spy novel, which comes out in the UK next month from Lightning Books and that’s called The Exphoria Code— like euphoria, but with an x. And that is the first in a new series of modern high-tech spy novels set in Europe.

SH: I do a series of books for England and the States by Candlewick press. They’re based on heroes and heroines from British history and legends. I’ve done Robin Hood and King Arthur, and I’ve just finished the fourth book, which is about Grace O’Malley, who was a pirate in the 16th century. I also do a lot of Brazilian stuff that doesn’t get to Europe or American, and I’m writing an original graphic novel which I’ll start illustrating in about a month.

Atomic Blonde comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, Nov. 14.

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