This is how "Atomic Blonde's" intense and climactic stairwell fight came together
Atomic Blonde has a number of dramatic and dynamic fight sequences that really show you just how badass Charlize Theron — who stars as British spy Lorraine Broughton — truly is.
But one sequence stands out among the rest, and that’s the intense and climactic stairwell fight toward the end of the film. In that sequence, Lorraine heads up a stairwell and takes her opponents out one by one. She takes a number of hits, too, because the filmmakers really wanted Atomic Blonde to feel hyper real, just as they wanted her opponents to feel worthy of a powerhouse heroine.
Stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave — who also appears in the film as fallen agent James Gasciogne, and note, had not seen the final sequence at the time of this interview — spoke with HelloGiggles about how the action-packed scene came together, and how the action was heightened through the absence of music. It all took a lot, but it was well, well worth it.
With that, here’s what went into the stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde.
HelloGiggles: The stairwell fight sequence is action-packed, and it goes on for quite some time…
Sam Hargrave: When we did it, I believe the fight itself — we start that one long take from the time she enters the building, to when she exits — is six or seven minutes. Then, she gets in the car and there’s a car scene that goes on for another four or five. So I think the whole thing is between 10 and 12 minutes.
HG: That sounds right, and I think this sequence is where you really see some hyper-real action. What did you want to do with this big, final sequence? There are so many elements to it, so how did you bring it all together?
SH: It’s kind of humorous actually. David came to me before the project [kicked off]. We were discussing the action and he just mentioned offhand like, “I’d like to do one of those long takes of action. I’ve always wanted to do this. What do you think?” I was like, “That’s a terrible idea, David. Everyone’s doing it. You’ve got Birdman. You’ve got Daredevil. Everyone’s doing the long takes. Let’s not do it just because it’s cool right now. It has to fit the story.”
And he sold me on it. He said, “No, it does. Hey, listen. Hear me out. The idea for this final bit is I want to bring the audience into the film so much so that it feels like you are in the action sequence with the character, Lorraine Broughton. I want people’s hearts to be pounding out of their chests. I want them to be out of breath. I want you to experience what it’s like to go through something like this.” I said, “Well, that’s a terribly fantastic idea. You’ve come to the right place. We’ll do our best for you.”
Then we started getting some clips of Charlize’s training. And that really said, yes, she can handle this, we can do this, it’s going to be phenomenal. So we started training her on even longer takes. We found the location and in the script it was just, “Lorraine walks into the building and fights two assassins.” So we embellished on that concept quite a bit, added a bunch more people.
What we really liked about the story is — and I’m not knocking, I loved the movies — but in the John Wicks and the James Bonds, you have a lot of faceless villains. A lot of cannon fodder, as we call them. What we tried to do — not just with Lorraine, but with the villains — is establish them throughout the movie. And then bring them back for a climactic battle where they’re just as hard to kill as our heroine is. So instead of her going through 30 guys and being like, “Oh, these guys are terrible,” these are highly trained professional assassins who are just trying to do their job, as she is.
We cast stunt performers, stunt actors in these roles. Daniel Hargrave was one, Greg Rementer, Daniel Bernhardt. So we set these guys up throughout the film and then they come back for this sequence. The hope was that you’re invested in both sides, where you’re like, “Oh, these guys have been around a lot. They’re tough. These guys are badass.” We show that, then they’re all taking punishment. It’s kind of a war of attrition, who’s going to outlast the other.
That was the mindset behind it, and then the practical side was a logistical exercise for sure. How are we going to execute this in the time that we have? And realistically, fighting up and down across four floors and into a bunch of the rooms? Can we do this all at once? We did a few tests and it just wasn’t feasible to do in a true oner. So we broke it down into a number of large, but manageable chunks where we could build in and edit, so that we could add the progressive stages of damage to the character. Add a little blood here, there’s a bullet wound here. So there’s things that — just for the story, for the continuity of it — we had to keep progressing as the people got more and more damaged.
We’d try to find those moments where we could cut the action and then blend it seamlessly with the next piece. We called them stitches as we were going. I forget the exact number, but we put in a number of stitches that we worked very closely with visual effects to try and hide, or make it as seamless as possible for the effect of one long, continuous shot. You start with her and you’re completely in her back pocket for the entire ride. You get to feel each punch and each fall, and each time she has to dig deep and throw the next technique. You really got to struggle along with her.
HG: There’s an absence of music in that sequence, which I think only amplifies the intensity of the action. It’s very powerful.
SH: That’s awesome. I will take credit for that one, just because we were doing some research and I think David had a similar instinct. I said, “I think it’d be a really good idea, because music is so powerful and so present throughout the whole movie, to just take it all away and let the sounds of the environment live.” A great example of it was the car chase in Ronin, where for seven minutes it’s only source sound. There’s no music.
It’s the difference between sitting back and bobbing your head and being entertained, and when you turn off that soundtrack. We did a little test for that. When you take away the sound, you lean forward. The absence of the soundtrack brings you deeper into the story, because your every sense — not just your visual, but your hearing — is waiting for the next thing. You’re so on edge. It’s great that they did that in the final product. I’m happy to hear that that happened.