From “Children of Men” to the opening scene of “La La Land,” so-called oners are all the rage these days, as directors design scenes (or entire movies, a la “Birdman”) to look as if they were filmed in one continuous take. But surely none has been more complicated than the nearly 10-minute, “single-shot” action scene in David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde.” In this jaw-dropping set-piece, Charlize Theron’s secret-agent character ushers her “package” inside a rancid old Berlin building, fights her way upstairs and back down, then out into the street, where the sequence continues as a car chase, replete with exploding windows and somersaulting SUVs.
Leave it to Leitch, who served alongside Chad Stahelski as a stunt coordinator and second unit director on movies such as “The Matrix Revolutions” and “Jurassic World,” to attempt something so audacious for his directorial debut. From the get-go, Leitch was inspired by two things: “Children of Men” and a mandate DP Roger Deakins had once given him. Leitch was shooting second unit on “In Time,” and Deakins challenged him, “How do we stay with the character?” he recalls.
Early on, producer Kelly McCormick, who also happens to be Leitch’s wife, told the director, “If you ever had something you wanted to do in a film, this is your chance to do it.” For more than a decade, Leitch had been looking for an excuse to stage an elaborate action-driven sequence shot, “But as a fight director, you’re beholden to your director,” he says. “This movie is an independent movie, so we needed to find bold ways to strike out.”
Also, shooting a typical car chase would have cost more and demanded more days than the film’s budget allowed. “If you had done it in a conventional way — like an earlier fight scene with a fire hose — there would be a lot more coverage, where you’re doing 25 to 30 setups a day,” Leitch says. “For this sequence, you’re doing three setups a day, but to get it right, you have to do 15 to 20 takes of each one.”
Technically, the “Atomic Blonde” sequence is made up of nearly 40 separate shots, discreetly stitched together to appear as one. Orchestrating it required close collaboration among multiple contributors, from cinematographer Jonathan Sela to editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (both “John Wick” veterans), and left no room for error. “You are committing to the pacing, and you are hoping that the rest of the movie accelerates to the point you want to be at this moment, and that this scene lives at the correct speed within it,” Leitch explains.
To pull it off, “We shot the scene chronologically all the way through,” says Ronaldsdóttir, who was on set for the entire sequence to make sure each of the cuts worked, since the goal was to make those transitions as invisible as possible. Sela elaborates: “We had to choose the take we wanted right there, and that’s the one we’d have to match to.” That meant the next shot had to be framed almost identically and, if the handheld camera was moving (which it nearly always was), the shot had to be picked up at the same angle and momentum.
For the location, the team found a real Berlin building — although it didn’t have an elevator, which meant cheating Theron’s ascent: The camera follows her into a fake elevator, and when it pans down to check her gun, there’s a “stitch” before she exits on the fourth floor.
The simplest cuts occur when the camera swish-pans quickly, or when a door frame provides a vertical seam to connect two segments, although nearly half the splices required a CGI assist, Ronaldsdottir estimates. “There are all kinds of tricks,” she says. “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.”
Things got a lot more complicated once the characters exit back onto the street and steal a police car. “That was three different locations, because we couldn’t own six whole blocks, and we had to use greenscreen, because you can only shoot the background plate of the car flipping once,” says Ronaldsdóttir, who relied on visual effects supervisor Michael Wortmann of Chimney Pot to make what audiences see through the window fit the handheld camerawork.
Meanwhile, Sela entrusted stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave to operate the camera (an Alexa Mini versatile enough to fit inside the car with the actors), since Hargrave had designed the choreography of not only the actors but also how the camera ought to capture them fighting when there would be no cutaways to mask the blows.
According to Leitch, “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.”
Overall, the stairwell sequence signals a shift in the movie. Until that point, everything has been relatively smooth, and the fight scenes are neon-lit and set to vintage ’80s pop songs. “Charlize and I had many discussions about making the third act where we would see the consequences of action, and to ground it as the character spiraled down into the darker Berlin,” he continues. “We’ve been enjoying these musical set pieces, and now we kick up the pace and rip out the music so it’s just raw sound design.”
The camerawork switches to handheld, keeping the character tightly within frame. For nearly the entire sequence, it’s Theron up there on screen — except when the character is being thrown against the wall or augured down the stairs. “I’m sure everyone would be game for it once, but there are certain moments where you just can’t take the risk,” Leitch says.
And yet, it was important to show that Theron’s character is not a superhero, but a human being. “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,” Leitch says.