It’s one of the most stunning seven minutes of filmed action in years. Undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) enters an apartment building to find and stop the snipers making it impossible to sneak her asset, Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), out of East Berlin. In one long take — or at least what would appear to be one — she fights a series of well-trained assassins, using both hand-to-hand combat and her gun in a scene that is both viscerally exciting and edge-of-your-seat thrilling.
IndieWire recently talked with Sam Hargrave, the “Atomic Blonde” second-unit director and stunt coordinator, who both choreographed and shot (camera operator) the scene to find out how they pulled off this remarkable piece of filmmaking.
Why a Oner
Director David Leitch was a legendary stunt coordinator/second-unit director in his own right – with “Bourne,” “Matrix,” and “Wolverine” movies on his resume — before he teamed up with co-director Chad Stahelski to make “John Wick.” When he called Hargrave to work on his first solo directing project, “Atomic Blonde,” the stunt coordinator was honored his mentor would ask. He did though have one concern, though.
“[David] said I always wanted to do an action scene as a oner [a long continuous take],” said Hargrave. “I thought that was a horrible idea, at the time it was a fad — with ‘Birdman’ and the ‘The Revenant’ coming out. Action should always be about character and story, not a gimmick.”
Hargrave voiced his concerns, but Leitch asked him to hear him out.
“He said, ‘No, you are with Lorraine and you get to feel what it’s like to be in action scene, not first person like a video game,” said Hargrave. “We could experience how exhausting and physically grueling it is to be in a fight like this.”
Hargrave was sold, except he was doubtful a Hollywood star could fight well enough for that long a period.
Hargrave has worked with numerous Hollywood stars in big action films. Like Leitch, he loathes close-to-the-action handheld shots that obscure the fight choreography — while masking an actor’s physical limitations — but supplies the energy the scene needs.
“Normally what we do instead, and it’s what I assumed would be the case with Charlize, was we set up the camera for the actor to do four or five moves, cut, give the actor a breath, then move the camera and do the next set of moves,” said Hargrave.
As Leitch and Hargrave watched video of Theron training, they quickly realized they weren’t dealing with a normal Hollywood star.
“I’d put her in the top one percent of actors who do action,” said Hargrave. “She’s up there with Hugh Jackson in terms of ability to maintain choreography – she could clearly do 20 moves in row without a problem, whereas five is what you’d expect — and her work ethic was off the charts.”
According to Hargrave, because fighting is only a part of their job, most stars train hard but often do the bare minimum required of them. Theron, on the other hand, was keeping her trainers at the gym, pushing them, determined to master the basic moves Hargrave and Leitsch had laid out.
“Seeing this, our minds started to race about the possibilities of what we could do in that oner,” said Hargrave. “David’s dream started to become a very real possibility.”
It Isn’t One Take
Jonathan Prime/Focus Features
Hargrave is convinced Theron could have done the long continuous action scene in one take — he watched her do it in rehearsals many times. Art direction, not performance, was the problem and why they would need to cut.
“We toyed with the idea of one continuous take, but then just because of the idea that we wanted every action to have a consequence [it was impossible],” said Hargrave. “When people get hit there’s going to be residual effects — blood, cuts — or a gunshot would put bullet holes in the wardrobe and walls. There were legitimate, logistical things that nipped that idea in the bud.”
Hargrave collaborated with the visual-effects team, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, and Leitch to find moments where they could mask edits.
“We call them stitches, little edits, seamless cuts [aiding with some digital effects blending] where we can make it appear like one long sequence,” said Hargrave. “That allowed the art department to show progressive damage [to the actors and the set]. There were continual takes that went on for a minute and half before we had to hide an edit and that would allow us to do 25 to 30 uninterrupted moves. You could let action live in a way I like to see it happen, the way I think audiences are looking for, especially with female action heroes — she’s getting help from the camera, but she’s living in these wider shots where you can concentrate on and appreciate the the fighting.”
Stairs and Safety
Hargrave likes the idea that in a few months people will be studying the scene on YouTube trying to find all the masked edits, but there was only one — involving the treacherous stairs — that he was willing to describe during the interview.
The location used for the scene is a real location, which is purposefully designed around a staircase and hallway with a railing overhanging the stairwell that builds an automatic sense of danger as we anticipate that the violent struggle will lead someone to be thrown over the railing.
“We wanted to use those stairs, but we also wanted to play against expectations,” said Hargrave. “Instead of having someone go over the railing, one of my favorite bits is where Greg, the guy who gets shot, he basically collapses from exhaustion and losing blood and just falls down the stairs.”
Nonetheless, the fall backwards a flight of stairs is a dangerous stunt, requiring highly trained performers.
There are also tricks to make it safer. Sections of those walls and stairs were padded with one-inch foam that the art department painted — any blemishes would be smoothed out in post-production with visual effects. This allows a scene to be done repeatedly and safely, with sound effects added to sell the fall itself.
While the stunt coordinator was extremely impressed with Theron’s stamina and natural abilities, having her do a dangerous stunt like a tumble down the stairs would be illogical.
“Our stunt double [and assistant stunt coordinator] Monique Ganderton, who did a lot of great stunts for Charlize and most of them you’ll probably never know, which is the hallmark of a great stunt double — performing the character, it’s not just doing the moves — she did that first part of the stair fall, the actually falling down the stairs and then we overlapped Charlize — there, I’m giving away one of our stitches — the last half of the roll where she didn’t have to go upside down and risk hurting her neck or an ankle,” said Hargrave. “There was a blend, we mixed their bodies together [in post-production] and Charlize is the one who hits the wall at the end.”
The camera person — required to go up and down the stairs with reckless abandon — also needs to be able to take a fall, which is the one reason Hargrave himself took over camera-operating duties for the unique scene.
“Running backwards down the stairs, holding the camera, trying to focus on what’s in front of you is difficult and you need to be able to protect the camera,” said Hargrave. “There were times filming certain takes where I would lose my footing and fall down the stairs.”
One of the other reasons why it made sense for Hargrave to operate is that he had lived every beat of the scene for the two weeks it took to design, rehearse, and shoot it.
“The script just said she goes into the building and they fight,” said Hargrave. “With location scouts we picked this building. We liked the claustrophobia of the stairwell and [DP] Jonathan Sela and David liked the graphic look of the space — but the stairwell was also wide enough to work in because we had to get the camera operator and performers in that space.”
Hargrave and his stunt team then took four days to conceptualize and map out every kick and camera pan. According to him, much of what a good choreographer has to do is figure out how to build in important dramatic beats that utilize the space.
“From a logistical standpoint, there was no elevator and we started walking it, and said ‘Gosh, it’s going to take too long for her to walk [to where the action takes place],” said Hargrave.’ “If we are doing it in one shot, you have to time it and figure out how to build tension. Ultimately, the art department had to build an elevator to get her there quicker.”
Working eight-to-10 hours a day at the location, Hargrave and his stunt team would film the scene with her digital camera and cut it together to show Leitch. At night, or whenever the first unit wasn’t shooting, Hargrave would meet with Theron for a few hours to go over the choreography. Eventually they would get a full day to practice it with Theron at the location and then another four days to shoot it.
“All told, from conceptualizing it, to rehearsing it, to designing and shooting it, it was probably 10 to 12 days,” said Hargrave. “And we needed every minute of it. These things only work when everyone is on the same page and working in unison.”