Seeing The Coldest City adapted to the Big Screen: A Conversation with Antony Johnson
Oscar® winner Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent during the Cold War in ATOMIC BLONDE. She is sent on a covert mission into Cold War Berlin where she must use all of the spy craft, sensuality and savagery she has to stay alive in the ticking time bomb of a city simmering with revolution and double-crossing hives of traitors. Broughton must navigate her way through a deadly game of spies to recover a priceless dossier while fighting ferocious killers along the way in this breakneck action-thriller from director David Leitch.
In our interview, Antony Johnson tells us about what Charlize Theron brought to the role, seeing his work as a film and his next project; The Exphoria Code…
What was your reaction when you first heard that The Coldest City was going to be adapted to film as Atomic Blonde?
(laughs) Let’s go with the hard one first (laughs)
Yeah. My first thoughts where very mixed, I was obviously very excited but having gone down this road before with books that have had the rights purchased, I was also cautious of not getting too excited because Hollywood is a fickle beast and its very easy for these things to get optioned and then to languish, fizzle out and then nothing actually happens. So at the very first moment I was excited but not too excited and I became more excited as time went by and I realised that this was actually going to happen, we where going to get a real movie out at the other end of the process.
Awesome. Can you talk about your style of working and the working relationship you had with Sam on The Coldest City?
I have known Sam for almost 20 years and, he is British but lives in Brazil, and I know him from comic conventions and what have you, and I knew that he would be the right fit for the way in which I wanted to tell the story visually of The Coldest City.
So Sam has a very stark noirish, delineated black and white style, this sober kind of style and that’s exactly the sort of storytelling that I was looking for in The Coldest City and so because I’ve known him, although we never worked together before, because I’d known him and I knew that he was a good person and would be a good person to work with, he was my first and only choice for the book and luckily he said yes, you know, and got to work. I’d actually finished the script before I approached Sam, because I wrote the whole thing, because it’s a graphic novel, I wrote the whole thing in one go as if I was writing a prose novel, so I didn’t think about who was going to publish it or who was going to draw it or anything like that while I was writing it, I just wanted to get the whole story down and so then after that when I realised I had a book I was proud of on my hands I started to think about who would draw this and so that’s when I approached Sam and he’s the same age as me so it was very easy to draw on shared cultural references of Europe in the 1980s.
Okay. That leads me onto the next question nicely, what was the inspirations for writing The Coldest City?
My inspiration was that I have always loved Cold War spy thrillers but I’d never written one. I don’t know why. By the time I wrote The Coldest City I had already been a writer for over a decade but for some reason I’d never written one of my favourite genres to read and watch which was Cold War spy thrillers, so I wrote the book for myself, like I say in a big block because I just wanted to get this idea out of my system and once I started, once I’d made the decision that I was going to do a Cold War spy thriller I thought “what was the most exciting place in the Cold War?” Berlin of course, you know what other city is there really to talk about in the Cold War and so that was how I decided to bring the focus onto the city as much as the characters. Once I decided that it was going to be in Berlin I was like “alright when in Berlin exactly?” and again what was the most exciting time in Berlin, well surely it was in the weeks leading up to the wall coming down, which is an event I remember watching myself on live TV as a teenager and being transfixed by it and watching the live pictures on the news from Berlin as the wall was torn down. So all of these things kind of felt logical, if felt like well if I was going to do this it makes sense to do this because this is the most exciting place and time and period of history in which this sort of story can take place and so from there it was then a case of constructing a story that would work with all of those elements and then of course creating characters like Lorraine who would work within that story.
What was the most challenging part of putting the graphic novel together?
I think the most demanding aspect from my point of view, obviously Sam would say the many many hours that he put in drawing it (laughs), from my point of view as the writer, it’s probably that a graphic novel unlike….when you write a comic series, you know when you’re writing Superman or Batman or something like that or Spider-Man, the you’re writing month to month and you know you’re writing a serial and literally every month you write a new Superman story or a Spider-Man story, whereas writing a graphic novel like this its more like writing a screenplay or indeed a novel, and so the hardest part is really making sure that it all works as a single complete unit of fiction, because that is, for me anyway, the most satisfying thing about writing a single story like this is having a story that exists in its own world and its own thing that you can pick up and you know it’s just this one singular thing that doesn’t rely on any other work and that’s actually quite tricky to do in the medium of comics because people still expect, or are so used to and expect serialised fiction, the graphic novel is still a fairly young form in comics, so I think it was probably the pressure I put on myself to make sure that this was worthy of being a graphic novel and a story that was worthy of the format that was ironically, probably the most difficult thing that I did was the pressure that I put on myself.
As a writer there must be a level of trepidation when you hear your work is going to be translated to the big screen, can you talk about your involvement during the filmmaking process?
I was a co-producer on the movie so I was consulted, I read the first draft of the script, well I read all the drafts of the screenplay and I visited the set, I was consulted on casting, I gave notes on early rough cuts of the movie, so I was consulted. On the other hand I am not a filmmaker and so I had to and was happy to put my trust in people who do this for a living and let them interpret it and let them make their own thing, that was, of course based on and inspired by my work, but it was their work and their own thing and I was very happy to do that partly because I do adaptations myself, I occasionally take books and works of prose and turn them into comics, so I understand the process from the other side.
But I said to them “I already made the best graphic novel I could, now it’s your job to go and make the best movie you can. I’ve done what I do, now you go and do what you do”.
I think you have to have that trust if you’re going to have a good relationship with you collaborators and luckily then happily it came out the other end that’s exactly what they did, it’s a great movie and I was very very happy with it. So yeah, I had complete confidence in them to interpret my work in a way that would make cinematic sense.
Having a talent like Charlize Theron bring the role to life, must have been a pinch yourself moment…
I think what impressed me most of all and if you ask the stunt people just the sheer amount physical abuse that she went through to make the movie, but what impressed me most of all was, and this was one of the reasons why I was so excited when Charlize said she was interested in the role, was that she is not afraid to be unglamorous if that’s what’s required of the role, if that makes sense for the role, and there are some Hollywood actors who perhaps wouldn’t be so keen to be shown with bloodshot eyes and bruises all over the place and you know staggering about and falling down, you know because they’re exhausted, but Charlize knew that’s what the character was and that’s what the story required and she was completely 100% on board with that and that I think was probably the most valuable thing that she brought to the role because she understood that this was necessary for the story and was more than happy to show her character in that way.
What was your reaction when you saw Atomic Blonde for the first time?
I thought it was amazing, I was blown away. The first time I saw it was a rough cut of the movie so you know there where special effects that where unfinished and some of the additional dialogue hadn’t been recorded so I saw it in what you might call less than ideal circumstances and I still, even then, thought it was amazing and I could see immediately that Dave Leitch, the director, was going to be in serious demand (laughs) as soon as Atomic Blonde was released because it is so singular and stylistic, it has a point of view and I love movies that have a point of view, a style and are not afraid of them, not afraid to display them, and yeah Dave and his work with Jonathan Sela the DP (Director of Photography) and Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir the editor, they put together this amazing looking, amazingly cut and amazingly paced movie that is, on the one hand very very similar to my book, but on the other hand feels completely different, feels very much like its own thing that exists in its own world and yeah I was absolutely delighted.
Is there one scene that you felt particularly captured the essence of the graphic novel for you, from a visual point of view?
That’s a really good question. I would say there are two and those are the initial briefing scene at MI6 with Charlize, Toby Jones and James Faulkner in all the lovely wood panelled and leather backed chairs, you know, of Toby Jone’s office, that just really captures the feel that 80s slightly drab, slightly noirish feel that the graphic novel had.
The other I would say is a scene that is actually wholly invented for the movie but feels like it belongs in the graphic novel and that is at the Wall when John Goodman’s character Kurzfield meets with Lorraine, Charlize’s character, and they stand and talk whilst standing on a post, a viewing post, looking over the Berlin Wall, and that scene actually isn’t in the book at all but it feels like it could have been, it very much felt, to me as I was watching it, like something, it felt like it had come from the graphic novel, and those are both, you know like I said, like the graphic novel, very much quiet sober scenes, they’re not the big action scenes but they felt very faithful and very loving towards the original book.
Are there any other adaptations from beloved graphic novels that you find particularly good?
Oh what a question (both laugh)
They’re getting harder (laughs)
Yeah, they’re putting me on the spot (laughs). Let me see, let me see. Do you know what? I’m going to…….yes there have been many that I think are great but I am going to throw people for a spin and say the original Men in Black movie, most people have no idea that is actually based on a series of comics, a series of independent comics from I believe the late 80s. But I love that movie and I think it was exactly a great example of taking the essence of a comic book, you know the source material, and then making it its own thing and then turning it into its own entity as a movie and, you know, what a great movie that came out of it in the end. So yeah let’s go for that Men in Black.
If you could give any other graphic novel the Atomic Blonde treatment like The Coldest City, what would you choose and why?
One of my own or any graphic novel?
It can be any graphic novel…
Oh wow that is a very tricky one. Just for my own selfish purposes I would say Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series from the 80s and 90s which was published by DC Comics under their Vertigo label. It’s impossible, it would never happen, it’s too long, it’s too weird, it would cost all the money in the world, you know it’s absolutely…..it’s a complete fantasy but if I have the power to make anything happen that’s the book that I would like to see on the big screen.
What is on the horizon for you, anything you’d like to tell us about?
My next publication is a novel, a modern spy novel starting a new series which is called The Exphoria Code that’s EXPHORIA from Lightening Books and that is a technology led modern spy thriller that comes out on December the 14th.
Atomic Blonde is available on Digital Download on 2nd December, Blu-ray™ and DVD from 11th December, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK).