Antony Johnston on Adapting The Coldest City Into the Charlize Theron-Starrer Atomic Blonde

This summer, audiences will be seeing Charlize Theron taking down spies as Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde. An adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City, it opens up a world that was created by British writer Antony Johnston as it goes into the game of espionage during the height of the Cold War. I recently sat down with the writer to talk about what inspired him to go deep into Lorraine’s story and how Charlize got involved with bringing his graphic novel into the big screen.

1) What inspired you to write The Coldest City?

I grew up during the Cold War, and at the time it felt like it would never end. So when the Berlin Wall fell, it was such a shock. I watched it come down on live TV, glued to the news, and it made a huge impression on me, this notion that the world was forever changed, literally overnight.

I'd already decided that if I was going to do a Cold War story, it would focus on Berlin — it was the epicenter of geopolitics at the time, a really unique place packed with spies and rife with espionage. And so what better time to set a story than when it was all about to come crashing down around their heads? And then that decision led to the development of the plot itself, and it all just sort of steamrollered along from there.

2) With The Coldest City adapted into the film Atomic Blonde, did you pitch the adaptation to the studio or did they reach out to you?

The book was published by Oni Press, and they have an entertainment arm alongside their publication business, so they and their partners took the book out to pitch to people as a movie. It was actually optioned just on the strength of the script before the book was published and drawn. They took it out initially, but it wasn’t the studio that optioned it, it was Charlize Theron’s production company who optioned it, and then later Focus Features and Sierra came on board to finance and make it. It was her company, Denver and Delila who actually optioned the rights.

3) Did Charlize Theron get a chance to read the graphic novel The Coldest City?

I believe so yes. They [her production company] bought it on the strength of the script and the concept. From conversations with her since and when I went to visit the set while they were filming, I believe quite a few people there read it, and I gave them signed copies of the books when I went to visit them.

4) Since you got to see the set, did you imagine the book to be like how the film has built it?

The movie is different in its feel to the graphic novel. The graphic novel is very noir-ish and it’s like a John Le Carré style story, very much Cold War, trench coats and dark alleyways, that sort of thing — and the movie is not. When David Leitch came on board, he liked the noir of the graphic novel but he said, ‘What if we do a noir and instead of making it feel stark and monochrome, what if we saturated it with color?’ And that was the end result of the movie as you have seen. So it was different, but I do adaptations myself. Part of my work is that I do things like adapting screenplays to graphic novels and I adapt a series of YA books, the Alex Rider novels, into graphic novels. I understand how it works, so I’m not offended when changes are made. I’m not precious about that sort of thing. In fact, I encouraged them when I said, I’ve done my bit and wrote the best graphic novel that I could, now your job is to make the best movie you can. And if that means changing things, then use your judgment and go for it. Obviously people like the end result, so it was absolutely the right thing to do.

5) You also met Charlize when she was filming Atomic Blonde. Did she ask you about how the characters should be portrayed on screen?

No, she didn’t need it. If I felt that she needed my opinions I would’ve offered them, but she really didn’t need any. She got the material and the character. When I was there, one of the things they were shooting were the interrogation scenes, and I could just tell immediately from the way she played the character in those scenes that she got it. She understood the character and she knew what lay at the core of Lorraine Broughton. The only thing we really sort of discussed and laughed about was the fact that in the book of course, Lorraine has dark hair and in the movie, famously Charlize has blonde hair. They were a bit worried that I would be offended by that, but I really didn’t mind at all.

6) Do you think that this film managed to show the complexities of the main character?

Yeah, and the plot in general. What’s a bit strange is that like I said, the feel of the movie is really quite different — whereas the books are very stark and sober, the movie is all action and very saturated with color. But the plot, the story, the characters, and even whole lines of dialogue in the movie are taken directly from the book. If you know the story of the book, you will recognize that story and that plot in the movie. It even has the same structure, with the framing flashback sequence of Lorraine being interrogated. So, like I said, it’s kind of strange — in one way, it’s not like the book at all, but in another way, it’s very, very faithful to book. Much more faithful than I anticipated, to be honest.

7) For those who have read the graphic novel, will they be satisfied with how the film turned out despite it’s differences?

I hope so. I certainly am. In many ways, it’s quite faithful but what they’ve done was make it into an all-action movie spectacle, which I’m all for. I love David Leitch’s other work. When he came on board as director, I was all for it. So I hope that people who have enjoyed the graphic novel like the movie, and understand that it can’t be just the book on screen. The book on screen frankly would be quite dull. What works in a graphic novel doesn’t necessarily work on the screen in a movie. Like I said, I understand that, and luckily so did everybody involved with adapting it. Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay immediately injected more action into it, to make it more of a visual spectacle on screen and I was all for that. I hope that people enjoy it — they will certainly recognize the plot, the characters, and even lines of dialogue, all taken from the book, and they will recognize those characters and that structure on screen.

8) Did you initially have someone in mind for the film whether it was a director or the cast, or did you have faith in who would be involved?

When I was writing the book, no, I didn’t give that any thought. I’m not one of those people who fantasy casts a book in my head while I’m writing it. Once it was optioned, we knew Charlize would be the star — that’s why her production company optioned it, it was always going to be a vehicle for her to star in. Then once casting begun, there was a list of people who were interested in taking part, and to be honest I was kept abreast of that, but I didn’t get involved because, for starters, I’m not a casting director. So I may like an actor or actress, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to be the best person for that part. It’s also because life gets in the way and these people all have very busy schedules and so I knew there was no point pinning hopes on a certain actor, cinematographer, or whatever because no matter how much they wanted to work on it, they just might not be available. That happens all the time, so it’s not something that I really get much involved in, and I certainly didn’t pin my hopes on anything because I know how easily these things fall apart. That said, I am delighted with the cast that we have. It’s kind of incredible that we have all these fantastic actors in this movie. And everybody gives a stellar performance, so I was quite happy to just sit back and watch that fall into place because the end result was amazing.

9) With adaptations, there will always be a good and bad when it comes to them. What do you think of how studios are tackling these adaptations? What do you think goes into their heads on what should go into these films since you’ve had experience in them?

The first time I met Charlize and Dave, I said to both of them, the most important thing is to make a great work in whatever medium you’re working in. When I’m writing the graphic novel, I try to make the best graphic novel I can. When I’m writing a book, I try to write the best book I can. If you are trying to make a movie, your job is to make the best movie you can, and I think there’s a reluctance sometimes on the part of studios, directors, screenwriters, whoever, to change too much. We hear a lot about how Hollywood changed everything and it was terrible, but actually I think there’s a tendency at times to not change enough — to be concerned about deviating too much from the source material — and I think that is a mistake. My favorite movie is Blade Runner, but it’s nothing at all like the story it was based on. It has so little in common, and yet you can feel the DNA of the story in the movie, and it stays true to its spirit. I think that is much more important than a kind of slavish faithfulness to the source material. I think that is the key to a successful adaptation — keeping that spirit of the original in there, while making something that works and absolutely taking full advantage of the medium in which you’re creating.

10) For those who haven’t read the graphic novel, should they read that first before the movie or should they read it after they’ve checked out the film?

I think if people are going to do both, it’s probably best to read the book first. But there are enough differences between them that even if you’ve seen the movie, I think you would still enjoy the graphic novel. There is also a second graphic novel in the series that was published in December last year. It’s a prequel called The Coldest Winter that focuses on the character James McAvoy plays in the movie, and that is a completely different story in setup, so that’s also there for people to sort of immerse themselves further in the world of the characters if they want.

11) Maybe there’s a chance to adapt that story or even make a sequel to Atomic Blonde. What do you think?

Who knows? I certainly hope so, that would be lovely. I would be all for that, but that is way above my pay grade. It is a decision entirely out of my hands — but fingers crossed, that would be great.

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