Interview: Antony Johnston and Sam Hart on 'The Coldest City' and 'Atomic Blonde'

Atomic Blonde took audiences - and the action genre as a whole - on a thrill ride earlier this year.

But before Atomic Blonde, Lorraine Broughton's story was first explored in The Coldest City, a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. The Cold War spy thriller was praised by many when it debuted in 2012, and has garnered a whole new legion of fans since the film's release.

To celebrate today's Blu-ray and DVD release of Atomic Blonde, got a chance to chat with Johnston and Hart. They talk about the graphic novel's inspirations, the experience of seeing their work on the big screen, and those comparisons to Wonder Woman. What motivated you to tell this story?

Antony Johnston: It’s as simple as I wanted to write a Cold War spy thriller. I’ve always loved reading Cold War spy novels, and watching Cold War spy movies. But I’d never written one. And so I reached a point where I decided the next thing I did was going to be a Cold War spy story. And once I’d made that decision, then I started thinking, “Where’s the most exciting place during the Cold War?” And the answer, of course, is Berlin. The divided city, famously.

So I thought, “OK, so what’s the most exciting time to be in Berlin?” And that led me to think about the weeks in the run up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Which I remember watching, myself, when I was a teenager. And I watched, transfixed, as the live news feed showed East and West Germans pulling the wall down. So such a significant moment in history made sense for this kind of story.

And from that point on, everything kind of snowballed. Once I made those decisions, that it was going to be in Berlin at that time, the rest of the story kind of fell out of those decisions. And then it was a matter of creating Lorraine, and finding the right artist to collaborate with and interpret this world and bring it to life. And that’s when I asked Sam if he would draw the book. Because I’d known Sam for quite some time, but we hadn’t worked together. And I knew that he had this lovely noir, graphic style that would really suit the feel of the book, and the kind of story that I wanted to tell.

What sort of outside inspiration - comics or otherwise - did you draw from when creating the look of the graphic novel?

Sam Hart: There were a couple of things. I watched a lot of old black-and-white noir movies, gangster movies from the '30s and '40s, and spy movies from the '50s and '60s. A couple of TV series. I live in Brazil, and a lot of stuff here, comic work here, is republished in black and white. Especially Flash Gordon and DC Comics. So I knew a lot of artists from their work in black and white, not in color, as they were published in the states. So a lot of artists, I loved their black-and-white artwork. So visually, those were my inspirations.

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(Photo: Universal Pictures)

What was it like for both of you to see your work adapted on the big screen in Atomic Blonde?

Johnston: It was surreal and exciting, is the phrase that I most commonly use. Because it really was both of those things. When we created this book, we had no thought whatsoever that it would end up on the silver screen. And the way in which it was adapted, from [Kurt Johnstad]’s screenplay to [David Leitch’s] direction, and even Jonathan Sela’s wonderful cinematography. It was such a wonderful interpretation of the book, because while the story is the same, they’re quite different in feel. The book is very noirish, sober, and the film of course is very high-octane, action-packed, whilst remaining true to the story. So that I thought was a fascinating approach to take, and made for a really interesting interpretation.

It also means that the movie is very much it’s own thing, which I was fully in favor of. I told Dave that I didn’t want them to stay slavish or overly faithful to the book for the sake of it. And what I wanted them to do was make the best movie that they could, and that’s exactly what they did. So I was very pleased with the interpretation.

The Coldest City has this very monochromatic style, while Atomic Blonde has these insane pops of color. What were your thoughts on that change in aesthetics?

Hart: I loved it. I thought it was amazing, and I paid as much attention as possible to the narrative choices that they made, where they might have been faithful to the book, but also the changes they made. It was amazing. And the use of color really made a lot of sense, with the style that was used in the 80s. It would have been foolish for them not to have made the best use [of color]. So I was 100 percent in favor of what they’ve done.

Johnston: I think what happened when Dave looked at the comic, because obviously they all read the comic book. And Dave said, “Look, you can’t film this. You can’t make a black-and-white noir movie these days. That’s just an impossible thing. Could we still make a noir that was instead saturated with color, and use all of those big bright neon colors that were around in the '80s? Could we use those and still make it feel like a noir?” Which I thought was a really interesting challenge for them to set themselves. But they absolutely achieved it.

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(Photo: Universal Pictures)

Was there anything that made it into Atomic Blonde that you wished you had put in The Coldest City?

Johnston: I wish we could’ve had 80 pages for the stairwell fight scene, considering it was four pages in the graphic novel, and then it was the twelve-minute centerpiece of the movie. That’s one of the reasons that I think the interpretation works so well, is that they found those moments that they could expand upon to really drive the action and make it a much more cinematic story than what we have in the book, which is much more focused on dialogue and character and spy craft. And that’s exactly as it should be.

Because of when Atomic Blonde was released, a lot of people kind of put it in the same breath as Wonder Woman. In a way that they both were two sides of the same coin. What were your thoughts on that conversation?

Hart: I thought it was quite interesting, not only that there were too movies about women coming out at the same time, but one with Charlize [Theron] and the other being directed by Patty Jenkins, who had both worked together on Monster. So, they were both doing their own movie again, and in the spotlight again at the same time. But I thought it was fantastic, I was very happy to talk to my daughter about Lorraine and Wonder Woman in the same conversation.

Johnston: I think it’s great. I don’t think there’s any question that we benefited a little from the success of Wonder Woman. But I think Wonder Woman was a great film, so I’m very happy to be associated with it in that way, in sort of both movies coming out in the same summer. Even though both characters are obviously very different, and I think one of the good things about that is that we’re slowly getting to a place where not every female lead character onscreen has to be a saint, or has be driven by some terribly emotionally tragic backstory. We can have a character like Lorraine who’s just doing her job. She’s not traumatized, she’s not revenging her dead daughter or anything like that. She’s just doing her job, and she’s doing it as well or better than the guys, whilst not being an especially nice person about it. And that’s okay. And I really like that we are slowly getting to a place where we can do that with impunity. And we don’t have to hold up every female character as some kind of idealized role model onscreen.

Hart: One observation I was thinking about - I like that they weren’t too politically correct [with Lorraine]. In one sense, for example, she’s smoking [throughout] the whole movie. Which is very faithful to the '80s, and to the comic book. I had a lot of fun drawing the spiralling smoke and I think they did as well.

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(Photo: Universal Pictures)

Do you think there’s more story to tell within the world you created, either in comics or film or some other medium?

Johnston: I’m working on a third book at the moment, which will once again focus on Lorraine. The second book [The Coldest Winter] is all about David Percival. So that is in the works. I’m not really prepared to say anything else about it at this time.

As for another movie, who knows? Everybody involved wants to do it again, from a creative point of view. All of the creators - Dave, Kurt, Charlize - everybody wants to make another movie. It’s just a question of getting financing, getting the studio behind it, finding somebody that will sort of back it, so that we can make more. But I know that the will is certainly there on the part of the creators. And the world can stand to be developed, and the world that was built within the movie can absolutely support a number of further stories.

Some people have argued that Lorraine is her own sort of superhero. And I know that you both have worked on sort of superhero titles in the past. But if the two of you were to tackle an existing superhero property together, what would it be?

Johnston: If we were going to do something in the style of The Coldest City, then I guess it would be something like The Question. It has that same kind of trenchcoated, long, tall figures that Sam draws so beautifully. But you know what? I’d love to see, just from a fan point of view, I’d love to see Sam handle something much more kinetic. So I’m going to say Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, because Shang Chi is one of my favorite characters, and I’d love to see Sam’s take on it.

Hart: How about Lorraine and Batman?


Johnston: *laughing* Wow. I didn’t see that one coming.

Atomic Blonde is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital today.