‘The Fall Guy’ Writer Details How Hollywood’s Biggest Stunts Inspired the Movie: ‘We Are Unashamedly Playing the Hits’

Ostensibly a big-screen reboot of the 1980s television series of the same name, “The Fall Guy” is actually director and former stunt performer David Leitch’s love letter to both his wife, producer Kelly McCormick, and the undersung art of stunt work — only not always in that order.

Working closely with screenwriter and executive producer Drew Pearce, who previously scripted his “Fast and the Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw,” Leitch creates a clearinghouse of gobsmacking stunts (some truly record-breaking) while chronicling the tumultuous relationship between veteran stunt man Colt Seavers (Ryan Gosling) and first-time director Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt). It’s quick-witted (and quick-footed) fun that bridges multiple generations of Hollywood moviemaking, melding together rom-coms and bombastic action into one blockbuster package.

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Since making his screenwriting debut on Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3,” Pearce has developed an aptitude for conceiving stories that maintain a singular yet cohesive tonal balance. On either side of his 2018 directorial debut, “Hotel Artemis,” he cooked up the story for “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” did uncredited passes on Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” and Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla,” and tackled Leitch’s “Hobbs & Shaw” alongside the franchise’s longtime architect, writer Chris Morgan.

Speaking to Variety ahead of the May 3 opening day of “The Fall Guy,” Pearce explained how he tossed the original series, ‘70s dramedies like “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split,” film history’s most famous stunts, Leitch and McCormick’s relationship (both personal and professional), and the star wattage of Gosling and Blunt into a blender to create a smart, sexy, thrilling crowd-pleaser.

When did you start writing “The Fall Guy?” What onus was on you to either revive or maintain the iconography of the TV series?

I’m going to call it a quick process, which exposes how slow blockbusters are, in that I came on board in November 2019. “The Fall Guy” was my favorite show when I was growing up, because it was on the main channel in the UK, in some bizarro acquisition. And I used to watch it with my dad. When I got the movie, my dad sent me my toy [GMC pick-up] from when I was a kid. But I realized when I came to re-watch it that a bit like everything in the ’80s, it’s actually got the vibe of the ’70s. There’s a loosey goosey-ness to “The Fall Guy” that actually reminded me of all of my favorite films, like “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split,” those kinds of loose Americana, blue-collar movies. So that’s how I ended up coming to the shape of “The Fall Guy,” which is basically, “Could you do ‘The Long Goodbye’ with some really massive stunts?”

When did the love story come into that equation?

We always had a love story, and then Ryan came on board and really wanted to run towards that — and it was an incredible instinct on his part. That’s how it coalesced. The ’80s and ’90s parts of it, we accumulated along the way. We are unashamedly playing the hits with this movie. From my perspective, like a lot of people, the last four, five years have been challenging on some level and as the process of making “The Fall Guy” went along, I relearned the value of a Friday night movie. I think maybe we all did. Ryan was on that journey anyway, and Dave and Kelly were looking to capitalize on one of David’s skills that gets overlooked, which is his comedy rather than just his action. Those three parts came together and that’s how we got the Trojan horse of this movie that it is a rom-com [where] we don’t force the life and death stakes. It’s more about the adult intricacy of having a relationship.

A lot of the action sequences evoke ones from other movies, be it “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Dune,” et cetera, but sort of plussed up with a stunt expert’s input.

I literally made a list of my favorite set pieces, or ones that [set] a record. The 220-foot fall from “Sharky’s Machine,” the “Casino Royale” cannon roll with the Aston Martin. The trashcan sequence over Sydney Harbor Bridge was Dave and I going, what’s our take on the “Stage Coach,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” distance drag? It’s a real gift to have a stunt man as your central character because you can naturalize some of the heightened-ness of what a set piece is. But I approach set pieces or stunts the same way that people approach musicals, which is, if the plot of the musical hasn’t been advanced by a song, then the song can just be lifted. And as long as the story and the character is already built in, then the rest of the team goes to town. I do a bullet pass on what the action sequence is, David finds it and plusses it, I write a more scripted version of it, and then it goes into the real world.

What does showing all of the wires, logistics and tricks of each stunt allow you to do that you wouldn’t in a traditional action film?

That’s the trick of the movie. It’s real Magic Castle sleight of hand, because we start with a big set piece [with the cannon roll] where we see how we do the stunt, but it’s still scary, because doing a cannon roll is fucking scary. And so we show the workings up front, but then, spoiler alert, some of the other stunts are assisted with rigs and other practical stunting that we don’t see in the film, but I think we’ve kind of tricked the snake brain into thinking that every single thing you see has the same amount of danger that the first stunt legitimately has.

How difficult was it to top that initial, record-breaking stunt by the end of the film while also closing the loop on all of these different narrative threads?

Honestly, the rhythm of the stunt size for me was somewhat influenced by my work on the “Mission: Impossible” movies. I think the Burj Khalifa sequence in “Ghost Protocol” is one of the best constructed action sequences ever, but it’s interesting that it comes at the end of Act Two. On one level, “The Fall Guy” is a reference to a plot detail, but on another level, there’d better be a couple of big falls in the movie, right? And it used to happen at the end of Act Two, but it was hard to then beat that in Act Three, which is why we then had to find narrative reasons for that to be the end stunt.

That’s the kind of rhythmic thinking you have to apply if you are doing an action movie or set pieces, because my biggest worry is always that it works on an emotional level and a stunt level. You don’t want to feel like the movie has been emotionally resolved going into Act Three because then there’s nothing to root for, whether that’s between the characters or the emotional resolve of the plot, and when it comes to the action, you don’t want to feel like the best has already passed.

The movie is very earnest, but it also is very self-aware of action movie tropes and dialogue. How actively referential did you want the film to be?

It was always going to be a movie about making movies, because that’s what a stunt man does. But we didn’t want it to be “Tropic Thunder.” We wanted it to be a much more universal love story and action movie. I tried to think about it as a blue collar story rather than an entertainment industry story — the best version of a metaphor for people who work really hard for the sake of richer, more successful, more seen humans, and actually risk their life for it for all of our entertainment’s sakes. That’s baked into the DNA of the idea of the unknown stuntman, so the self-referential stuff built as it went along. David and Ryan and hopefully myself embedded those quotes or tropes into a reality where even if it gives you a wry smile about what we’re referencing, it stays in the authentic reality of who the characters are.

Are there moments as a screenwriter where you go, because it’s a movie, that allows you to take that leap of escalation, or dramatic license?

That’s where Leitch is a real master of his craft. I think that you can define the tone of a movie by the movie’s relationship to death, which sounds very doomy, but for example, in the shootout in the apartment there’s a lot of incredibly powerful ammunition being let off. If any of it hit Colt, it would literally blow the top half of his body off. But because of the way David approached it, you get the frisson of the excitement from it, but I don’t think anyone’s ever expecting Ryan to be maimed on the sofa of a chic apartment. As long as the reality’s relationship to the character is that you feel something, I don’t think that jeopardy needs to feel like the reality of somebody shooting a powerful gun at you. I don’t think that’s dishonest, I think that’s the language of cinema.

David Leitch told Variety that when filming began, the third act was not locked. How much did the making of the movie in some ways mirror the telling of the movie?

I was delivering pages for the entire five and a half months of the shoot. The third act and the villain plot used to have a more realistic relationship to danger, and as the tone of the shoot created the vibe of the movie, the third act had to adapt to that. But that’s actually a joy, because you should never let the page dictate a movie as it’s being made. You work with what you’ve got, not what you planned for, and that means listening to the film as you do it.

In this case, the greatest VFX that we have is the chemistry between Ryan and Emily. That’s why, at its best moments, their relationship does feel like a Billy Wilder movie, does have that kind of zing of a classic romance. How we made this movie is organic and it is a big group of people all playing at the top of their game to feed into each other.

To what extent were you inspired by David and Kelly, given that he’s indicated that this very much is a love letter to their relationship?

I told David when I started this movie, “I want to help you make the best ever David Leitch movie.” In the first and second drafts, I was putting stuff in there that Dave, two weeks afterwards, would be like, “You stole that from my life.” Kelly was such an important voice in the development of the Jody character that it can’t help but organically become a story that’s infused by their relationship and the support of each other they have as filmmakers.

The interesting thing about this as a blockbuster is I think we have a certain understanding of tentpole movies where we assume they are there to fill a date in a schedule because of the quarterly needs of shareholders of multinationals. This movie’s very different … our real lives are in the film.

What are some examples of the moments David said were stolen from his, or even your own experiences?

Well, let me first go on the record to underline the fact that to my knowledge Kelly has never tortured Dave with multiple fire burns. But the action and the romance are fused because you’re using the language of stunts to tell the love story. As for real life, the scenes that speak to me the most are the ones [between Colt and Jody] around the hotel — the split screen sequence where Emily’s character and Ryan’s character connect properly for the first time. They’re using the language of their jobs as the way to remember what they loved about each other, and that certainly comes from my real life. Whether you work in a bakery or on a film set, mutual admiration is hot, and it’s my favorite kind of romantic dynamic — game respects game.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition between Colt’s emotional intelligence via his work, and yet his inability to communicate his feelings to Jody. How did you navigate that balance?

In the fusing of the romance and the action, Colt’s challenges and limitations as a human are part of the reason that he went into being a stuntman — his physical expression of things, but maybe his fear that showing weakness will push someone away. Now, sure, that’s what can make you a good stuntman, but does that make you a good partner?

I also think it’s worth talking about Ryan. One of the reasons he feels so unique in the landscape of modern leading men is that he does feel comfortable with his vulnerability, and yet he is traditionally masc, and is also, as an actor, comfortable in showing the limitations of that. It’s such a gift to have a leading man who’s funny and charming, but also is comfortable and even runs towards both vulnerability and flaws. That honestly is one of the reasons that he’s one of the greats.

You are screenwriter and executive producer on “The Fall Guy,” but you’ve also directed. How has cultivating those different skill sets enabled you to compartmentalize them when you’re shouldering just one of those responsibilities?

Every project is completely different. For this movie, I knew David, I know his wide skill set, so in creating the story, I want to lean into each of those. Then, directorial experience tells you when to speak up and when to shut the fuck up because the buck stops with David. And so understand that what you should really be doing is helping him make the best version of the idea that speaks to him best. I am there to offer energy, offer ideas, offer joy, offer good lines, and frankly, there is a joy in being a part of that, that only comes when you really trust the people you’re working with. The reason I hope “The Fall Guy” team stays together forever is because it feels like there is such a mutual respect for what everybody does, and a sense that everybody is working at the top of their game, that it makes it very easy to be the component that I need to be to help the movie be as good as it can be.

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