‘Fall Guy’ Screenwriter Drew Pearce On Creating a Blue-Collar Hero’s Journey

Pearce explains how this movie about movies is a universal story, and how Ryan Gosling ended up crying in his car to Taylor Swift.

Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt in The Fall Guy. Universal Pictures

Screenwriter and director Drew Pearce has two words tattooed on his right hand: The End. It’s a reminder of why he does what he does, especially in Hollywood where it can be incredibly difficult to bring a story from page to screen. Pearce’s script for The Fall Guy took five years and dozens of drafts. The film was conceived back in 2019 when producer Guymon Casady approached him and director David Leitch with the idea of reimagining 1980s series The Fall Guy, which starred Lee Majors as a stuntman who moonlighted as a bounty hunter. 

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“When everyone came to me I think they assumed that I might be a little bit sniffy about it,” Pearce tells Observer. “But when I was a kid it was my favorite show. I used to watch it with my dad on the sofa—it was our show—and stunt people became my childhood obsession. In our backyard, I set up a stuntman training circuit and I would time myself repeatedly all through the day to try and get faster and better at the stuntman circuit. Ultimately, it would turn out I have a crippling fear of heights, so that really didn’t lead to a career in any linear sense, but I had a relationship with the show.”

The film stars Ryan Gosling as stunt performer Colt Seavers and Emily Blunt as Jody Moreno, a film director making a Dune-like epic called Metal Storm. After a breakup, the pair are reunited on the film’s set in Australia and it’s up to Colt to save the film from its renegade star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It becomes a high stakes, life and death struggle that involves some truly impressive action sequences. Pearce sees it as a hero’s journey. “There was something really attractive about a blue-collar hero whose superpower is his ability to take hits and be the one that can get back up again,” he says. “That felt noble and modern and universal in a way that really interested me.”

Pearce is currently writing and producing action thriller T-Minus for Amazon MGM Studios, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1974 short story A Little Something for Us Tempunauts, alongside Michael B. Jordan. He also recently wrote and directed Cooler, with Dave Bautista, who Pearce calls “one of the best actors of his generation.”

“When Dave read the script, he said he’d never been more anxious, and I think that’s an exciting thing to go into directing,” Pearce says. “There are another couple of things that we’re also circling and, and, honestly, the halo effect of a movie The Fall Guy and its success can also help smaller projects grow as well. Someone once said, ‘Every movie is a miracle.’ And it’s true. Even the bad ones are incredibly difficult to get made.”

Here Pearce tells Observer about adapting The Fall Guy, writing stunt sequences and how a Taylor Swift song ended up in a key scene. 

Drew Pearce, screenwriter of The Fall Guy.  Dave Bennett

When you’re adapting an existing TV series, how much do you incorporate into your version and how much do you create from scratch?

This was super open and specific simultaneously. [But] there was never any suggestion that we have to be faithful to the show. Bounty hunters don’t really exist in a tangible, entertaining sense anymore anyway. One of the things that I loved about the show when I was little and on revisiting it was just a vibe. There’s a kind of looseness to The Fall Guy that is reminiscent of late-‘70s American filmmaking. Obviously, it’s the network TV version, but it reminded me of The Long Goodbye and California Split. There were a couple different approaches to the film. One was a big Mission Impossible-type movie and I prepped one of those as well. But the one I loved the most, and the one that they ultimately did too, was essentially a noir with a bumbling, central investigative figure. And nothing scares people more than saying you’re doing a modern-day noir. But that entryway into it was a better way to tap both the reality of David [Leitch]’s history as an authentic stunt person.

The thing that became increasingly important was the romance at the heart of it. If we were going to treat the romance, as I hope we do, with an unexpectedly grown-up and subtle tone, in order for it to sit in reality, then the rest of the movie had to sit in a recognizable reality as well.

Director David Leitch and Ryan Gosling on the set of The Fall Guy. Eric Laciste/Universal Pictures

How did you navigate how meta you could be about movie-making?

I took a base level line of sophistication about the movie-making process. While there is a film [within] the film and there are jokes about process, which often present as meta, my approach was actually to park all that stuff farther down the road. My big thing going in was how to make it universal rather than meta. The thing I feel strongly, in all of my work at the moment, is trying to tap into the class system of the unseen and the seen. It’s coded into The Fall Guy’s theme song, “Unknown Stuntman.” I thought there was something universal about a person who is paid to be put in harm’s way for the sake of people who are literally described as “above the line.” 

How did you come up with the fictional film they’re making, which is a big-budget space cowboy movie? 

I had a long list of all the things it could be—some of which I can’t say because if we don’t anger the movie gods we could get a sequel. But it was always going to be sci-fi because it felt like a contrast, and on a practical level those are the most expensive movies. We wanted the jeopardy of Jody’s situation to be as extreme as possible, so it had to be expensive. But it had to be smart enough so that you believe the character when she says, “This is going to be a good idea,” and dumb enough to be a joke. If Jody was making a movie we could all tell was going to be rubbish, it would feel like undercutting the character. She is a 39-year-old female director being given a huge chance with a studio picture. Her passion and her idiosyncrasy had to be baked into Metal Storm. It’s a lot easier to do Tropic Thunder and have a movie that is patently ludicrous. This isn’t quite so ludicrous. I mean, it is a cowboy space saga, but her sincerity about it is really important. 

Emily Blunt in The Fall Guy. Eric Laciste/Universal Pictures

Making one of your lead characters a female movie director feels really aspirational since women don’t typically get those kinds of opportunities in Hollywood. 

Yeah, it’s a bit of a Field of Dreams thing: If you build it, they will come. The world should be a place where there are just as many, if not more, female directors doing $200 million space movies as there are men. Originally, in the first draft, Jody bounced around as heads of department. At a certain point we just went, “We should make her the director.” It was a two-part decision. On one part it was on a character level, the more responsibility she has, the more difficult it is for Colt to to drop out of the investigation or be truthful. And on the other hand, yeah, this should be a world that has female directors directing $200 million sci fi movies. 

Ryan Gosling in The Fall Guy. Universal Pictures

How detailed did you get about the stunts and the action sequences in the script?

Because I have a great working relationship with David that’s very granular. The work we do on the page on the action sequences, certainly on a character level, totally reflect most of what ends up there at the end of the day. Like Kubrick said, you don’t remember a story or plot or anything about movies. You remember moments. And I agree with that. The same is true of an action sequence, even if it’s ten minutes long. Action sequences should be like musical numbers: if they don’t move the plot forward or move the character forward, if things don’t change from the beginning of the song to the end of the song, then the songs shouldn’t be in the musical. The same is true of an action sequence. If the movie doesn’t change from the start of an action sequence to the end of an action sequence, it shouldn’t be in the film. That’s action for the sake of action. You know, as much should change between characters or story in an action sequence as does in an intense dramatic two-hander. 

One of the things that makes this unique is our ability to use back-of-house movie equipment onscreen. On my original list I was like, “Can a character use a camera arm in a chase sequence?” That’s an idea that made it through from the first list to the poster. At one point, there was a far longer, very exciting motorway chase with Colt on the camera arm swinging in and out of cars, which I am sad didn’t make it in. 

There are a lot of cinema Easter Eggs in the movie. Was there anything you really wanted to pay homage to?

A lot of the images are buried into the DNA of the movie. For example, the unbroken shot at the beginning of the film that we use to introduce Colt and Jody’s romance is actually a reference to my favorite stunt movie, The Stunt Man with Peter O’Toole, which also begins with an unbroken [one shot]. In The Stunt Man, the coolest part of it is they step onto a cherry picker and the camera still doesn’t break and it goes up with. Our sequence does that as well. We’re using it to establish the romance, but it felt like a really good, heavy nod to one of the best precursors of our kind of storytelling. There’s a lot of deep love baked in there. 

There’s a scene where Colt is crying to Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well.” Was that song always in the film?

That one developed as we went along, for sure. We always had Ryan crying in a car because who wouldn’t love Ryan crying in the car? But it evolved into Taylor Swift. Originally, David had this notion that they met at a KISS concert and so all the songs in the movie at one point were KISS songs. Then when we found out the movie would shoot in Australia, rather than London or Berlin or LA, I went on a bit of an Australian music tear. So I do think at some point, it INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart.” But I’m really glad that it came to Taylor because it feels more modern. As a dad, as Ryan is, you have such a granular knowledge of Taylor Swift’s catalog that you definitely do imprint huge life moments onto her songs, whether you notice yourself doing or not.

Is the idea that there would be more movies centered around Colt and Jody? 

Again, it’s hubris to taunt the universe with your hopes that there might be sequels. But he’s a brilliant character that suits Ryan really well. A guy with a skill set that is both amenable to action, but also not obviously heroic or aggressive is really attractive. It’s significant that our lead character in this movie only handles a gun once and when he does it’s actually a fake gun that has blanks. A great hero for our times is somebody who is trying to help people, and who is, for the most part, trying to avoid fights rather than getting into them, even though he knows he can handle himself. There are a lot of places you can take that character. And the great thing about movie sets is that they move around the world. This is the tip of the iceberg of all the stories we all have about working in films. I’m definitely not worried about there being a lack of material.

 

‘Fall Guy’ Screenwriter Drew Pearce On Creating a Blue-Collar Hero’s Journey