The Fall Guy

For big action movies like The Fall Guy one of the go-to editors in Hollywood is Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, ACE. She talks about her approach to get action to flow properly, and her love - and distrust - of music in creating that flow. Her long-time First Assistant Editor discusses creating a safe, creative environment for his editors.

Today on Art of the Cut we speak with editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, ACE and her first assistant editor, Matt Absher about The Fall Guy. 

Elisabet has been on Art of the Cut for many of her big action, stunt spectaculars, the first John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Bullet Train. She’s been nominated for ACE Eddies for her work on Deadpool 2 and Kate.

Matt Absher has been a first assistant editor on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Deadpool 2, Nope, Us, Atomic Blonde and John Wick. He was also an assistant editor on Ocean’s 12 and Ocean’s 13.

Tell me a little bit about the shot selection for the bullhorn scene. Why choose certain shot sizes at certain points to tell the story - when to deliver in close-up?

RONALDSDOTTIR: I wish I was clever enough to give you an essay about it, but a lot of it is just what works for you. Everything [director] David [Leitch] and [cinematographer] Jonathan Sela shot was extremely well covered, so we had great options.

It’s like carving out something. You just keep going. And once I have the scene assembled, I start going through every single shot for certain moments - what’s going to work best. But also with actors like Ryan [Gosling] and Emily [Blunt], it’s not hard. 

When you are cutting a scene like that and working through the process of that over a long course of time, do you feel like you need to get the structure of the scene at the beginning and then you work out performances and stuff as you go?

RONALDSDOTTIR: Especially when we’re so well covered, it’s very important for me to get the structure. Where do we land? Then carve our way there.

There’s also a great split-screen scene with Colt and Jody on the phone. It had a great sense of motion. Obviously a lot of that is the director and the DP and the choices they’re making. But talk to me about building that whole split screen scene.

RONALDSDOTTIR: The split screen scene was scripted. The day they did it, we would test it to see if it worked and later we did get some visual effects assistance in timing on of the camera movements.

How were they shot? Were they shot all one side first and then you had to deal with that? Do you remember who they shot first?

RONALDSDOTTIR: They shot Ryan first and then Emily, but they were both on the phone and they were both in the same space when they shot it.

It worked really well. We did shorten it later. There was also the question of when to start the split screen. When would be a good moment? We could have started it the moment she called or wait for it. We also tried different variations of getting out of it.

Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, ACE and Matt Absher

Let’s talk about intercutting between the karaoke scene with Emily and the garbage truck fight with Ryan, which is going on at the same time. How much of that was scripted and how much of choosing the moments to cut between were because you wanted to accentuate a story point or emotional beat by picking the moment of the intercut?

RONALDSDOTTIR: There are several intercuts in the movie. Everytime we intercut it’s to not lose sight of the lovebirds, because they are so amazing together. So if we would have stayed with the garbage truck sequence for the whole time, we would have lost Jody. 

And vice versa - if we stayed in the bar with the karaoke, we would lose Colt. So it was an effort to keep them together basically, and also amp up the excitement of it. There were so many fun opportunities to keep them together. 

There was one shot that was supposed to happen: It’s when Ryan drives past the karaoke bar and she’s singing. That was shot specifically for that moment. It was tricky because we had to get to that moment, but we also had to keep the song in sync.

And it’s an epic song. You can’t cut it to pieces. So we had to like keep that moment going long enough for the drive by to hit at the right moment in the song.

ABSHER: And you had to cheat the geography of the run a little bit.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Yes, this is not a documentary. Just enjoy the fun of it. And we shut down that bridge and what was the name of the bridge?

ABSHER: The Sydney Harbor Bridge.. We shut it down for six hours, I think, which was pretty epic for the city. It got a lot of news coverage as well. Also for the explosion in the harbor. That was an actual explosion.

RONALDSDOTTIR: That was crazy!

ABSHER: We went out and watched that.

Another classic Sydney landmark is the Sydney Opera House. That’s in a scene that is supposedly a oner, but it’s edited as a big montage. Can you talk about trying to build that? I’m sure you had so many options with stunts and the craziness and coverage to build that montage.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Great coverage. And it was so much fun to cut between Metalstorm [the name of the fake movie] and The Fall Guy movie.

We wanted to showcase stunts. The core of the scene is how we do stunts, but at the same time, we don’t want to lose the love affair between Jody and Colt. So that was kind of the focus we had: the stunts, and how can we keep that love affair going through that sequence?

Did you find that you needed to massage that love story aspect as you progressed from the dailies edit to the later versions?

RONALDSDOTTIR: No, we were all very much aware of that from the beginning that that had to happen.

ABSHER: There is a fluidity to all of it. If you watch it, there’s kind of a dance vibe going on between the two of them that had to be dug out. You don’t script something like that. So it wasn’t just balancing the stunts and the romance. There’s a fluidity to the motions in those cuts.

RONALDSDOTTIR: That was very much something we aimed for.

You and I have talked about that before: your experience as a dancer, or a dance editor. Talk to me a little bit about how your background in dance informs some of that flow that you’re able to create in the edits.

RONALDSDOTTIR: For me, it’s such an emotional thing. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s extremely important that I get that feeling of the flow that one cut leads to the other. I use different techniques to get that. It’s the movement of people.

You can use a movement to have it flow into the next cut - or use the characters eyes, to help you flow into the next shot. I like the flowing of cuts. That doesn’t mean that sometimes you just wanna cut, because we’re always thinking  how we can manipulate the audience into certain emotions or intrigues or keeping the story going.

But in general, I like the flow until we need something else because of the story.

ABSHER: In her process - that I’ve observed - it doesn’t use a musical spine that a lot of editors use almost like a handicap. They sort of let a cue dictate that flow. Elisabet will cut very dry. Music then has to fit and adjustments can be made.

RONALDSDOTTIR: It’s not because I don’t like music. Music is just such a powerful medium that if you cut to music, everything’s gonna look great with great music. So I always envision that you have to be able to watch it dry and find that music in the edit itself, music then becomes the icing on the cake.

Matt, you’ve worked on several films with other editors that have been on Art of the Cut. How do you move between editors - either getting those gigs or adapting to the new working style of a new editor?

ABSHER: I’ve been very, very, very lucky. I don’t know how I go from job to job really, other than just picking up the phone at the right time. I take my profession and my career very seriously. No two editors are the same, and no two films are the same, and no two workflows are the same.

So you have to adjust, but all the while keeping the principal idea that a cutting room is a creative space and an assistant has to protect that and encourage it. Different editors need different things. There’s no such thing as a perfect assistant because each editor has…

I’m laughing because Elisabet is pointing at you as you say, “There’s no such thing as a perfect assistant.”

ABSHER: But there isn’t. There’s a perfect relationship.

Yes. There you go. A perfect relationship. 


ABSHER: We do. 


ABSHER: You’re only as good as your editor thinks you are. Different editors need different things, want different things. Some want a lot of security, some don’t. Some want you out of the room, some don’t. So you just have to quickly establish what preserves their creative energy so they can spend it in front of the cut.

For somem that means that I take care of all of the static outside of the room. But some want to command every decision, and you just have to figure that out quickly. But again, the base is protecting the space of the cutting room and protecting the editor.

RONALDSDOTTIR: And Matt does. We’ve worked together for 11 years.

Atomic Blonde, right?

RONALDSDOTTIR:  We started working together before John Wick. It’s been 11 years.

BEFORE John Wick?

ABSHER: There was a pilot for HBO called The Missionary that never got picked up.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Too expensive. Too much CGI.

ABSHER: But it was a lot of fun and it should have gotten picked up. We clicked right away.

RONALDSDOTTIR: He’s the captain of the ship because he just runs everything. I do consider Matt my collaborator and we do like talking about what we’re working on and doing and character and story. He’s also my psychiatrist,

ABSHER: …and accountant.

RONALDSDOTTIR: And accountant.

Accountant? All right! What are some of the soft skills that you’ve learned from Elisabet as you’ve worked on all these projects?

ABSHER: Elisabet is really fierce protector of character. My first experience of that was on John Wick watching her go toe-to-toe with TWO directors - big martial arts guys - and staring them down on choices that she felt compelled to protect for the character.

That was really eye-opening and refreshing and it’s been like that ever since. So I could tell you stories - that I can’t tell - about the influences she’s had on projects that she really had to fight for. And it’s not ego-based or it’s not some sort of power dynamic.

It comes down to the characters - and not even story necessarily. It’s like, “Would this character do this?” That’s been a pleasure to watch - have a front row seat to that.

Do you think that those arguments were successful because they sensed that it wasn’t an ego thing and it was about story and character and just making the project better?

ABSHER: When they would sort of let her argument penetrate enough to realize that she’s protecting what they were trying to create. If she’s being this fierce about it and protecting their creative ideas, then she gains immediate credibility. If they’re a smart director, they see it pretty quickly.

RONALDSDOTTIR: We’ve been lucky. We work with the best director, and producer, that you can possibly work with: both David Leitch and Kelly McCormick.

On set with director David Leitch

You’ve talked to me for years about your love and appreciation for stunt people. That goes back to our earliest conversations. Tell me about your connection to that profession as an editor. This is kind of the culmination of all of our conversations about stunt people!

RONALDSDOTTIR: Right? My whole career is based on stunts. I’ve never done any myself, but my whole career is based on stunts. Every movie I’ve worked on that has been a part of my journey up till now - at least for the past 12 years - have been stunt-based.

We wouldn’t have those movies if it wasn’t for the stunts. We wouldn’t have John Wick or Shang Chi or Bullet Train. It’s all based on stunts.

ABSHER: On a practical level a lot of that is about communicating with the stunt team early on and collaborating with them - which she does and which I haven’t seen other editors do in the same degree of intimacy.

They can practice their stunts and storyboard and previs, all day long, but they quickly bring what they have to Elisabet before they execute it to make sure it’ll actually work. So it starts early.

RONALDSDOTTIR: It starts early because we’ve built up a relationship.

Do you deal with stuntvis early on?

RONALDSDOTTIR: We do. We don’t edit it. They edit it. Those guys and girls are a powerhouse. They just throw out stuntvisis all the time and it’s amazing. Sometimes it ends up much better than what we end up with, because when you start shooting it, you can run into all kinds of issues. It can be the location, it can be all kinds of stuff.

It’s fun working with stunts and I love that both Kelly McCormick and David Leitch, and 87 North [the production company] are so focused on making stunts story-based.

One of the things I think of as an editor myself is protecting the actors. And one of the things that I noticed on this was you protecting the stunt. You mentioned that explosion in the harbor. It was beautifully edited, but in the behind-the-scenes footage during the credits, you can actually see the boat does not go through the explosion very well, but in the movie it’s perfect.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Yeah. That’s just movie magic. Everything was practical in this movie, but some of it needed visual effect assistance, some more than others. All stunts need visual effects. They go hand in hand, even if it’s just removing wires and protective padding.

Matt, I thought you said it so beautifully the other day: “It’s all about the math. Stunts have to calculate. Then, we in post and visual effects just take out the math so you don’t see it.”

ABSHER: Remove the math.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Remove the math. So the reason the boat looks perfect in the movie is because it was a practical stunt and then visual effects came in and made it perfect.

Filmmaking is such a collaborative art, and that’s the biggest beauty for me. It’s the collaboration of it. All those different departments coming together to make a movie work.

Matt, can you tell me a little bit about how you prepare some of the big stunt scenes for Elisabet? I would think there’s so many little teeny pieces, right? It’s not like when you cut a dramatic scene where the scene goes on for three minutes and maybe you’ve got six set-ups and three takes each. This is tons of little pieces, right? How do you even organize that for her?

ABSHER: I hire good people. Our team in Sydney was amazing. Hugely talented team, which saved our lives every day. To that point, the stunts usually have all cameras running at once. So that’s not complicated.

It’s the compact tight fight sequences that have a lot of bits and pieces that have to be put together. There’s no secret to that and there’s no way I can make it any easier for Elisabet who just has to slog through that footage. I wish I could give you some sort of a better answer,

RONALDSDOTTIR: I do like bins in picture view.

What about the multicam stuff? Do you like to have it multicam or do you feel like you need to see every angle separately?

ABSHER: We give her both. She’ll get grouped clips and then she’ll get the singles in the same bin dropped down.

RONALDSDOTTIR: And on The Fall Guy we had SO much variable speed.

ABSHER: Tons, tons!

RONALDSDOTTIR: I don’t know the ratio, but it was crazy.

ABSHER: And we have to put it all back to 24fps of course, which was on us and not the lab. It was a ton of footage. We did 80 days of main unit. We did nearly 30 days of second unit. We did aerial, we did array 

days… a ton of footage, but she was not daunted by it.

And it didn’t slow us down in the way some other cutting rooms I’ve worked in where they just got quickly overwhelmed. I think that speaks to her instincts of what’s gonna work and what’s not. She knows it right away.

You mentioned hiring good people. So I’m assuming that that organization for her is done underneath of you? Or are you doing that? The actual bin organization? Is that a second assistant that does that or…?

ABSHER: Yes and no, but yes.

RONALDSDOTTIR: They do it because Matt has told them how I want to have it. We had an amazing team in Sydney.

ABSHER: Totally, totally amazing team. I’m very non-hierarchical. I like to just play to strengths. Whatever will get us in and out as quickly as possible. So every film is different based on who I’m working with and what they’re good at. We did have one assistant dedicated only to ScriptSync.

RONALDSDOTTIR: That is so important, especially when you have actors that ad-lib all the time.  It makes it fun. It’s fun to work with, but you have to organize to find those lines.

With ScriptSync did you do something to be able to use it for action scenes as well? Because ScriptSync is usually for dialogue only.

ABSHER: It was the dialogue scenes, just the dialogue.

I’ve heard of people using it for other things: literally writing out beats of action and  even music of the score and still using ScriptSync for that. Do you use ScriptSync much during the dailies editing portion or is it more when you’re working with the director that you find it most valuable?

RONALDSDOTTIR: I use it mostly during the daily process - just to go through different lines trying to find what rings best for us, but then especially with the ad-libbing when working with the director and he might say, “I remember she said this” and then we have to find it, so it’s so helpful to have it SciptSync so you don’t have to go through seven takes to find that line.

ABSHER: It’s invaluable.

Matt, what are some of the other responsibilities you have, once production moves on to the director’s cut and beyond?

ABSHER: The studio is constantly folding the schedule on top of itself. So you’re constantly in the moment or you’re pre-empting the next moment that starts right away. All sort of gears on this movie were going all the time. Sound starts right away.

Visual effects is grinding away on day one. Music. So I’m constantly sort of managing all of those elements that keep influencing Elisabet’s cut just as her cut keeps influencing them. So every day there’s a constant flow in and out, which is great. And the more you can do it, the better because everyone is up to date and contributing.

Things shift with the director’s cut of course after dailies, but it doesn’t relent.

RONALDSDOTTIR: It’s relentless. But again, amazing crew in LA as well. James Lu was our visual effect editor. We had two music editors, Angie Rubin and Dan Pinder. We also worked closely with [composer] Dom Lewis. Michael Torres was our second.

ABSHER: Kyle was another second. 

RONALDSDOTTIR: Sean Stratton was our post supervisor and Julia Schaffer. Amazing people.

ABSHER: Priceless.

RONALDSDOTTIR: And we had amazing visual effect crew. It was Matt Sloan [VFX Supervisor]…

ABSHER: Chris McClintock [Visual Effects producer]. Kate Morrison [Visual Effects Production manager].

RONALDSDOTTIR: Best thing is that we all love movies and if you love movies, you love working on them and if you love working on them, you’re in a good mood. And if you’re creative, you are not screaming at anyone. That’s just the ground rules.

We only shot in Australia. We came back to LA for post.

ABSHER: We did like seven months there. It was a long, long shoot, then back at Los Angeles for another year.

RONALDSDOTTIR: We got a bit delayed because of the strikes. We had both the writer strike and actor strike.

Are there advantages to editing on or near set?

RONALDSDOTTIR: Yes, there are. Absolutely, without a doubt. One is that you’re very close to your director and producer, so it’s so much easier to have a dialogue fx. about the dailies, and story beats. It’s so much easier than on a phone call or writing it down.

Also, because those people are extremely busy, it’s really handy to be able to sneak onto set. We love that. Also it’s easy for the director to come and look at stuff, even though it’s just to assure him everything is going well, you know? “Yeah. It looks amazing.”

I’ve talked to other editors that have talked about how important it is to just reassure the director - to be able to say, “You’re getting great stuff.” It’s good to be a cheerleader.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Well, I don’t consider either one of us cheerleaders for David Leitch. He’s just amazing. He does not need us to cheerlead anything, but it’s good as a community to be there and be able to go convince everyone you’re doing a great job. 

Which is why you want to create a good “crew teaser.” When you’ve worked shooting half the movie, just give the crew a teaser to show them how amazing their stuff looks. That’s not cheerleading. It’s just a part of that community you are in. And respecting the process, and respecting that people get tired and they need to see, “Oh, it’s working! We are doing something great! We are heading somewhere!”

In the process of looking at the movie, once you had your editors cut, when you had to get that down to the time that the movie ended, what were some of the things that either had to go or some of the struggles of trying to get the movie to a place where you felt like the story was nimble and lean?

RONALDSDOTTIR: We were pretty happy when we showed the studio the film, but we knew it was a tad too long.

Everybody always says the first act is fat. Did that happen?

RONALDSDOTTIR: That’s one of the reasons why we intercut? It might have been a tad fat, but also we intercut Colt at home on the phone with Gail, with him working as a valet. The reason for it was not only to shorten it, but also for ColtC2B4s motivation.

Originally we showed him as a valet. Then he went home and got the phone call from Gail, but in order to get his motivation, to leave for Australia, stronger and how much he missed stunts in general was to have him drive that car, as a part of his decision to go.

If I remember correctly, you’re hearing the conversation with Gail before you know he’s a valet.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Yes. So we moved it so she calls him and when she says, “So you’re a valet” and he tells her the correct name of the restaurant, that’s when we cut to the valet scene. It used to be the other way around where we start with the valet and then go into the phone conversation.

The script is great, but this is where you translate to a different language - which is the moving image language. It just becomes too much. So he’s a valet and then she tells you he’s a valet. So why are we hearing it twice?

So that’s why we decided to condense those and cut them together. And also it got his motivation when he hears Jody, then he can take off in that fancy car.

It made that decision more based on his relationship with Jody. Was there any more of that Jody relationship early on? It seems like it gets mostly told in that big oner… or at least it plays as a oner.

RONALDSDOTTIR: It plays as a oner. It’s an amazing shot and Ryan really is the guy who falls down. It’s crazy. I think everyone was super nervous that day.

Because it’s a oner you can’t really add or subtract from it… like, “Oh we need a story beat to find out that the stunt might not work, or add a bit more about the relationship…”

RONALDSDOTTIR: We did a lot of ADR for that scene just to draw out stuff for clarity. To help introduce the movie star and producers standing by the monitor, stuff like that that we try to help with it. They go from that trailer… 

ABSHER: …all the way to the eighth floor of the building then they throw a major movie star off the ledge.

As if acting isn’t enough, but then to realize “I’m about to fall backward…”

RONALDSDOTTIR: Ryan’s told the story that that’s why he needed the glasses -so we wouldn’t see the fear in his eyes.

I believe it.

RONALDSDOTTIR: It’s a testament to David Leitch and the crew and what the crew is willing to do for David.

How was your interaction with him and your relationship in the editing room with David? What were some of the discussions that you had? Matt was just saying how fierce you are of an advocate for character and story. Maybe that wasn’t necessary on this film…

RONALDSDOTTIR: We were very supportive of each other in the editing room. We’re both really happy with the directors cut that was shown to the studio, which is basically the same cut that you’re watching in the cinema. It’s just a lot shorter.

ABSHER: Your conversations that I would overhear often had to do with humor.

RONALDSDOTTIR: We never disagreed.

Are those conversations about humor? Questions of switching tones?

RONALDSDOTTIR: We had a lot of discussions about the humor. When was it getting too much? When was it too little? It was a tricky tone because it’s a love story within an action extravaganza, but it’s also a murder mystery. It’s two movies.

There’s a lot happening, so finding that tone took us some time. David Leitch is so good with tone. It was just a bit tricky to find the line.

You mentioned that there was also a lot of improvisation with some of the actors, so that I’m sure played into the comedy too.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Oh absolutely. But that was so hilarious. I mean those actors - they’re ugly, but God, they’re funny!

How do you deal with the ad-libs? I’m sure there’s a ton of very funny stuff and you’ve gotta decide at what point you have to say, “This is a riot, but it’s taking away from the story or it’s slowing down the trajectory of the story.”

RONALDSDOTTIR: Yeah, it was tricky sometimes, but we cry and then we just have to move on. There’s a lot of gold that ends up on the editing floor when you have such funny, amazing actors. Hannah Waddingham, are you kidding me?

That woman sheC2B4s a powerhouse comedian. We tested the movie twice. Once in Sherman Oaks, and once in Nevada: Just to try out different jokes - like “is this funnier than this?” So that’s one of the way we chose the joke.

They were all good, but just to find what worked best for the jokes where they were. Different adlibs. 

We also had very, very difficult sound, shooting on boats and cars with dialogue, but we had an amazing sound team as well. So Mark Stoeckinger has been our supervising sound editor ever since John Wick and his team at Formosa Group.

They did an amazing job cleaning up the dialogue. For example, we didn’t have to do any additional voice recording for the boat scene where Colt’s talking on the phone with Jody. They just cleaned it up! Jason Freeman was our dialogue editor. He cleaned up that freaking boat.

It’s unbelievable. We were all stunned. Frankie and Johnny, they mixed it. Jon Taylor and Frank Montano, they are the masters of Mix. They’re amazing. We mixed in the Hitchcock Theater at Universal in Los Angeles.

ABSHER: A lot of this dialogue is really hard to capture on set, not just to mention all the gear that’s going on, all the safety gear and the distance the crew has to be at. So there were definitely some real challenges that they had with sound.

RONALDSDOTTIR: They were amazing.

Elisabet and team on the mix stage.

What is the value of having an editor in the mix?

RONALDSDOTTIR: Because sound can change an edit. That’s how simple that is. Especially when you’re working with geniuses like Mark Stoekinger and his team, sound can change a scene, and it can also inspire you TO change. So I feel that’s a beautiful part of the process.

You also have to be protective of the edit because sounds can change it. You don’t want too much of certain sounds that can jump your edits. I remember once sitting in the mix where Mark had created his whole soundscape.

But it made me feel like the cuts are going too fast, so I had to go back and slow it down a bit because when all those elements come together, it changes everything. It used to be like that with cinematography as well, when you went into the DI it was this mindblowing experience!

But now they do so much DI on set, so the dailies you have are almost cinema ready. And Jonathan Sela never fails. Beautiful, beautiful cinematography. Love his stuff.

ABSHER: So no surprises in the DI.

RONALDSDOTTIR: No surprises in the DI except we had a surprise during the world record breaking eight and a half cannon roll. When they shot it, one of the cameras overheated.

ABSHER: A company in London called Fluent saved that shot. It’s a beautiful shot. It’s a beautiful arc of this car flip. I didn’t think they were gonna pull it off. It took them a couple months, but they recreated the pixels and carved out what detail was left and were able to give it back in this pristine condition. It was really remarkable.

Can we hop back to that statement you made about sound changing the pace of the visuals?

RONALDSDOTTIR: Yes, absolutely. When you’re watching something dry, it feels like you need to cut it down - like tighten it - and you keep like tightening it. But then when Mark came with his spectacular soundscape, I felt like, “Oh, we’re going too fast!” Because there’s a story in the audio as well.

There’s story in the soundscape. That’s one of the reasons I find it so important that we are given the opportunity to work together and go through both the sound and music - to go all through it together.

Elisabet and Matt, thank you so much for talking to us about The Fall Guy. I really enjoyed it.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Thank you Steve.

ABSHER: Thank you. Pleasure to meet you.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Also, I haven’t seen you lately, so congratulations on your new Art of the Cut book. I’m going to buy it and I’m gonna gift it to Matt.

Thank you Elizabeth. Thank you so much.

RONALDSDOTTIR: Take care. Bye.