Art of the Cut: Get in the Game with Ryan Reynolds’ “Free Guy”

Today we’re speaking with Dean Zimmerman, ACE about editing director Shawn Levy’s film, Free Guy.

Dean’s been a guest on Art of the Cut before for his editing of Stranger Things, for which he won an Emmy and was nominated for an ACE Eddie. I’ve also spoken with his brother, Dan about cutting the feature film, Mazerunner.

Dean’s previous credits as editor go back to Rush Hour 3 in 2007. He also cut Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, AND Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Gulliver’s Travels, Real Steel, The Internship, and The Darkest Minds among many others.

Listen while you read…

HULLFISH: Tell me about how your relationship started with the director.

ZIMMERMAN: It started almost 20 years ago filming his second commercial studio film, Just Married. We connected in a monster way. He then went off and did two other movies, and our schedules didn’t align at that point. We reunited again for the first Night At The Museum, and I’ve pretty much edited everything he’s ever done since.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your guy’s collaboration method. How do you guys work together?

ZIMMERMAN: It’s been such a growing process for so long. I was saying that yesterday, we were talking about a scene before. We are friends outside of work, as well as inside of work. Our collaboration is probably more than most; he definitely relies on me, and I one hundred percent rely on him for anything. He trusts me implicitly, and I do the same; he knows I only have his best interest at heart and to put his vision on the screen. When he does get a script, he’ll often send it to me, and I’ll read it. He’ll ask my opinions, my thoughts, my issues, concerns, any of that, and then he will make a decision whether he wants to move forward and develop that or not.

Our collaboration is probably more than most; he definitely relies on me, and I one hundred percent rely on him for anything.

HULLFISH: Do you find that most of your notes are structure-related or story-related?

ZIMMERMAN: A lot of the time, Shawn has an idea of who he wants to play certain characters. So when I read it, I have those people in my mind as I go over it and give him feedback from that point of view.

HULLFISH: With actors like Taika Waititi and Ryan Reynolds, there was probably a lot of ad-libbing. Is that correct?

ZIMMERMAN: Not as much with Ryan but with Taika, we let the dog loose; it was like he was performing a master class at the speed at which he came up with stuff that would come out of his mouth. It is so insanely ridiculous, but also so in character. He’s just so smart. He’s one of the fastest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve worked with a lot of the big giants out there, and Taika definitely holds his own to any one of the old greats.

Due to there being such an abundance of material, It was more of a question of how do we make sure that what we’re putting on the screen is super funny but still in character and doesn’t betray anything to the story.

I always try to put in all the jokes and all the ad-libs for Shawn, at least for the initial run and viewing, so that he can go see what jokes he likes or what doesn’t work for him. With Taika, we loved all of them, so we thought, why don’t we just try to keep them in there and see what audiences tell us? And what they told us was they loved it, but it was a bit too much.

When you get too much of that humor and ad-lib, it starts to distract you from the story, and it starts to detract you from his power as the villain. We had to find that delicate balance of letting him be funny and just crazy ostentatious, but also believable in this savvy business way.

HULLFISH: How do you deal with all that ad-libbing in your bins, or as you edit, are you pulling selects? Do you use ScriptSync?

ZIMMERMAN: I use the frame view as my bin for any initial cuts. I’ve got a weird type of photographic memory, so in my little window, there’s a timeline underneath, and I have markers for any kind of reset; I also have different color markers for ad-libs and stuff that’s off-script, and I memorize where certain things are that way when I go back, I can quickly jump to spots right away.

I do love “Scripter” [slang for Avid ScriptSync or Avid Script Integration, based on its old name], and it’s great for running lines, showing him all the different performances of a single line, but I’m old school in that sense that I need to see the tile [thumbnail], and I know “Scripter” has it in there, and it stays there, but it’s too small for these old eyes.

HULLFISH: So it sounds like you don’t use a select reel.

ZIMMERMAN: I watch every frame of dailies from before clapper to as far as the recording goes. A perfect example was in Real Steel, we used footage of Hugh Jackman sitting in the car at the fairground; he was listening to a song and trying to get into an emotional state for the scene, then they put the clapper in, and he drove the truck. I basically took that pre-slate of him getting ready, and we put in as well.

That was actually a Steven Spielberg pitch because he was watching dailies and saw that and said that it would be great to incorporate it somehow, and it was cool that we were able to. You never know where you’re going to find these beautiful nuggets of performance, so I watch everything.

As I start to build this collection, I will remember where the different ad-libs that I feel I can incorporate in. Some don’t always work with the structure of a scene, but you have the script of a scene, and how far you deviate from that will depend on what ad-lib you can or can’t use. Some never make it, sometimes almost all of them make it, and it’s a feel kind of thing.

It’s also about pacing for me, so if I can make it work where it doesn’t hurt the pace of a scene, I’ll do it.

It’s also about pacing for me, so if I can make it work where it doesn’t hurt the pace of a scene, I’ll do it, but if it’s starting to feel like we’re indulging too much, then I’ll start to work it down.

HULLFISH: Tell me about trying to edit with what must have been a massive amount of green screen and previs.

ZIMMERMAN: There was a lot of green screen, but I’m used to that. For me, the biggest challenge is making sure that the pace and the performances are true. I know what it’s going to ultimately look like, and I have a vision of it in my head. It’s a very unique environment, so we rely on a post-vis team that will do a cartoon animation of it. It’s a unique talent to be able to make something that doesn’t exist and stuff that’s supposed to concurrently go together with live-action.

I love using the term integrated editorial; it’s a multifaceted term because it applies to not only just visual effects, which is super important nowadays but also music and sound. With music, Shawn and I will almost always use the same music editor, Craig Hannigan. He’s been our sound designer forever, and all those pieces are tools that I’m using to make not only myself look good but also them.

I’ll give Craig rough stuff and say, “just give me some cool sounds.” Sometimes his sounds will dictate how long I stay in the shot, and it will inspire me with what I need from visual effects. We are so fortunate on most Shawn Levy films to have an abundance of resources, but also the willingness to let us run wild a little bit. Sure we will rein in on some budget stuff, but at the end of the day, if we present something that’s even better, it’s usually met with a lot of support.

HULLFISH: You mentioned getting sounds in, was it something that you got a toolkit before you even started editing dailies, or were you getting sounds in once you’d get a scene?

ZIMMERMAN: Like I said, working with Craig for as long as we have, I have a fairly large toolkit, so I utilized that, but Craig is such an artist he likes to do everything from scratch, so mine is just a template and a roadmap for him.

HULLFISH: How quickly are you stripping in actual sound designs from him, or do you not do that until the end?

ZIMMERMAN: I do it as I cut, so I pull a scene, and I’ll have one of my assistants do a rough pass of sound. What I am good at is knowing what kind of tone the score needs to be.

HULLFISH: How did the movie evolve from the original assembly as you guys started to hone the picture?

ZIMMERMAN: If I had to give a percentage, we were 85 percent from the editor’s cut. You know, I have the best text ever from Ryan Reynolds. I got it when the movie was released on Friday night, he texted me later that night, and it said…

“Congrats on the amazing ‘Free Guy’ review, my friend, so well deserved. You had that sucker firing on all cylinders before I even sat down in the chair, working with you is such a gift. I’ll never take it for granted. Lots of love to you and the whole family.”

HULLFISH:  Do you remember the editor’s cut length?

ZIMMERMAN: We started at about 1 hour 48 minutes.

HULLFISH: Wow, that’s only ten minutes from the final run time; that’s incredible. One of the things that I noticed was that it had an almost Groundhog’s Day kind of feel, and I loved how each day was repetitive but still slightly different.

ZIMMERMAN: Everything’s intentional in editing; there’s always a reason for you picking a certain performance. For Free Guy, I didn’t want it to be boring, and as Guy was starting to feel his AI become more sentient, this leads to change a little bit; his view of the world changes. We needed to show them different sides of him.

Ryan’s one of the best collaborators I’ve ever experienced, he not only knows what he wants, but he’s willing to engage in any kind of creative process. It’s great.

HULLFISH: Was he in the edit suite?

ZIMMERMAN: Shawn offered, and he came in for a few days. It was a blast for us to watch the movie, laughing and having fun. He’s got such great ideas so having that resource in the cutting room is incredible.

HULLFISH: Can you talk to me a little bit about the dynamics slowing down the humor and taking a moment to feel the emotions, and be quiet for a moment?

ZIMMERMAN: It’s a really good question because in comedy if every scene is super funny, you get fatigued, same with action scenes too. The preview process really helps us gauge where that fatigue is and be able to do something about it. Oftentimes, we have very informal friends and family screenings prior to taking it out into the world to work through those issues.

With Free Guy, we wanted it to have those unabashed video game visuals, full of eye candy everywhere but then have these beautiful moments of quiet, where he’s sitting in his apartment, or waking up and saying hi to his fish, or having a nice walk by the water with Jodie’s character.

There were some great moments of calm and what we found is nowadays people really want to be on this ride, and the tolerance of how long quieter moments or the intimate moments can be, is really where you have to sculpt and find it with the audience reactions.

HULLFISH: How do you deal with having so many layers of effects and plates?

ZIMMERMAN: That is one of my favorite questions. I think for me, I will politely and very definitively tell my assistants if you make more than 7 video tracks and 18 audio tracks, we’re in trouble. If you can’t fit it into that, you shouldn’t be my assistant.

If you make more than 7 video tracks and 18 audio tracks, we’re in trouble.

I just don’t feel like there’s any need for anything more than that. I’m such a visual person I need to see all the tracks. If I have to scroll, something’s going to get messed up, and I hate that.

I won’t even start cutting a scene unless, at the most, there are 10 video tracks and 18 audio tracks. I like to see all my layers in front of me when I edit so I can see where things need to be pushed and pulled and dragged out.

The more movements you have to do on your mouse, the more clicks you have to make, the slower you’re going to be. If I can have everything right then and there, I don’t have to use my finger to scroll up and down or click over to the bar to drag it up and down or zoom in zoom out. I actually get to work. It’s so much more efficient having all my tracks labeled how I want them. I also color code, so everything has a different color.

HULLFISH: Do you color code the tracks or the clips, or both?

ZIMMERMAN: I color code visual effects green, avid visual effects brown, dailies are gray, ADR is yellow, music is blue, sound effects are orange, and of course, there are different shades. It’s beautiful because it actually is very colorful on my timeline, and it’s such a quick reference for me visually when I’m cutting.

HULLFISH: I have a few scenes from the movie cued up, and I was wondering if we could talk about them. This scene of Guy walking around this big city is so complex and entertaining.

ZIMMERMAN: There are so many little things that are happening in the background, the 98-cent store, instead of the 99-cent store, the homage to certain things. These are all just the little Easter eggs that we keep putting in. This is where we were really tapping into our video games resources. We had the experts in and asked them what Easter Eggs they would like to see. We are also seeing Guy going through his routine every day and not noticing the extreme violence around him. He is just a background player that is ultimately going to get robbed 350 times a day; that’s just his life.

When he first puts on the glasses, we see the world change around him, but this shot in particular, when you watch, you’re seeing these radical camera moves as if you’re in a video. This camera move is completely unachievable with a normal camera. It wraps around him with this fast whip around, and we did it using this special camera, it’s a brand-new technology that we broke on the show.

If you’ve ever seen clips of cars being put together, those big robot arms that grab pieces of metal and apply them onto the car and then get bolted on. That was what we were using; it was a robot arm from a car manufacturer that they strapped a camera to and developed this program to be able to have this arm move in a way where we can simulate a video game view.

HULLFISH: Here is a scene where the two cops first confront Ryan’s character now that he’s turned from an NPC to one with more free will. Explain that concept a little.

ZIMMERMAN: It was one of the first times we see gamers in the real world enter the video game as characters. The scene that precedes shows the human characters Mouser and Keys sitting at their computers, and we actually reshot a scene of Keys “picking his skin” because it was one of those notes when we got into post where there was confusion of what’s happening and why.

The notes were that the two guys looked different in the game than they do in the real world, so showing them picking their skins for the game helped, reinforcing the narrative that these are characters in a video game.

HULLFISH: In this next scene this is where Guy meets Jodi Comer’s character for the first time. What I didn’t realize until I watched the clip was that there is slow-mo, but you’re still able to sync her singing to the music, which is impressive, and she is able to quote all of the phrases from the NPCs.

ZIMMERMAN: Everyone has their little catchphrase, and she is in her singing fantasy; it just happened to be that Ryan catches her, singing it, and hears it.

We start to slow-mo here. This was all just a timing thing. The quick edit is just enough where it’s slow-mo, but we can slip the sync here and there. It was definitely a dance between the picture and music edit.

HULLFISH: The next scene we should talk about is the “Glock in your pocket” scene.

ZIMMERMAN: There are a few interesting things in this scene; one is that it’s not Jodie doing the flip. We actually had a stunt person do it, and we digitally put Jodie’s face onto the stunt double.

This whole scene got really blocked out, it was so complicated, but all those cars in there are real. That blue racecar in there is a real million-dollar race car, which was fun.

It was so choreographed that as they started to shoot, Shawn would call me from set and say they were going to change a bunch of stuff and asked if it could work. All I could really say was that I didn’t know until I saw the footage, but of course, it would be too late by then. So what actually ended up happening was I went to set and worked right with them. We hooked my Avid into the camera, and I was live capturing the footage as they were shooting it.

HULLFISH: With capturing right on set, I’m assuming there was no metadata, and you had to eye-match that stuff back in when you got the digitized footage?

ZIMMERMAN: We had the metadata from the actual camera, and we were using the video assist proxy files. Long story short, we didn’t have to eye-match, we did have a time code reference in the metadata, but we couldn’t auto-conform it. We did a similar thing on Real Steel, where we were capturing live off the camera.

HULLFISH: Dean. Thank you so much for your time.

ZIMMERMAN: My pleasure. Anytime!

Steve Hullfish

Stephen Hullfish is an internationally respected producer and editor, and has written six books about the professional scene in Hollywood. He has edited seven feature films, including "Courageous" and "War Room", as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show". Steve has also worked with industry leaders like Avid, Adobe, Blackmagic, Fujifilm, and Tektronix on technical and creative projects, and produces bespoke training for companies like the NHL, MLS, NBCSports, and Turner Networks.