SPOILER ALERT: This article breaks down scenes and unveils plot points.
If you’ve watched the red band trailer for Shane Black’s The Nice Guys you already know it’s littered with unadulterated insanity. Opening May 20 from Warner Bros, the film is set in 1970s Los Angeles where bad luck private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and hired muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) work together to crack the case of a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Along the way they uncover a conspiracy in the car industry that reaches the highest of power.
From opening title, The Nice Guys smacks you with unapologetic violent humor that keeps circling back and feeding you more. It’s as if Black said, “I’m going to give you Lethal Weapon pumped up on drugs with a syringe filled with funny. The chemistry between the mismatched duo is what makes the film so inviting. Even when they are at each other’s throat or the odds are stacked against them you’re laughing. Tasked with piecing the comedic whodunit together was editor Joel Negron along with first assistants Meagan Costello and Jo Dixon.
“I read the script and absolutely loved it,” says Negron. “When I met with Shane we talked about the story and how we both really enjoyed the 70s era – we were on the same page from the very beginning.” The editor looked to movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon for inspiration. “Shane has only directed a handful of films but you can immediately tell it’s one of his own. You look at Tim Burton, Spielberg and some of the big names out there and it’s rare to see a style as a director – Shane definitely has one.”
Negron used the well-versed script as the backbone to his edit and harnessed the era’s style to build the interactions between the Gosling and Crowe characters. “When the footage started to roll in and you see the chemistry between them, it almost becomes its own entity that you hand nurture during the edit.” The editor is no stranger to comedy duos as he’s cut films like 21 Jump Street, and the key to his success has to been to diligently mine through the dailies. “In the Avid there’s a program called ScriptSync and we make sure to have every single line of dialogue whether it’s ad-libs or alternate takes in script form. It allows us to comb through each version to look for patterns that are working. Once you get one going and it feels good and it feels right, you go with it and it evolves from there.”
One of those moments happens outside the steps of City Hall where Holland and Jackson find a group of silent protestors wearing gas masks. “The scene was initially a very funny sight gag as there’s this big group of people just lying on the ground, but Ryan came up with a couple of funny lines that make you go with you gut. You ultimately have to decide on what will make the audience laugh. As an editor you might think comedy is subjective but it’s really not because you have to make an entire audience laugh. It’s a personal thing for everyone watching but it’s a broad thing for the entire audience,” says Negron. “We had several different ways to approach that scene but we managed to make all the jokes work by by finding the right rhythm.”
The editor was also keen on finding the timing between the characters to make the comedic moments even more enjoyable “We would build scenes according to how they were shot and then added things we thought were funny. We would then go back in and look at it to see what wasn’t making sense. To find the correct timing we had to make sure Russell said lines a certain way that would make Ryan funnier or vice versa. Sometime Russell would say something that was totally funny but it didn’t play off of Ryan at all. That was a point we were always conscience of throughout the entire movie,” says Negron. “It’s interesting how you can take just eight frames off a look from Russell after a line from Ryan and it’s not as funny.”
Comedic timing played into a scene when Jackson walks into a bathroom to find Holland sitting on the toilet. Holland just was beat up by Jackson moments earlier and the two are by no means friendly. In fear of getting hurt again, Holland is left exposed and tries to keep Jackson at bay while struggling to balance a newspaper and a handgun. “It was a moment where we didn’t want to overstay our welcome,” notes Negron. “We did have it a little longer at one point, but thought it would be snappier if we got the joke and then got out. People are going to laugh at the funny parts but then you’ll lose them if you stay too long. We really went back into the dailies to hunt for all of Crowe’s eye flickers and looks to build that scene, and right now, it’s at a perfect length.”
The Nice Guys has a plethora of story lines to follow – and it’s a good thing. Porn stars are dying, Jackson is beating up Holland, hitmen are trying to kill Jackson, another one is trying to kill them both, Holland is raising a daughter by himself… all the while the two are looking for Amelia who doesn’t want to be found. Balancing it all was a challenge for Negron. “The reason the movie works so well is because of the script. Whenever you deviate from it you introduce confusion. We tried to make sure each story line was understandable and concise. When we did deviate from the script, we did so very carefully, putting in comedy bits that were always story related to keep the audience focused.”
A larger sequence that needed to be sewn together happens when the detectives get a tip that Amelia might be a party thrown by a filmmaker in the porn industry. The scene opens up with an overhead drone shot as Jackson and Holland pull up to the location revealing an enormous mansion with dozens of party-goers drinking, dancing, and frolicking in the nude – even a band is playing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.” “One cool thing we had was footage from three complete music videos of the Earth, Wind & Fire song. We ended up taking those dailies and made select reels of all the various pieces. Select reels of the dancers. Select reels of the party people. Select reels of all the different comedy bits. Once we had the Jackson and Holland story beats set within the party, we went back and chose different selects to interject into the story to build the sequence.”
Another challenge that might not be as obvious was making sure everything in the film was period. “What people might not recall was that Los Angeles in the 1970s was a very smoggy, polluted place. It was before the catalytic converter so we were conscience to stay true to the era both in terms of sound and visuals,” says Negron. An extensive amount of visual effects needed to be done for the film. Everything from removing cars, streets signs, lines and posts to changing out billboards and buildings. “Producer Joel Silver was very particular about the look of each shot and we ended up adding added a lot of dirt and smog into the frame. For a scene where Holland steps out of a pawn shop in search of Amelia, he walks onto Hollywood Blvd which was actually shot in Atlanta, Georgia. We had to completely rebuild Hollywood Blvd for that sequence with visual effects.” Post gave a similar treatment to sound by adding the weight of V8 engines giving a smoggy quality to them. “When you add all these different elements up they enhance the overall feeling to the story,” says Negron.
The violence was something the director and editor didn’t shy away from either. “We were always trying to push it as far as we could. It’s not gory violence, but there are some violent scenes that we play for its humor.” One in particular happens when a hitmen chasing Jackson gets run over by a speeding van. “When something bad happens to the people in this movie for some reason it’s funny. It’s not meant to be painful and violent but rather entertaining. When Beau Knapp’s character gets struck, we all laughed – it’s just funny.”
Another abrupt violent moment is when Amelia is shot by a hired assassin, John Boy (Matt Bomer). Shortly after Holland and Jackson find Amelia they move her into Holland’s home where they believe she will be safe. But John Boy finds her, and during a frantic shootout between Holland and Jackson, Amelia runs off only to be later shot by her would be assailant. “What we tried to do when Amelia dies is make that moment as unexpected as possible. In the scenes leading up to it, you feel the importance to her character, like she’s going to be an essential part of the story. She is, but we tried to make it seem as if she’s going to appear again,” says Negron. In her final moments Amelia walks over to a car that John Boy is driving to ask for a ride and in a long shot we see the light from the gun and hear the gunshot before she falls straight to ground. “To me, that’s a really violent scene. It’s a character you get to know then you basically see her get shot in the face from a distance. It’s very shocking in a good way.”
The entire shoot out sequence at Holland’s home was one the editor really enjoyed working on. “The scene is a perfect balance between action, comedy and story. When you see Jackson at the window and he asks Holland for a gun which ends up getting throwing out the window – you laugh at it but they’re in a very dangerous situation. It’s a tribute to Shane’s script that was so well written. It was the backbone to our process and what made this project – something I’m particularly proud to be part of.”
Photos: Daniel McFadden/Warner Bros