Aside 80s TV show The Fall Guy (which is surely due a reboot), the integral role the stuntman plays in film and television largely goes unrecognised and underappreciated by the majority of viewers. However, these unsung performers regularly put their bodies and health on the line for our entertainment, their meagre reward for success being making the stars they double for look like badasses. NYC-based filmmaker E.J. McLeavey-Fishe’s latest documentary short The Guy: The Brian Donahue Story goes some way towards lifting the anonymity of the stunt craft as it reveals the life of multi-decade veteran Brian Donahue – a man who has given his all to the profession for years yet still yearns for the warmth of the elusive Hollywood spotlight. DN jumped at the opportunity to speak to E.J. about what first drew him to Brian and how this underdog story inspired him to reimagine the form and style of his documentary filmmaking.
How did you first become aware of Brian Donahue and what about his story made you believe he’d be such a great documentary subject?
I met Brian during a casting session for a healthcare commercial that I was directing, which called for a bunch of young stunt actors; Brian didn’t fit that bill, but he had such a wild personal story that I called him that night and we talked for two hours as I tried to wrap my head around how I could create a film about him. I actually recognized him from his Letterman cameos, which I remembered watching in middle school. His storytelling abilities are incredible – plus being from Massachusetts myself I definitely appreciate the accent – and I started to realize that we could create a kind of surreal interpretation of his story, jumping from anecdote to anecdote and never really knowing where things are headed.
I started to realize that we could create a kind of surreal interpretation of his story.
From a personal/filmmaking perspective I really wanted my next documentary project to be something that could be more cinematic and that would allow for a bit more of a narrative approach to how we crafted it. Brian’s story seemed like the perfect setup in that sense. We could retell his story through this vibrant collage of archival material and then craft our own scenes to support the story further, all inspired by the main interview which we shot first before anything else. And like everybody, I love a good underdog story so felt like this was a great opportunity to put someone like Brian, who is always on the periphery of a film, into the spotlight of one. After our initial interview, I got a sense of what Brian might want a biopic (not necessarily a doc) to be like and tried to keep that at the forefront of our storytelling approach.
Could you walk us through how you developed the film’s style and structure and how that influenced your production approach?
As mentioned above, we wanted to be really deliberate with how we crafted this film and not need to rely on any verite or follow-doc-type moments. Instead, we started with one main interview day early on, then went into the edit and started to build the story. We gathered footage from Brian’s filmography and elsewhere and started to hone in on what stories of Brian’s might best work onscreen.
From there, we chipped away at things, finding time that aligned with everyone’s schedules to film these scenes. Some days it would just be Brian and Lori at home for a few hours, then other bigger days, like when we got permission to film Brian at UPS, we’d bring out a bigger crew and really hit it hard knowing that we’d only have one chance to capture that aspect of his life. For that day, and some of the fight scenes we shot on a MoVi which helped us add some necessary movement; since most of the footage is slow-motion, it helps to bring it to life with that camera movement.
We shot mainly on RED Dragon and Arri Alexa Mini, using Leica R lenses for everything. We also framed for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio while using standard lenses but then shot anamorphic on the fight scene days, which were the “movie” moments of Brian’s. Initially I thought we might be able to tag along to a proper shoot with him but as we made more and more progress on our own, creating these scenes, I realized it would be more effective to just stage our own stunt shoot with Brian where he could be the “star” of the movie rather than a bit character which is normally what he gets the call for. And because we were trying to shoot all of this with more of a narrative focus, I like to think that our footage ends up feeling just as cinematic as some of the film and TV projects that Brian has been a part of. We also shot some supplementary behind-the-scenes moments on Sony FS7 and an old Hi8 camera.
Once we committed to this approach, we realized just how much work it was going to be; in my previous projects it was just myself and a DP running around with an FS7 and we could film whenever (and basically wherever) we wanted, whereas here we generally had a crew of at least a few of us then other days building up to 10 or 15 people. And of course, nobody was making money on our shoot so we had to schedule our days around our commercial gigs which can get pretty tricky. But in the end I think that really helped us – everyone was committed to making this thing work in the way that we envisioned it, which required more time and effort than our previous documentary work.
We wanted to be really deliberate with how we crafted this film and not need to rely on any verite or follow-doc-type moments.
I don’t think it’s possible to give my Editor Erik Auli enough credit on this – he was so involved every step of the way with this production and working this closely alongside him while we’re shooting, not just afterwards, really shaped things the right way, ensuring that even the subtlest details were in-line with the overall tone we were going for. And Joe Victorine, the DP, understood this too.
It was hard jumping back into the shoot after months of not shooting anything for it (over the three years we probably only shot like 7 or 8 times total) but he maintained the visual tone across this whole period. And once we were able to start really crafting it in post, the folks at YouTooCanWoo brought so much to the table with their score and sound mix. Usually, with doc work, we can’t push those elements too far without sacrificing authenticity, but here it made sense to really enhance everything. Same with the color, where we worked with Jaime O’Bradovich at Company3 who grades some really beautiful, super-stylized stuff. It was a blast to be able to explore all of these things that usually aren’t an option in a doc.