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'Free Guy' Director Shawn Levy Talks Gaming Inspiration, Balancing Comedy, and 'Stranger Things' [Interview]

Free Guy is a week away from plunging us into the wild video game world of Free City. There, we’ll be led by Ryan Reynolds‘ Guy, an NPC who’s about to realize that the world around him is virtual, making his existence fictional. But bleak as that reality may sound, Free Guy is all about joy and kindness, mixing action and romance for a story that’s lighthearted, even when the finer details could be terrifyingly existential.

The cast features the comedic stylings of Reynolds, along with Taika Waititi, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Jodie Comer, and Joe Keery. Between their riffing and the bundles of Easter eggs thrown into Free Guy, gamers and everyone else are sure to find something to get excited about.

The film has been a long time coming, initially scheduled for release back in 2020, so it’s had quite a journey to finally arriving in theaters. I sat down with director Shawn Levy to talk about the journey of making Free Guy, to finally seeing it reach audiences. Here, Levy shares the games he looked to for inspiration, settles the IP vs original ideas debate, and even spills new details on upcoming projects, including Stranger Things season 4.

I’d love to start by talking about the cast. Free Guy has this incredibly funny cast, and I know you were dealing with comedians who are really good at ad-libbing and going off. How did you decide when to reign them in, or let them go loose?

I mean, I’ve always liked actors who bring their own ideas, and I’ve always loved comedic actors who are also writers, because it not only makes them fountains of ideas, but they have an awareness of the scene and awareness of the overall story. So I was lucky early in my career, [to have] a lot of movies with Ben Stiller, with Steve Martin, with Robin Williams, Tina Fey, et cetera. And this group was kind of similarly inspired, very encouraged to improvise, but also very conscious of, okay, here’s the story we’re telling. So I’ll go off-road for a bit, but I know intuitively when to bring it back and service story.

Were there any incredibly funny moments, that just couldn’t make it into the cut?

There were a lot of funny moments, many of them belonging to Taika who plays Antwan, our absurd villain. And he is one of the fastest comedic minds I’ve ever seen, and I think someday I’m going to put out a 30-minute supercut of all his riffs that couldn’t fit in the movie.

The people would love that.

I know!

So when you were designing the video game world, I know you spoke to a bunch of developers and coders, but when it came to actually designing Free City, what was your vision? What were the things that had to be in there?

Well, the script was always very clearly inspired by GTA. So there were some aspects of the car-centric culture, the amount of carjackings and mayhem, details that are hallmarks of GTA that were going to be in Free City. Though I wanted this movie to not be quite as bleak, nihilistic, and bloody as a lot of open-world shooters are. So this is definitely kind of a kinder, gentler video game world. And we just wanted it to feel not digital, that when Guy puts on his glasses, which gives him this heads-up display, we see this rich, saturated, graphical interface. But that in general, I wanted the video game world to feel real.

It was definitely a whole different style, saturated colors, wide angle lenses, bizarre and comedic mayhem Easter eggs in the background of almost every shot. But I also wanted it to be a character in a world that you would invest in. So someone said to me, they couldn’t believe that when Rel and Ryan were running on this bridge, that they were getting emotional, rooting for the survival of two video game NPCs. But that’s exactly what we knew we were trying to achieve.

What were the other games that you were pulling from?

I definitely pulled from Fortnite as far as maybe the look of the game render characters. So when Ryan is on a screen and we see him as a video game NPC and character, that the look of that character was inspired by the overall design aesthetic of Fortnite. Other than that, I think that in the design of Life Itself, which is the original build that we revealed into the movie, I watched a lot of fishbowl games and talked to designers of a whole kind of type of game that I didn’t even know about, which are … It’s not about stealing, robbing, killing, or even leveling up. It’s about observing an evolving world and realizing that a lot of those games and worlds were just beautiful. Just as a creation of art, I found them really gorgeous and calming, and it just kind of opened my eyes to the range of game design and looks.

So there’s this really fun debate in the movie: Antwan is all pro sequels and reboots but the movie itself is this like new original thing and also has a bunch of references and Easter eggs. So what’s the final ruling?

Well, I’d like to think there’s a place for both. It was very fun to write Antwan, mocking the value of an original story, even as we are making an original story. It’s so rare that studios will give you a big budget to make a blockbuster movie, that isn’t a sequel, that isn’t based on any existing IP. And as the director, I know how lucky I am to get that opportunity. I’ve done it a few times in my career, where you make something new, and then it becomes a franchise. And it’s very, very gratifying.

So I don’t know, I just thought it was funny, because early on, an executive, who I won’t name, said, “Okay, so this movie Free Guy, what’s it based on?” And we were like, “Nothing.” And the executive is like, “Okay, you say nothing, but like, so it’s not a sequel. Is it based on a comic book, graphic novel? What?” Like, “No, no, nothing. New ideas.” Like, “So it’s a movie based on nothing?” I’m like, “Yeah. Based on creative originality.” And it was like such a foreign concept to this suit, that I wrote most of that as dialogue for Taika Waititi.

Nice! I also wanted to ask you about Stranger Things season 4, coming up. I know you’re sworn to secrecy, but we’ve heard a lot of interesting words, describing the new season, that it’s “bigger” and “more mature.” Are there any other words you can throw out for us?

Both of those are true. It’s epic storytelling. It’s still rooted in character, but the scope of the storytelling is more epic and cinematic than we’ve ever attempted before.

You also have The Adam Project coming up and you’re teaming up with Ryan Reynolds again. And I know that’s also like a sci-fi based story, but do you think it’s going to have a similar tone to Free Guy, balancing that comedy?

Yes, but it’s actually more similar to Real Steel than it is to Free Guy. It’s a sci-fi premise for a very emotional character story. Once again, exploring themes of fathers and sons, exploring themes of… I mean, it’s Ryan Reynolds coming back to enlist the help of his 12-year-old self and his father who he lost when he was young. So what if you could go back and tell your younger self you’re going to be okay? What if you could go back and understand your mom or your dad from the age that you are now? Those are the really interesting questions that The Adam Project explores, but with time travel and some sick-ass tech and big action.

Sounds epic. Back to Free Guy — it was in the works for a really long time and felt like it was trying to come out for even longer. How does it feel now that it’s getting out there?

Yeah, I think we waited a year. I think it was supposed to come out July 4th of last year. And obviously, along with many other movies, it got delayed. And we made this movie for audiences. We made this movie with one goal, which is a fun, funny, and warm movie that is built for just audience delight. And to see it finally screened and experienced by the public to read these reactions that have been all over social media for the last week has been so reaffirming. And it’s why I do my job, to entertain and to transport audiences with populist, warmhearted, comedic stories.

Free Guy releases in theaters on August 13.

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