When Free Guy hits theaters on Aug. 13, its creative team and cast promise the Ryan Reynold’s action-comedy will be an Easter egg-filled tribute to the gaming experience — with a lot of heart.
“I thought of the movie as just like, ‘What if you got the cheat codes to life?’ What if you could like walk around and suddenly see power-ups wherever you go and they give you magic abilities or money or wish-fulfillment — and sort of backed into it that way,” co-writer Matt Lieberman told The Hollywood Reporter on the carpet of the New York Free Guy premiere Tuesday night.
Lieberman, who said he felt like a background character when he wrote the film, also admitted to having some Grand Theft Auto-related guilt over “beating up” on the game’s NPCs (non-player characters), a kind of “karmic weirdness that just never felt right” but ultimately led to the big “aha” moment that became Free Guy, a video game movie he says is about kindness, free will and the idea “that you can change the world.”
Like Lieberman, director Shawn Levy was also drawn to the wish-fulfillment angle of gaming that lies at the heart of the film, which follows Guy (Reynolds), a bank teller and a background character in the open-world video game Free City. After Guy becomes self-aware thanks to the work of programmers Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery), he attempts to make himself the hero, to the chagrin of publisher Antwan (Taika Waititi).
“I feel like I have always been a casual gamer, not hardcore, but what I always loved about gaming is the aspiration. You get to choose the avatar that you wish you were and you get to do things physically that we can’t do in real life,” Levy said. “It’s always had that wish-fulfillment aspect and that sense of connection with other players in the gaming community.”
The aspirational element was “part of a personal mandate,” Levy said, for this ode to video games that is “less violent, way more optimistic and less nihilistic” than what fans might be expecting. In fact, the game within the movie isn’t even “the best game,” says co-writer Zak Penn.
“Taika’s character is not the best, most artistic boss in the world and so there’s a lot of complaints about the game,” Penn told THR. “I wrote Ready Player One as well which is very much about the same thing but in this movie, it’s much more about people collectively coming together. There’s whole subplots about people streaming it and people watching it, and starting to root for Guy.”
Reynolds, who re-teamed on Free Guy with both Levy and Waititi, agrees that the movie’s aspirational elements, including its love story, play a significant part in the narrative of the video game-based adventure.
“[Levy and I] were always trying to figure out how to crack this code of a love story where one of the lovers in the story isn’t real,” he said. “Shawn and I both cracking that code while sitting on a train commuting back and forth from New York to Boston to shoot the movie is my favorite moment that he and I have ever had together. And I think the most gripping emotional moment in the movie is as a result of that.”
Reynolds also shared how much the film’s concept of elevating a background character to a central one impacted how he and Levy worked, with the actor telling The Hollywood Reporter that he connected “more than I would have before with our background artists.”
“It really opened my eyes to that we’re all kind of carrying a little bag of rocks around. We’re all sort of the heroes or villains in our own stories,” Reynolds said. “Hanging out with those guys, talking to those guys and bringing them forward into the light of the movie was really special for me, it was special for Shawn and I think it was special for them.”
Reynolds and Levy praised each other on the carpet, with the director enthusiastically declaring that the two should have their own name and hashtag (#Shryan) after having “now made two movies in a row together” with “numbers, three, four and five already cooking.” But so did Reynold’s co-star Lil Rel Howery, who called the Deadpool star a “sharing actor.”
“Ryan’s just a really supportive actor. They would yell cut and he was there like, ‘That was brilliant. That was funny. That was great.’ I was like ‘Damn, alright,’” Howery said. “I learned a lot from working with him and Shawn on how to give and take.”
While the film isn’t quite Ready Player One, that doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to gamers. In both the world-building and filming of Free Guy, efforts were made to pay homage to gaming history, culture and even the physical experience of gameplay. Levy said one of his favorite things to film was a few shots with a robotic arm.
“We mounted the camera to essentially a robotic arm that you would see in an auto-body factory, and we programmed certain camera moves to simulate the speed and robotic fluidity of video game cameras,” he said. “We don’t shoot the whole movie like that. But there’s certain shots like when Ryan puts on the glasses for the first time where we experience the world with the kind of robotic visuals that we see in-game.”
Gaming influencer Ninja, who has a brief cameo in the film, says that the experience of following Guy as he puts on the glasses and sees the power-ups is close to his own in-game visual experiences. But the film also captures a real-world element of gaming, where people’s avatars are frequently not who they really are.
“Whenever they have a moment where Guy interacts with a player that he’s not supposed to and you get that player’s reaction in-game and then what they look like and how they react in real life out of the game — it’s super accurate and super funny because there’s so many people that portray themselves differently in a video game,” Ninja told THR.
That in-game and out-of-game world building served as the foundation for the film’s visual design, said Free Guy production designer Ethan Tobman. In a narrative with no limits, you have to create the rules, and Tobman created two sets of rules for the game’s characters and its players. That resulted in “really distinctly different visual styles, different camera lenses, different framing devices, different color palettes, different focal length symmetry.”
“Guy’s apartment is purposefully half-developed because he’s a half-developed character. So his front door has five deadbolts and no nob. His calendar is missing a full day of the week. His fridge has cereal in it, and his pantry has only spoons — no forks or knives because he only eats cereal in the morning,” Tobman said, while explaining how he explored Guy’s and Millie’s characterization visually. “Millie’s apartment is messy, has been renovated multiple times, has tons of inconsistencies because that’s what life is like outside of video games.”
And though the film wasn’t based on any specific IP, Tobman did use some familiar pop culture titles — including Back to the Future and Flight of the Navigator — in what he calls “a love letter to the ’80s movies of our childhood.” Elements of that love letter are woven into Free Guy’s mix of humorous, cinematic and video game-based Easter eggs that Tobman and the rest of the team buried into characters’ arcs and the larger narrative for observant fans.
The production designer said to expect references to popular games like Red Dead Redemption and Shadow of the Colossus, as well as screen titles like The Truman Show and Being There, the 1979 Hal Ashby-directed film “about a half-developed character who achieves greatness.” There’s even nods to the comic strip “Metropolis” and stash houses, including one involving a gamer cameo that required “an enormous set that’s the size of a football field.”
“It has 3,000 sheets of glass, it has 40 tons of steel to create a spiral staircase that stands on its own that a motorcycle can drive down,” Tobman said. “It was an engineering marvel. Three hundred people were required to build it. We were able to fit a helicopter, a Humvee and an Army tank in it just to get a sense of scale.”
“We had a lot of fun creating this parallel world that makes fun of the world we live in today,” Tobman added.
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How the ‘Free Guy’ Team Made A Video Game Universe Based on Kindness – The Hollywood Reporter