Shawn Levy: Free the Guy

Both meta-comedy and action flick, this witty tale about a bank teller who discovers he’s actually an NPC inside a brutal open world video game, presented an opportunity to tell a heart-warming story which would appeal to both gamers and non-gamers, with a cautionary nod to standing up against an unjust society.

Shawn Levy – best known for the Night at the Museum trilogy, Date Night and Real Steel – was drawn to the notion of Ryan Reynolds playing the very opposite to his popular Deadpool character in this alternate reality of a video game.

With Reynolds already eyeing the title character of Guy, aka blue shirt guy, the Deadpool star would play against type as a sweet-natured NPC whose awakening consciousness alerts him to the notion that he can gain autonomy and not accept his station in life.

Guy exudes positivity and cheerful optimism. He’s always up for a good cup of coffee and loves mid-‘90s pop divas.

Co-starring Jodie Comer in the dual roles of game creator Millie and video avatar Molotov Girl, Levy pivots the Killing Eve actress as Free Guy’s real heart.

As father of four daughters, it was important to Levy to use Comer to create a video game world torn free of misogyny, utilising a stellar cast including Stranger Things’ Joe Keery, multi-threat Kiwi Taika Waititi, Lil Rel Howery and Utkarsh Ambudkar.

Levy tells us why Free Guy is a sweet joy-ride for gamers and non-gamers alike.

What drew you back to the director’s chair for Free Guy?

“It was a text message from Ryan that said, ‘Hey, what are you doing next spring? I think I’ve got something for us’. I still have the text on my phone. So, I read the Free Guy script and met with Ryan the next day, and knew it was that perfect combination of a big idea, an actor I admired and wanted to work with and a real opportunity for singularity, originality and fun.”

How does Free Guy fit into your usual frames of reference?

“I decided when I finished the Night at the Museum franchise, to take a step back to say no to some things and shift my focus to building my production company. We had some very good fortune with Arrival and Stranger Things, and I was directing Stranger Things a bit each season, so it was not hard to turn down the wrong movies. Lieberman and Penn’s screenplay is equal parts action, humour and emotion, and it is timely in a way that no one could have anticipated. It’s about the shift in mindset that I think we all yearn for, which is a shift to, ‘Wait, maybe my life can be bigger than what I was given. Maybe life does not have to be something that happens to me, maybe it’s something I can make, I can define, maybe my story is one that I can rewrite as I go’. I think that that is a basic and universal human aspiration.”

Who is ‘Guy’?

Free Guy is very much the journey of a man who has only ever existed in this very kind of curated, fake world and who has the innocence and the goodness of spirit of an innocent. As a result, you get the humour that we all love in characters like that, but we also have an incredibly root-able protagonist, a hero who we champion and whose struggles we feel viscerally, and whose ultimate triumphs we celebrate very passionately. On the one hand, the movie is a little bit of an existential crisis, but with this very aspirational undercurrent of maximum empowerment in a world without limits.”

What does Ryan Reynolds bring to ‘Guy’?


“Guy is, in my mind, a direct descendent of Tom Hanks in Big, of Will Ferrell in Elf, someone with tremendous charm. He has the humour of Ryan Reynolds, but without the cynicism of the Deadpool franchise, and that is a franchise I frickin’ love, just to be clear. This is Ryan in a way that we haven’t seen him, a little bit more wide-eyed, good and innocent. The uniqueness of Ryan is that he’s able to be this badass awesome action hero, but he never does it without humour and he always does it with a willingness to kind of give himself some shit. He’s always able to see himself with as much humour as he looks at the world around him.”

What did Ryan bring to the film as a fellow producer?

“I found Ryan to be a genius comedic performer. But that’s not surprising to any of us. We know that. What is remarkable is that he is the best producer I have ever produced a movie with. And I’m not just saying that. This is my 12th movie. I’ve done this job a lot. I have never ever had a producer who was more proactive making the movie better in writing, in shooting, in editing – every stage, Ryan was like this with me. And I was astounded that as a producer, he did the job. I mean, how many producers do we know who like to go around town saying they are a producer and they don’t do shit? Ryan does the work. And he does it as an actor. And he really does it as a producer as well. So that was my big revelation.”

How much did you work with gamers to achieve this world?

“This movie was about threading the needle between wanting to represent the gaming world correctly and accurately. And for that I spoke with a lot of game publishers, coders, game designers and played and watched a lot of games in preproduction. So, getting that right was really important. But it was also important to make a movie that required no gaming fluency, so trying to tick both boxes was always part of the goal.”

Most of your movies and series are for young audiences. What is your message to them?

“Believe in the possibility of connection. When I look at Free Guy… When I look at Stranger Things… When I look at Night at the Museum… Anything that I’ve directed, I think… I don’t want to put anything in the world that accepts darkness. I want to champion the possibility of a life that is hopeful and filled with meaningful connection.  With Stranger Things, people talk about the genre elements. But really what’s special about it is those connections.

Free Guy, which hopefully is for a broad audience, is similarly hopeful and it’s about how connection with another person makes your life better. When you say that I make movies for a young audience, I suppose that that’s true. But I believe that all of us who are grownups, we still have that 13-year-old very much awake and alive in our selves right now. And so, I speak to that person too, inside the adult.”

Guy’s sunglasses play an important role in the film. How many pairs did you go through before you found the right pair?

“Well, first of all, we tried on at least 50 pairs for Ryan before we ended up with the glasses that he’s wearing. The scene where Guy goes to his stash house, those were going to be his glasses for the rest of the movie. And we shot that scene. And we watched the dailies. And Ryan and I were like, ‘Do you love those glasses?’ And we’re like, ‘I think we made the wrong choice’. So, then we decided to change them again, while we were making the movie. So, the sunglasses were very much an elusive moving bullseye.”

What are the virtues of Guy’s attitude and approach to life that we could all learn from?

“I think what we should try and emulate is an awakening to our own power. An awakening to the fact that we don’t need to sit back and accept. Change only happens when you question the rules. When you question who has the power and why? So, the refusal to just be a spectator to the world, but instead to be a participant in the world – that is worth emulating. Also, very fundamentally, in a world that is filled with bad behaviour and evil, why not aspire to good? We say it in the movie. Why not be the good guy? And that’s something that everyone of us in a real world that has nothing to do with a videogame, we can make a decision that, ‘You know what? In the way that I treat people, in the things that I do, in the films that I make, in the way that I write, I want to connect with people in a positive way’. And that I think is also something that Guy does that we can emulate.”

Talk about Taika Waititi’s character of Antwan?

“Antwan is the villain who effectively coopted and stole the game code of Millie (Comer) and Keys (Keery), and he’s reaped tremendous wealth, royalties and fame, but without giving them any credit or money. He’s just a bad dude, and kind of deliciously so, but he’s played by Taika, who, in addition to being an amazing director, is one of the most gifted comedic performers I have ever worked with. Taika takes an already funny script and is riffing on a level that is frickin’ sublime. His mind is so fast, and so Antwan is, I think, a villain for the ages. Someone that you delight in but also hate to death, and the fact that Taika is able to walk that razor’s edge and make him both loathsome and hilarious, is a testament to that guy’s talent.”

This was your first time working with Taika. How did he surprise you?

“I had auditioned a lot of actors and Ryan’s wife Blake suggested that maybe Taika would be great. She wasn’t wrong. Some performers come in and they just do like, ‘riff, riff, riff… improv, improv, improv…’ But Taika always knew… I could see no matter how fast he was working, he knew where the camera was, what the scene needed. So, when he would do an improv, if the camera was kind of over there, he would adjust to that. When the camera moved… His awareness of everything on a set was incredibly impressive and something that I was grateful for. Because sometimes someone is just trying to get laughs. Taika tries to get laughs, but with an awareness of what the movie and the scene needs.”

Free Guy also addresses female empowerment in Jodie Comer’s dual roles as gaming creator, Millie, and as badass video game avatar, Molotov Girl. Was this important for you address?

“It’s interesting. Obviously, Ryan is the most famous person in the movie. But Jodie is as much the star of the movie as Ryan. In fact, Jodie I think is in the movie more than Ryan. The gaming culture has not always handled female representation in a way that is empowering. And so, we wanted to make sure that in the writing of this script, our female protagonist had agency and voice in a way that is completely as empowered as the men in the movie. I wanted to make sure that the way that we represented her as the female protagonist, in the words she says, in the clothes she wore, and in her behaviour, that it felt frankly as respectful and as strong as you would any character.”

The future of theatrical movies is very uncertain at the moment. What’s your take?

“I’m really hopeful that we will see the survival and eventual re-blossoming of the theatrical experience. Because it is, no matter what anyone wants to say, a different experience. And I felt this very strongly when I recently finished the film and watched it on a big screen. But I do think that whether it’s the window closing or narrowing between theatrical and at home, I think that the way the content is ingested will never go back to being the way it was. I also think that whether you’re watching at home, as many of us have been, or in the theaters, as I hope many of us will be again… Yes, visual spectacle matters immensely. But theme, character, emotionality, humour – these are still the key traits of storytelling that make entertainment satisfying wherever it’s viewed. So, I don’t know what the future will hold. But I know that the core pillars of storytelling will remain unchanged.”

Free Guy is in cinemas only August 12, and in NSW September 9

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