When filmmaker Shawn Levy was contemplating his next project in 2018 and Ryan Reynolds proposed Matt Lieberman’s script for Free Guy, Levy was inspired. “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.”
“It is rare that you get a script or find a character who has such a clearly defined arc, and I loved that about this,” says Reynolds, one of Hollywood’s most versatile leading men, who has parlayed his good looks and irreverent comedic talents in films like The Proposal, Van Wilder and The Change-Up to become a successful action hero in films like Safe House, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and, of course, Deadpool and Deadpool 2.
In the epic adventure-comedy Free Guy, a bank teller discovers he is actually a background player in an open-world video game, and decides to become the hero of his own story…one he rewrites himself. Now in a world where there are no limits, he is determined to be the guy who saves his world his way…before it is too late.
“Shawn and I had wanted to work together for years. I have been a fan of his for a long time, not just as an artist, but as a person,” explains Reynolds. “I think he saw the same things in the story that I did. I miss wish fulfillment storytelling, and this really got me thinking about that, and I think it got Shawn in a similar way, too.”
Realising it was going to be a tremendous amount of work, the two quickly sat down with screenwriter Zak Penn (Ready Player One) to polish the script and go through every scene to make sure they were world building in the right way. “Shawn is the exact guy you want to be building worlds with because, not only has he had vast experience in that area but he’s also very good at it,” says Reynolds.
Levy, whose films include the Night at the Museum trilogy, Date Night and Real Steel, had spent the past few years beefing up his production company, 21 Laps. It was a fruitful time, too, resulting in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things and the critical and commercial box office hit Arrival, among others.
“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,” says Levy. “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 (The Addams Family) and Penn’s screenplay is equal parts action, humor and emotion, and it is timely in a way that no one could have anticipated.
“Since its inception, ‘Free Guy’ has been a meditation on free will,” says Lieberman. “Do we have to accept our station in life, or is it possible to break from our programming and change the world around us? When I came up with the idea six years ago, I had no idea how prescient this theme would become.”
“’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,” says Levy. “As a result, you get the humor 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.”
By moving from the background to the forefront, Guy engages in all the outrageous elements of “Free City.” “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,” Levy says.
Despite Guy’s existence in an alternate reality of a video game, Levy finds that Free Guy’s truths are universal. “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,’” says Levy. “Maybe life doesn’t 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.”
As played by Ryan Reynolds, Guy is truly a creature of habit. He has the same daily routine and has never done or accomplished anything extraordinary. Outgoing and perpetually cheerful, but a tad naïve, Guy is a teller in a big city bank who is a fan of mid-90s pop divas. “I fell in love with the character of Guy, who is looking for some kind of authorship in his life and some semblance of belonging,” explains Reynolds. “He has a childlike innocence to him and a very rote kind of pattern that he goes through each and every day.
“Ryan’s character Guy is, in my mind, a direct descendant of Tom Hanks in ‘Big,’ of Will Ferrell in ‘Elf,’ someone with tremendous charm.,” says levy. “He has the humor of Ryan Reynolds, but without the cynicism of the Deadpool franchise (and that’s 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 humor 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 humor as he looks at the world around him.”
The filmmakers view Free Guy as a heroic origin story, but one without a cape, tights and superpowers. “Our Guy is very much an everyguy who can do extraordinary things,” says director/producer Shawn Levy. “He’s also a hero who is close to us, who resonates for us, and who we can relate to.”
According to co-screenwriter Matt Lieberman, “Working with Shawn and Ryan was a dream come true. They had such great ideas for the draft we worked on together, where we really tried to bring out the humanity of the characters and make sure every turn felt fresh and unique. Ryan had a solid grasp for what he wanted to do with the character of Guy from the outset and, together with Shawn, really elevated it beyond my wildest expectations.”
“At the end of the day, this movie is just an absolute fastball of joy,” says Reynolds. “It is one of those visceral experiences, and it’s heartbreaking to think about the possibility of audiences not seeing a movie like this on the big screen. Assuming that all the safety protocols are in place, I can’t wait for people to experience this in a cinema, on the big screen with that sound that reverberates in your chest. It’s a huge part of the experience, and this is a movie with tremendous scope to it, so seeing it in that format is so important.”
According to Levy, “The theme of the movie is not merely accepting the world as you find it, but realising that you are empowered to affect your own world. It’s about the empowerment of the individual, in the midst of a world he or she is dissatisfied with, and the personal agency to make a change. In other words, ‘Free Guy’ has never been more relevant — a story about people coming together both in real and digital universes, and the joy in a shared community. We need that.”
“The gaming culture has, as a bedrock, some of the themes addressed in our film, like this is the real me, but maybe there’s a me that I prefer,” says Levy. “And to some extent, the way we pick our skins, the way we pick our weapons, the way we choose our experience, those are aspirational. And for me, that’s what the best movie experiences do. They allow us to leave the seat that we’re sitting in and to inhabit and experience a world that is bigger than our own.”
Originally from New Jersey, Matt Lieberman (Screenwriter/Story by) is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Between November 2018 and January 2021, Lieberman will have had seven screenplays produced by major studios. These include his Black List script Free Guy, Scoob!, Playing with Fire, The Addams Family, and Rumble, due to release in early 2022. In addition, he wrote The Christmas Chronicles, from his spec script, and its 2020 sequel. Lieberman recently sold his spec script Meet the Machines to Lionsgate. He is currently writing The Jetsons for Warner Bros., Time Central for Netflix, Rin Tin Tin for Warner Bros., and the sequel to The House with a Clock in Its Walls for Amblin Partners/Universal. Additionally, he wrote Spy vs. Spy, Short Circuit and Mr.Toad’s Wild Ride, as well as doing uncredited work on The Muppets.
Zak Penn’s (Co-Screenwriter) career began as a screenwriter when he sold his first script, Last Action Hero at the age of 23. Since then, Penn has become known for his work on numerous films based on Marvel comics, including X-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, Elektra, The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers. He has also dabbled in other genres, writing scripts for disparate films such as PCU, Behind Enemy Lines and Suspect Zero. Penn’s shift into independent cinema began when he collaborated with his idol, Werner Herzog, on the script for Rescue Dawn. Penn directed and co-starred with Herzog in Incident at Loch Ness, his award-winning “hoax” documentary about the legendary director’s attempts to make a film about the equally legendary monster. The Grand, Penn’s second completely improvised film, was his third film with Herzog . In addition, Penn co-wrote the original story for Antz and produced the animated film Osmosis Jones. His first foray into television was the critically acclaimed original series Alphas. Penn directed the documentary Atari: Game Over. More recently, Penn adapted the New York Times bestselling novel Ready Player One.
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