GamesRadar+ and Total Film are celebrating the biggest new releases as we head back to the cinema! This week: Free Guy. Ryan Reynolds promises plenty of heart, laughs, and action in his new sci-fi comedy set in an open-world game. This article first appeared in print in 2020 – buy the magazine here.
Like most of us in these self-isolation times, Ryan Reynolds – locked down in Pound Ridge, New York – has been craving the communal, convivial atmosphere of watching a huge movie on a huge screen with a huge crowd. He’s been looking at footage on Twitter of fans watching key scenes in Avengers: Endgame, hyped together, cheering and whooping with elation through mic-drop dramatic moments. You’ve probably also watched it with an ache for popcorn in hand, enveloped by darkness, the charge of collective expectation in the air. “Maybe I’m emotional because of everything that's going on in the world, but I was sobbing this morning watching that. That is some of the most beautiful, big-budget action filmmaking that I’ve ever seen. That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to, and that I really miss –in a movie theatre and watching a moviethat way. It’s a unique experience.”
Reynolds will be missing out on seeing his latest creation consumed that way this summer. Free Guy, a big-budget, big-scale, big-star comedy actioner following an NPC in an open-world game (Reynolds) who decides to change and become a hero within the matrix, was intended as a blockbuster romp for July audiences, but then coronavirus changed life for everyone. It’s now set for a Christmas release, hopefully post-Covid-19, and Reynolds is aware that the world will be re-shaped in every way by then. “I shudder to think that I would be as big of a thundercunt to use a colossal global pandemic as a sort of means to find a valuable foothold for my movie,” he deadpans in his inimitable way. “But I did notice that well before any of this shit happened I was already looking for entertainment outside of the norm for me. I mean, the world feels very hostile, very cynical and scary. So I found myself looking for entertainment that left me feeling better, left me walking out of a movie theatre where I’m walking on sunshine, instead of, you know, wondering how I might drink myself to sleep or something.”
The Free Guy script was that elixir for modern life when it came across his desk and – to hear him and his team talk about it – might be just the tonic cinemagoers yearn for when we finally make into back into the movie theatre. And y’know, this is from the guy who parlayed pure snark and cynicism into a hit franchise with Deadpool. “The absence of cynicism doesn’t equate to softness,” he insists. “It’s not soft, it’s got edge but, yeah, I was looking for something that leaves people with just a gigantic grin on their face...”
Reynolds and Night At The Museum director Shawn Levy have been trying to work together for six years after mutual friend Hugh Jackman suggested they would make a good filmmaking team. They flirted with numerous projects together that didn’t go the distance (“that Hollywood adage is true; ‘make sure you end things well,’” chuckles Levy, “because the way you end things determines your future business”), but in 2018 Reynolds found an idea that he felt would be their golden ticket.
“From the moment I read that script, I knew that Shawn was the person to help build it,” recalls Reynolds. “He has an incredibly unique way of world-building, creating worlds that are larger than life, worlds that we need to acclimatize to quickly as an audience. But also, he’s very good at grounding it in real heart and real humor.” Having willed Deadpool into existence with a heat-seeking drive, Reynolds as lead actor and producer wasn’t looking for a boss, he was looking for a collaborator. “Everything changed for me in my career once I started to really get more involved in how each project is shaped, and I got a lot more involved in the input, particularly with the writing,” he explains. “Shawn and I are partners in every way when it comes to the creative process – from working together on every word of the script, and every piece of production design and questioning every edit.” And in pulling together an eclectic and, crucially, funny cast who could roll with the improv punches and step up to page re-writes as Levy and Reynolds tinkered with the script during their weekly train commute from the location in Boston to New York. “I was looking to do something that felt the way I felt when I watched Back To The Future for the first time,” Reynolds explains of the process. “I wanted to do something that felt like you were stepping into a world of wish-fulfillment and possibilities – a world that was funny, but had real stakes and real heart.”
Those stakes then: Reynolds’ sweet non-player character, Guy, is part of open-world game, Free City, where he works as a bank teller alongside his bestie, security guard Buddy. Developed by CEO of Soonami Games, Antoine, and maintained by coders Milly, Keys and Mouser, Free City is destined for a shutdown but Guy puts a spanner in the works by revolting against his usual programmed routine and forging his own agency. Sympathetic Milly creates an avatar, Molotov Girl, to enter the game while Antoine sends in his minions, Keys and Mouser.
As a dual-character, multi-accented role, it’s perhaps little wonder that Levy thought of the chameleon star of Killing Eve, Jodie Comer, for Milly. “I was worried about doing the accent,” Comer admits with a laugh when we talk on the phone in London. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to go into every role being like: ‘I can do this accent!’” But as it turns out it was her vocal dexterity that helped land her the role, her feature film debut, against nearly 100 actresses.
“I think she did three different accents in one particular scene in her audition,” says Reynolds, “She just had it. It’s one of those moments where Shawn and I are looking at each other, going, ‘Let’s just stop now, and get to work’.”
“My mantra has always been: bet on talent,” says Levy, who also produced Stranger Things and handpicked those new faces for stardom. “Jodie is not known as a comedy actor but she is so purely talented that I was willing to bet on that. We weren’t looking to just make a videogame movie, or a comedy. We were looking to make an aspirational and ultimately poignant story of empowerment so we needed an actor’s actor, not just a funny actress, for that role. We needed someone who could deliver on the comedy, but perhaps most importantly, on the emotionality of that role.” Levy and Reynolds also bet on Stranger Things alumni Joe Keery as Keys plus comedian and genuine gamer Utkarsh Ambudkar for Mouser: “As a South-Asian- American actor, being a computer nerd is not exactly the top of the list of roles that I want to take,” Ambudkar says. “But given who was part of this project, and the story itself... it became really clear that we were doing something pretty cool”. Lil Rel Howery was cast as Buddy, and rounding out the cast as Antoine? Well, Reynolds tapped up an old co-star, Taika Waititi.
“I’ve never met him,” Reynolds deadpans when reminded of the duo’s first collaboration in the ill-fated Green Lantern. “I still can’t quite figure out how we got him for this. He just sort of said ‘yes’ right away.” Waititi, sardonic and laidback to the point of horizontal down the phone from LA says: “to just come and focus on a character, and learning lines, and turning up on set and doing that – it was like a really nice working holiday.” Well, yes, but as an Oscar-winning writer, director and Marvel golden boy, there must be something extra to entice him away from his current scriptwriting for Thor: Love & Thunder? “To do something where I didn’t write it and I’m not in control – I was definitely a little nervous at the start. My idea of what I like to do, and the things I find interesting – do other a people actually like that? Would they actually want to work around that? So a lot of the time, I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll try this, and then I’ll get fired. Or they’ll keep telling me that what I’m doing is completely wrong.’”
Of course, the opposite was true when the gang descended on Boston in 2019 to film. Levy, a veteran of harnessing improv comedy after three Night At The Museum films with the likes of Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, knew he wanted to let his cast play. “What Taika brought to that character, to the set each day – it was something so unique and special,” enthuses Reynolds, with Levy likening him to the lightning rod of a dearly departed star. “His presence on screen and the speed of his comedic mind is at a level I truly have only ever seen in someone like Robin Williams, he’s that fast.” Ambudkar, Howery, and Reynolds are no slouches either. “I think that Ryan is nothing short of a genius,” says Comer, who admits to throwing herself in at the improv deep end. “I got in [to Boston] before I had to film my stuff, and I went to set. It was fascinating to see how this thing works, and the level of improvisation which would roll for like four minutes straight, and would roll off their tongues... It was definitely nerve-wracking but it was also great to learn from."
Comedy wasn't the only thing Comer was on a steep learning curve for. Though she's done stunts on Killing Eve, Free Guy's monster, eye-popping action sequences challenged her in new ways. "Before we started the actual shoot, I would train with the stunt team in the day, and then, in the night, I would work out for my own general fitness. It was definitely a lot, but I kind of threw myself into it – because I was in Boston on my own, and didn't know anybody, and I had nothing better to do," she laughs. "And also, I was really keen to do as much of the stunts as I possibly could." Her new skill set included hire work, greenscreen, and a wayward boot to the kisser. "I'd never been kicked in the face before, so I can tick that one off the list."
With a cast that speaks extremely warmly of each other ("you know, you do these interviews and everybody is like, ‘We got along!’ – but we really did!” says Howery) it’s clear the creative freedom and warmth on Free Guy’s set that will hopefully translate to box office laughs was very much dictated by the duo steering the ship. “Ryan and Shawn both really set the tone of this movie from the get-go,” says Keery. “They are like two lovely dads and they both have this positivity and this energy. They were so in sync as a team and were able to emulate that improv style throughout the filmmaking process. They weren’t afraid of change or of embracing new ideas"
"I don't know if I've ever seen a director, a producer, a writer, and a star like that – it was like watching two best friends do a movie," Howery agrees. "They both were really invested in everything. Now I've seen it – if a film should now have me as the lead I'm learning that my energy and what I bring to set is going to make are everybody else is joyful, too. Good energy makes a great set, and it usually makes for a really great movie.” And that duty of care hasn’t stopped when shooting finished. Keery talks of Reynolds being in touch on collaborative marketing ideas, his finger in every pie. “He’s honestly such a role model for me, because he has such ownership of his projects and his ideas. It’s just cool to watch somebody do something like that. You can kind of say to yourself, ‘Oh, OK, well that is possible'.”
Both Reynolds and Levy are bashful when Total Film relays their cast’s admiration for their work ethic and nurturing MO – though Levy partly puts their meritocracy down to them both being unshowy Canadians.
“I come from the school of ‘the best idea wins’, I’m not a particularly proprietary person on set,” shrugs Reynolds. “Everyone needs to feel like a set is the safest possible place they could ever be free to experiment. I know that I can be at my best when I feel like I’m free to be terrible.” But he does admit that Levy and he share the same work ethic that doesn’t allow for egotism. "We both approach [the work] with a gratitude and a realization that we're fortunate to be in a position where we get to make a movie like this, or any movie for that matter. We just keep punching until it's as good as it can possibly be. I think he brought out the best in me, and I like to think that I brought out the best in him. I know that this is probably my favorite film I've ever been part of."
If they've done their job right both men hope that Free Guy will bring a little light to a world that seems dark right now. And without knowing it, it seems the message of community that runs through the film couldn't be more apt for a global audience who will have come out the other side of Covid-19.
“We always felt like this might be a movie of this moment because even before coronavirus, we all looked at this polarised, heavily politicized world and I think all of us have sometimes felt powerless in the face of a world that is very dissatisfying,” muses Levy. “Post-Covid, I think that this movie is more timely than ever because it’s really a metaphor for: how can you have power over your own situation?” Comer agrees. “I think people will probably have much more of a connection to it now,” she says, and having seen the film before lockdown, reporting that "it's got so much heart in it – it's going to give people a sense of joy."
The 'humanity' of Free Guy is what will separate it "from a blockbuster that's just mindless visuals and action," declares Ambudkar, who confesses to being cynical of the genre. "The current social and medical challenges that we're facing... I really hope it gives people a little bit of a respite and escape." And possibly a sequel down the line?
Reynolds sighs; "Yea, I suppose. But I honestly do not know how we top this film. I really left this thing feeling pretty damn great about it. The thought of trying to manufacture a second one right now is not something I can really think about. But that’s a great problem to have down the road.”
For now, he says, Free Guy is just a cracking gift waiting for us all at Christmas. “This movie is just an utter fastball of joy, which is something I think the world could use a little bit more of right now,” he says earnestly. “I do think that this is a movie that I hope audiences embrace and love the way that we do, because it’s optimistic – and I think that there’s value in optimism right now. It leaves you feeling great. And that, to me, is worth everything these days.”
Free Guy reaches cinemas August 13. For more, check out all the biggest upcoming movies heading your way.