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Before they put the finishing touches on their 2021 hit Free Guy, Shawn Levy and Ryan Reynolds knew that they wanted to work together again. So they spread the word around town, and Skydance CEO David Ellison quickly suggested the long-gestating The Adam Project, which Tom Cruise once circled at Paramount in 2012. When Levy and Reynolds expressed mutual interest, the sci-fi adventure film swiftly moved over to Netflix, where Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment has a sizable overall deal and produces the global phenomenon Stranger Things. In November 2022, just four months after Netflix acquired distribution rights, Levy and Reynolds began principal photography in Vancouver. Reynolds plays a time-traveling fighter pilot who crash lands in 2022 and needs the help of his 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell) to save the future.
Quick turnarounds are one of the many reasons why Levy and Reynolds work so well together, and that quality comes in particularly handy when Reynolds offers up his unique marketing prowess to promote their films.
“Ryan is a fountain of creativity and a true marketing savant. He just has that superpower. So when he gets ideas, he’ll pitch them to me and to the studio,” Levy tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The thing that people don’t realize about Ryan is that he’s not one of these movie stars who hides behind a wall of agents and representatives. He picks up the call, and he makes the call. He rolls up his sleeves and does the work to get shit done. And that’s very much how I do my job, which is another reason why we hit it off so instantly.”
Levy also wants to be the filmmaker who finally teams up faux enemies, Reynolds and Hugh Jackman, on the big screen. Levy and Jackman previously worked together on 2011’s Real Steel, which now has a Disney+ spinoff series in development. Jackman even has a voice cameo in Free Guy.
“What we want is to fold it all in together and make a big, fat bromance sandwich of a movie, because the world wants the Hugh Jackman-Ryan Reynolds movie,” Levy says. “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but I know it needs to be me who directs it.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Levy also discusses Stranger Things‘ decision to release season four in two halves, beginning in late May. Then he offers the latest updates on sequels to Free Guy and Real Steel.
So at what point on Free Guy did you slip the Adam Project script under the door of Ryan’s Star Waggon?
It was the opposite, and I’m really grateful! We were in post-production on Free Guy, and our bromance was well in bloom by the time we wrapped Free Guy. So Ryan and I sent out word to a lot of different agencies and studios that we were looking to collaborate again. And [producer] David Ellison went to Ryan and said, “We have this script that’s been sitting in development for eight years, and it’s about a guy who goes back [in time] to revisit his younger self and his parents, who are the same age as him.” Ryan instantly knew that it’s the kind of emotional theme that I love most, and he pitched it to me. We both read the Jonathan Tropper script, and within a few days, we raised our hands, linked arms and were diving in.
You’re probably sick of hearing this, but your films often capture that Amblin sensibility. Do you strive for that particular feeling, or does it just work out that way?
Honestly, it mostly just happens that way. I am never trying to quote any other films or emulate any other films, but as someone of my generation, those movies were defining to me as an audience member, just like they were to hundreds of millions of people. But they were additionally inspiring to me as a filmmaker. That Spielbergian, Amblin DNA flows in my veins as a filmmaker, whether I’m conscious of it or not. That was a time when people made big-budget, original movies. They were movies that paired high concept with character themes, and that genre has slowly evaporated, to my chagrin. So I guess I proudly try to carry on that tradition of original storytelling with spectacle and scope, that’s also humanist and wish-fulfillment based and ultimately, hopeful.
I remember you saying that the release of Free Guy was a bit of an anxious time period for you since original movies have had a tougher go of it during the pandemic. While the film ultimately did quite well, are you relieved that you don’t have to worry about The Adam Project‘s opening weekend gross?
That’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, sure, it’s nice to not live or die by that Friday number, and while it was an anxious time up until release, the truth is that Free Guy was a recent reminder to both Ryan and I that there is nothing quite like the thrill of a big, fat hit movie in the world. So it’s a blessing and a curse, but I suspect that I will want to continue toggling back and forth between theatrical and streaming films.
If I traveled back in time like Adam (Ryan Reynolds) and met up with the Shawn Levy who was helping Donna Martin graduate [on Beverly Hills, 90210]…
(Levy keels over in his chair.)
Do you think he’d believe your current and upcoming filmography as director and producer?
He’d be fucking happy about it, I’ll tell you that! I was literally chanting, “Donna Martin graduates!” flanked by Luke Perry and Jason Priestley, outside Burbank City Hall, while I was in graduate film school. So I was doing acting gigs to pay for film school, with this dream that I would eventually make a thesis movie and that someone who mattered would notice and that I would get paid to tell stories. The fact that I’m now so many years down field and I get to make all the different kinds of stories and movies and shows that I dreamed of while I was chanting, “Donna Martin Graduates!” — it is still thrilling every day.
I’m overwhelmed just looking at your slate, and that’s only the work that’s public. How do you keep all these plates spinning at once?
Well, I literally don’t look at my IMDb page because it’s way too stressful. It’s like, “What am I thinking?” Thankfully, half that information is obsolete or inaccurate, but what is true is that my plate is absurdly full. I’m literally prepping my next thing while releasing my current thing and developing my next six things. And we have six different movies and shows in various stages of production. So I guess my appetite was always pretty voracious, and I always wanted to be creatively active in an eclectic way. So I definitely got my wish. There are some days where I bemoan that I got my wish, and there are many days where I’m grateful that I did. Somewhere along the way, I became a good compartmentalizer. I’m able to focus really intensely on something for a specific span of time, and then I’m able to shift and be completely there on that next project. There are challenges in doing all of that while also drawing that firm boundary so I can be a good dad and a good husband to my family. Maintaining that balance is so key.
You’ve had a knack for casting child actors throughout your career. Is there a common thread between Walker Scobell and all the other child actors you’ve worked with over the years?
Well, I first want to say that Walker is up there at the very top of the list in terms of innate talent and authenticity. Some of the child actors that you know from my work were not actually as good as they seem in the movie. (Laughs.) Some of them needed a lot of direction and a lot of help in the edit room. Walker came to us like an apparition. Carmen Cuba, who casts Stranger Things for us, did the search; we saw hundreds of kids. And Walker has never done a damn thing — not even a TV commercial. So there’s nothing kiddie-actor about him. He just has this confidence and this comfort in himself that makes him authentic. He’s as good as any kid actor I’ve ever worked with, and he needed the least help and trickery in the edit room.
There’s a character in the film who acts alongside their younger self in the 2018 timeline. Who handled the VFX for that younger character?
Lola [Visual Effects] helped me with the VFX for the younger character. This is a character who we later see as their younger self, not their 12-year-old self but their younger adult self. So what we did, frankly, was very similar to what we did for the character of Dude in Free Guy. We shot on set with the actor and a body double, and then, in post-production, we brought that actor into Lola, a Los Angeles VFX company. They have a device called “the Egg,” and it’s essentially a motion-capture volume. So the actor performs the lines, and then you’re stitching that actor’s face onto the other body. But in the case of Adam Project, you’re also transforming that actor’s face into that actor from 30 years earlier. They’re incredibly complex visual effects and very iterative visual effects. So Lola was the company responsible for that character and that aspect of the VFX.
Between the lightsaber fight in Free Guy and the “lightsaber” fights in Adam Project, are you and Ryan trying to send a message to [Lucasfilm boss] Kathleen Kennedy that she should call you both?
Well, she does know where to find us, just in case she wants to. She has our numbers. If there was any doubt about my fanhood of Star Wars and all things a galaxy far, far away, I’ve eliminated that doubt. But I just want to specify to your readers that I didn’t actually use a lightsaber in Adam Project. In fact, we designed the weapon that Ryan uses in Adam Project as something that would be close enough to a lightsaber that his younger self would think it’s one, but when it actually telescopes and expands, it is very clearly, for legal purposes, not one.
Yes, I intend to put lightsaber in quotes just because it’s a running gag between the two Adams.
Did you enjoy coming up with your own variations of the tech and gadetry that’s often associated with this genre?
I’m going to say no. I haven’t been nerding out on gadetry, but I have been nerding out for years on a desire to do action sequences that range from vehicular chases to hoverboards to dog fights. So I love the fact that I got to do all of the above in the same movie, much less hand-to-hand, balletic choreography and combat. I love that the Adam Project let me scratch so many itches on an action set piece level. The gadgetry and the futurism in the design was actually one of the biggest challenges. Designing weaponry, spacecrafts and wardrobe from the future that has not been in other movies about the future is really, really hard. I do want to give a shoutout to not only my production designer Claude Paré but also to this small company in Australia called Supervixen. They worked on a smaller movie that I produced called Kin, which very few people saw. This job is about hits and misses. But Supervixen is this design house, and of course, I’ve just shot myself in the foot because now I’ve made them a lot more famous. (Laughs.) But they are this incredibly well-kept secret, and I went to them early on Adam Project. I was like, “Yo, dudes! I need time jets, weapons, guns, costumes, display panels. I need all of it. Can you just start designing your asses off?” And Supervixen did. I think they crushed it.
I quite liked the contrast between the future tech and the Vancouver wilderness. Was it quite challenging to find new ways to shoot a location that’s been used so many times?
Yes, I’m literally prepping in Budapest right now, and every location I scout, I’m dismayed to see that my show Shadow and Bone is already shooting there. So yes, it’s really, really hard to find undiscovered pockets. With Adam Project, I wanted to make a piece of emotional science fiction, but I wanted it to feel grounded and organic and very much rooted in the natural world. So I really leaned into the majestic mountains and forests of British Columbia, and it gave the movie a natural majesty that feels like the opposite of cold, hard tech and dystopian future. For me at least, it makes the movie feel inviting in a way that some sci-fi just isn’t. Sci-fi can often skew hard, angular and cerebral, and I wanted Adam Project to be soft, warm and humanist.
Since you’ve worked with Mark Ruffalo in the past, was he one of the first actors you had in mind to play Adam’s father?
Yes, we needed someone to play a dad who could sell the intellectual heft of a professor character, but could also bring humanity and heart when it counts. And holy hell does Ruffalo deliver on that.
Ryan is a marketing genius, and he made a fun promo video for The Adam Project, with Walker and another Ryan Reynolds. He also made a bunch of extra promos for Free Guy. Does he pitch his marketing ideas to you and the studio, usually? Or does each studio reach out to him for his well-established expertise?
Ryan is a fountain of creativity and a true marketing savant. You haven’t seen the last of his comedic promos for Adam Project. There are a few others coming down the pipeline that are incredibly funny and clever. He just has that superpower. So when he gets ideas, he’ll pitch them to me and to the studio. There have been ones where I’m like, “Yeah, that’s funny, but they’ll never let you do it,” i.e., Korg and Deadpool watching the Free Guy trailer. But then he’ll make a few calls and he’ll get it done. The thing that people don’t realize about Ryan is that he’s not one of these movie stars who hides behind a wall of agents and representatives. He picks up the call, and he makes the call. He rolls up his sleeves and does the work to get shit done. And that’s very much how I do my job, which is another reason why we hit it off so instantly.
So when we talked for Free Guy, you mentioned that there were talks surrounding a Real Steel sequel, and since then, it was announced that a Disney+ series is being developed in addition to a sequel. Is the series a spinoff of the potential sequel, or would it be its own thing entirely?
It’s its own thing entirely, and I am not giving up the hope or the possibility of a sequel as well.
Ignoring cameos, Ryan has now made more movies with you than Hugh Jackman has. Is Hugh eager to even the score?
What we want is to fold it all in together and make a big, fat bromance sandwich of a movie, because the world wants the Hugh Jackman-Ryan Reynolds movie. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but I know it needs to be me who directs it.
I love binge watching, but I consume seasons so quickly that the episodes tend to blur together in hindsight. So I’m grateful for the split-season approach that you guys are doing for Stranger Things season four. You get that instant gratification of binging without completely overeating, so to speak. Were you keen on the idea from the moment you heard about it?
I was always supportive of it, and the truth is, that decision was not really based on strategic calculations. It was based on the fact that it’s been a long-ass time since we gave our audience new episodes. We can either share some soon and others later, or we can make everyone wait longer to get all of them at the same time. But we’re done waiting, and I think the world is, too.
Plus, you get two waves of engagement, which is rewarding for everybody.
That certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Has the Free Guy sequel talk moved beyond Ryan’s Twitter feed?
Oh yes! Ryan and I have had actual conversations with the writers of the original [Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn] and the folks at 20th [Century] and Disney. So we are very proactively developing that sequel screenplay.
[Writer’s Note: Shortly after this interview, 20th Century Studios President Steve Asbell told THR that the script for Free Guy 2 was “days away.”]
You’re currently producing The Boogeyman, which is based on Stephen King’s 1987 short story, and the adaptation is led by Sophie Thatcher, who I just interviewed recently. Was she cast before the Yellowjackets craze, or did that show put her on your radar?
I can’t claim credit or prescience on the Sophie front, but for me and for many of us at 21 Laps, it was Yellowjackets. Her part [in The Boogeyman] is a really critical part; it’s the part. An hour ago, someone shared something with me that Stephen King had said about Boogeyman and this adaptation, which was incredibly flattering and encouraging. So it’s a really great screenplay, and Sophie is going to bring it to life in fantastic fashion.
Lastly, you mentioned that you’re prepping at the moment, so what are you directing next?
I am directing a four-episode limited series that is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize best seller, All the Light We Cannot See. So in my ongoing mission to have the most eclectic resume known to man, I’m going from a Amblin-esque, poppy, time-travel adventure to a World War II-set romantic drama. I feel very lucky that I’m allowed to tell stories in such a range of genres and tones.
The Adam Project is now streaming on Netflix.
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