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[This story contains spoilers for Free Guy.]
Five years ago this month, screenwriter Matt Lieberman sat down to write his first draft of Free Guy, a spec script centering on Guy, a non-player character in a video game who slowly comes to realize the nature of his reality.
For Lieberman, the story of Guy resonated more than one might expect from the writer, who was already successful selling scripts for films such as The Christmas Chronicles and penning movies such as the animated Addams Family and Scoob!
“I was definitely feeling a little stuck in a place. It is more an autobiography than I’d be willing to admit,” Lieberman tells The Hollywood Reporter.
After completing a draft of Free Guy in around three weeks, the script sparked plenty of interest around Hollywood, with it ultimately landing at Fox. It languished in development for a few years before star and producer Ryan Reynolds picked up the script and convinced filmmaker Shawn Levy, who had passed on it in 2016, to give it another look.
Reynolds, a writer in his own right who earned screenwriting credit on Deadpool 2, did a pass of the script with Lieberman. Among Reynolds’ many contributions was suggesting the character of Dude, a hulked-out version of Guy that he must fight in the climax. Reynolds also pushed for Guy to be content in his life at the beginning of the film, rather than cynical, as he was written in the original draft.
Free Guy opened exclusively in theaters over the weekend, getting strong reviews and earning $53.7 million globally so far. On Saturday, Reynolds revealed Disney is interested in a sequel. While it’s unclear if Lieberman would be involved, he does have ideas for where it could go.
“The second I wrote the end of the first draft, I knew what the sequel is, and had big ideas,” says the writer, who spoke to THR two days before the sequel announcement. “Obviously, that depends on how it does, and how Ryan feels. I would love to revisit this world. There are so many cool things we can do with the characters and the world.”
In a conversation with THR, Lieberman also discusses how where Guy and Millie’s (Jodie Comer) ending differed in the original script, and shares his philosophy on writing big, high-concept films.
What was life like when you started writing Free Guy as a spec in 2016?
I’d been a professional screenwriter for a while. I’d sold Christmas Chronicles. I’d worked in the Disney writer’s program for a couple of years, which was great. I’d gotten open writing assignments like Short Circuit and Scoob! Even Addams Family by then. I was definitely feeling a little stuck in a place. It is more an autobiography than I’d be willing to admit. I felt stuck and I had this idea, I’d been kicking it around for a while and I knew it was a good idea. Five years ago this month, I sat down and knocked it out, really quickly.
How long did draft No. 1 take for Free Guy?
I wrote the first draft in less than three weeks. A lot of that stuff is very much still in the movie. It’s crazy. I’d been kicking around the idea for a while. I knew what it was. There were pieces of talent that were interested in talking about it as an idea, as a pitch maybe. I had a good sense of what it needed to be when I started out.
What was your earliest idea on this?
I started the idea as, “What if you have the cheat codes to life? What if you could walk around and see powerups? Oh, then you would be in Grand Theft Auto.” I backed into it that way. Once I had that, it all started falling together really quickly. I relate to NPCs in a lot of ways. Like a lot of writers are, I’m a habitual guy. I’m very much in my lane. My wife says I’m a cartoon character. I wear the same three sets of clothes all the time. The Blue Shirt Guy was me for a while.
How quickly did you come up with the ideas for the real world and the game company?
I was thinking a lot about Truman Show and Cabin in the Woods. I’m a high-concept guy. I love great, high-concept movies. I don’t know what they are called in [Cabin in the Woods] — the executive guys. I set it up the same way. Who are these guys? Are the two worlds related? I wanted them to have a scene or two of that where you weren’t even sure if these were part of the same world or not. It just naturally evolved from there.
The movie asks, “What does it mean to be human? How much of ourselves is our programming?” The romance definitely evolved, especially once Ryan and Shawn got involved. Shawn was really big on making the emotional impact and earning that moment at the end where they have a Ghost moment. In the original script they were together still at the end, which I realized was not a practical way to end the movie. “You are just going to have a continuous relationship with a made-up piece of A.I.” Zak Penn came on and did a pass and he really drew out a lot of that romance stuff in a great way.
Ryan is a writer himself, and he brings a lot of himself to these roles. How did Guy change when Ryan boarded the project?
I would never in a million years dream that Ryan Reynolds would be Guy. I love Ryan, and once he got on board, the script went from just being in development to 100 miles per hour. I did a pass on the script with him, exchanging pages back and forth. He is a great writer. He is a smart producer. He was looking at things as a writer, as an actor, as the guy who has to go out and sell all these lines and these scenes. His biggest note was, in the original script Guy was a cynical character. He started in a cynical place. “Why do we put up with this?” And he was like, “Guy should be happy where he is.” It really gave the character a much bigger arc. A further place to go. He had a lot of great ideas. It wasn’t just that.
Did you dare to dream up any of those Disney tie-ins? I assume that came later, after Disney acquired Fox.
I never in a million years indulged any of the tie-ins to games. Any of the Easter eggs. I had gotten in that issue before with a Beatles script. If you put something in there, and you can’t get the rights, the script is dead. I wanted to keep the potential of it flexible. Once Disney came on board, they really embraced the movie in a great way and allowed for those choices that Shawn and Ryan asked for before production.
Shawn Levy read this and passed years ago, and then Ryan got him on board. How close did this come to getting made over the years before Ryan?
When I first went out with it, it was the screenwriter’s dream. It went out on a Friday and it had all this buzz. I can’t say their names, but I had filmmakers and actors and pieces of talent calling me and being like, “Let us bring this in to the studio.” I was pinching myself. That was Monday. And then on Tuesday, Donald Trump was elected. On Wednesday, the town cooled off. It got very chilly. But Fox and a couple of other places were into it. Sarah Schechter, who is one of the producers, called me. “Fox is a great place for this. They are making Deadpool. They are taking chances.” So I went with that. Over that course of development, there were big actors that were flirting with this. A cool director. But nobody really signed on board. Ryan immediately got it and it was very quick. I got an email, “Are you sitting down? Ryan is in.” Dream come true stuff.
In 2016, when there was all this interest, had you learned to temper expectations?
I learned to temper expectations years ago. That is a big part of who I am. I never let myself get excited about anything until I’m sitting in the theater now. I used to say until I’m on set, but after the pandemic, I’m like, “Until it comes out.” It’s such a tough business. There are a million ways for a thing to fall apart at any phase. Disney buying it. They were killing projects. “Is this going to happen?” There’s always a way for something to fall apart.
Was the Dude, the hulked-out version of Guy, in the original script?
No, that was the second big Ryan idea. He has the thing about guy, making him happy, and he’s got to face off against a 2.0 version of himself at the end. It was still a Guy facing off against Antwan (Taika Waititi) and the programmers, but it was his idea to drop in this hilarious character.
How much did Antwan evolve once you got Taika Waititi?
It was the same idea and the same kind of scenes, but obviously Taika brought so much of himself to that role. So much improvisation. There are 80 percent of his lines that are on a cutting room floor somewhere. He had so many ideas. He took that from a cool, interesting antagonist to the next level.
Were there any real-life touchstones for Antwan?
Not people, but definitely the bro culture of gaming. There was a little more in early days in Milly’s storyline that she had gotten pushed out by toxic bro culture of gaming.
Were you on set for Free Guy?
I was there for the whole Dude fight, which was amazing to watch. It was so cool to see that stuff happening and to see Ryan Reynolds reading your lines and doing that stuff. It’s a head trip.
I imagine the Dude fight was several days of filming?
Yeah, that was over several days. I wasn’t there for the scene, but to see the scene of Guy putting on the glasses for the first time and seeing this world, that gives me goosebumps to see that becoming a reality. That was the first scene I had in my head when I started writing it and it came out that way and it’s still that way to this day.
Marvel likes to have a screenwriter on set to tweak lines. Are you working on set, or are you just there to watch and enjoy?
This one it was just, “Come by for a visit.” I know Zak visited. If there were any changes, it was [Shawn] and Ryan.
When did you first see a cut of this?
I saw a cut in the end of 2019. It was really close to how it is now. I’d never seen a first cut that was that strong. Even with the half-done effects, it really worked. When you see your own movie, you never really know. It’s so close. Hats off to Shawn to seeing it a million times and navigating what works and what doesn’t. You are so close to it. “Do I like this just because it’s my thing, or is it because it’s good?”
Do you have an itch to revisit this for a sequel or do you have too many other scripts on your plate? (THR spoke to Lieberman Aug. 12, two days before Reynolds revealed a sequel is in development at Disney.)
The second I wrote the end of the first draft, I knew what the sequel is and had big ideas. Obviously that depends on how it does, and how Ryan feels. I would love to revisit this world. There are so many cool things we can do with the characters and the world. I sold a big idea to Paramount this year that’s really exciting, a big popcorn kind of movie. I sold another spec to Warner Bros. too, which we are getting directors on now.
There aren’t too many screenwriters who are able to sell big, original high-concept pitches. What’s the secret to doing that?
It definitely has to do with having a good team. My manager, Adam Kolbrenner, has helped me navigate. Every time I have a good idea, I run it by him and he’s like, “Oh, there’s something,” or [not]. He has a good idea of what is selling out there and what people are looking for. That’s essential. For me, if you have a high concept with a good, ironic hook or a big wish fulfillment element in it that has a good theme baked into its DNA, that’s how I like to build out ideas. Once you have that, they usually turn out well.
So you talk to your manager, “Here’s an idea I have, is this worth my time to write this script?”
A hundred percent. If it’s like, “Maybe,” then maybe I’ll write 20 pages. For Free Guy I wrote 40 pages. I sent it to him, and he called me back. “This one is special.” I knew I was on the right track.
Do you write scripts that you end up not taking out on the town? Scripts that when you get to the end, you decide aren’t quite right?
No. Maybe ideas, like three or four pages, sure. I’d say half of them go into a file. Some of them come back a couple of years later. Maybe the idea wasn’t complete or needed another element. In terms of full scripts, once we are there, we are going to go out and try to sell it.
You said you are like Guy. You have a routine. Do have set hours you write? A number of scripts you want to hit every year?
I definitely have a routine. I write in the mornings. I work on a lot of projects at once. I came from having a day job and writing at nights and weekends. That helped me compartmentalize projects. I don’t have to live and breathe a project all day. I’ll work on pages for a script in the morning and then maybe idea stuff, or outline stuff or pitch stuff in the afternoon. I definitely don’t set a target for myself. But I will set deadlines for myself.
What do you hope audiences get from Free Guy now that it’s finally here?
I hope they are entertained and have a few hours of a great time. Especially coming out of the year we all had. If people come and come out of it still thinking about the movie and wanting to see it again, and organically telling their friends about it, that’s the dream.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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