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The Low-Key Hustle of ‘Free Guy’ Filmmaker Shawn Levy: “I’m Willing to Outwork Anybody”

With Disney's Ryan Reynolds starrer finally hitting theaters after multiple COVID-related delays, the prolific director-producer — he now has 15 projects lined up at Netflix — has quietly become one of Hollywood’s most dependable hitmakers.

Shawn Levy is sipping iced coffee with a hint of milk on a scorching hot summer day in Boston. The industrious director-producer is in town with Ryan Reynolds to host a private cast-and-crew screening of their upcoming film Free Guy for the locals at the AMC Boston Common. It has been a long journey for the Disney tentpole, which shot in the city more than two years ago and has seen its release plan scuttled three times because of COVID-19. Given the long wait, Levy was intent on celebrating Free Guy’s release with the people who worked on it behind the scenes, even if studios rarely throw such bashes.

“Shawn takes time to see people, and that is everything,” says Reynolds. “I don’t care if you’re a PA, you work in craft services or you’re as big a producer in Hollywood as it gets, he takes the time to see you. And I think that is what makes him a great storyteller — taking that time to really imagine for a moment what it’s like to be in the shoes of someone around you.”

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How Levy, 53, finds the time to engage remains something of a mystery. As he settles into his oversized chair at The Street Bar at The Newbury and recommends the lobster bisque, he ticks off a dizzying array of projects on the horizon for his 21 Laps production banner — 15 series in active development at Netflix alone, including an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner All the Light We Cannot See. (Right before this meeting, he was working from his hotel room on casting ideas for the limited series.) He is bringing his hit franchise Night at the Museum to Broadway with Alan Menken, who is writing the songs. And he has two films with Reynolds on the tarmac: In addition to Free Guy, which Disney is giving a theatrical-only release Aug. 13 (the studio is not releasing any of the former Fox movies on Disney+), there’s Netflix’s The Adam Project, a time-traveling adventure about a man who must get help from his 13-year-old self.

But in an industry in which megadeals are touted and dissected relentlessly in the media, including those belonging to J.J. Abrams, Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, little is known about Levy’s. And that’s by design. His five-year, first-look Netflix deal, signed in November, is said to be in the nine-figure range, a staggering sum for a nonwriting producer. The deal is separate from his lucrative pact with Netflix for the global sensation Stranger Things, which he has executive produced since the series’ debut in 2016, and leaves room for outside gigs like producing Paramount’s Arrival, a best picture Oscar nominee.

“Nobody would hate the idea of us talking about his deal more than Shawn,” says Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer. “He honestly prefers to keep a low profile. He doesn’t need to be known as the No. 1 anything. But he is unbelievable. He just does the work. And he does it really well.”

Suffice to say, Levy has the hottest and most interesting career that gets the least amount of ink. And with Free Guy, he’s upping the ante given that it represents the only big-budget original film this summer from a major studio that is not based on IP — a dying breed in today’s Hollywood.

“There is an energy to the way that Disney is galvanized in marketing this film, and Ryan and I feel very much like they have our backs,” Levy explains. “No one can guarantee outcome. But they sure seem to be betting big on Free Guy. 

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“I hope that someday, when my heart stops beating, people can say I shot 15 or 20 movies with Shawn,” says Ryan Reynolds (above right), with Levy on the set of Free Guy. Alan Markfield

It was about five years ago when Levy read the screenplay for the film, which centers on a bank teller who discovers he’s a non-player character inside a brutal, open-world video game. “I passed because I’m not a gaming aficionado,” he says. “I’m always looking for that humanist spine in the movie.” During the ensuing years, Levy was introduced to Reynolds by mutual friend Hugh Jackman. “Hugh had always told both of us, ‘If you guys ever work together, you’ll never stop,’ ” Levy notes. As the two began looking for a potential collaboration, Reynolds reached out to Levy about none other than Free Guy. It was Reynolds who could see the humanist edge peeking through the high-concept story by Matt Lieberman, who received screenplay credit with Zak Penn.

“Ryan said, ‘What about making a movie that’s about this theme of living in the background and having a more empowered sense of agency and potential impact on a world that is not to your liking and where maybe you can effect change,’ ” Levy recalls.

Suddenly, the director was able to appreciate the possibilities and said yes to his new star.

“We have so much in common. We’re both pretty sentimental,” says Reynolds, who, like Levy, hails from Canada. “My favorite thing about our relationship is just how utterly easy it is to be around each another. I hope that someday, when my heart stops beating, people can say I shot 15 or 20 movies with Shawn.”

The film was greenlit by Fox, before Disney acquired the studio, at a budget of between $100 million and $125 million. Levy and Reynolds would travel back and forth on the Amtrak train between Boston and New York, restructuring some scenes and punching up others.

Levy was making a temporary home in New York, while his wife and four daughters were holding down their Brentwood fort. But he became so enamored with East Coast living that the Montreal native recently moved the family to downtown Manhattan, where he lives 100 yards from Reynolds. 

“With Ryan, I found not only an effortless shorthand as director and actor, but maybe even more shockingly, a real synchronicity as producers and writers together,” Levy adds. 

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Levy, photographed June 10 at the PMC photo studio in Los Angeles. Photographed by Phylicia J. L. Munn

Perhaps Levy enjoys an easy rapport with actors because he started out as one. As a teen and self-professed “theater nerd,” he traveled from Montreal to the Catskills to attend famed stage camp Stagedoor Manor, whose alums include Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei. An instructor told him to aim for Yale if he wanted to pursue theater as a profession, and so he did just that. After being accepted to the Ivy League college, he headed to New Haven, Connecticut, where his classmates included such future stars as Paul Giamatti. They performed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest together, and Levy began to notice that he wasn’t in the same league.

“In watching Paul, it was my first glimmer of, ‘Wait a second. There’s a difference between great and pretty good.’ And I was pretty good. I was always a little too self-conscious to be a great actor,” he remembers. “I wanted to try to find a job and a creative life where I had a chance of being great. So I started directing theater, and I directed Paul in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Two weeks after graduating from Yale, Levy moved to Los Angeles to pursue film directing. It was the mid-’90s, and every director was imitating Quentin Tarantino. Levy was refining his own sensibility, which represented the polar opposite of reigning trends. For his thesis project, he directed a short titled Broken Record, which revolved around a 13-year-old boy and girl who live in a small town where nothing extraordinary ever happens, and they get married to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. His future wife, Serena, produced the film.

“It was unabashedly sweet, uncynical, comedic and warm, and the next day I had a career,” Levy says. “And what’s crazy to me in retrospect is that those qualities are still the things that ended up in my movies and TV shows.”

He quickly became known as the crowd-pleasing comedy guy, directing lighthearted fare like Just Married, Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther. Just as he was ready to pivot to a different genre by directing the card-counting drama 21, then-Fox film chief Tom Rothman wooed him to instead take on Night at the Museum, a big-budget family film laden with special effects. The movie became a huge hit for Fox, earning $574 million at the box office and spawning a $1.35 billion franchise. Night at the Museum took Levy to another level, paving the way for the Fox-based 21 Laps, a company named after his oldest daughter’s unexpected feat of completing 21 laps at a kindergarten charity run.

“I have never presumed to be the smartest. I’ve never presumed to be most talented,” he says. “But I’m willing to outwork and out-hustle anybody.”

Studio executives began to court him because he delivered films under budget and without drama. He inspired loyalty from his 21 Laps staff, which now numbers 18. Since its founding in the mid-aughts, there’s been little turnover at the company, with longtime executives Dan Levine and Dan Cohen serving as Levy’s partners. Likewise, his stars became repeat collaborators, including Steve Martin, Ben Stiller and now Reynolds. For Tina Fey, who worked with Levy on 2010’s Date Night and 2014’s This Is Where I Leave You, there’s a reason why so many are willing to return.

“What makes him unique is he’s very present,” she says. “He’s a guy who can have a larger-scale movie, and he’s fully aware of and completely understands how the stunts and all that stuff works. But at the same time, he’s completely present for you as an actor and performer.”

While Night at the Museum offered a turning point, Levy’s career went into overdrive in 2016, the year Stranger Things debuted and became a cultural phenomenon and Arrival became the rare kind of prestige pic that also makes money ($203 million globally).

In the early days of Stranger Things, creators Matt and Ross Duffer, who were short on experience but long on vision, leaned heavily on Levy to help execute their ambitious plans. 

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Levy on the set of Stranger Things in 2018. Tina Rowden/Netflix

“We actually call him Warlock because he’s got this dark magic that allows him to solve any and every problem related to the show,” says Ross Duffer. “He’s taught us so much about both the business and creative side of things. It’s hard to imagine having made this show without Shawn.”

While many might buckle with so much on their plate, Levy remains unflappable as he describes a past year that saw him jetting between Vancouver (The Adam Project) and Atlanta and New Mexico (Stranger Things), all the while packing up 28 years of life in L.A. to resettle in New York. “It’s a whirlwind, but I love it. I love it.”

For now, he is directing episodes three and four of Stranger Things’ fourth season — the same two episodes he’s directed for the past three seasons (the Duffer brothers have always directed episodes one and two). He’s also busy producing season two of Netflix breakout Shadow and Bone, and he’s teaming with Kenya Barris to produce a Cheaper by the Dozen series at Disney+. He plans to direct every episode of Light We Cannot See, which Oscar nominee Steven Knight (2002’s Dirty Pretty Things) is writing. And when our lunch is over, he’ll meet with Reynolds to discuss one of the three films they are concurrently developing. Then they’ll hit the screening.

Says Sarandos: “It’s almost corny to say that the good guys always win. But Shawn is one of the good guys who is winning in Hollywood, for sure.” 

This story first appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.