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Last week, The Hollywood Reporter took readers inside the world of Shawn Levy, who’s quietly become one of the most prolific filmmakers and producers in Hollywood. Well, this week, Levy returns to look under the hood of his new action-packed romantic comedy, Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds as Guy and Jodie Comer as Millie/Molotov Girl. Like most of Levy and Reynold’s individual works, Free Guy is filled with a flurry of surprises that have mostly been protected, and many of them wouldn’t have been possible without the Disney-Fox merger being completed right before Levy started production on the 20th Century film.
“The merger allowed us to open our minds,” Levy tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We were like, ‘OK, the third-act battle royale, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) has leveled up substantially. So he knows the rules of his game world and he has access to any weaponry and object he could dream of.’ It turned out that our new owners at Disney own some of the most iconic weaponry ever made by humans. So we literally wrote a letter: ‘Dear Sir and Madams, Would you give us the privilege of using this or this or this?’ So Disney wrote back and said, ‘Yes.’ The merger gave us an opportunity to literally exploit $40 billion of IP in about 17 seconds, and I can’t imagine Disney would’ve said yes if they didn’t own the studio that was making the movie.”
Despite some famous cameos and props in the fold, Levy and Reynolds didn’t stop there as they recruited some major voice cameos that audiences may not catch until the credits or their second viewing.
Levy explains: “There’s a couple of big celebrity cameos on-screen that you see with your eyes, but as Ryan and I spent a lot of time in the edit room, sitting side by side on the couch and honing the cut of the movie, we realized that there were all these characters in masks, or just off-camera, or in silhouette. And it gave us the opportunity to say, ‘We could have these people voiced by anybody,’ so we literally got our cell phones out and started scrolling through our contacts. So there ends up being four or five major celebrity cameos that you won’t see with your eyes, but if you listen closely, even if you don’t read the credits, you’ll be able to recognize with your ears.”
Stranger Things 4 started shooting in February 2020, and like the rest of the industry, it was quickly delayed by the coronavirus pandemic in March. Once cameras started rolling again at the end of September 2020, Levy and the rest of the producers knew they’d still be shooting at this point.
“We are long-delayed, and the Duffers and I want to share season four with the world as badly as the world wants it,” Levy shares. “Part of what’s taking time is long before Covid and the pandemic existed, season four was built to be by far the most ambitious, cinematic, sprawling and epic season that we’ve ever done. By not just a little — by a lot. So the complexity of season four, even before we had the obstacles, hurdles and challenges of a pandemic, is taking a lot of time because it is super worth the wait.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Levy also discusses Alex Trebek’s Free Guy cameo, and then he reveals the conversations he’s been having with Steven Spielberg and Hugh Jackman regarding a Real Steel sequel.
You have no shortage of projects in development. So what was it about Free Guy that made you prioritize it above the rest?
In the form of this populist, funny, entertaining movie, Free Guy very much explores this idea of how do you exist with good intentions and happiness in the midst of a world that can break your heart? And in the midst of a world that is not of your making and not necessarily of your choosing? Do you just live in the background and ride it out until death? Or do you step forward and actually question your place in the world? “I can’t control everything, but shouldn’t I have an impact on some things?” So it asks those basic, aspirational questions that we all wrestle with and that we certainly all harbor. So that’s what made the theme of the movie such a big part of what interested me, Ryan and our process together.
While I contend that Free Guy is a romantic comedy, I’ve seen some debate about how this movie should be labeled. Some people insist that it’s a video game movie, while others argue that video game movies have to be based on a real video game. So where do you weigh in on this distinction?
(Laughs.) Well, I don’t want to alienate either side of that argument so I’m going to tread lightly. But I will say that Ryan and I absolutely always talked about Free Guy as a romantic comedy. We also talked about it as The Truman Show and we talked about it as a superhero’s origin story without the superpowers. But we always knew that there were these two storylines that we needed the audience to root for concurrently. One is Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds, and the other, equally important, is Jodie Comer and Joe Keery. And both of those have a certain rom-com structure to them. The trick of this movie was pulling off the soft-hearted warmth of a rom-com tone while also having kick-ass visuals, rad action and gamer and game culture authenticity. So truthfully, I knew every day that my job was both. To the gaming community, I needed the movie to feel like and say, “Oh yeah, this one’s for you. I see you. I’m putting you and the culture of what you love on screen.” So that really mattered, but I also wanted people who were either casual gamers or knew nothing about gaming to be able to walk into a movie theater and just enjoy a movie-movie. So I genuinely was trying to hit two targets at once.
Joe Keery’s character really wants to make an original game, while Taika Waititi’s character wants to keep exploiting existing IP. Is this meta commentary for your own career since you tend to lean towards original works more often than not?
Yes, 100 percent. I wrote much of what Taika says as he’s making fun of the culture and the movie industry’s addiction to IP. Sometimes, it’s a healthy addiction, but sometimes, it’s not. More and more, we’re seeing the infrequency of new, original movies being made at a budget level over a certain number. So to be able to make Stranger Things based on nothing but a new creative vision and voice, to be able to make Night at the Museum, Real Steel, Free Guy, these are all very treasured moments in my creative life where I got to go into the scary abyss of the new. And when it works, you get the unique thrill of creating something where nothing existed. You create a franchise based on telling one story, new and right.
You started shooting a few weeks after the Disney-Fox merger was completed. Were certain IP-related elements already in the movie, or did the merger allow them to be added at the last minute?
The merger allowed us to open our minds in the following way. We were like, “OK, the third-act battle royale, Guy has leveled up substantially. So he knows the rules of his game world and he has access to any weaponry and object he could dream of.” It turned out that our new owners at Disney own some of the most iconic weaponry ever made by humans. So we literally wrote a letter: “Dear Sir and Madams, Would you give us the privilege of using this or this or this?” And these were iconic objects from iconic franchises. So Disney wrote back and said, “Yes.” And I remember we were like, “OK, yes to which of those items?” And they go, “Oh, all of them. You can have all of them.” So that gave us an opportunity, and I’m so excited for audiences. There’s a lot of chatter about it online, but people aren’t spoiling it, thankfully. The merger gave us an opportunity to literally exploit $40 billion of IP in about 17 seconds, and I can’t imagine Disney would’ve said yes if they didn’t own the studio that was making the movie.
There are many cameos in this movie, but some of them aren’t recognizable until you read the credits. Was that very much by design?
Yes, there’s a couple of big celebrity cameos on-screen that you see with your eyes, but as Ryan and I spent a lot of time in the edit room, sitting side by side on the couch and honing the cut of the movie, we realized that there were all these characters in masks, or just off-camera, or in silhouette. And it gave us the opportunity to say, “We could have these people voiced by anybody,” so we literally got our cell phones out and started scrolling through our contacts. And between Ryan Reynolds and I, it turned out that we know a lot of talented, famous people. We literally would just call or text people to say, “Hey, do you want to do this part? It’s voice only. You can literally send it in as a voice memo from your iPhone, and I’ll put it in my movie. It will go to theaters like that.” So there ends up being four or five major celebrity cameos that you won’t see with your eyes, but if you listen closely, even if you don’t read the credits, you’ll be able to recognize with your ears.
Alex Trebek’s cameo was revealed in the trailers already. Did you get to visit his Jeopardy set?
I did not get to go down to his set, but some people involved with my crew and Free Guy did. But again, that was another example of us sitting on the editing room couch, thinking, “OK, how do we make it clear that Blue Shirt Guy has gone viral and is now known in the culture?” So we came up with the idea that if you’re an answer on Jeopardy, then you’re in the culture. We asked Mr. Trebek if he would do it, and he said, “Sure! Sounds fun.” So we did the whole thing in literally 20 minutes, and now it’s part of our movie forever. It’s both poignant and really meaningful to Ryan and I that he’s a part of our movie and that we had the privilege of that.
There’s a comment on gun violence at one point in the film, and admittedly, I laughed in response to the sad fact that the U.S. and video games share this ugly, violent attribute. Have you seen people react similarly, knowing full well how tragic it is?
We’ve certainly seen it. It’s why we added that chunk of dialogue into that scene. It wasn’t in the script. We realized, “We’re doing a movie that’s both reflective of and commenting on gaming culture, so it feels disingenuous to not connect it to the real world.” And the truth is, gun violence is a massive problem. Audiences want an escapist ride at the movies, but in some ways, they still want to be connected back to real life and our real world. It felt like, “If we’re going to do this, we need to own the fact that there is a lot of progress that still needs to be made. We need to recognize the problems that persist, and gun violence is certainly a major one.” So I don’t know whether that joke is for everyone, but I know that it felt like the right thing to do. Yes, it’s happy-sad. It’s funny that we’re making a joke about it, but we literally have Jodie Comer say, “It’s a huge problem. It’s a massive problem.” So we just figured that every once in a while, we need to anchor this movie in reality and in a self-aware way that audiences might appreciate.
There are numerous moments where Ryan and/or Jodie are walking and talking in the foreground while craziness ensues in the background. Can you talk a bit about coordinating those scenes?
Ryan and I talked early on about that and how it was going to be central to the approach of this movie. Whatever was scripted, whatever was in the foreground, we would have layers of goings-on behind them, to which they would not even react. But I didn’t want to do it with visual effects alone, so those are real explosions, real flamethrowers, real people repelling from building to building; it’s all real. And it all had to be timed perfectly in sync with the dialogue and the action in the foreground. So it took a lot of time to plan because there was a lot of complexity between stunts, the actors, me, special effects and visual effects. But it’s worth it because what you get in Free Guy is a movie where every frame is packed densely with humor, easter eggs and action.
So I’ve interviewed Finn Wolfhard many times over the years, and there’s this running joke that if I want to learn about the upcoming season of Stranger Things, then Shawn Levy is the guy to ask.
So can you spare a few adjectives regarding season four?
That I can do! Thank you for not asking me for a release date because I’ve already been misquoted this week, slightly, on that topic. I’ll just say that we are long-delayed, and the Duffers and I want to share season four with the world as badly as the world wants it. Part of what’s taking time is long before Covid and the pandemic existed, season four was built to be by far the most ambitious, cinematic, sprawling and epic season that we’ve ever done. By not just a little — by a lot. So the complexity of season four, even before we had the obstacles, hurdles and challenges of a pandemic, is taking a lot of time because it is super worth the wait.
If my name was on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, I probably would’ve called it a career because it doesn’t get much better than that. Would you mind reflecting on the first time you saw a cut that mostly resembled the theatrical release?
I remember Denis brought a cut to L.A. We producers watched it, and it had some of that Max Richter music that ultimately ended up in the picture. It had very temporary visual effects, but it had the cerebral and emotional lyricism that all Denis Villeneuve movies have. We had worked for 5 years on that screenplay before it got made, and we were very committed to that story. But to see Denis bring it to life with his auteur vision was sublime. I knew instantly that it would be something that I would be proud of forever.
What’s the latest on a possible Real Steel sequel? Did an idea ever materialize?
Yes, and it continues to be ongoing. It is, in fact, newly alive as a conversation topic. As we come up on our 10-year anniversary, incredibly, it remains one of Hugh’s and my favorite movies, both in terms of the way that audiences continue to love it but also the way that we feel about it. So yes, there has been talk. It didn’t happen in the aftermath of our release, but I still won’t say never.
So you must’ve seen those Netflix charts last year…
I saw those Netflix charts! I was astonished and thrilled. I shared those Netflix charts with Spielberg and Hugh, although not in that order; I think Hugh came first. It showed us that not only is the fanbase still there, but new people are discovering it. So to see Real Steel trending on Netflix nine years after it came out was quite a gift and a very happy surprise.
Well, Shawn, I always knew that watching season three of Beverly Hills, 90210 would come in handy someday, and unlike Antwan (Taika Waititi), I really appreciate you saying words to me today.
(Laughs.) Since you went with the deep, deep 90210 cut, the words I’ll leave you with are “Donna Martin graduates.” I remember spending days outside Burbank City Hall, chanting, “Donna Martin graduates! Donna Martin graduates!” So I might be more famous for that than anything else I ever do.
Free Guy hits theaters on Aug. 13.
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