Leave it to a group of Canadians, Ryan Reynolds, Shawn Levy and Ethan Tobman, to create a movie that’s set in a video game world, with a character that has the essence of stereotypical Canadian kindness, with Free Guy (in theatres on Friday, Aug. 13).
Think The Truman Show and Elf, meets The Sims, Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite. Those are just some of the touch points for the look and feel of this movie.
The lead character Guy, played by Reynolds (who also produced the film), is a bank teller in Free City who lives a simple life that’s the same every single day. He wakes up with a lot of positivity and optimism, he puts on the same blue shirt and khaki pants every morning and buys the same coffee (medium coffee, cream, two sugars). Every day, robbers come into the bank, but Guy always comes out unscathed, and he hangs out with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery).
“My default is just pure trash...on the inside,” Reynolds told reporters ahead of the Free Guy release. “There’s something really wonderful about playing a character who’s kind of naive and innocent.”
“It’s even said in the movie,...he’s a four-year-old adult. There’s something, I think, really fun about exploring everything with new eyes, which is what this character gets to do, and sort of filtering that through the prism of comedy and occasionally cynicism, and all sorts of other things.”
We come to find out that Guy’s life is so simple because he’s actually the background character in a video game, which was initially developed by programmers Mille (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery) but they were robbed of their code by video game mogul Antwan (Taika Waititi). Millie ends up creating an avatar of herself called Molotov Girl, in Free City, to find proof that Antwan stole their code. She ends up meeting Guy and helps him realize what’s actually going on around him in Free City.
For Comer, who plays the Millie/Molotov Girl, ultimately the most objectively, undeniably cool character in the movie, she was particularly excited about getting the opportunity to work with actor/producer Reynolds and director/producer Levy.
“I don't feel like a video game has ever been kind of explored or shown in this way,” she said.
“In regards to characters,...the opportunity to play Millie who is strong in her sense of self, and what's right, and then having to create this avatar and trying to figure out, well who is this avatar? Where do their strengths lay?”
'Someone says improvisation to me and I will run the other way'
Levy explained that while Waititi and Reynolds are hysterical in the film, the two actors were constantly riffing and improvising within the script.
“They'll do three takes as scripted and then they'll change two words, or then they'll change four jokes and you kind of extrapolate,” Levy explained.
“I don't want someone to just do what I say. I have enough power. I feel good about my job, enough. So I want collaborators who are empowered to surprise me with ideas.”
Levy explained that he likes to create a “playful” and “happy” work environment, which was very much the case for Free Guy, but he has particularly fond memories of filming the scenes with Waititi at the video game company.
“I knew Ryan Reynolds was a master improviser but I just knew that Taika [Waititi] was a strange, magnificent weirdo, and his comedic improvisation was so lightning fast, it reminds me of only one person and that's Robin Williams from my Night at the Museum movies,” Levy said.
“Every take that Taika did was different and the ideas come so fast...and I would never cut the camera because Taika would give me 19 different jokes, and then later I could pick the best one.”
While Reynolds and Waititi may have regularly exercised their improvisation skills filming Free Guy, Comer revealed that’s definitely not in her comfort zone.
“Someone says improvisation to me and I will run the other way,” she said. “But I do have to say, I definitely feel like I got a little bit more confidence kind of watching how free they both are in what they do.”
Comer said she’s had this conversation with Reynolds about his improv skills, to which she says he told her that he really does prepare to do that work.
“Of course it's not just off the cuff but even that, just seeing the work that's obviously gone into it for him to then just come to set and rattle off 10 alternative lines, and also for every single one of them lines to land and be funny is like, come on, show off,” she said.
In terms of Reynolds and his inspired ideas, Levy revealed that the song “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey being used as kind of a theme song for the movie was the actor’s idea.
“That was Ryan, Ryan is kind of a maestro of the odd, random but inspired song idea,” Levy revealed.
“He is obsessive about it and early on when we were working on the script, Ryan’s like, ‘you know what I think should be the anthem of this entire movie and marketing campaign?’ And he suggested this Mariah song.”
Visually creating these different worlds
A big component of this movie is, of course, balancing the video game world with the real world. Not only did Montreal-born production designer Ethan Tobman have to create these two spaces, but within that duality, things needed to be adaptable and changeable.
“We're creating worlds within worlds, we're really pushing ourselves, I think, to do things that are reminiscent maybe of movies from our childhood, fantasy films, even games that we may have played, but that we actually haven't seen on film before,” Tobman said.
“It's certainly my hope that it feels like there's several movies here in one but they have a really consistent visual emotional thread.”
Levy explained that there was a kind of “rule book” created for Free Guy, with rules for how the video game world would look, and different rules for the real world.
“I wanted to never have confusion where you were when you're watching the movie,” he said. “So colour composition, lenses, the camera we used to film the movie is different in Free City from the regular world.”
Tobman revealed that while creating the elaborate video game world may seem like the biggest task, creating Guy’s apartment was actually more difficult.
“How do you develop a fully realized world around a purposely half developed character? It's almost as though the economy that these people have been allowed to give to him creatively had a budget cut,” Tobman explained.
“That's how we riddled it with details. For example, he has pencils and a notepad, no pencil sharpener, he has a calendar on the wall, it's missing Tuesdays, he has books on his shelves that are colour coordinated, they don't have any spines, there's no writing on them, he has cereal, there's no spoon.”
“Ethan filled this one room with 30 layers of jokes, maybe a regular audience will notice four, but if you watch the movie again you'll notice nine,” Levy revealed. “Those layers of wit and cleverness are really impressive.”
It is that level of detail, what you see behind the main action in each scene, that makes Free Guy especially unique, and we would expect nothing less from a production led by Reynolds and Levy in particular.
“The best part about this video game movie is it doesn't have to be faithful to any video game,” Levy said.