9 Things We Learned on the Set of Ryan Reynolds' FREE GUY - Nerdist
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9 Things We Learned on the Set of Ryan Reynolds’ FREE GUY

Nerdist, along with other outlets, visited the set of Free Guy in Boston way back in 2019. Star Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy told us why they made a big bet on an original idea. But that was far from the only thing the two, along with co-star Jodie Comer, told us about the film. Here are nine things—from the movie’s inspirations, to its video game world, to why someone was always on fire, and why Taika Waititi is one of the funniest people alive—we learned from them about Free Guy.

The Two Worlds of Free Guy

The movie has two distinct settings. The first is Free City, a type of open world shooter video game. Levy says the faux game certainly has “shades of Grand Theft Auto and other games of that ilk.” But “is in no way a literal adaptation” of anything that already exists. Within the video game world Reynolds plays Guy, a non-playable character (NPC), the type of background characters that populate video games.

A man in a blue dress shirt with a bloody nose and face20th Century Studios

Levy says the Free City of the game is a dangerous place. With “an enormous amount of threats left, right, and center.” Guy works as a bank teller, where a normal day involves “eight to 16 robberies.” A fact of life Guy accepts as totally normal. That is until he realizes he’s actually a character inside a game on the verge of being destroyed by its owner (played by Taika Waititi).

The other setting is the real world we live in. Levy says each place has “distinct, rigorous visual rules to distinguish” them from each other. “Me and George Richmond, who shot Rocketman and Kingsmen, spent months of prep basically writing bibles for the aesthetic of each world so that they feel distinct and different.”

Appealing to Both Gamers and Non-Gamers

The film might take place in a video game. But the film isn’t exclusively for gamers. “If we do our job well, it’s going to make a gamer feel seen, and like we got certain things right,” says Levy. “But it should be more broadly resonant and relatable” to non-gamers too.

Reynolds compares Free Guy to another genre. “The greatest sports movies ever made are not actually about sports. Field of Dreams, I wouldn’t characterize that as a baseball story. They use baseball as a vehicle to tell a really beautiful story about a son and a father trying to connect. And I think that we’re doing the same thing, we’re using the video game world, the Free City world and video game culture, as a vehicle to tell this really beautiful and powerful human story.”

Comer says the film is “sentimental and it has a sentimental message.”

Don’t take that to mean it’s sappy though. All three of them say the movie is really funny. “It’s hilarious to see actual human beings doing it rather than a digital [character] on a screen,” says Comer.

A man in blue pajamas sits up in bed 20th Century Studios

The Free City setting also allowed for a creative freedom that both gamer and non-gamer moviegoers will appreciate. “There are no rules of reality,” says Levy. “This movie has, by two or three times, more action stunts and spectacle than any movie I’ve done. It’s everything I could dream up. When I fell in love with a visual idea, we worked it into the screen.”

Real Human Avatars

Unlike Ready Player One and other movies that used digital avatars within its video game world, the characters in Free City are played by real actors. It’s a difference the three say will make a big difference in how audiences receive the film. It will also add to the comedy.

A police officer and a man dressed as a pink rabbit20th Century Studios

Levy says the real-virtual avatars “are more Fortnite than GTA” in terms of what they wear. (And how they sometimes dance over fallen foes.) While some avatars dress and look like real world people, many of the film’s costumes are original “and much more conceptual.” That turned the set into something akin to an old Hollywood studio. “Every day it’s what people imagine a movie set is like, because we’ve got a dozen different people in these very pushed costumes,” says Levy. “I think we ended up designing about 47 different avatars.”

Not that anyone in the game will acknowledge the inherent silliness. “There’s a very deadpan approach to the background craziness,” says the director.

A Superhero in Khaki

While it might not seem like it, Levy and Reynolds say Free Guy is a type of superhero story. Even if its hero wears khaki pants. “Guy realizes that if he wants to talk to this woman, Molotov Girl (Comer’s video game avatar), he’s got to level up because he’s a level one,” says Levy. “But he doesn’t want to commit crimes. He doesn’t want to kill anyone and he doesn’t want to shoot a gun.”

That leads Comer’s character to tell Guy that if he doesn’t want to be the bad guy, maybe you just be the “good guy.”

But Guy can still be harmed in his video game world. He can’t be killed, because he can re-spawn. “But at a certain point there is a circumstance where he would lose his memory of ever having been alive,” says Levy. “And that would be cataclysmic both for him and for Molotov Girl, who, in the second half of the movie, needs an ally in the game.”

Ryan Reynolds in a blue shirt and glasses points at himself20th Century Studios

Guy’s inherent goodness is more than just a reflection of his character. While Levy says the film “is not a searing commentary on game culture,” but instead is “a comment on how there is something to these games that is aspirational.” He says, “There is something about what we aspire to and how that’s expressed in games that is kind of troubling. And it’s why the big theme of this movie is that Ryan’s character is trying to be a good guy inside a city where goodness doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s not believed. The whole point of playing the game is to indulge pure id. And here you have a guy trying to level up, who’s trying to actually express something more idealistic. That’s probably the result of Ryan and I being fundamentally Canadian and therefore slightly more hopeful, perhaps.”

Comer Pulls Double Duty

Comer is really the film’s protagonist according to the director. Because she plays a major role in both worlds. The two versions of her are very different. But they share one important trait. In the real world she’s Milly, the video game designer behind Free City. Milly created an original code that was stolen and changed. (Everyone on set was extra extra careful not to reveal what those changes are.)

A woman with black hair and glasses stands close to a man with glasses20th Century Studios

In Free City she’s Molotov Girl. “Molotov is very physically strong and does all of these very impressive things and is super cool,” says Comer. “And Milly’s a little bit more introverted, so that is very different. But I think the resilience is there in Milly, and her determination to kind of fight for what is hers.”

She does so by going inside the virtual world she helped create.

Comer also says that despite Guy being a video game character, the relationship that develops between the two is very real. With real emotions. “[Guy] thinks his life has this greater meaning, as we all do, and it’s about how these two people who are from completely separate worlds kind of help each other realize a lot of what is inside of them,” she says. “And they help each other both get to kind of destination it is that they need to be at.”

Jodie Comer Had the Best Homework Ever

A woman and a man stand close to each other in a large white room20th Century Studios

Comer says she’s not really a “big video gamer.” So to prepare for the film she assigned herself the best homework ever. “I have been playing, on the PS4, Grand Theft Auto,” she says. She didn’t exactly ace the test though. “I can’t do it,” Comer says. “I find it quite stressful.” She did enjoy her time playing Spider-Man though, “because that seems kind of carefree.”

Our advice for her: try Super Smash Bros., since she also says, “I’m one of those people who just presses every single button in the hopes that I survive.”

A Heavy Dose of Practical Effects

The film does use CGI. Especially when Guy puts on glasses that reveal the video game world he lives in. But what the trailers don’t accurately convey is how much the film also relies on practical effects. “An NPC was on fire the whole movie,” says Levy. “The whole movie he’s just running around on fire. We decided early on—like a lot of the effects—we wanted to do it for real. We have this man on fire who just runs through the background of frames half a dozen times in the movie.”

Practical effects come with their own major challenges though. Especially when a real person is on fire. “That guy has to be lit on fire to the second. Put out within a certain number of seconds, or it gets very dangerous,” says Levy. “But there’s something so fun about seeing real people do real things.”

Ryan Reynolds wears player's glasses in Free City20th Century Studios

The desire to use as many practical effects as possible also required a whole lot of planning. Like when they shot their big action sequence after Guy puts on his glasses for the first time. The scene, included in the film’s trailers, is all practical effects minus the Apache helicopter crashing into a building. “We had to cue the zip line 4.5 seconds before he’s supposed to be in the frame,” says Levy. “That took 11 takes. But we got it on our last take of the day.”

Get Ready for a Massive Easter Egg Hunt

If you like Easter eggs, you’re going to be very happy. Levy says the film has several of them that allude to a number of games and movies, and movies about games. But they’re more a fun bonus than an integral part of the film.

“There’s always something pretty amazing happening [on screen],” says Reynolds. “I don’t think Easter eggs are a storytelling pillar. But I do think that Easter eggs  are something that audiences love. And I love and appreciate. So the movie will be riddled with Easter eggs.”

Ryan Reynolds in the Free Guy poster as chaos swirls around him20th Century Studios

“When you have the producer, writer, star of Deadpool, and the producer of Stranger Things, there is a high quotient of cultural literacy as far as, like, we love popular culture,” says Levy. “We like alluding to it and contributing to it. So I will just say that there are some pop-ups and some Easter eggs in Free Guy that are as juicy as anything I’ve ever done in anything.”

Comer says one Easter egg will steal the show. “There’s one huge one that is top secret, that everybody’s extremely excited about.”

Taika Waititi: Worth Watching on Your Day off

A man sits in a chair with his legs on the table and his arms behind his head in a room high in a skyscraper20th Century Studios

We didn’t get to see Taika Waititi on set. We still felt his presence though. His colleagues couldn’t stop talking about how funny he is. “Taika came in like a f***ing assassin on this movie,” says Levy. “He just rewrote the rules of comedy in the most dramatic way. It’s been a long time since he’s acted in something that he didn’t direct. And so for him, he had absolute freedom. He came in and was one of the greatest improvisers I’ve ever, ever seen. And I’ve worked with Robin Williams and Ricky Gervais, and some of the best. Taika’s next. He’s up there.”

Comer was equally impressed. “You could leave the camera rolling for 15 minutes and that guy would not stop,” she says. “But oh my God, his brain. It fascinates me.”

She loved watching Waititi so much she went in on an off day to watch him filming. “I did all in my power not to laugh at him because I was like, ‘Milly (who works for Waititi’s character) would not.’ I was like, ‘I’m not going to give him this power.'”

If the movie is as good as they think it is, the whole experience will be powerful.

Free Guy (finally) comes to theaters August 13.