Ryan Reynolds and Shawn Levy can’t help themselves. They’re sitting with a group of reporters visiting the Free Guy set in Boston. The first question for them—someone asking what the movie’s about—leads to an impromptu Vaudeville bit. “Well, I have to tell you, I kind of love that most of you don’t know enough about this movie,” says Levy, the director, with a smile, “Because it’s the sign of one of the unique things about this movie, which is it’s an actual new movie.”
That answer kicks off a rapid fire back and forth exchange with his star, Ryan Reynolds.
“A new movie, Shawn?,” Reynolds asks.
“Yes. A new movie.”
“What’s it based upon?”
“It’s based on fresh ideas.”
“Yes. I tell you.”
“An existing IP of some sort? A comic book?”
“No prior branding.”
“Yeah, gross,” Levy concludes.
And this is why they’re so excited on this rainy June day in 2019. They’re shooting a big budget action-comedy that isn’t beholden to anything else. It’s rare for the industry. And it’s something Disney doesn’t do often anymore. But Levy and Reynolds are making a big bet that original ideas can still be successful. Of course, in the world of modern cinema, that kind of opportunity also comes with a huge risk.
“To be making a tent pole—no IP, no prior branding, not a small budget movie—in 2019 at Disney is daunting, but also pretty exciting,” says Levy. We should note here the movie began at Fox before their merger. Disney, home of well-established properties like Star Wars, Marvel, and live-action remakes of classic animated films, seem just as excited to be doing something different, even if this is almost uncharted waters at this point in the studio’s history.
Levy recounts the Mouse House’s reaction to the project. “They’re like, ‘We haven’t gotten to do one of these—-I mean, I can’t even name it, it’s at least 10 years. I can’t remember, it’s rare that anyone does it anymore.'” In this case “it” is Free Guy, a story about a character who suddenly realizes he’s actually a background player in an open-world video game. His life is full of bank robberies, helicopter crashes, and explosions. That NPC (non-playable character), named Guy and played by Reynolds, then “decides to become the hero of his own story…one he rewrites himself,” Levy says. It’s a premise that means they can do almost anything they want, since a lot of the film takes place in a digital world.
But while the movie is a new concept, it has some clear inspirations behind it—some more obvious than others. The avatars in the game look and dress more like characters in Fortnite. (Get ready to see some avatar dance moves too.) And as Levy says, the movie “certainly” has “shades of GTA (Grand Theft Auto) and other games of that ilk.” Comparisons to popular video game franchise will be inevitable. But no one should watch the movie thinking they’re watching a re-creation of them.
“[GTA] was a big part of our research for this movie, but as someone who was once attached to Minecraft, once attached to Uncharted, I’m thrilled I’m making a movie about video games that is not beholden to any video game,” Levy stresses. “To be very, very clear, this is in no way a literal adaptation of anything that’s existed.”
Beyond video games, the director also says the movie has elements of The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and, Ready Player One. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One though, which was also split between the real world and a digital realm, Free Guy is one hundred percent photo real. You won’t see a digitally recreated Reynolds in the fictional Free City game where he lives. This is another way the movie is trying to do something new. In order to make it look as real as possible the film is also relying on practical effects as much as it can. For example, when you see a character on fire those those are real flames.
All of this should help build a world no one has ever seen before. Ultimately that’s what attracted Reynolds to the movie in the first place. “It’s just so fun to do something new. Something that is quite literally based on absolutely nothing,” Reynolds explains. “So I love the process of appointing an audience with this new property or this new idea. And it’s big, the scale is big. And I think it’s appealing to a huge audience.”
They’ve made a very big bet that it will be appealing. And it’s a wager that could have consequences for the whole industry. If Free Guy isn’t a hit, that might prevent other original ideas from getting a greenlight. If it is successful though, Hollywood might finally start to break free (guy) of its reliance on established IPs.
Of course, the irony is that if a wholly original, big budget movie does prove to be a smash, it will lead to the very thing it’s not. Levy hopes, that with some luck, they’re creating a new franchise.
Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Joe Keery, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Taika Waititi, comes to theaters December 11, 2020.
Featured Image: Disney