Free Guy marked the beginning of what director Shawn Levy and Ryan Reynolds say will be a long working relationship. Now their second film together, The Adam Project, is set to arrive on Netflix. It follows Reynolds’ Adam Reed, a time traveler who meets his 12-year-old younger self. I got a chance to see the sci-fi thriller—which also stars Jennifer Garner, Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo, and newcomer Walker Scobell—before talking to Levy on Zoom about the movie. Which, in the best way, isn’t quite the film you might expect from its trailer.
Levy discussed why his partnership with Reynolds works so well. As well as why this movie sees its star give a performance unlike anything fans have seen from him before. And Levy also explained why The Adam Project, which is ultimately a wish fulfillment fantasy that every viewer, no matter the timeline, can relate to, was so personal to make.
(Note: This interview has two very minor spoilers, which aren’t even really spoilers if you’ve seen the trailer.)
Nerdist: This is your second, of what you have said will be many, films with Ryan Reynolds. How did your experience working together on Free Guy help you in directing him this time?
Shawn Levy: Ryan and I hit it off pretty instantly and Free Guy was a joy of a collaboration. I suspect that the benefit of Free Guy is that it gave us so much mutual trust. And the reason that Ryan’s performance in The Adam Project is so uniquely emotional and open is, I think, partly the result of the trust we have in each other. There are scenes in The Adam Project where Ryan gives a performance unlike any he’s given in any movie. And I think it’s because he knows that I am a safe place and my set is a safe place. And he can bring that authenticity and trust that I’m gonna respect it and honor it.
What new things did you learn about him while working on The Adam Project?
SL: It’s not that I learned he was a straight-up killer actor, but I was reminded of his chops, his abilities as an actor in completely un-comedic ways. I know that he’s like a Jedi Master of comedy and timing. But in The Adam Project he taps equally into dramatic and emotional tones. And he is f***ing great. Increasingly I really feel like Ryan and I have made back-to-back movies where there’s a certain Capra-esque/Jimmy Stewart quality to him. Where he’s relatable but fundamentally good and sweet. And that is who Ryan is. I feel lucky that I’m getting stories and this relationship that allows me to capture that onscreen.
It’s funny you say he’s a Jedi Master because you seem to want to give him a lightsaber in every movie. (Note: Free Guy featured a lightsaber. A weapon seen in The Adam Project trailer, which is definitely not a lightsaber, is compared to one by a character.)
SL: I know. One time literal. This time most definitely not. So Star Wars and Lucasfilm please don’t sue me. Probably like everyone of my generation, and decades on either side of my generation, Star Wars is so profoundly influential to me that I can’t help but weave that stuff into my work.
You’ve worked with some huge stars before. Really big names, big casts. And this cast is also loaded. What are the challenges and what are the advantages of directing prolific, well-established, well-respected actors?
SL: I’ve been pretty lucky. I suppose the risk and the pitfall is if you’re working with huge stars there’s always the chance they’re going to come at you with huge ego. And consequently be less than direct-able. I’ve been lucky, because whether its been Steve Martin, Ryan Reynolds, Robin Williams, or Ben Stiller, all the celebrities I’ve directed over the years, I’ve happily found that they all still want to be performers and actors.
And mostly they want to trust that their director has their back. If you can earn that trust they’ll give you the good shit. They’ll give you the weird shit. Guess what, they’ll give you some takes that suck because they know that you’re not going to do them wrong. And, if you get the trust of a star who also is inordinately supremely talented, that makes one’s job a dream come true. And this job is my dream come true. Twelve year old me dreamed of this life, so I feel very fortunate to be living it.
A time travel movie means there will be time travel movie obsessives like me who are looking at it closely. Were you at all intimidated by making sure there were time travel rules that were followed and made sense?
SL: Yes and asterisk. I am not a time travel genre wonk. In fact, I believe my exact words to (screenwriter) Jonathan Tropper, as he was explaining the time travel rules to be ad nauseam, were, “JT, I don’t f***ing give a shit. Make it watertight and make it as f***ing simple as possible so people can enjoy the ride. “That was my North Star mantra and that’s what I aimed to do. I hope as someone who does know and care about that stuff you will tell me the science and the rules are pretty sound.
I thought it made sense and I thought it was easy enough to understand.
SL: You can describe my fist pump of gratification. (Note: It was a standard style fist pump, the kind an un-showy golfer might bust out after a big putt.)
This film is a sci-fi action thriller, but like so many of your movies it’s core is a very personal, very touching emotional story about family. Including how we remember our parents, both good and bad. You’ve previously said you had a “ rough childhood,” where certain aspects “were great, and other parts were real spotty,” including “tough spans of time, in terms of struggles” your mom went through. How did your own experiences influence you while making a film that is literally about going back to your childhood and seeing your parents again?
SL: Well for one thing I think that the traumas and challenges of my own childhood taught me early how important it is to make peace with those struggles. And to make peace with those resentments that accrue as a result. Because once I was an adult I realized, “Oh, if I hold on to this anger and resentment forever, I basically have no chance at being a happy functional adult.” And I’d like to enjoy my life as much as possible. So to make a movie where it’s quite literally about revisiting your childhood with empathy and being liberated as a result, that’s important for all of us. And it’s certainly been important to me as an individual, so I felt really lucky to make a movie that was so intimately connected with struggles and themes that Ive personally navigated.
Is that what attracted you to the script?
SL: Definitely, yes. I think I was that lonely kid who struggled sometimes with a childhood that was far from ideal. And I would have loved the comfort of knowing it was all gonna turn out okay. I then, as an adult, needed to forgive my parents for their imperfections. And Ryan came to this movie with similarly personal stakes. In regards to his own dad, in regards to the way his brothers and he rallied around his mom. So yeah, we brought a huge amount of ourselves to this movie and that’s why it was so cathartic to make it.
I was very emotional watching this movie. I’m also a huge sucker for the trope of going back and talking to people who are gone. Was it as emotional for you making this film when you removed yourself from the role of director?
SL: Yeah. I mean, I can fairly confidently predict that one of those scenes that maybe accessed you in that way was the scene in the bar. Where you have a grown man talking to his mother who doesn’t realize she’s talking to her son. And that was—I just got goosebumps, actually—because that day no one on that set had dry eyes. It was so beautiful, both in terms of their performances, Jen Garner, Ryan Reynolds, but just the idea of it. It’s a fundamental human yearning that we never get to satisfy. We can not go back and say the unsaid. So the idea of being able to do that I think is universally resonant.
What do you hope more than anything viewers take away from this movie?
SL: I hope, once again, as with Free Guy, they’re reminded of the delight of an original film. Because there’s the possibility of the unexpected and surprise. I know they’re going into The Adam Project thinking it’s one thing, only to learn, I think, that it’s several things.
And that’s the other thing I hope that they’ll see. Movies don’t need to be about only one thing. They don’t need to be only about the laughs, only about the spectacle. I love those Amblin movies of my youth that were formative, obviously, for so many of us. But were high concept, mixed with technology, mixed with spectacle, mixed with wish fulfillment and warm heart. Those are the kinds of movies I love. Those are the kinds of movies I want to make.
The Adam Project premieres on Netflix March 11.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.