If things had worked out a different way, Shawn Levy would’ve directed Uncharted. A few years back, the producer/director behind such mega-hits as Stranger Things, Night at the Museum, and Shadow and Bone was on track to bring the popular adventure video game series to the big screen. However, as tends to happen, “the timing didn’t work out,” according to Levy, and instead he made Free Guy starring Ryan Reynolds, which opens this Friday.
In place of one big-budget video game adventure, Levy found himself making another, with one key difference: Uncharted was based on a popular franchise while Free Guy was not. Levy believes that’s why his latest film turned out to be such a great video game movie even though many game adaptations are not.
“What I know from experience — from having walked a bit of road with Nathan Drake and that Uncharted title — is you can tell a story on screen, but you have to be faithful to the game expectations and gamer expectations of the original franchise,” Levy told Gizmodo last week. “That will always put guardrails on your storytelling.”
He didn’t have any guardrails with Free Guy, which began as a 2016 Black List script by Matt Lieberman and added co-writer Zak Penn (Ready Player One) along the way. “Look, I can’t wait to see Uncharted also, but for me as a director, to have absolute freedom, absolute creative freedom where I’m beholden to nothing except the ideas that were exciting to Ryan and me, that was really fun,” Levy said. “And that is not the case when you are making an adaptation of a video game, a true video game movie in that regard. There’s always going to be parameters that you have to be conscious of.”
Levy, who says that the Tom Holland and Ruben Fleischer Uncharted that’s coming is “very much the script that I spent a long time developing,” knows that making a movie at all is sometimes a miracle. That goes even more so for a film like Free Guy, which is not just based on an original idea, but had to make its way through Disney’s purchase of Fox. When Disney acquired the studio, several Fox titles that were in development were cancelled. But not Free Guy.
“The Holy Grail in the movie business is a big clean idea and Free Guy has that kind of central premise,” Levy said when asked how the movie made it through those obstacles. “I think it also helps that between Ryan and me, we’ve made studios several billion dollars in box office and they know that we don’t take our jobs lightly. If you give us money to tell our story, we want to treat your money respectfully and hopefully make you more money. So I think they knew that with Ryan and I, this was in our sweet spot. It’s an action-comedy. We both know how to do that and that we were going to be responsible with the budget and we were going to service this big idea with a big popcorn entertaining movie.”
In Free Guy, Reynolds plays Guy, a NPC (non-playable character) in an open world shooter game called Free City. Eventually, he becomes self-aware and gets involved in a plot that’ll get at the core of the game itself. What that means is Levy was making a movie that had a whole other layer on top of the usual movie issues. “The great freedom factor of making this movie is I got to create an original movie and I got to create an entire original video game,” he said. “So the only rules or mythology that I needed to be faithful to were the ones that we invented.”
Levy says he and his team played a ton of games, drawing inspiration from all of them. Lighting from one, weapons and vehicles from another, always being conscious to not touch too close on someone else’s property. That inspiration and creativity extended to the script as well. “The script that Ryan and I first read always was about an NPC gaining consciousness and trying to improve the world around him. So that was a huge idea and it never changed,” Levy said.
“But the characters of Mouser (Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar) and Keys (Stranger Things’ Joe Keery), and the kind of double life of Millie and Molotov Girl (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer), these were things that we developed and rewrote quite a bit, because really Ryan and I wanted to make a movie that was on the one hand, yes, a video game movie, but was also a romantic comedy. And so we spent a lot of time beefing up and developing the romantic storyline[s].”
Free Guy’s blending of multiple genres is, again, something that’s pretty familiar to Levy. In addition to his prolific producing career, he’s directed several other sci-fi action projects such as Night at the Museum and Real Steel. The latter helped him specifically on Free Guy. “Real Steel taught me to not be afraid of technology that I didn’t understand when I began, and that you can learn new things as a filmmaker. And in fact, it’s one of the things that makes this job so fun. It [also] taught me that wherever possible, integrate practical effects in the visual effects,” Levy said.
“So on Real Steel, we built real robots. On Free Guy, when they’re walking through this city of mayhem and there are flame throwers and bombs going off and ziplining machine gun-toting avatars, it’s all real. It’s all real. And so even though it took a lot of time and energy to coordinate the actors with the real effects, with the visual effects, it’s worth it because it gives your actors more to react to and play off of, and it gives the movie itself a more grounded, accessible feeling.”
Levy is taking all of that and more to his next movie too, The Adam Project, which debuts next year on Netflix. He calls it “the most clear descendant of Real Steel,” in that it’s an original sci-fi premise that also has big family themes. “Adam Project is like Real Steel, a big science fiction premise for a very emotional drama with a shit ton of action,” Levy said. “It’s literally about Ryan Reynolds comes back from the future to befriend his 12-year-old self and his late father, who he lost as a young child and the opportunity for empathy and redemption and forgiveness.”
That sounds like a very small bullseye to hit — but after Free Guy, Levy’s got it.