Levy directs Ryan Reynolds, who plays Guy, a bank teller, who one day discovers he is actually an NPC (a non-player character) in a video game. Upon learning this, and with the help of Jodie Comer’s character, Molotov Girl, he decides to break free and save the world.
With an original screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, the “Stranger Things” director took the script and ran with it, paying homage where necessary and working with production designer Ethan Tobman to fill the world of the film with Easter eggs and references. His greatest achievement was getting three yes answers from Disney, Marvel and Lucasfilm to agree to using their most iconic IP for the film.
Levy also unlocked Comer’s singing ability purely by accident during an early sequence, tapping Comer to sing a ballad version of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” which is used throughout. In an interview with Variety, Levy talks about how he landed filmmaker Waititi to play the bad guy.
Where did the idea to use Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” come from?
That was a very early idea of Ryan’s that it should just be this song mantra in the movie. I asked ‘Why ‘Fantasy?’ It was because Guy is fantasizing about his dream girl and you can’t listen to that song and not be happy. If we’re aiming to make a movie that’s pure audience feel-good and delight, it was the right song.
In the film, there’s a melancholy version of the song which is sung by Jodie Comer, how did that come about?
We had a bunch of different music in that scene and we tried many other songs. We had this idea of what if we do a cover of the song with a different female vocalist. Then we had this idea about Jodie doing it. When we sprang it on her, she said, ‘Wait, you want me to sing a Mariah Carey cover in a movie that a lot of people are going to see?’ She did it, and she is a savant-level talent of all things.
Did you know Jodie could even sing?
We had a glimmer of it. When Guy first sees her and she’s humming to herself on the sidewalk, Ryan and I both noticed that she was remarkably on pitch and melodic, even though she was just kind of singing quietly under her breath.
We bet on it, and it took a few takes. She recorded it in the recording booth at Capitol Records, the legendary building in Hollywood. I remember the biggest note when I would hear takes was that she was singing “Sweet, sweet fantasy bay-bee.” I said, ‘I said it’s ‘Bay-bah. You have to be lazier with your vowels.’
How much fun was it to build that world of “Free Guy” and free city? Ethan Tobman is such a great production designer, and to see him go from Taylor Swift videos to this was something.
I met many candidates with far longer resumes and far more movie credits, but there was something audacious, energized and inspiring about Ethan’s vision for this movie.
So I interviewed him a second time and then we had a quiet conversation and it was a process. The fun of it was that we needed to create a video game that doesn’t exist but has an entirely singular aesthetic, and an aesthetic that is immediately and consistently different than the way we portray the real world.
Long before we shot, Ethan and I created a visual bible that laid out the rules of the world. From colors to lenses to composition to framing, to the format of the cameras and the style of camera movement, everything had its place, and everything had to abide by that bifurcated aesthetic.
The Stash House looked like the Fortress of Solitude, and the multiplayer lounge reminded me of the cantina in “Star Wars,” but it’s not — what were some of your inspirations?
This has been the most satisfying thing so far in the lead-up to release, and that is hearing from so many gamer inclined reviewers and websites who are calling it “One of, if not the best video game movie that they’ve ever seen.”
I feel like being liberated from literal adaptation was a gift. Before this, I was attached to “Uncharted” for a year and a half. I was always conscious that if you adapt a video game, you have to service the expectations. To be in the service of nothing but our own viewing delight allowed us to pull on influences that were disparate and ranged from Grand Theft Auto to Fortnight to Halo to “The Truman Show” to “Elf” and it’s this culturally fluent hodgepodge.
Ryan is famous for his wit, his dry sense of humor, but he’s also a true consumer and creator of culture. Ethan and I share that delight in cultural eclecticism, and we wanted those influences to be everywhere in Free City.
What made you think Taika would work as the bad guy? He walks in with that oversized outfit and everyone laughed.
I first spoke to Taika over Facetime. I didn’t know him. I knew he was that guy in “Green Lantern” with Ryan. I had seen “Thor: Ragnarok” and at that point, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” so I knew him as a filmmaker.
During that Facetime, he must have changed positions in his office 30 times in under 30 minutes; lounging backward or upside down on his couch, dancing on his feet, sitting cross-legged and Zen-like in the middle of the floor. I realized this is a true unicorn of a personality and how perfect for the villain in the movie. Taika is such a unique, idiosyncratic and delightful individual and he brings all of that, and I gave him a lot of leash to run with it as Antoine.
What was it like working with Joe Keery?
He was not at all who were picturing for the role. But from his very first audition, I knew he was probably going to get it. He killed it, and it was like this anti-Steve Harrington. Joe in real life is incredibly smart, verbal, and passionate and kinetic. He brought all of that to the character. He also brought a lot of my over-the-top gesticulation to his character because I’m aware that I do that, and he spends a lot of time with me. I love that people are going to see Joe do more of what he can do, and he’s exceptional as Steve Harrington on “Stranger Things,” but that’s just the tip of the iceberg with this kid.
One of the biggest rounds of applause and cheers was when you had the Captain America shield, followed by Hulk and then “Star Wars.”
That was just absolutely dreamy. It was fun. Ryan and I had this idea, “What if we blew through $45 billion in IP in 17 seconds? How audacious would that be?” We wrote a request to Disney saying, could we use Captain America’s shield or Hulk’s fist, or who knows, lightsaber?
We were thinking it would be one of the three if we were lucky. When we got word back from Lucasfilm, Marvel and Disney, and it was a yes on all three, we knew it was going to be something because no one has ever combined these franchises in this fairly cavalier way.
I’ve sat in audience screening when it’s one after another, but that level, that of out of their seats cheering and clapping is something I’ve never quite experienced the way I do in that sequence.