When he plays Grand Theft Auto, Matt Lieberman has no qualms about running red lights. But even as he flouts traffic rules, he still tries to steer clear of approaching pedestrians. Lieberman will kill non-player characters if he has to—GTA makes it tough to complete a “pacificist run”—but he doesn’t take virtual life lightly. “I always had misgivings about torching NPCs,” he says. “I feel it’s karmically wrong to beat up NPCs in a game for no reason.”
Lieberman’s guilt as a gamer paid dividends when he conceived the story and wrote the original script for Free Guy, a Disney-distributed film released last Friday in which Ryan Reynolds plays a long-suffering NPC in a GTA-esque game. Over the weekend, millions of American moviegoers discovered, as I did earlier this month, that Free Guy is good. Not just good for a video game movie. Good as in no qualifiers needed, aside from the fact that we’re talking about a summer action comedy, not bait for Best Picture. Good as in certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes; good as in grade-A CinemaScore; good as in beat its box-office projections and easily led as the no. 1 earner in its opening weekend; good as in Disney has already asked for a sequel.
Although Free Guy has been feted for being the rare modern movie success that doesn’t rely on a preexisting property, it has blockbuster bona fides, including a reported budget of approximately $120 million, Disney’s marketing muscle, a big-name cast, and a veteran director. Even so, the first non-IP-based Disney release in years—which may have gotten a boost at the box office because it didn’t receive a simultaneous streaming release—was far from a surefire smash. Unfailingly likable as he is, Reynolds has headlined more than his fair share of flops. Director Shawn Levy has produced plenty of hits—Stranger Things, Arrival, Shadow and Bone, Dash & Lily—but before Free Guy, his record behind the camera for feature films was lackluster (an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 40.7 percent, peaking with Date Night’s 66 percent).
And then there’s the video game stigma. Granted, Hollywood has been better at making movies about or inspired by gaming—from Tron, WarGames, and The Last Starfighter to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wreck-It Ralph (and its sequel), and Edge of Tomorrow—than movies based on specific games. Filmmakers are finally figuring out game adaptations, too. But their track record is spotty enough that there was still cause for skepticism—especially, perhaps, among those most familiar with the subject matter. “I like Ryan Reynolds a lot, but boy does this not look like a good film,” wrote Zack Zwiezen of gaming website Kotaku when the trailer for Free Guy (which really didn’t make it look like a good film) came out.
Given Hollywood’s history, a gamer like Zwiezen, who covers Grand Theft Auto Online, had cause to be wary of a movie that mostly takes place inside a similar game. Yet in addition to appealing to people who wouldn’t know Fall Guys from Fortnite, Free Guy understands and does justice to its (not explicitly specified) source material. It’s not a movie made for gamers, but it is a movie that largely gets gaming right.
Free Guy, which was scheduled to come out in July 2020 before the pandemic pushed its debut back by more than a year, follows Reynolds’s charmingly oblivious Guy, an NPC who goes about his business in the background of a fictional game called Free City. While the sunglasses-sporting avatars of Free City players raise hell and earn experience points in his hometown, Guy—who doesn’t know he’s in a game—adheres to a humdrum routine, occasionally becoming collateral damage and immediately respawning at the start of his day. He’s happy with his unassuming existence until he meets “Molotov Girl,” the avatar of Millie (Jodie Comer), who inadvertently triggers Guy’s latent desire to level up and win her heart. Millie, we learn, is searching for evidence to further her lawsuit against Free City’s corporate overlord Antwan (a delightfully over-the-top Taika Waititi), the deceitful and flamboyant boss of game publisher Soonami. Millie suspects that Antwan illegally lifted the code for self-aware AI from a game she made with her old colleague Keys (Joe Keery). Keys still works in a low-level role at Soonami, which acquired their company and then shelved their nonviolent, utopian game because Antwan didn’t think it would sell.
Free Guy grew out of a seed that took root in Lieberman’s brain in 2016. “I was like, ‘What if you had the cheat codes to life?’” says Lieberman, who conceived the story and wrote the original script. “What if you could leave your house and walk down the street and see little power-ups that gave you money and health and different powers? And then I [realized], well, I guess you would probably be living in a virtual, sandbox world.” Thanks to GTA, Lieberman knew a bit about those. Perhaps partly as penance for the havoc he’d caused in cities teeming with dispensable computer-controlled characters, he decided to write a script that would answer the question “What is it like being that guy?” Or, in this case, that Guy.
Lieberman’s script made the Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays in 2016, but Levy didn’t love it at the time. “I passed because I’m not a gaming aficionado,” he recently recounted to The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m always looking for that humanist spine in the movie.” But Lieberman never intended for Free Guy to be for big gamers only. “When you do something like this, you want to make it where somebody like my parents, who’ve never played video games in their lives, would totally be able to dial in and understand,” he says. “You definitely want to create a world that gamers can relate to and be excited about, but it’s not as important as telling a good story.”
For Lieberman, the broadly relatable aspect of Free Guy isn’t his sense of unease about killing characters with no agency, preset patterns, and limited dialogue—which few Free City players appear to share—but how closely real life can come to resemble being an NPC. “This movie’s always been about free will, and being stuck in your lane, and just actively thinking about how much of our lives is our ‘programming’ and how much is under our control,” he says. In the grand tradition of time-loop movies like Palm Springs and Groundhog Day—a comedy that’s also, on some level, about Buddhist themes—Lieberman wanted Free Guy to be “a movie that’s definitely talking about real things, but it’s packaged in this big fun piece of candy.”
Although Lieberman’s screenplay came together quickly, Free Guy morphed a few times over the next few years. Levy eventually revisited the story at the urging of Reynolds, who’s become a close collaborator. (The two have teamed up on another movie, The Adam Project, which is due out on Netflix next year.) The director and star thought a few tweaks could strengthen the “humanist spine” Levy was seeking, and Lieberman worked with them on a new draft. In late 2018, about six months before filming started, Levy and Reynolds hired screenwriter Zak Penn to assist with further revisions. “Shawn really brought in a humanity and emotions, and grounded the characters,” Lieberman says. “And then Zak came in and helped build up the real world.” In the spring of 2019, a few weeks before filming was scheduled to start, Disney completed its acquisition of 20th Century Fox, which had been funding Free Guy. Although Disney canceled some of the projects in the Fox pipeline, production on Free Guy moved forward under its distributor’s new name, 20th Century Studios.
The movie Levy and Reynolds shot differed from the first draft in a few key respects. In the initial version of the script, Guy was cynical and dissatisfied with his life in Free City. Lieberman credits Reynolds for pushing to make the character more content and naïve, which allowed greater room for growth. Penn, who says he realized that Millie should be “the audience’s eyes,” restructured the action outside the game by beefing up the backstories of Millie and Keys and setting the stage for them to fall for each other. Although there was never a version of the movie where Guy travels from Free City to the “real…