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 world,” there was one where he becomes Millie’s incorporeal AI boyfriend, which Lieberman says “was kind of a weird way to end the story.” (Honestly, I ship it.) “I definitely remember Shawn talking about how we really had to make that a Ghost moment,” Lieberman says. “[A] ‘you have to go on without me’ big moment that had a real emotional impact for those two characters, where they can both move on.”
Penn also shifted Guy’s discovery that he exists inside a game to a point much later in the movie, which Lieberman agrees made the moment hit harder. As the script’s shape shifted, Reynolds wrote lines and helped mold his character’s final form. “When you’re working with Ryan, he is so invested in the script,” Penn says, adding, “It’s so hard to think of his scenes as anything other than something that he put the final stamp on.”
One element that was present from the start was Guy’s time-loop life, a hallmark of gamified movies like Edge of Tomorrow (which was also marketed as Live Die Repeat) and Boss Level. Any game in which the player dies and retries employs a type of time loop, but the time-loop story structure—which has graced several games in 2021—is a narrative trick that transcends the medium. “A lot of screenwriting is trying to figure out how to believably demonstrate that a character is changing in front of the audience’s eyes, no matter what genre,” Penn says. In a TV series, he notes, characters can develop slowly. “In a movie, you’ve got to figure out ‘How do I get my character from A to Z in the course of this movie?’ Repeating the same action, but having the character aware that they’re repeating the same action, is a great shortcut to showing a character’s changes.”
Another time-loop perk that pops up in Free Guy: the inevitable comedic montage of the protagonist trying, and dying, over and over again. “What a video game teaches you in life is you could get to a level where it seems impossible to go forward,” Lieberman says. “You’re just like, ‘This does not seem beatable. I can’t get past this boss.’ But you do. You play it again and again and again until you find the Achilles’ heel. … So I did want to always emulate that feeling.” For a scripted story that can’t really replicate the interactive experience of playing games, Free Guy excels at conveying the empowerment and accomplishment that come from leveling up, and the out-of-body euphoria that good games can provide. When Millie and Guy share an in-game kiss, Levy cuts from the romantic scene inside Free City to the mundane drabness of Millie’s bedroom. It’s funny, and slightly sad, and a perfect representation of the feeling of looking up from the screen after being engrossed in a game and realizing that sometimes, real life pales in comparison to the power of pixels coupled with imagination.
“Even though this was always a movie that takes place in a video game, I never really thought of it as a video game movie,” Lieberman says. Penn likens it to other movies—including The Truman Show, Elf, Splash, and the first film he wrote, Last Action Hero—much more often than games. “If we’ve done our job right,” Lieberman says, “the gamers will get all the nods and understanding, but really just be more concentrating on Guy and Millie’s relationship and the characters and wanting to see where it goes, more than testing the accuracy or wondering what the rules of the game exactly are and how it would play.”
It helps that Free City isn’t a real game—not yet, at least—which, well, freed its creators from being beholden to existing lore and audience expectations. Lieberman and Penn agree that Free City is supposed to be a bad game, because Antwan caters to his audience’s basest impulses and cares more about the bottom line than fixing his buggy, sloppy, software. “The movie is making fun of the game inside it to a certain extent,” Penn says, which opens up opportunities to parody gaming conventions and culture—typically in a knowing, affectionate way that doesn’t denigrate gamers, aside from the obligatory reference to a toxic, spoiled streamer who lives with his mom. But Free City’s creators wanted to do a good job of portraying their bad game.
Both Lieberman and Penn are longtime gamers, and Penn directed the 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over and co-wrote Ready Player One before working on Free Guy. But they also had help from Mike Mika, the studio head of video game developer Digital Eclipse, who consulted for the film as an industry expert. “Very often, me, or Shawn, or anyone would just call [Mika] and say, ‘Is this complete bullshit?’” Penn recalls. “Or ‘What is the most realistic version of this?’”
Mika, who appeared in and shared advice about Atari: Game Over, also helped Penn with Ready Player One in an informal fashion and consulted for the Nickelodeon and Netflix animated series Glitch Techs before pitching in on Free Guy as Penn was polishing the script. “A lot of times when you see movies that refer to video games, it’s either a video game movie based off of something that already has a set story, or it’s just so horribly misinterpreted that even gamers are like, ‘Oh, that’s ... I don’t know,’” Mika says. But “with Free Guy, from day one, it was like, ‘We want these things reviewed. We want you to help in establishing what this world should be like [in a way] that’s more authentic, rather than the way movies usually treat it.’”
Shortly after joining the project, Mika helped Penn and Levy assemble a list of games that could give them ideas for Free Guy’s story or influence its look, including GTA, Fortnite, and the work of Will Wright (who created SimCity, The Sims, and Spore). They also studied indie games as a guide to what Millie and Keys could have cooked up. They played the games, collected videos, and picked out parts to meld into the movie, then handed off what they’d done to the production designers, who pieced the city together through a mixture of real-life locations, CGI, and practical effects.
Mika’s other assignment was to comb through the script for any details pertaining to gameplay, game development, or gaming culture that seemed slightly off, from big-picture conceptual problems to wonky character motivations to minor continuity errors. (A pet peeve of Mika’s: A glimpse of Street Fighter displayed on an HD, 16:9 screen in Captain Marvel, which takes place in the 1990s.) “We’re trying to definitely remove anything that could take you out of the fiction if you knew enough,” he says.
Among other efforts, Mika explained how Soonami’s developers would debug the game, what a “God mode” would look like, how the real-life destruction of servers might be mirrored in the game, how NPCs would act, what multiplayer lobbies would look like, and which technical lingo (like “collision mesh”) the coders would sprinkle into conversations. One of his biggest contributions was updating the portrayal of Free City fandom. “It just didn’t feel like it was in our time, the way people engage and consume games,” Mika says. “It felt more like something that was 10 years before.” In the final cut, Guy’s exploits in Free City make him an object of fascination outside the game, and big-name streamers and YouTubers such as Ninja, Pokimane, and LazarBeam make cameos to comment on his heroics and his commitment to enhancing his skills solely by doing good deeds.
Lieberman, Penn, and Mika all sound somewhat bearish about the future of video game movies, even after making one of the best movies about video games. Although Lieberman notes that movie writers and directors (and studio people in positions of power) are increasingly video game literate, even moviemakers who know and love games have a hard time bridging the divide between types of media. “Games are kind of movies in themselves, but what makes them great is you’re able to interact with them,” Lieberman says. “So to take that away and just see the story play out, that’s tough to pull off.”
Penn has cowritten several superhero films, but he doesn’t foresee video game movies making a similar ascent to respectability and profitability, because games aren’t as suited to screenwriting as comic books’ blend of sequential art and dialogue. “Adapting video games to movies or television or anything, for the most part, is a useless endeavor, because the two art forms are so different,” he says. “You are the main character in a video game; you are trying to make the audience empathize and feel like they are the main character in a movie. You don’t want an audience in the movie actually thinking they can change what’s happening. If you play a video game where you can’t change what’s happening, you stop playing.”
Similarly, video games adapted from films—two of which (Fantastic Four and X-Men: The Official Game) Penn has helped write—frequently fail unless they take a lot of liberties. In contrast to a movie like Free Guy, he says, a game is “not driven by ‘Oh, this guy has a clever story.’ It’s ‘What are the mechanics? What kind of game is it? How fun is it to play?’” For that reason, perhaps, there’s a lot less angst about the potential for game adaptations of movies than the other way around. Television’s episodic structure may make it a more natural fit for game adaptations than movies, but Free Guy’s example suggests that movies are probably better off borrowing from games than attempting to recreate them.
Disney flexed its high-profile IP and Levy and Reynolds scoured their contacts lists to line up a stunning series of celebrity cameos and Easter eggs from famous games and movie franchises for the final act of Free Guy. Like Fortnite’s ever-evolving island, which has become a kind of nexus of pop-culture crossovers, Free Guy is a window into the modern metaverse. Unlike the parade of pointless references in Space Jam: A New Legacy, though, Free Guy’s fun nods to established properties aren’t a substitute for substance. Its story stands on its own.
The sequel, however, won’t have to. Free Guy’s successor—which Levy says he wants to name Free Guy 2: Albuquerque Boiled Turkey—will benefit from the built-in brand awareness that the first film lacked. There’s some irony in that, given that much of Free Guy revolves around Antwan’s aspiration to make Free City 2, a quick cash-in with no original ideas, even fewer features, and poor quality control that he knows Free City players will want anyway. “I guess there’s always a danger of [a sequel] turning into Free City 2, the game,” Lieberman says. “But literally since I typed ‘The end’ on the first draft, I always had big ideas for where this could go, where we could take the world and the characters.”
Amid the action, the jokes, the cameos, and the romance, Free Guy hardly has time to explore the thorny philosophical and ethical issues that arise as Guy and his fellow AI entities attain sentience and Antwan attempts to commit computer genocide. What rights and responsibilities will the former Free Cityites have? If Guy is programmed to love Millie, can he be happy without her? And what will he and his artificial friends do in their idyllic digital digs? Mika, who says the AI used in actual games is advancing so fast that it’s “frightening … in a good way,” has already considered how Free Life functions. “Even though it’s not much on screen, [I’ve put] so much effort into what that backstory is, how the technology works,” he says. “As things were happening in the script, I wanted to make sure that that was just the tip of the iceberg, [and that] underneath it all that stuff made sense. So that if anything in the future happens, we have a Bible that at least explains all this stuff to a certain degree.”
Lieberman, Penn, Levy, and Reynolds are no strangers to sequels and movies based on well-known names. And although Free Guy’s good guys laud originality, the movie’s message isn’t that all sequels are bad. “The point is not just that Antwan only cares about IP and sequels,” Penn says. “[It’s that] Antwan doesn’t care about what he’s [making]. … People would like it more if the game was better, which is what Millie’s whole argument is. … Why can’t it be better? So I think Free Guy is a good example of ‘We think we can do better.’” Free City 2 will just have to be better than that.