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From NPC to MVP: An Inside Look at ‘Free Guy’

August 11, 2021Ben MK

For those who might not be familiar with video game terminology, an NPC — or non-playable character — is one that exists merely to react to the actions of the actual players in the game, as opposed to being able to effect any changes within the game themselves. In Free Guy, however, Ryan Reynolds plays "Blue Shirt Guy," an unwitting NPC in a massively multiplayer open world video game called Free City who suddenly becomes acutely aware that he's living in a digital universe.

With his eyes opened, Guy takes his newfound sense of individuality and, teaming up with a player calling herself Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), begins to use it for the good of his fellow NPCs. There's just one problem, however — the game's megalomaniacal creator, Antoine (Taika Waititi), who will do anything to prevent the public from discovering the deep, dark secret at the heart of Free City. Now, with the existence of every character in the game at stake — including that of his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) — Guy must fight for his home by doing battle with everything from gun-toting rabbits to a musclebound version of himself. But with Antoine ready to destroy the entire game and all the data within it with the push of a button, will he succeed in time?

"This movie was about threading the needle between wanting to represent the gaming world correctly and accurately," says director Shawn Levy. "And for that, I spoke with a lot of game publishers, coders, game designers, and played and watched a lot of games in pre-production. So getting that right was really important. But it was also to make a movie that required no gaming fluency from a viewer who wasn't a gamer, and just wanting to make a movie that was warm and funny and romantic and enjoyable as both. So trying to tick both boxes was always part of the goal, and it's something we worked really hard to achieve."

"It's hard to make a new movie," adds Reynolds. "It's hard to make something that isn't based on some pre-existing IP or a comic book or a sequel in some regard. It's very challenging. So you get the script to a place that you feel like it's perfect or it's great, and then you have to make it 30% better somehow, because you don't have any ability to rely on a pre-existing fan base. So you really have to go out there and prove it the old fashion way. That was a challenge that, thank God, Shawn and every single cast member was up for. And it was nerve-racking, and it continues to be nerve-racking, even now as we're done and we're entering the world."

Of course, if you've seen any of the trailers for Free Guy, you'll know that Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" plays quite a prominent musical role in the film. But how did that particular song choice come about? "That was Ryan," recalls Levy. "Ryan is kind of a maestro of the odd, random, but sort of inspired song idea. He is obsessive about it. Early on, when we were working on the script, Ryan was like, 'You know what I think should be the anthem of this entire movie and marketing campaign?' And he suggested this song by Mariah. And little did we know that, by the third act of the movie, we’d have a cover of that song by our very own Jodie Comer in the movie."

As for Comer, whom moviegoers will most likely recognize from her role as Villanelle on Killing Eve, it was really the multifaceted aspects of her character, Millie aka Molotov Girl, that drew her to the film. "It was a huge part of what attracted me to the piece," says Comer. "There is a lot of nuance there, especially within her world and even looking into how male-dominated that industry is, which is kind of similar to [Hollywood]. There was so much for me to play with, and Ryan and Shawn would always be asking my opinion of what I thought. So it was such a great experience to also to bring my own ideas to play."

Lil Rel Howery, on the other hand, was more excited about the opportunity to work with Deadpool himself. "It's weird because Ryan Reynolds has been my friend in my head for a very long time," laughs Howery. "And to this day, I still don't think he believes [that] I'm a legit fan. I watch Definitely Maybe maybe twice a month, it's one of my favorite movies. It's one of those fun things I love about this business, when you get the chance to work with people you look up to. And not just as an actor, but just as a fan. It was just surreal."

Likewise, Never Have I Ever's Utkarsh Ambudkar, who plays a game developer named Mouser in the movie, was equally impressed with Reynolds. "It turns out Ryan Reynolds has a lot of really famous friends," says Ambudkar. "And he got a lot of them to be in this movie. The whole third act, for somebody who grew up with Star Wars, Marvel, video games, is so much fun. As somebody who logs a lot of hours in [the video game] space, [Free Guy] really is true to that world and the people who occupy it. We have a ton of great people from the video game community who are all part of the movie, who I think folks are gonna be really excited to see."

"[Shawn and company] have done such a great job of giving a really great nod to video game culture," adds Stranger Things' Joe Keery, who plays a fellow developer named Keys. "There are so many funny, little things. I'm not a huge gamer myself, but there's this great shot in the movie during this montage sequence [where] you see this character in the background [do this] very specific, funny motion [from first-person shooters]. It's just this small, one to two second thing, but it's just really funny and dead-on, and it gives a good tip of the hat to video game culture."

And while most people play video games on their televisions, this is one film that was always intended to be experienced with other moviegoers in a cinema. "Every filmmaker wants the stories they tell to be seen as loud and as big as possible," notes Levy. "We live in a brave new streaming world, but Free Guy was made with one goal in mind, which is collective delight. [This is] a big, new original movie with spectacle and scope and big heart, and those things are really [best] experienced on that big canvas and big screen."

Free Guy is in theaters August 13th.

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