Shawn Levy movies, for the most part, make a lot of money. Levy may be one of the most consistent directors in this department who doesn’t really get much credit for that. There are, of course, the three Night at the Museum movies, which made just under one and a half billion dollars combined. Oh and there are the Steve Martin movies, Cheaper By the Dozen and The Pink Panther. Oh and let’s not forget the fighting robots movie, Real Steel. Even a more modest movie that people don’t at all consider “a hit,” like This is Where I Leave You, still made money. If you have a movie and you want it to make money, yeah Shawn Levy is a good choice as a director.
There’s also another interesting trend with Levy’s films: he’s often juggling a lot. This is the case with his new film, the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Free Guy (which will be in theaters this weekend), and the case with the overwhelming majority of his movies. But when you think about it, it’s not a lot different from the Night at the Museum movies in that we have our hero who is surrounded by numerous scene stealers, and there’s Levy who has to let them be funny, but also not overwhelm the movie. Levy is good at this. Levy considers himself a conductor.
In Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, an unsuspecting non-player-controlled video game character who is just trying to live his life around the nonstop action of the video game. But then he becomes sentient and a whole bunch of crazy things happen. Free Guy is a cavalcade of color, visuals, and pop culture references that, without a trained conductor, could have easily drifted into madness.
Levy also tells us about what happened when Disney bought Fox, because Free Guy was a Fox project and was in pre-production and a lot of those films were canceled. Was he worried? Well, Levy also knows his movies have a tendency to make money. Plus, now he had access to a much greater war chest of pop culture references like Marvel and Star Wars. And Levy tells us about a “Fox only” reference that got cut out of the movie because, well, they didn’t need it anymore.
It makes perfect sense to me that you directed this movie because there’s so much going on. And you had so much success with the Night at the Museum movies where there are all these peripheral characters that can steal the movie. You’re like a wrangler?
Yes, that is exactly how the job feels, like a ringleader, like a circus. You’ve got a lot of things going, a lot of parts of the stage, but your job is to keep things balanced, to make everybody great, but to be responsible for the balance of all of it.
But see, that sounds more difficult than the way you just described it. How do you do that?
I feel like if we’re lucky, we find the job that we’re well-suited for. And since I made literally my first student film, I’ve felt like, oh, this is what I’m actually built to do, because I’m organized. I like to be prepared. I love actors. And so, I approach all of them with real love and just fanhood. But maybe, I don’t know… I don’t know if I grew up in a different time, if I’d be defined as a little bit of OCD, or I don’t know.
I’m able to cover a lot and be focused on a lot of things at once and keep everything in its right place. So, I believe, and there are very different philosophies – I remember early in my career, I won’t name who they said: “You have one job, make the lead funny. Anything that isn’t the lead, move on.”
Let me ask this. What position was that person in who told you that? Was that an actor, or was that an executive?
It was a producer. It was a very successful comedy producer. And the advice was, if it’s not in service of the movie star being funny, it cannot exist. And that meant the lighting needed to be bright. The framing needed to be clean and not moving. And God forbid if the supporting characters were taking shots from the three-point line. “No, no, no, no, no.” And I was young and new, and I was like, “Oh, okay? Is that the rule?” I have subsequently realized that I completely and absolutely disagree with that. And having a variety of cast members score points on that board. It’s good for the movie.
You have a lot of actors who take three-point shots. I mean, you worked with Robin Williams.
I had Robin Williams, and I had Ricky Gervais, and I had Owen Wilson. I had Tina Fey and Steve Carell, blah, blah. In this one, Ryan is the spine. Ryan is the protagonist. My job is to make sure that I always keep an eye on the primacy of that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want Taika Waititi taking three-point shots. That doesn’t mean that Utkarsh Ambudkar can’t riff and add some flavor and authenticity. Because guess what? Utkarsh is a mad gamer. He knows more about gaming than me. So, okay, give me some of how you would say it. You know what? Maybe it’s not ringleader. It’s like in like the orchestra, especially in the Bugs Bunny animated version, where they’re like doing that thing? So that’s what it feels like. Oh, you got an idea? You joke here. You have an idea? Come on. Yep. Run with it. Okay, good. Oh wait. Taika, you got something? It’s a little bit like that.
It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where Bob Cobb made everyone called him The Maestro. You should do that.
Any Seinfeld reference and now we’re friends forever.
Okay, you’re The Maestro.
When you started this movie, it was a Fox production and, correct me if I’m wrong, the Disney purchase happened while you were making this?
Okay. You hadn’t started filming yet.
Right before shooting. Right before filming. I think I know where your question is going.
Well, it’s interesting that there are so many Disney property references in this movie that probably couldn’t have happened if that doesn’t happen, I assume…
They definitely wouldn’t happen. Definitely wouldn’t happen. And the third act of the movie was always going to be Dude versus Guy, Ryan versus Ryan 2.0. And it always had this fundamental idea of, oh, now he has mastery of the game. He can access any tools and weapons that he can dream of.
So, when we realized, right as we were about to shoot, wait a second, now our bosses are Disney? And Disney has the deepest toy chest of all time: with the greatest toys, weapons, and iconography. Let’s see if we can access some of that. And to our great fortune, Disney really supported the movie and gave absolute trust to Ryan and me. And when we went to them and said, “Could we use this, this or this?” They said yes. And when we said, “Well, which one?” They said, “All of them.”
Well, I’m curious, did a “Fox only” reference get cut? Were you going to use maybe a Predator? And it’s like, sorry, Predator. We’ve got Star Wars now.
Well, I don’t want any spoilers, so I’m still going to dance around it. But I do know, I’m remembering now that one of the weapons was Cable’s gun from Deadpool 2. And that didn’t make the cut, partly because it’s very big and heavy, and partly because we did have bigger and better toys coming out of the toy chest.
I’ll just say, Cable’s got a great gun, but not near as recognizable as some of the things you used.
Was there a day or a week where you were worried the movie would be canceled?
It’s so weird because they did shut down other movies.
There was a big, expensive movie called Mouse Guard. And it was done. Everyone just go home. But, weirdly I don’t remember being nervous. Because I think it helps that Ryan and I have individually made a few billion dollars for studios. And they knew that a) we had certain audiences and things that probably could be trusted. But b) we are very similar in that we aren’t looking to spend a studio’s money because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Give me enough money to tell this story well and I’m going to treat your money with respect. And, hopefully, if I do my job well, you’re going to make some money. That’s how I approach my job. I get to tell stories on the biggest canvas around. That’s a privilege. I don’t take it lightly. And I want to be respectful of that privilege. And I think Disney knows that’s how Ryan Reynolds and I approached the work. And, hopefully, audiences will find it and enjoy it, because that was the whole point.
All right. Thank you, Maestro.
[Laughs] Thank you.
‘Free Guy’ opens in theaters on August 13th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.