Director Shawn Levy On ‘The Adam Project’ And What He Wants To Avoid In ‘Free Guy 2’

There’s a recent seven-year gap in Shawn Levy’s film directing career. Now, it’s easy to just assume, well, with his involvement in Stranger Things, maybe he was just busy with that. In fact, that is pretty much what I assumed. But, as we kind of got into when we spoke to Levy last year for Free Guy, Shawn Levy movies make a lot of money. And guess what happened with Free Guy? A movie that was not existing IP and came out during the pandemic? It made a lot of money. So I did wonder if maybe there was another reason for the gap. And, as Levy explains, the gap had quite a bit to do with, after the third Night at the Museum film, losing his friend Robin Williams and needing a break.

Now, after that break, The Adam Project (on Netflix this week) is Levy’s second film in the last seven months. It stars, again, Ryan Reynolds as a crack pilot from the future named Adam Reed who travels back to our present to find his dorky younger self (Walker Scobell). Now, finding his younger self isn’t the main mission, it’s more of a side mission that needs to be completed in order to fulfill the main mission. (Adam is injured and his future aircraft won’t start when it senses a pilot is injured so he needs his younger self’s uninjured DNA to start his plane.) It’s a clever time travel movie that kind of turns the trope of not running into your younger self, or family members, on its head. After the two get the aircraft started, they decide to team up to complete the greater mission of stopping a future conglomerate of controlling everything. (Or as older Adam says, something way worse than the Biff timeline in Back to the Future Part II.)

Ahead, Levy explains why he’s drawn to projects that aren’t existing IP. Though he does realize, now, Free Guy has now become existing IP and people want a sequel. But he will only do one if the script is right and he tells us what he doesn’t want a second Free Guy to be. But, first, as we jumped on Zoom, the host of the meeting gave Levy quite a complimentary introduction that involved many, many accolades…

Shawn Levy: You just get sweeter and sweeter as the day goes on. The introduction is embarrassing.

I wish I had someone to introduce me like that.

I literally need Bea from the Virtual Junket Production Company to follow me around the world.

I would pay money for this service. I guess it does cost money. I guess someone is paying for this service.

Somebody’s paying something, Mike.

Yeah, this isn’t on the house…

I am happy that we’re going to use only audio of this conversation. I got to change to a more comfortable chair and I’m lounging.

By the way, in case this happens, my super is supposed to come today to fix a hole in the wall, and I said the only time I wasn’t available was right now. So I know within the next 10 minutes there’s going to be a knock on the door…

I mean, where are your priorities Mike? Talking to a Hollywood director or fixing shit in your home?

Well, I just want to warn you this could happen.

I love it. Love it.

So I’m watching this movie and I’m picturing you and maybe Ryan having to map out the rules of time travel for this world. And that sounds like a lot of fun.

Well, I’m going to surprise you. To me, that sounds like the opposite of fun.

Wait, really?

Because even though I am now the director of a time travel, sci-fi adventure, my interest in time travel mythology and science rules is minimal. I am an emotional filmmaker. I want my movies to connect emotionally. So literally my whole goal with The Adam Project was the simplest, most concise declaration of rules possible.

Okay, but that’s still rules.

It’s still rules. And you know what? Here’s why I’m lucky. Jonathan Tropper and Don Granger at Skydance spent eight years developing the script. I understood about 78 percent of it. To quote Taika Waititi in my movie Free Guy, “Pretend I’m dumb.” I said, “Tropper, pretend I’m dumb. Tell me the rules.” He explained it to me in layman’s terms. And I said, “Okay, use those words in the screenplay,” because I don’t want the movie to feel like homework. I want it to feel soundly constructed but digestible so that the audience could just connect with the characters.

What’s actually an example of that? Where you thought it was too confusing.

There’s a scene outside the cabin where Zoe Saldaña is talking about how there was a time jet that came back from a certain time stream, but there was no record of it having left. And literally I said to Tropper, “Wait, how was there a record of it if it never left?” And Tropper said because the time stream from which it left had already been changed. And I literally said, “Wait a second. This is convenient. I have one character who’s not so bright, and I’ve got the little, 12-year-old kid who’s like a brainiac. So why don’t you write the dialogue that you and I, director and screenwriter, just had and put it in the mouths of the characters?” So I always find that’s a useful trick, to literally name the explanation by using it as dialogue.

Like Doc Brown explaining something to Marty McFly.

It is very helpful when you have a character in the narrative who can be the mouthpiece of explanation. It also helps when you have a young Ryan Reynolds character who can give shit to Ryan Reynolds. So in that same scene, I wrote a line where Walker looks at Ryan and says, “It’s like I traded in my brains for those muscles.” And then Ryan improvised the line for Walker on the shooting day where he adds, “That’s a shit deal.” That’s very much how we work. We work on the script, and then we add, and then we add, and then we add, and then we add while we’re making the thing.

I assume now that you’ve done two movies in a row you and Ryan are on a wavelength?

Well, we are on a crazy wavelength. And we’re old enough and experienced enough to know that we should grab onto it with both arms and savor it, which we do. But I’ve been lucky in my career because early on I made two movies with Steve Martin, and then I made three Night at the Museum movies. So I have always worked with writer-actors: Steve Martin, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams. And then Date Night with Steve Carell and Tina Fey. I want my actors to be voices who contribute. I don’t look at them as just the performers who say the script. I want additive contributions every day. So I came to Ryan after a career of empowering my cast as collaborators, and Ryan slots in brilliantly as that.

All things considered, are you still a little surprised Free Guy took off the way it did?

I guess I am. I knew the movie would be satisfying, but so much in this world gives us pessimism about the viability of original movies at the theatrical marketplace. They just don’t make those movies anymore, and no one has released one that became a bonafide hit in a long, long time. Even pre-pandemic, a new movie that went on to be a global hit…

Well, Channing Tatum, who was obviously in Free Guy, had a decent hit with Dog and everyone seems surprised.

And look, it is a positive sign. But the fact that Free Guy went on to make like $330 million. And I like the fact – and Night at the Museum was a bit like this too – it didn’t open with record-shattering numbers, but it just stuck around. And I remember Sam Raimi said to me when I was in film school – I was at some birthday party with our kids – and I congratulated him on Spider-Man, which had done really well. He goes, “No, don’t congratulate me. Opening weekend is the marketing department’s victory. Second weekend? That’s the director’s victory.”

That’s interesting.

That means the movie’s doing its work for you. The movie is satisfying people. So they’re coming back, and they’re telling their friends. So the way Free Guy hung around, that was the most gratifying part.

You mentioned Night at the Museum. I haven’t thought about this in years, but you almost picked my friend Kirk’s apartment for Ben Stiller’s apartment. He was in the final three.

To think how Kirk’s fate would have been altered.

It’s true.

It’s like a whole other time stream. See, I’m bringing it back to time streams.

You are.

Because I’m smart like that now.

He said he would have gotten a free hotel for a month.

I need you to tell Kirk that giving up your home to a movie production, though the money’s tempting, it’s never quite worth it.

Okay, I will pass that along.

I’ve just given location departments a bad name. They are cursing me around the world.

During The Adam Project, I kept thinking what it would be like to meet myself at that age, and I don’t think I’d like it.

Well, but the whole point is – and Ryan and I talked a lot about this when we were polishing the script – you think that a movie like this is going to be about telling your younger self, “Hey buddy, I got you. It’s going to be okay.” The subversive idea in The Adam Project is this is a deeply self-loathing character, so he does not like that kid. He is mortified of that nerd loser who gets bullied and is a flesh-covered antenna of hypersensitivity, and that’s what makes their dynamic interesting.

I think in a situation like in this movie, I think I could convince my younger self that I am the older version. I don’t think he would listen to me. Because I thought I had it all figured out then, and I know now I didn’t.

Young you was defiant, rebellious, didn’t respect authority?

No, I think I was just stupid.

We all were. I think most of us, especially males, aren’t really thinking until about 22.

You’ve mentioned you don’t want to do a second Free Guy until the script is right. You mentioned past sequels you’ve done and you know what you want to avoid. Is there something specific?

Well, it’s not like Night at the Museum 2 or 3 and I wouldn’t even loop in my Pink Panther sequel or my Cheaper By the Dozen sequel because I didn’t direct those. I didn’t direct those because I felt I had done what I wanted to do with the first movies. I just know that with Free Guy especially, if all it is is more video game hijinks, that’s not a reason to make it. It needs that similar alchemy of gamer fluency and coolness with humanism because I think it was the combination of those traits that made Free Guy succeed the way it did and the way I believe it now is, based on social media and volume alone currently on Disney+ and HBO Max.

It’s weird because you were just talking about existing IP, and you’ve made two movies that aren’t existing IP back to back, but now Free Guy feels like it’s becoming exactly what it wasn’t before.

I know. Well, and that’s the other inconvenient thing. If we make Free Guy 2, we will call it Albuquerque Boiled Turkey if only to mock ourselves. But we will literally become the thing we stand against, and then I’m sure we’re going to backpedal.

Once you’re up to Free Guy 6, you’ll be like, “Look…” And you can pay Kirk for almost using his apartment.

I know. Kirk, I’m sorry you were robbed.

I know you had Stranger Things when you had a directing gap, but I’m glad you’re making movies and at a pretty fast pace again…

You know what? I do feel you’re not wrong. There was a long breather there after the last Night at the Museum after Robin Williams’s death where I was knocked back. And I regrouped. And life intervened and brought Arrival into that moment and Stranger Things into that moment. And then to come back to the directing chair with Free Guy and The Adam Project back to back all in an 18-month period, their releases, it’s very gratifying, and I don’t take any of it for granted.

And I’m so happy my super did not interrupt us.

Go deal with the hole in your wall.

‘The Adam Project’ streams via Netflix this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.