Ryan Reynolds and Shawn Levy’s Free Guy pleasantly surprised critics and audiences last month and became something of a pandemic cinema underdog story. Audiences loved the charming and engaging story of Guy (Reynolds), a non-player character in the video game Free Guy who discovers he can break outside of his programmed mold. The film needed to appeal to and feel realistic to both gamers and non-gamers alike. Sure, it’s a wild story, but it needed to be based in a vaguely familiar world that wouldn’t greatly diverge from what people have the opportunity to experience online.
Enter production designer Ethan Tobman.
Tobman’s previous work in music videos (Taylor Swift’s “Cardigan” being a recent notable achievement — at least to me anyway) and independent films (Room) would seem a stretch for the high tech world of Free Guy. However, here in an interview with Awards Daily, Tobman explains how those experience naturally provided a logical background from which he could create the world of Free Guy. He also discusses the importance of starting with characters and finding the design based on the people within the story.
Finally, he reveals why audiences should take multiple looks at Free Guy. The vast array of Easter eggs and sight gags couldn’t possibly be captured on a first look.
Awards Daily: Let’s talk about Free Guy. You became known for smaller projects like Room or other indie-flavored projects. How does working in the indie world then prepare you to take on something like Free Guy with a massive budget?
Ethan Tobman: Sure, ostensibly, it’s an enormous leap. I think there’s two different routes that you can get to this point in your career. You can work your way up that ladder from drafting tables to budgeting meetings, assistant art, directing, art, directing, and maybe designing. There’s nothing wrong with that route. My first job was designing sets for Annie Liebowitz for photoshoots. Breaking into like the hardest, most high end and most interesting photo shoots at that point happening for Vogue and Vanity Fair. That led to music videos, that led to commercials, that led to movies. My goal was always movies, but as a result, you’re working with the top storytellers and the top visual craftsmen in their own mediums. In those mediums, there is no prep time. There’s no margin for error.
Something like the most complicated video I’ve ever done in my life formation, we had six days of prep. When you’re doing a Super Bowl show for someone like Madonna or Beyonce, there are changes made two days before prep that are before the show that involve 80 tons of steel and 300 people. So in some ways, when you end up doing a movie like this, it’s a longer marathon. But it’s slower, and it’s more premeditated. The challenges are more endurance based and less process driven. So in some ways, I’ve done jobs that are a lot bigger than Free Guy. They just only amount to four or five minutes of entertainment. So it’s a very natural fit for me to then move on to creating an enormous world that I had eight months to prep for. It felt like a luxury.
AD: Talk to me about the research process. What did you look at to be able to then create that original IP world?
ET: I always start by looking at my characters. Everything I choose to do is because of the empathy I feel for the character a story is focused on, and every story we choose to tell is about the character going from A to B at this particular moment in their lives. Free Guy has this idea of a half-developed character who is essentially like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of a video game. He is a completely inconsequential man whose plot is of no interest to anyone to the point where his apartment, his clothes, his personality are all half designed. He realizes this and wants to break from feeling like a cog in the machine. That was my way in. That’s the reason I wanted to tell the story.
We’ve all felt like hamsters on a wheel that are amounting to nothing. We’ve all felt a hint of greatness that was just outside of our grasp. That’s such a palatable, emotional thing for any filmmaker to latch onto to create a world. That was my way in. Guy’s apartment was the first set I fully imagined in my head. The idea was that it’s an afterthought. There are five dead bolts on his front door but no doorknob. There’s a day of his calendar missing. His pantry only has a spoon and a bowl because he doesn’t eat anything with a fork and a knife. He is a half-developed idea personified. From there, the idea was to create a city that was at once nostalgic for the way America and big cities used to be: strong saturated pastels, symmetry, no pollution. But it’s clearly making a satirical gesture of the idea that no one can ever leave there, and no one is actually free at all. There are travel agencies that advertise plane trips to nowhere where you can’t get off the plane. The sales are always tomorrow and the day after that. They all go to destinations of cities from other video games. There are loan shark stores that say this store is a scam, you’ll be paying this off for the rest of your life. There are secondhand grenade stores. There’s newsstands that say 60 percent increase in crime since this morning. We’re making fun of the ultraviolence of America today but with like a really innocent, almost sweet sense of humor.
So that was my way into the world. From there, you’re making conscious choices about what happens in Free City by consciously contrasting them with the world outside of Free City. So the world outside the video game is now consciously monochromatic, slightly out of focus. There’s dirty glass. There’s broken mirrors. There’s lots of pollution. There’s frame obfuscation. There’s no symmetry. It always rains. It’s in every way of visually different worlds. So that from the first frame of one, you’re no longer in the other.
AD: As you’ve mentioned, the characters are what attracted you to the story. Let’s talk about Guy. You mentioned he is an incomplete person, and his design is incomplete. How does that design for him then change as he becomes more cognizant of his surroundings and evolves through the film?
ET: Good question. Normally, if this was a movie that took place in the real world, you would see advances in the layering of his apartment, the details, the consistencies. Because this is a video game, what measures your level of sophistication and success is what you accumulate in your stash house. What cars, what guns, what defense tools you collect in a library designed of your choosing. So these are essentially wish fulfillment closets, if you will. In Guy’s case, we have this really unique humor that we can use of a guy who wants to be the king of the game without doing nefarious things. He’s not a bad guy. He’s a good guy. He wants to basically be the Robin Hood of Grand Theft Auto.
So this is where I had a tremendous time pitching comedy ideas and sometimes surprising Ryan and Shawn when they’d show up to our sets. I wanted to have every imaginable vehicle in his stash. I have a NASCAR race car and I have a Ferrari, but then I have a horse. I have a rickshaw from India. I have a NASA space capsule with a parachute that’s in flames. Also, Ryan’s the kind of guy where, if you show up with 10 ideas, he’ll use eight of them. He’ll riff on them. He actually looks at the horse during the scene. That’s the kind of environment that we were working with where in many ways it was everyone pitching ideas, and it was very much best idea wins.
AD: In Free Guy, having green screen or CGI backgrounds makes sense because it is a computer world, so it has to look pristine and artificial. What does that availability of technology do for a production designer?
ET: Great question. I’ve built my entire career out of trying to integrate concepts in the design pre-production process with execution in the post production one. Not being intimidated by what visual effects will ultimately do to either manipulate, expand, or even change what we do in prep, but to create a unity between the two departments. Hence my incredibly VFX heavy and enhanced music video library of everything from “All the Stars” and Kendrick Lamar and “Humble” to things that seem more naturalistic like “Cardigan.”
On this particular movie, we made a conscious choice very early on to do as much in camera as we could. People who see Free Guy may say that sounds ridiculous because there are so many visual effects, but the visual effects are on top of a city that we are building. We’re doing entire blocks of storefronts. We’re burning buildings. We’re lining every street with cars, signage, awnings of a really controlled palette. VFX then expands upon it past the two story mark of a building because it doesn’t make sense to do a 30 story building in its entirety, practically. We’re creating as much as we can in camera that they’re either expanding upon or riffing on. Then, what Shawn and our incredible VFX supervisor Swen Gillberg realized in post was they needed to add things that felt really artificial on top of that very real world so that you immediately knew you were in a video game. Otherwise, it’s too realistic and gritty, and you don’t recognize that you’re no longer in the real world. So, the answer in many ways to your question is the production design actually had to feel very real and very expensive. We had to do quite a lot of work at the ground level for this city in order for VFX to then add things on top of it that made the artifice work.
AD: What are some of your favorite design moments in the film?
ET: I’ve talked about Guy’s apartment already, and I think that’s one of my favorites because it’s the most subtle and the most intellectual. It’s a real intellectual joke. What if Chauncey Gardner from Being There had an apartment in a video game? What would it look like? That’s an hilarious high concept to me. But in terms of some of the more engineering marvels and the more creative accomplishments I’m proud of Molotov’s stash house is an extraordinarily difficult set to pull off. It’s built entirely out of fabric. How do you light that? How do you build that? When I first pitched the idea, I built a miniature with my team out of tracing paper and ran a flashlight through it on a little skateboard. It just wowed everybody.
Everyone thought they’d never seen anything like that before. Everyone said, ‘I don’t know how the hell we’re going to do this, but that is so cool. I’ve never seen anything like that before.’ Molotov’s stash needs to feel entirely different from anything we’ve seen in the video game up to now. She’s the video games original designer. She has an award-winning, unique sense of design that’s really organic. The idea is we wanted it to feel like the belly of a whale that was made out of origami. It’s breathing, moving fabric and paper. We built the whole thing by laser cutting 300 pieces of 60 foot wide fabric and slightly different shapes like stalagmites and stalactites. We then built a white fabric box around it, so we could light it without anyone being seen through the fabric. We put it on a mirrored white floor. The result was breathtaking when people walked in. When you’re making the movie about a video game, you need to make people feel the way video games make you feel. They’re slightly not real, but they’re incredibly immersive.
AD: Last question for you. Is there any way to categorize or quantify the number of Easter eggs that are in this film?
ET: There is no way because they were added in every step of the process. They’re embedded in the script. Then we in the art department hid them, some of which we never even discussed with anyone. Then wardrobe would add some. Then stunts would hide someone teabagging in the corner of an action sequence. I mean, even a character just keeps walking into a wall over and over again. Then in VFX, they had a field day with a huge amount of people in that department suggesting easter eggs and, again, best idea winning. Then Blake Lively and Ryan will have an idea with an Easter egg. One of my favorite ones is in the multiplayer lounge, which is very much an homage to the Star Wars cantina, the Troll market in Hellboy, and the markets of Turkey and Morocco. You have a video playing where it looks like Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl is kicking Ryan in the balls. It’s a girl dressed just like her character. I only saw that on the third time I watched the movie. So you know, in some ways, maybe it’s a nice way to end the interview is for me to say this movie has been designed to see more than once. That’s the whole point of adding those many visual layers, that much humor, and irreverent humor. We’ve buried a lot of things to look at.
Free Guy is now playing in theaters.