There are plenty of things to love about Free Guy, especially the climactic battle between Guy and Dude (both played by Ryan Reynolds), which is chock full of Marvel and Star Wars Easter eggs. While director Shawn Levy's meta video game comedy was released by Disney under the 20th Century Studios banner, those Mouse House-owned references were not a result of the 2018 merger that saw Disney purchase 20th Century Fox for just over $71 billion.
"It was before the purchase," Free Guy's VFX Supervisor Swen Gillberg reveals during a conversation with SYFY WIRE ahead of the movie's physical home release this week. "It was a lot of favors called in between Ryan and Shawn to Kevin [Feige] and the gang. I've done a bunch of the Marvel movies too, so it was a group effort."
To pull off the Guy vs. Dude set piece, the VFX team had to digitally graft Reynolds' face onto the body of the man who provided Dude's bulging physique, Aaron W. Reed. "It just sort of took on a life of its own," Swenberg recalls. "Then we started adding all of the Marvel bits and it was super, super fun to do. It all started with me and George [Richmond], our DP, Shawn, and our second unit director going out and blocking the scene in Boston. We all did it on George's iPhone."
As for the wider world of Free City (the fictional open-world video game in which the film takes place), Swenberg states that the production left no gaming stone unturned. Despite the fact that many have described Free City as a combination of Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto, it was really meant as a love letter to a vast array of different titles.
"We worked with a lot of the designs from Ethan [Tobman], our production designer," Swenberg says. "The overall wide view of the city sort of resembles Pittsburgh, but then we wanted to change up Boston itself. We hunted through just about every video game there was to try and find references and Easter eggs. But a lot of it came from Grand Theft Auto, that kind of vibe. We literally looked at Twitch videos for months and months and months [during] pre-production."
Swenberg adds that "none of that initial creative group were huge gamers and so, [Shawn] wanted to make sure that someone on my team played games. There's a guy named Charlie Lehmer who works for me right now and he was Shawn's go-to guy for gamer information. He just loves to play games and is always going to conferences. We jokingly said that unless Charlie approved it, it wasn't approved for the movie."
So, are there any super-secret Easter eggs that Swenberg can reveal now that the movie's been out since July?
"I think most of the fun ones or obvious ones are in there. There's some little silly ones. Obviously, the Marvel [and Star Wars] ones are super obvious," the VFX supervisor continues. "In the scene where the bank robbers are robbing the bank with the hot air balloon, there are some cars that are upside down on top of each other that came from a bumper car video game. We just tried to throw in as many little bits and bobs. You'll notice in the background there's NPCs running into walls. That was all done after the fact in post just as little Easter eggs."
Many of those bells and whistles came in post-production when Swenberg, Levy, and Reynolds would watch the edit from Dean Zimmerman. "We would just sit around and dream up things like, 'I think this shot needs... I don't know, what do you think? A dinosaur?' 'Yep, a dinosaur,'" Swenberg recalls. "And so, that end scene, we were constantly [suggesting stuff like] 'How about a hot air balloon on fire?' 'Sure!' It was great fun to brainstorm with those guys and put it all in there."
Since Reynolds also served as a producer on the project, he got a pretty big say in how the story would play out. "He's awesome to work with. Super collaborative and super creative," Swenberg says. A good example of the Deadpool actor's sharp comedic influence can be felt in the scene where Guy is hit by the cop car Keys (Joe Keery) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) are driving shortly after he gains sentience. Swenberg explains this moment was inspired by Meet Joe Black, the 1998 romantic fantasy starring Brad Pitt as the Grim Reaper.
"We were planning to do it with a stuntman and do it in a bunch of takes. Ryan wanted to do it all in one take with all of his dialogue, which obviously turned into a digi-double kind of thing. I showed him a bunch of different options of how to get hit by a car and I showed him the Meet Joe Black clip were Brad Pitt gets hit by a car and Ryan said, 'I've always wanted to get Meet Joe Black-ed!' We used that as inspiration and if you compare the two, they are similar in a funny way."
After Free Guy's impressive opening weekend this past summer, Ryan Reynolds tweeted that Disney had already asked him and Levy to start thinking about a sequel. There haven't been any updates since then... until, now that is because Swenberg confirms to us that a follow-up is most definitely in the works.
"There's a few tricks up my sleeve that I've got in mind," he teases when asked about how he plans to push the visual effects envelope in Guy's second virtual outing. "Some camera techniques. I'm working on a movie that I can't really talk about right now. I don't know if I can really get into it too much yet, but we're all super excited about the sequel. I've been talking to Shawn about it and we're super excited. I can't wait to get going on it."
Now available to purchase digitally, Free Guy arrives on 4k, Blu-ray, and DVD tomorrow (Tuesday, Oct. 12).