[Interview] Screenwriter Matt Lieberman Levels Up With ‘FREE GUY’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Screenwriter Matt Lieberman, who’s written everything from an animated dog solving a mystery (SCOOB!) to a fractured family learning to accept holiday cheer (THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES franchise), has gained more experience points with his latest feature, FREE GUY. The fantastically funny, feel-good feature centers on Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and his journey as a happy-go-lucky NPC becoming enlightened and inspiring the change he wants to see in his video game world. From its auspicious beginnings as a spec script to highlight Lieberman’s own skills and strengths as a writer, it’s morphed into a sure-to-be-blockbuster.

This is very much a film I wish existed when I was young and I’m curious if that was sort of the impetus of creating this, writing something you would want to see in the world?

“That’s my litmus test, wanting to put the big things I want out in the world. All the big movies  – GHOSTBUSTERS, GROUNDHOG’S DAY and TRUMAN SHOW, BACK TO THE FUTURE – those are the movies that made me want to be a screenwriters. I love big ideas and when I came across this idea, I just knew, for myself, I had to write it out.”

And this was your spec script, right?

“Correct. I wrote this 5 years ago in August.”

I heard it ignited a bidding war. Did you ever imagine that would happen?

“I didn’t imagine any of this. Back in August, I had been feeling stuck in my own lane and I had been sitting on this idea for awhile and knew I had to write it and see. That’s all I was expecting was just to finish it. I remember when I finished it, my manager was like, ‘This one is special.’ We tweaked it and went out with it.

It was one of those dream weekends when people were meeting with me just to pitch themselves to me. Like dream filmmakers were sitting down with me and I had to pinch myself. That was a Monday. On Tuesday, Donald Trump was elected. Wednesday, the town was ice. It was suddenly crickets, but there were still a couple of bidders, but the giant heat had cooled off a little. Fox really stepped up and always believed in it. And I went with them and it was the right call.”

What was it about them, to you, that made them the perfect fit? I assume it was 21 Laps?

“No! It wasn’t 21 Laps. They originally passed on it, believe it or not.”

Oh! How did that all come back around?

“Sarah Schechter and Greg Berlanti called me and she pitched me on Fox. ‘They’re taking chances. They’re making interesting movies. Other studios are playing it more safe and movies like this languish in development there.’ She threw out DEADPOOL [as an example]. I trusted her and Mikey Ireland and Emma {???} at Fox really loved it and had a lot of enthusiasm and it seemed like a good fit. You can’t read the future in those moments, so I went there.

And then we developed with the studio for a year and a half and there were big pieces of talent that circled it and went. It wasn’t until June 2018 that Ryan Reynolds, I got an email, ‘Are you sitting down? Ryan loves it and wants to do it. Let’s go.’ And it went from 0 to 100 overnight. Then Shawn came on board and I did the draft with Shawn – and then it was shooting a couple months later.”

I know Ryan and Shawn changed the use of Outfield’s “Your Love,” to Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” Were there other changes like that?

“Yes, absolutely. In the original script, Guy was more cynical of the world. He was more, ‘Why do we put up with this?’ It was 100% Ryan’s idea to start the character from a more naive place where he’s happy in that world, which gives the character further to go. It was the right call. There were characters that were wisely taken out who helped Guy figure things out where Guy needed to figure things out on his own. I know Zack Penn took the moment out where he realizes he’s in a videogame, that used to be at the end of act one and now it’s later in the movie.”

Did Guy’s catchphrase, “Don’t have a good day. Have a great day!” originate from anywhere?

“That came from Ryan. That was his idea. I did a draft with Ryan and Shawn and it was a dream. Ryan is such a talented writer. He’s got great ideas and is so funny and smart. The lines and jokes he added, it’s him. Shawn brought a humanity to him and to the other characters and drew out the love story in a way that wasn’t always there. I loved working with them.”

Ryan Reynolds as Guy in 20th Century Studios’ FREE GUY. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Not only is this an action movie that hinges on philosophical virtues, it’s also this really sweet bromance and romantic comedy sorta snuck in the back door. How was it to balance all those tones and make it cohesive?

“Those things are really hard to put together and I have to give that credit to Shawn. A lot of those things in the shoot and with the actors. Buddy was always his best friend, but the bromance of it definitely came out in shooting it.”

Is there one scene that’s the essence of the film that you felt was absolutely necessary to nail?

“That’s a good question. Definitely the most important was when he finds the glasses and puts them on and sees this world that’s been going on around him. That [scene] hasn’t change through any of the drafts. It’s stayed the exact same from the very first time I wrote it. If you don’t buy that moment, the rest of the script…. Also the heart to heart with Buddy was such an important moment. It really talks about the essence of life and what is life about. What are we but our programming? It’s a key scene.”

How difficult was it to portray game play correctly, having it appeal to those familiar with that world and also understandable for those who aren’t?

“Right. That’s always been really important. I’m a big gamer. It’s easy to take for granted what people understand about videogames – open world, sandbox games especially. I think a lot of people know what Pac-Man is, but don’t know Grand Theft Auto. Really, if people understand the characters and concepts, it’s easier to bring in everything else.

The game play isn’t important, but is if you’re playing a videogame – not if you’re watching a movie. You have to have rules and adhere to those rules. You can’t keep changing them to suit your story. Those need to be nailed down, like in any other world building movie. I wanted to come at it as if Guy was a person who existed in the real world and then the audience would realize when he does that it isn’t the real world – it’s this game.”

I love that Antwan [played by Taika Waititi] has this hilarious treatise about how no one likes originals in an original movie. Was that always there in the script?

“That came up late in the game. It was kind of what we were up against. We had this movie and new execs were becoming involved in the Disney/ Fox merger. Disney, as you can see, has totally embraced the movie – they love it. But one of the early questions people had asked was, ‘What’s this based on?’ And they were like, ‘Nothing. It’s an original script.’ The industry as a whole does not make these big budget ideas anymore. That line was put in as a wink to that. It sticks with people. People want new ideas.”

That said, Do you have ideas for a sequel?

“Absolutely. I have big ideas for a sequel, the second I wrote, ‘The End.’ I knew there are so many fun unexpected places that this could go, and the characters could go. Really exciting ones. We’ve only lightly talked about it so hopefully, everybody goes out to see this, we can continue the journey.”

You have two other original films newly announced: YUMANZU and MEEBO AND ME. Can you give me a hint at what those are about? Are they live-action or animated?

“They are both live-action, yeah. MEEBO AND ME, which we sold to Warner Brothers as a spec, it’s about a divorced dad who wants to get his son the hot new Christmas present that’s a robot that connects with you as a friend. The son already has one and has a falling out and basically becomes best friends with the robot. It’s like a buddy movie between him and the robot as they end up saving the world from all the little robots, who suffer a glitch in the system and are all rising up. It’s like TED meets GREMLINS.

The other one is a pitch I sold to Paramount with Kenya Barris producing it. It’s another FREE GUY big idea. I can only say it’s in a world with aliens. Hopefully, it’ll be a big surprise. It’s what I’m working on right now.”

FREE GUY is now playing.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.