During a pandemic with few movies and uncertain box office returns, 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy has been a surprise hit, topping the box for the second weekend in a row. It’s managed to beat all expectations and become the biggest success of the summer, earning over $112M worldwide so far and counting. This success is even more noteworthy considering that the film technically stems from an original idea. Yes, leading man Ryan Reynolds brings his trademark charm and wit alongside a slew of “video game references and Easter eggs, including streamers like Ninja and Pokimane,” but the core narrative of Free Guy is all original, thanks to screenwriter Matt Lieberman.
The origins of Free Guy trace back to Lieberman at Fox prior to the Disney acquisition. After selling his script to Fox, it would pass the hands of numerous directors over the years until Ryan Reynolds himself decided to take a chance on it. Reynolds helped convince Shawn Levy, who had previously passed on the script, to tackle the project and now the rest is history – in a more impactful sense given its survival under 20th Century Studios and box office success. We were lucky enough to speak with screenwriter Matt Lieberman about Free Guy and what’s coming next in his exciting career in an exclusive interview.
Your script for Free Guy was on previously The Black List, how did you first come up with the concept and and how did you go about submitting the script to a studio?
Matt Lieberman: So five years ago, literally to the month, I had this idea: what if you could walk out into the world and see power-ups wherever you go? Things like money, health, and powers. I sort of backed into the idea that way. I was like, “Oh, well then you would be sort of living in a video game”, and I play a lot of games. I think a lot about the background characters. So it was kind of like the light bulb “a-ha!” moment. Once I had everything kind of locked down, I wrote it really quickly and we sold it like two months later. And in this crazy whirlwind, screenwriter dream, it made The Black List. Once you get a script around town and producers read it, they put out a survey and that’s how something makes that list.
What was your reaction when it was picked up by Fox? And could you tell me about your collaboration with Ryan Reynolds on the script?
Matt Lieberman: Selling it to Fox was amazing. The producer, Sarah Schecter, convinced me to go with them because there was a bidding war happening. She convinced me that Fox was taking chances on movies like Deadpool, and Emma [Watts] and Mike Ireland over there really seemed to get it and be enthusiastic about it. So it was an easy decision. I developed it with them for about a year or so, which is how it always goes with these kinds of things. Then I got an email, I think in June 2018, saying, “Are you sitting down? Ryan Reynolds is available. He wants to do it. He’s ready to go.” And it went from zero to one hundred overnight.
Shawn Levy jumped on board and within two months, I was doing a draft with both of them, which was so much fun. Ryan was involved, I was writing the draft with him. He has great instincts, not just as an actor and a writer, but as a producer. And he’s super funny. He’s like at the height of his superpowers. I would read lines that he wrote, and be like, “Oh yeah, this is Ryan Reynolds.” Like all those movies, that’s him. So yes, everything you probably think is Ryan, he’s definitely behind it.
There’s been some discourse lately about modern blockbusters being very romance-less. Was the romance aspect something you thought was important to include?
Matt Lieberman: There was always the romantic relationship between him [Guy] and Millie. That has been there in every draft. Though I would say that is one thing that Shawn and Ryan, and even Zak [Penn] probably helped flesh out towards the end. Really bringing out the emotion and connecting the Millie-Guy relationship and the Millie-Keys relationship. That all kind of congealed and came together in a great way right before production started.
The movie landscape has been going through a whirlwind. I wanted to ask what your thoughts were on theatrical versus streaming and the hybrid release model?
Matt Lieberman: I don’t know how qualified I am to say what the best way to release a movie is. I definitely know that during the pandemic, it’s been so great to be able to watch some big movies on television. I wrote Scoob! and that was supposed to be a theatrical release and it came out. And it really was able to land with people that way. People really found the movie, but I also love the theatrical experience. I love being in a movie theater with popcorn. I’m so happy that I was able to kind of get back and do it this summer. I really missed it.
I miss doing that more than going out to dinner, but the industry is always changing. The way we see content is always changing, will always change. I definitely think you have to embrace that in some way in order to stay with the times. I do think that people will always want to go out and be around people and have something to do, so I don’t think movies or theatrical experiences are by any means going away.
You’ve got two films in development with producer Kenya Barris at Warner Brothers and Paramount, respectively. Is there anything you can say about those?
Matt Lieberman: Those are both original ideas. One’s a spec script, like Free Guy, and one’s a pitch. They’re both sort of big ideas. I’m just super excited about both of them. The Warner Brothers one is about a divorced Dad who ends up befriending the robot toy he buys for his sons and ends up going on a buddy road trip with it to save the world. So that is like Ted meets Gremlins. The other one I can’t say too much about, but it’s a big movie. And there are aliens in it! That’s all I’ll say.
You’ve also got a Jetsons scripts in the works at Warner Brothers. How has working on another iconic Hanna-Barbera property been compared to your other work?
Matt Lieberman: Writing Jetsons was definitely a dream come true. I loved that show growing up and I love the big idea of it. To do it as an animated movie, I think made total sense. It’s been developed for years and years as a live-action movie, and I think that’s hard to pull off. So it definitely seemed like the right thing at the right time.
Obviously, you want to give fans what they want, but you want to make it an idea that someone who’s never heard of the Jetsons will be totally excited about. We did a lot of iterations of that over the course of a couple of years until we found something that’s really cool, a big idea that’s perfect for the Jetsons, and totally fits thematically in that world.
I love Hanna-Barbera so I’m super excited to see it!
Matt Lieberman: Yeah, me too. That’s why writing Scoob! and getting to put all those characters in was so much fun. There were definitely a lot more in the early days than what ended up making it into the film.