Review of Interview: Free Guy Production Designer Ethan Tobman Discusses Hidden Jokes

Daljit Kalsi

Free Guy impressed moviegoers earlier this year with its great set design and a star-studded cast featuring Ryan Reynolds, Taika Waititi, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Jodie Comer, and Channing Tatum. Now the movie is out on digital and 4K and Blu-ray.

“A bank teller (Ryan Reynolds) who discovers he is actually a background player in an open-world video game decides to become the hero of his own story –one he rewrites himself,” says the film’s official synopsis. “Now, in a world where there are no limits, he is determined to be the guy who saves his world his way… before it’s too late.”

RELATED: Free Guy Interview: Visual Effects Supervisor Swen Gillberg on Turning Boston into Free City

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with production designer Ethan Tobman about turning Bostin into Free Guy‘s Free City, what games helped inform elements of the film, and his work on the “All The Stars” music video.

Tyler Treese: Ethan, can speak about the work that you did on Free Guy?

Ethan Tobman: I’m the production designer of Free Guy. I was tasked with the challenge of creating two worlds in one movie: the world inside a video game, which is a hyper-violent, multi-platform world that takes place in a city where non-playable characters cannot leave and have very repetitive Groundhog Day trim-and-show existences, and then the world outside of Free City, which is the world we live in. We made really conscious choices to visually contrast between the two.

What really attracted you to this project?

I’m always attracted to characters first and their unique psychological journey from A to B that is the reason to tell the story to begin with. And this is such a rich original concept in a world of repeats, sequels, and adaptations. It’s really hard to find something that’s this unique and frankly, like kind of existential. What does it feel like to be a person who suspects that he deserves more out of life and he’s on a hamster wheel repeating the same thing every day? And we’ve all had those awesome conspiracy moments of like, “Maybe the world isn’t what I know it to be?” It hits hard in something like The Matrix, which becomes a timeless classic, but for me, this movie reminded me of Being There and of Chauncey Gardiner, the simpleton who becomes the president and of some of the really satirical, insightful comedy-dramas of the 1970s. And it’s really hard to find projects like that. And then on top of that, this is one of the most visual movies I could ever hope to do. We’re creating an original video game and original city, and we’re layering it with Easter eggs and things that require multiple viewings to catch. It’s an experience that focuses on worldbuilding.

What were the biggest challenges of bringing those two worlds to life and meshing them here?

The logistical challenges and the creative challenges are very different. The logistical challenges here are you’re shooting in Boston and it’s a really small city with really small streets that were designed for cattle migrations. I mean, literally that’s why Boston is so hard to drive around, but also why it’s so visual. And then on the other hand, it’s a really architecturally unique city so if you’re trying to create two different looks out of it, you end up having to be very clever about covering things up for one and revealing them for the other. But I would say the most challenging aspects of this were building some of the enormous sets that we built. Badass’ lair took four months to build required 200 people and 400 tons of steel. And you’re trying to cantilever a staircase that will support a motorcycle driving down it. That was a huge visual and logistical challenge. And then conversely, something like Molotov’s stash house for Jodie Comer, where she stores her weapons, that’s like a cloud made out of fabric. It’s a really unique concept that I haven’t seen on film that much and for that, we’re figuring out new technologies to laser cut hundreds of pieces of fabric to look like stalagmites and stalactites, and we’re lighting it from within a white box that we build around it. They’re very different approaches to creating interesting visuals.

You mentioned those two great sets in particular. Are there any other contributions to this film that you’re particularly proud of?

I love some of the hidden jokes that we managed to make Ryan Reynolds, one of the funniest people on the planet, really laugh at. We really tried to bury things for him and Shawn [Levy] to riff on every day. We have travel agencies that play off the idea that you can never leave Free City that offer flights that you can’t afford; flights to nowhere that you can’t afford with sales always happening tomorrow. We have a list of cities that you can go to that are all from video games. We have a newsstand that’s advertising secondhand grenades and loans approved with impossible interest rates that you’ll pay forever. We have newspaper headlines that say “Crime is 60% up since this morning and homicides are down 2% in the last hour.” We really got to create a world that makes fun of the world that we live in today, the hyper-violent excessively, adrenaline-fueled world, we find ourselves living in today, but it really makes fun of it and creates humanity and empathy within it. And I think that’s really hard to do. And I think working with people like Shawn and Ryan, that’s one of the greatest joys of the creative process with them. So I’m really proud of that.

You mentioned some of the video game references there. Were there any like games that were particular inspirations for the set design?

I get that question a lot and the easy answer is no, because we wanted to create our own thing, but the more honest answer is we glean inspiration from so many different mediums. No one’s creating an entirely original visual at this point in human culture. Obviously, we have to look at things like Grand Theft Auto and maybe Red Dead Redemption because they’re journeys, they’re complete worlds, they feel very cinematic, particularly Red Dead Redemption, but we’re equally looking at Edward Hopper paintings where he’s exploring solitude in urban environments and people who aren’t connecting and looking at Hal Ashby films from the 1970s that are existential and satirical, but also have a degree of sadness to them. But in terms of video games, I think those were the top two.

And then for me, I love Shadow of the Colossus. I was speaking with Ninja, one of our game influencers, who is so funny and knowledgeable, at the premiere and we both agreed that Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most lonely games we’ve ever played. You spend so much time riding on horseback in the middle of nowhere and you sort of have to ponder life and the point of the mission. And some of that loneliness really clicked for me with designing things like Guy’s apartment, which is a really interesting set where it’s very half-developed on purpose. He’s the character who doesn’t have a story. He doesn’t need the gigabytes to support too much memory. So he’s got books that have no titles on them. He’s got cabinets with only one type of food. He’s got a spoon, but no fork or knife because he only eats cereal in the morning and his calendar is missing a day. Those are the sort of fun things that we got to play with that video games inspired us to do but didn’t necessarily evoke copying.

Shadow of the Colossus really does make you reflect on your actions in that game so that was cool that it influenced the film in some ways.

Totally. I love anything that puts you in a different environment that makes you reflect on the one that you’re leaving. I just finished Squid Game last night and it’s like a perfect example of satire that definitely has some inspiration from video games and it works on so many levels.

You worked on one of my favorite music videos, “All The Stars” with Kendrick Lamar. Can you talk about the production design on that and what that experience was like?

Happily, man. That was such a rare combination of talents coming together and creating something that was exactly what we hoped it would be, but in the most insane circumstances. I don’t know when the song was written, but Black Panther was coming out early in the new year and seven days before Christmas, they decided to greenlight the music video. And I got a call having had no awareness of this project prior to that moment. And in seven days we built, drew, concepted, budgeted, and filmed all of those sets. It was my first time working with Dave Meyers. We’ve done a lot of videos since, and he’s an extraordinary visual collaborator with 20 years of videos under his belt prior to me getting on board.

On the one hand, we just clicked and shot ideas out to each other in a meeting that lasted until maybe three or four in the morning. Then we woke up at eight in the morning to make this village come to life and built the lightroom where she’s dancing through all of those stars, and built that enormous pool. It was like one of those things where you want to push yourself to the limit because you felt so inspired by the material of creating the journey of returning to an Africa that none of us know to exist, but all of us wish did. And certainly, an Africa that should exist. It had every resource and every intelligence and every talent to be that gorgeous of a nation. Being a part of that, creating that visually, that was the inspiration behind that video. And I think the reason it resonates is there’s beautiful visuals and I’m so proud of how many different things we did, but there’s an underlying cultural theme to it.

I mean, he’s walking through a burnt forest. He’s walking to women who are deities who are hundreds of feet tall and who represent the strength of that culture. That’s why I think when I did something like Lemonade or Black as King, you end up creating such strong visuals because of the foundation the artist is giving you is so, so rich to begin with.

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