One of the summer’s bigger surprise hits is 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy, directed by Shawn Levy and starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, and Lil Rel Howery. While it’s a fantastically high-concept action-comedy with Reynolds playing video game character Guy, who works at the bank inside the game Free City, a lot of what is really blowing people away is Free City itself, an amazing in-game world that feels just like a video game but actually was filmed partially in Boston and partially on soundstages.
It’s just incredible work from Production Designer Ethan Tobman, who has done a ton of smaller indie movies, including the Oscar-nominated Room, but also designed a ton of music videos for the likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Beck, Kendrick Lamar, and more. He’s also designed for a few TV pilots like for Apple TV+‘s The Mosquito Coast and The Exorcist.
Below the Line had a chance to have an extended and animated chat with Tobman a few weeks back to talk about building the amazing world in which Guy lives, the world outside the video game, and all that was entailed with designing and creating/building what was necessary to make Free City such an impressive world.
Below the Line: I looked over your resumé, and I think I’ve seen all the movies you’ve done and maybe some of your TV shows, but what really jumped out to me was seeing that you designed OK Go’s “The Writing’s on the Wall.” I love that video, and I’ve watched it (no joke) a hundred times.
Ethan Tobman: Isn’t that nuts? It’s so funny you’re mentioning that. I haven’t thought about, but you know how these things are. You do a video, and it’s all you think about, and then months later, you never think again. Three days ago, I was on an airplane, and it popped up on their top music videos on American Airlines. We worked on that for two months, six days a week, and on the last day that we finished it, I got a call to interview for Room. And I was like [from] one extreme to the other. I showed the director of Room the cut before it had come out, and he hired me on the spot. Who would have thought that the OK Go video would lead to Room?
BTL: It might have led to Free Guy in some domino effect.
Tobman: Who knows? It was definitely one of those jobs where you are every day confronted with something impossible, and you just have to slowly figure it out. Those guys are basically MIT engineers and have such a mathematical approach to creativity. It taught me so much about in-camera design. If you watch the behind-the-scenes, you’ll see me running around like a maniac, because I’m staying ahead of the camera by three feet. Even the “OK GO” [sign] in the very beginning, that’s me turning it, and then running to the next one and splattering paint. It was really fun.
BTL: Was Free Guy your first time working with Shawn Levy or had you done stuff with him before?
Tobman: Shawn and I met because I did a movie, also for the Room producers called Kin, but Shawn was the executive producer at 21 Laps. He came to visit set on two of the big build days, and we just kind of vibed. He loved the design and we had dinner that night together, and we were like, “We gotta work together someday.” A few years later, this came up and they told me from the very beginning, “You’re the dark horse in the running. We’re interviewing like senior designers, and Marvel guys.”
I spent a month doing drawings, tons of research, and I went in there and did a huge presentation, super-high energy. I played video games for like weeks on end, and when I walked in there, Shawn told me, “When you walked in you were the dark horse in the running, but when you walked out, you were the lead contender. His words were, “You Good Will Hunting-ed it.” I just went in there like, “I have been living in Free City for a month. Let me take you on a little ride.” I really feel like they felt like they’d been taken on a city tour they hadn’t been taken on before. So it was a very quick marriage–I was hired very soon thereafter.
BTL: What kind of video games were you playing? Did you just turn the games and then pause them to check out what was going on in the background?
Tobman: This is the funnest part about researching this movie. I’d been playing video games for years. I was an ‘80s kid. I was super into Zelda and Mario Brothers, and Sim City was like the rage, because it was kind of naughty, and you snuck it into your room when your parents weren’t looking. But what I’ve never done before is only paid attention to the NPCs, and in the month prior to meeting with Shawn, I picked up the games that I’d love like Red Dead Redemption 2, Shadow of the Colossus, and some of Grand Theft Auto. But this time, I was just following the NPCs around for the duration of the gameplay, and that’s what was so fun. The other thing is I started pouring through YouTube links about glitches, where games have screwed up or purposely haven’t developed things because you’re not supposed to go there. So like in GTA, you might crash over the side of a bridge and fall into the water, and if you sink past a certain number of feet, it gets totally f*cked up and the graphics are scrambled. You feel like you’re watching the game stop being developing in real time. When you start YouTubing glitches and you start looking on Reddit forums and Twitch forums at where people are exposing the wizard behind the curtain that was really inspiring to Free Guy.
BTL: What kind of shape was the script in at that point? Had Shawn already been developing it for a bit of time before you got involved?
Tobman: One of the joys of this movie, and it’s a real luxury for big popcorn movies is sometimes the designer is brought in pre-pre-production. I don’t think Shawn had been working on the script for very long. I could be wrong about this, but I think he’d only gotten the call a few months earlier. When I was brought in was just as Zack Penn was about to start doing a rewrite from his expertise from Ready Player One. I’ve never had this happen before, but Shawn invited me to spend a couple days with Zack pitching ideas, pitching sequences. I’ve never gotten to do it as a designer before, and Shawn is the kind of director who’s completely nonplussed as to whether the great idea comes from the production designer, the studio head or the office PA. He’s open to everyone’s ideas, particularly if you know gamers. On this one, there were huge sequences I suggested that we actually explored in earnest before cutting, and then there were things where, like, I suggested, “Hey, what if we have a car barreling down the avenue and the buildings are slowly squeezing in on it, trying to squeeze it, and then the highway turns into a drawbridge that shoots upwards and the car gets out?” And Shawn was like, “That sounds awesome. Why don’t you go and hire a pre-vis company and design a sequence with them,” and I did. This is in like October before we’ve even been officially greenlit, before that’s even in the scripts. I spent a month with a previs company doing some sequences, some of them got cut, but that one, in particular, was then handed off to our extraordinary VFX team once we were shooting, and it was in the script. They were really inspired by it and followed some of the shots and made them better. So in terms of my involvement in this one, it was way before any form of script was put into a three-hole binder and way before VFX started. So I really got to suggest ideas that then when everyone else came on board, they were able to pick up the baton and run with it.
BTL: I’ve talked to a lot of writers including Zack over the years, and I always ask them when they’re writing a script and come up with an idea, do they know that they’ll have the money to get that sequence made. The writers always say they just write and leave that for someone to else figure out how to do it and how to pay for it.
Tobman: Shawn’s one part director, one part producer, and also owns a very successful production company. So he’s really clever about economizing people’s time and combining people’s creativity. I think one of the reasons he wanted me to work with Zack so early on is he wanted me to suggest things that I actually thought I could build, or that I felt I could design for VFX. It’s a very smart way of combining resources really early on. And also it was his way of saying, ” Look, you know about video games. You’re a production designer. Shoot for the moon. Let’s see what you come up with.” Some of the stuff ended up being superfluous to the story. There was an amazing sequence I pitched and actually pre-vised where Guy is running through a skyscraper that is being deleted as he’s running through it, and it was amazing. But as you get further on in production, you realize, “We’ve sort of done the reverse of that when Guy runs up a construction site that’s being assembled as he runs up it, so it’s a double beat. We don’t need it.” But you don’t know that until you spend some of the time brainstorming with creative people and exploring ideas and seeing how they work.
BTL: You mentioned doing previs, so when you started putting together your team including an art director and set decorator and all that?
Tobman: I guess we really started an art department office just before Christmas, mid-December 2018, and then we started shooting in May. So that gave us five months in an office working, but prior to that, I started mid-September, prevising, drawing and researching, so I had four months on my own just pitching ideas remotely, working with Zack, working with Shawn and putting presentations together for Fox, inching towards a greenlight. I think that’s more and more common now with these big high-concept ideas, but especially movies that are based on entirely original concepts. They want to see more and more proof of concept before they’re going to get behind something as ambitious as this.
BTL: Shawn actually has a really good relationship with Fox, but it’s good you were working on this so early, because they were shifting over to Disney, and who knows what would have happened if you weren’t already in production by that time?
Tobman: I think we definitely felt like we were the product of divorced parents who are getting along pretty well. Suffice it to say, we never really knew where we were going to be next week, but we kept getting food and we kept getting sleep.
BTL: That’s good. As I watched the movie, I was trying to figure out where it was, because it’s meant to be a generic video game city, but there were obviously real buildings and streets. How did you end up in Boston, and what was involved with transforming it besides blotting out the street signs and Starbucks and stuff like that?
Tobman: So the answer to that question is so much more than you’re going to be aware of when you watch the movie. An absolute army of creative people attacked city blocks and made them look… the real card trick for this movie is we have to create a world both inside and outside the video game. From each frame, you need to know you’re no longer in the other one. We began by — and Shawn very much said this in one of our first meetings — he really wanted to create rules that differentiated one from the other, the world versus the video game.
In the video game, we have symmetry. It never rains. There’s no pollution. There’s really not a lot of garbage. All the fonts on all the storefronts are exactly the same in one of three different sizes. All the colors are highly saturated pastels, no primaries, there’s black, and there’s white, but there’s no gray, and everything’s very clean. There’s no obfuscation of frames, there’s no glass, there’s no mirror. In the real world, it rains all the time. Frames are messy, it’s dirty, there’s pollution, there’s garbage, there’s dirty glass, there’s dirty mirrors, there’s mess, it’s confusing. There’s four different shades of gray, and there’s no black, and there’s no white. So, on some kind of subconscious level, you do feel instinctively when you’re in one versus the other through a mix of production design and cinematography.
That being said, how do we make Boston look that way, and why did we choose Boston? We looked at Montreal, we looked at Vancouver, we looked at Toronto, we looked at Atlanta. These cities have been filmed many, many times before, and the light quality isn’t particularly unique. Atlanta is beautiful, but it’s a very similar-looking light every day, and the streets are wide. It’s sort of like anywhere in America which is why so many movies shoot there. Boston is interesting, because the city was really designed, the tight streets of downtown Boston, were originally designed for cow migrations. It was a pasture town. The streets are really close together and the sun disappears behind buildings off and on throughout the whole day. You get really harsh shadows and then you get really strong direct sunlight, and you have this turn of the century federalist architecture mixed with like 16th brutalist architecture that’s really unlike any other city in North America. There’s some cities in Europe that have brutalist architecture and federalist architecture, but nothing quite like Boston does, and not with the same density. So when you have Ben Affleck doing a chase scene in a movie like The Town, you really get this incredible freneticism that feels like a William Friedkin car sequence. It’s really, really claustrophobic high-stress chasing. That worked really well for us in an environment like Free City. Conversely, we then were able to take that same look and turn it into rainy, contemporary Seattle, because it’s got a lot of concrete, it’s got a lot of stone It’s a bit of an urban nightmare. We actually found it was a city that was like a Rubik’s cube that we could turn one square and end up being in a very different esthetic.
BTL: So you didn’t film in Seattle at all, just plates, I guess?
Tobman: No, we did no actual on the ground work in Seattle. There is a digital city outside of Taika’s office for one scene, but even for that, it’s really just the Space Needle and a few buildings that are switched around. Practically, when we’re on the ground in Free City, we change every storefront, every sign. There’s a weird mix of cultural references that wouldn’t exist in the real world. For example, we have Japanese garbage cans in a row that appear on every street corner constantly every single time. Japanese garbage cans are really specific and really graphic, and they just sort of feel video-gamey. Likewise, we have Japanese vending machines. We had Indian rickshaws and Indian taxis, and then we’ll have a European pharmacy crossed with neon. There’s six different types of awnings that repeat over and over and over again in Free City. There’s tons and tons of humor related to the idea that the denizens of Free City can’t escape. So we have a travel agency that says “Flights to nowhere for prices you can’t afford, sale tomorrow.” We have a list of cities that you can fly to that are all cities from video games. We have second-hand grenade stores. We have mortgage and gun approval stores where beneath it says, “You’re already approved!” We have loan shark stores that say “Loan you money now, pay forever. We have gyms that say, “Look better while getting robbed.” We have newspapers that say, “Crime is up 30% since this morning, murders down 2% since an hour ago.” We’re really making fun of the idea of the violence of society in the real world but poking fun at it from almost a childish, optimistic perspective.
BTL: You mentioned the colors earlier, and I was curious when you have to set colors for Free City, are you doing this practically onset, building and repainting stuff? Or was there a lot of stuff you have to do afterward in visual effects?
Tobman: Everything up to 12 feet is done practically. I cannot tell you how many storefronts we painted. The entire newsstand center of town, outside of Guy’s bank and where we repeatedly go to see people convening, every single store on that corner is repainted. I can send you concept art to show you like how we started listing every building A through Z, and we got past Z and had to do A2, B2, C2. There were so many buildings that we painted that we then had to paint back. The newsstand itself is built. There’s a giant statue in the middle of that square that we built a newsstand on top of and around. It’s like a federalist statue in Boston. The bank, all the amazing signs that cantilever out from buildings — I really wanted to get a certain timelessness to Free City, to have a little bit of ’50s and ’60s signage, things that say like “Liquor Store, “Carwash,” “Parking Lot.” Those are all signs that have to come off of buildings and are like broken neon, because there’s a bit of a play here of exploring cities that have fallen apart. The way New York looked in the ’70s or the way Detroit looked in the 90s, the America that has is vanishing. Because you really only see that now in video games. There’s a certain nostalgia that is created by the way video game cities are designed.
BTL: I may have mentioned this in my review, but what was really amazing to me were some of the spaces in which normally set decorators would just fill with stuff. In a video game, you wouldn’t really have that, because it would take forever to build, so rooms are simplified since no one would really be looking at the background stuff.
Tobman: That being said, I think all of us, both video game designers and film designers, are aware that audiences’ eyes are getting smarter and smarter. They see everything now. And they’re looking for it, and then they chat about it online. Every time we get to poke fun of that simplicity, we chose to. Like for example, in the garbage cans of Free City, there are only orange coffee cups– that’s all anyone buys. It’s just a little thing — blink and you miss it — but every single time Guy throws out his coffee cup, that’s the only type of garbage that exists. Similarly, one of the funniest intellectual jokes for me on this job was that Guy lives in an apartment that’s half-developed, because Guy is a character who’s half-developed. I don’t mean half-developed, because the screenwriter is lazy. I mean, he literally has not been given enough gigabytes to develop a backstory. So how do you do that? Shawn and Ryan, one of their early questions was, “What is Guy’s apartment gonna look like?” I had a really clear idea about that, and I wanted to explore it, and it was to design everything in his apartment as though it was a half-thought. His front door has five deadbolts, but no doorknob. His calendar is missing a day of the week. His pantry has a bowl and a spoon, but no fork or no knife, because he only eats cereal in the morning. He doesn’t need a fork or a knife. The books on his library wall have no titles in them, it just says 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 on their side. That’s the kind of stuff that requires or invites second and third viewings, because there’s so many little easter egg jokes baked into the design that plays into the larger theme of what’s it like to feel like a cog in a machine who your destiny is completely uneventful. We all can relate to that idea. It was so much fun to literally create a city externalizing that internal thought.
BTL: The stash houses were built on a stage I imagine. Were there a lot of stage builds? I think the bank was in Framingham where I used to live, but I don’t think I had been to that one.
Tobman: All the big interiors are builds, so Soonami Headquarters, the Soonami servers, Guy’s apartment, Millie’s apartment, all the stash houses, Molotov’s, Guys’, those are all builds. Something like the bank, that was an abandoned place that we ended up completely revamping. So we added all this green marble, because we wanted to make it a little more saturated and sad. We built these giant murals that are based on Diego Rivera murals in Detroit. That kind of reference really subtly, this idea of worker bees working in giant factories, not amounting to anything, very Fritz Lang Metropolis. We did everything in really sepia colors in the bank because we want to have a huge contrast between when Guy’s living his day to day, hamster wheel life, and when he walks out of the bank, and suddenly is assaulted by the color of the game within the game once he puts the sunglasses on. That’s an example of where I felt like I worked really closely with Swen [Gillberg] and Nikos [Kalaitzidis], our VFX Supervisors, who was so collaborative and so creative about coordinating my drawings and my department’s drawings with their three-dimensional development of visual effects, so that we weren’t stepping on each other. We really were coordinated about, “Okay, we’re going to use really faded sepias and faded pastels for the world before he puts those sunglasses on, so that when the effects pop, they really pop and you’re not seeing any repetition.”
BTL: When you’re done with the bank, are you able to just leave it as you left it? It probably will be easier to sell or rent out the space or do you have to put it back to its abandoned state?
Tobman: We always have this conundrum when we do production design work, because we don’t build things to last, and they can become hazards. The green marble we’re putting up, it’s really just printed graphics that really unpeel and hit someone, but the fake walls that we build, the murals that we build, so that you can shoot guns and make holes in them, if teenagers break in there some night, they can ultimately get into an accident and hurt themselves. So it’s actually better for us to leave it the way we found it, but we clean it, obviously. It’s pressure-washed, it’s no longer derelict. Conversely, something like the Badass Mansion, that’s an enormous set — it’s larger than a football field in length. And Boston doesn’t have soundstages big enough for that. What it does have is air hangars and warehouses that were used for steel production, for example, at the turn of the century. We found one such warehouse and had to build that cantilevered staircase that was an engineering marvel. It uses 40 tons of steel, and had 100 people working on it for three months, and it’s strong enough to have a motorcycle drive down. That was one of the most astonishing engineering feats I’ve seen done on any movie I worked on, where we worked with Dan Sudick, who does all the special effects on the Marvel movies. Without him, I don’t know that we could have pulled that off. But it was just a work of art when you walked in, and it’s surrounded by 2000 sheets of cut glass in resin-molded frames that are painted to look like alabaster and backlit. It was just astonishing. When you walked in, you really felt like you were inside the brain of a 12-year-old who could do anything he wanted in designing where he would store his weapons and his vehicles. There’s Lamborghinis, a rocket launcher, a helicopter, a Humvee and an army tank, and then the set still feels roomy with all of those things inside.
BTL: I also got a chance to watch a bit of the Mosquito Coast that you worked on, and I guess you generally have kept working through the pandemic? What have you been working on since finishing this?
Tobman: Yeah, I had such a fun year, man. I’m so excited for two projects to come out. I did the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee mini-series with Seth Rogen and Craig Gillespie directed. I cannot tell you enough positive things about it. I’m so excited for it to come out, and it’s totally different than what people think it is. And now, I’m doing a project called The Menu for Fox Searchlight with Annie Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes, and it’s also a huge build. And then, the last thing is Blake [Lively] and Ryan recommended me to Taylor Swift soon after we wrapped Free Guy, and I’ve been doing all her videos and live performances during the pandemic, which was just incredibly creative. I’ve done a lot of stuff for Beyoncé, but this was like working with new artists at the top of their game, who was really switching her musical and visual style when we did “Cardigan” and “Willow” and her Grammy performance. So you never know what a recommendation from someone you’re working with on a sci-fi fantasy movie where it’s going to lead you.
BTL: Do you feel like you’ve been able to do what you normally do with the pandemic, as far as look at locations. A lot of the work you’re doing is before actors even get to set, so is that business as usual or do you just have to work harder or longer hours?
Tobman: This is what I think everybody who does what I do for a living is saying lately. My job hasn’t changed–it’s just four hours harder every day. So I do everything the same as I did before, but COVID, both safety requirements and the logistics, just tack on four hours a day. You still have to hit all the marks you did prior, but now you’re working in a pandemic world where things either take longer, or need to be done twice or three times. You can’t all visit a location at the same time. You can’t get into the location for days at a time. There’s a million reasons why things are delayed, and they’re all now legitimate.
Tobman: I directed a short when I was at NYU. I went to Cannes and it was a huge experience for me, and I thought, “I’m going to be a director.” Several of the judges at the Cannes Film Festival said, “You know, you’re not a director, I think you’re a production designer.” My short film was three short stories about people of different races, sexes, ethnicities, and sexualities exchanging the exact same dialogue word-for-word. What changed is the room that they’re having the conversation in — the production design is what changed. It’s called Remote, and it did really well at the time. Look, I’m very, very clear about my vision and what I want, but I really come alive when a director tells me what’s in his or her head, and then I get to dimensionalize it. I didn’t actually find that same level of satisfaction as a director without a designer. It’s possible I’ll find my way back there again. Particularly, I would direct music videos in a heartbeat, but when it comes to telling stories with heart and empathy, I need people like Shawn Levy to tell me where the empathy is going to be directed. And then I design around that, and that’s where I come alive.
Free Guy is now playing exclusively in movie theaters nationwide.
All photos courtesy 20th Century Studios and Mr. Tobman. Click on any image for a larger version.