August 14th, 2021 by Leslie Rollins SDSA
“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. Now in a world where there are no limits, he is determined to be the guy who saves his world his way...before it is too late.” – 20th Century Studios
And we have just the guy to tell you about it!
Set Decorator Leslie Rollins SDSA, Production Designer Ethan Tobman and their teams produced a world within a world, and on the streets of Boston, no less! It’s one thing to have a studio backlot to build an ersatz video game world within, but doing it in a major city, without shutting it down requires ultra-planning and logistical agility, on top of design and décor skills...and a sense of humor! Leslie’s work is rather limitless, from comedies like 13 GOING ON 30, GET SMART and GET SHORTY to dramas such as his Oscar-nominated work for THE GOOD SHEPHERD, or A BEAUTIFUL MIND or THE DEPARTED to action films, including THE BOURNE LEGACY. And you will find articles on most of these in the SETDECOR archives! So, we couldn’t help but ask him for a few behind-the-scenes notes about the making of this action comedy, which Ryan Reynolds refers to as “An absolute flashball of joy.”
Soonami Studios: A scene from 20th Century Studios' FREE GUY. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. Note: This is not enhanced, every one of the actual 90 desks for the Soonami Studios workstations/bullpen was set along the open arc of windows, each with characteristics of the individual who operated it.
In FREE GUY, we were operating in and telling the story in two realities.
World, occupied by Millie, Keys, Antwan and the Soonami offices, was defined by its adherence to the laws and physics of our reality. The world of Free City, the video game where most of the action of the movie is set, was based around the geometrics of video game design consisting of mostly simplified geometric shapes and tight color control.
For Free City, we pared down and simplified real world elements to reflect the stylization of digital design. In Guy’s apartment, for example, the absurdly cantilevered breakfast table and open mezzanine bedroom served to reinforce the fact that Guy has limited contact and activities in his daily “life”.
Guy’s Apartment, Free City: Note the rectangular world & the symbolic dominoes on tray. Photo by Alan Markfield ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved
His closet contains only khaki chinos and blue shirts since that is his everyday attire. His kitchen contains only boxes of breakfast cereal; his refrigerator contains only milk. He only has spoons and cereal bowls. His bathroom is only suggested through an open doorway as he never uses it.
Guy’s Apartment, Free City: Note how everything is cantilevered, often seemingly floating, the books have covers, but no titles. Production Designer Ethan Tobman points out, “He has a notebook, and a pencil, and a pencil sharpener, but the pencils are never sharpened.” Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Keys [played by Joe Keery], the computer geek who created Guy’s environment, gave Guy an unfinished living space, as an NPC [non-playing character] does not need or use anything else. His life is specific and predetermined, doing the same activities every day.
By contrast, Millie, who is a human character, lives a real life in the real world. Her apartment is vastly different from Guy’s. She lives and works at home, cooking, eating, going to the bathroom. As a game designer and programmer, her life centers around her workstation, which occupies a large part of her living room.
Millie’s Apartment: As a game designer/programmer, Millie finds inspiration in nature and shapes. Her home workstation takes up so much room, this is the only part of her apartment that is LivingRoom-ish! Photo by Alan Markfield ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
I had a custom gaming computer made for her, and a couple of large monitors. Obsolete keyboards and hard drives are stored under her desk. We gave her a calendar and hand-drawn chart showing her path through Free City as she strives to find the code Antwan has hidden there. Her environment is packed with the complex detritus of daily living.
Millie’s Apartment: “Millie is so clever,” says Jodie Comer. “She believes in herself, which I admire. And she’s funny...but I think what I love best is that even though something bad has happened to her, she’s determined to make things right.” Photo by Alan Markfield ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
We shot Millie’s apartment toward the end of the schedule. What a relief to fully create the reality of her character’s life after being so consumed with the artificial world of Free City and its inhabitants!
Free City exteriors
Ethan Tobman, the production designer, developed a vocabulary of shapes, graphics and colors that we adhered to, adapted and repeated throughout Free City.
Free City exterior: Note the emphasis on rectangular & geometric shapes, plus the color palette in this effective alleyway. Photo by Alan Markfield ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Shooting on the actual streets of Boston was obviously a challenge. And because we were shooting in popular and busy areas of the city, our exterior work was largely limited to weekends. The exterior of the Bank...where Guy discovers the sunglasses that change his life...was shot over 3 weekends, which necessitated weekly set ups and strikes of the same elements.
Free City exterior: The key “intersection” is a roundabout, which offers more opportunity for extensive action and camerawork. Windows, storefronts & streets were fully dressed. Note the newsstand, and the brooms in front of the General Store, all which come into play. Photo by Alan Markfield ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
The storefronts, street furniture, signage, alley dressing and an imposing newsstand were hauled in and out any number of times. The shooting crew was on a Wednesday through Sunday schedule. There was a separate weekend set dressing crew.
Another exterior location...the Train Crossing...involved working quite late Friday nights in order to put up the awnings, signage and building dressing for Saturday mornings.
Train Crossing, Free City exterior: A significant action point in the game. Photo by Alan Markfield ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
As department heads, Lead Cam Matheson and I were on call 7 days a week. My key assistant Christine Moosher kept mostly to the weekend schedule and headed up the Free City exteriors. Since most exterior locations were not available to us until 7pm on Fridays (some not until 10) and had to be restored by 6am Mondays, the crew put in many long weekend nights.
The Soonami offices and workstation/bullpen was easily the largest Real World set. For the six-day shoot, we dressed 90 desktops arrayed in a long arc through the location.
Soonami: This is only the wall section of the bullpen, every desk had a personalized station. No two were alike. Note the digital graphics of Free City. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Ethan found an empty modern 10-story glass building that was entirely empty. Needless to say, we used many of the floors in the building, including the lobby, and built the Server Room set on the 8th floor.
My long time Boston assistant Deb Cutler handled all the real-world sets, which allowed her to stay on a normal Monday through Friday schedule. We looked at Google and Yahoo headquarters for inspiration but quickly determined that they were too “fun”. Antwan, the villain, would never have provided such amenities for his overworked employees.
Soonami Studios: Taika Waititi as the evil mogul Antwan, Utkarsh Ambudkar as computer coder Mouser and Joe Keery as programmer Keys. Photo by Alan Markfield © 2020 Twentieth Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Ethan developed a color palette of blues and greys to rob the place of any sense of joy. The graphics were bold and in-your-face. The entire set was an open plan which means virtually every desktop and monitor would be seen in almost every shot. Deb dressed each desktop for specific characters and she made up personalities for unscripted background characters. Personally, I think she enjoyed herself far too much.
Molotov Girl’s Stash House
Molotov Girl’s Stash House was a unique and dazzling all white set reminiscent of a music video. The freeform set consisted of over 100 Rosebrand-made translucent panels. They were able to work from digital files created by the art director. Each panel was a unique shape so that when they were hung, they created a tunnel lit entirely from outside the set.
Molotov Girl’s Stash House: Millie’s avatar in Free City is Molotov Girl. They are trying to find where Antwan has hidden the code within the violent video game. Photo by Alan Markfield © 2020 Twentieth Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
The gun racks were built by the set dressers using parts from a gun cabinet manufacturer. In order to bring visual interest to the otherwise ethereal environment, we sourced weapons and armor elements with interesting profiles. Virtually every weapon displayed in Molotov Girl’s and Guy’s stash houses were fake. We shopped reproduction guns, rented fake weapons and, for non-featured areas, made flat cutouts. Between the two sets, we used well over 200 weapons.
Guy’s Stash House: Once he chooses to become an Active Participant, Guy starts collecting an interesting assortment of elements! Photo by Alan Markfield © 2021 Twentieth Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Guy’s Stash House
Ethan’s sense of humor was on full display when, in addition to fast cars, Guy collected a trebuchet, space capsule, and helicopter. We had the space capsule and trebuchet shipped from Premiere Props & LCW in LA.
Badass’s Lair was a stage-sized set primarily consisting of a shiny floor, backlit onyx walls and a free-floating spiral staircase. I had a larger-than-life sculpture made of the character Badass that dominated one end of the set. His vehicles were top of the line exotic cars. We even found a full-sized model of a guided missile!
Director Shawn Levy, whom Ryan Reynolds invited to join him on this adventure, says,
“Yes, it’s a comedy, but could it be full spectacle and could it be full of heart?
That was my aspiration every day.”
As was Ryan’s and the whole team.