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Interview: ‘Free Guy’ Production Designer Ethan Tobman Reveals inspiration of Free City

Free City in Free Guy

Disney Studios latest live action release, Free Guy, was a surprise hit this summer at the box office (Joey’s review of the film is here). As an original IP satirizing video games and streamer culture, it provided production designer Ethan Tobman with a blank slate to create the world’s both inside and outside Free City. Awards Radar had the privilege to speak with him again, after Joey’s first chat with Tobman here around release to learn more about Free City. Along the way, we discuss some of the other projects he has worked on since and how they impact his work on films like Free Guy. And we left off with some tips fellow Canadians to get into the film industry.

Benjamin:  When did you first get on board with the production for Free Guy? Its a pandemic film, so how long have you been involved with the project?

Ethan: It is a pandemic film! A long time before the pandemic is the answer. To be more specific, I’ve been working on Free Guy since September 2018. Projects are coming together faster and faster in this business, and Free Guy was no different. From being interviewed to being hired, it was faster than I’d ever heard of. I went so hard for that interview; it was unlike any other script I had read in years. Free Guy is an original property, its satirical, its existential, its got darkness, its really funny. It reminded me of the 70’s movies like Being There and satirical films like The Truman Show. It has existential elements reminiscent of more recent hits like The Matrix, where you aren’t sure of the world your living in, and I really related to it. So I went hard, did a ton of concept art, and hundreds of images um that I pulled for inspiration. And in a way, when I got the job, I had already been living in Free City for a month.

Benjamin: Pivoting away from Free City for a moment, you’ve done various music videos for pop artists recently, with Taylor Swift’s the Man and Cardigan, and Beyoncé’s visual album Black is King. What is the difference between those kind of projects and for more tradition projects like films, with a script?

Ethan: First, those relationships are such different experiences. I’ve been doing a lot of Taylor Swift’s stuff, with Cardigan, Willow, her Grammy performance. The Man was the first one and she directed all of those. Conversely, I’ve been working with Beyoncé since Crazy In Love or Irreplaceable, or even perhaps during her time with Destiny’s Child. I’ve worked with her so long that She also became a director and a visionary in her own right. So Those relationships I seem to make with predominantly female popstars who are very bright, resourceful, and Cinematic, it feels like they are looking for DP’s and production designers that are from the film world and they are looking to create worldbuilding visual stories. So in many ways, I’d say the relationship between working within the music world and working in the film world feeds itself; I make better music videos because I make movies, and I make better movies because I make music videos. Music videos are influenced by many things, including world building skills, and the deployment of huge ideas being realized with enormous armies of crew. They just come together in 4 days instead of 4 months, with 10 people instead of 10 hundred.

Benjamin: You’re production design for Free Guy is interlaced directly with various different visual mediums, like music and video games. How did you take video game influences to put into free Guy while retaining its ability to feel like a lived in world without its hyper game-ey aspects? 

Ethan: I often get asked that first question, what video games inspired me and in reality, video games didn’t inspire me. I think that’s why it feels like a real world within free City. Video Games are acknowledged, and they need to be played for hundreds of hours to know the medium we are satirizing in free guy. But the reason the city feels real and empathetic is because its equally inspired by Edward Hopper paintings about urban loneliness, and Steven Shore and M. golden Photography about people who feel displaced and worlds that feel artificial. I would posit that the reason I look at those is because those are what inspired the video games. Video games is inspired by art and art is inspired by video games, and its cyclical. You need to look at both to make a real world, not just one or the other. If you only look at video games, its like looking at a sequel without watching the film in the series. You are not going to understand the origin, and you can’t make great art if you are imitating and imitation. There are a lot of details within the city that acknowledge the satire within the world, such as Free City only using one font. There are newspapers that act as stock market readouts, with the headlines “Crimes up 60% since the morning” and “Homicides down 2% over last hour”. There’s advertisements for flights that you can’t get off and flights you can’t afford. But there’s also details that are full of existential crisis, like Guys apartment only having spoons and no forks or knives, since he only eats cereal. The calendar is missing a day on the week, and he’s got a pencil sharpener but no pencils. He has Books with no titles on the spines, and a door with 10 locks but no doorknobs. So there’s a lot of funny elements that build off of the existentialist themes within the film that we all relate to, with questions like do I have a point on this planet, am I making a mark, or am I stuck on a hamster wheel? Those are the elements that really grab you and stick by you in the film. You need to play games like Red Dead Redemption, GTA, Shadow of the Colossus, and know them really well, but you also need to know what they were inspired by.

Benjamin: Speaking of games, there’s a common rule that the best way to express yourself with your avatar. Did you have an input on the costume design for the characters in the film?

Ethan: I am not a costume designer, but I work closely with the costume designers. Marlene Stewart, whose worked with Madonna and created the iconic Vogue videos, is a real image creator and a legend. She and I worked closely together. One thing we are trying to do in the marriage of costume design and production design is to ensure that the costumes don’t disappear into the world, so we coordinate to not repeat colors or textures as to ensure the costumes pop. But in this particular environment, we were looking to create some costumes that blend in and become invisible, like the various NPC’s found in Free City. There where many iterations of Molotov Girl’s look. One thing that Marlene and I were super in sync about was the creation of 2 worlds in one film. One world is Free City, and the other is the real world outside the game. We had to be very clever about creating two settings in one, and shooting it all in one city that was played for two different visual styles. Often it meant covering up a lot of buildings and revealing the buildings behind them to make it seem like a whole new city outside the game. That other city had its own visual style which me and Marlene coordinated together on, with muted and faded colors permeating both the production design and the costumes. As well, Marlene was very thoughtful in how Jodie Comer was costumed when playing as Millie, or Molotov Girl, her avatar within Free City. The avatars are, in a way, the hyper, barbiturate fueled versions of the urban, mundane environments we created outside the game.

Benjamin: Lastly, as a fellow Canadian, what tips do you have for those looking to get into the film industry in Canada?

Ethan: The movies that inspired me as a kid were Back to the Future, Flight of the Navigator, and The Crying Game. These weren’t on Canadian screens, and were being made in Hollywood or London, so I followed them out of Canada. But since I left, more Canadian directors have stood up, like Denis Villeneuve, Xavier Dolan, and my dear friend Jacob Tierney who works on the sitcom Letterkenny. And these guys, had I met them at the right time, would have happily kept me working in Canada. Even now I am chasing to work after them. Both Quebec and Montreal have an amazing film scene that obviously still struggles to find the same number of screens and eyeballs due to the dominance of American cinema and the required GDP needed to fund movies that only America can. I’ve worked on Room, which was a Canadian-Irish co-production, and one of the best movies I have ever done, and I want to work in Canada more. So my advice to Canadian filmmakers is this: Don’t be afraid to make Canadian movies north of the American border! The process of becoming an American citizen or to get a green card is,  to use a relevant phrase right now, a Squid Game, it’s a process of who has the most money and who’s willing to claw their way up to the top. It’s expensive, fraught, and red-tape filled. It’s not easy, and unless you are a rich white man, you need to be very creative at home and receive recognition that forces entry into the rooms you want to be working in. 

It’s a test of patience, and you need to find the talent around you to start. That’s certainly what I did.

Benjamin: Thank you for your time today, this was a blast!

Ethan: Thank you so much Benjamin!

Free Guy is now available to purchase on Digital, DVD, Blu-ray, or 4K at your local retailers.

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Written by benjaminwiebe

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