free guy, the new film about a non-player character who discovers he is trapped in a video game, is built around a series of fight scenes which are, for lack of a better word, extremely video game: the characters move stiffly, some have signature movements they repeat, and the laws of physics seem to have been imported from somewhere in between The matrix and the Warner Bros. cartoons. We spoke to the film’s combat coordinator, Freddy Bouciegues, to find out that he choreographed human actors to fight like video game characters – and how that differs from his combat work in real video games. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I guess the major two or three fight sequences in the movie are the bulk of your effort, but were you also working on all the random stunts in the background? Every time Ryan Reynolds walks down the street we get a taste of Grand Theft Auto-style chaos caused by other game-in-the-movie players.
We had a list created by our first AD and Chris [O’Hara], our stunt coordinator, and our second unit director, then myself and our team. We would sit down and try to find the craziest things we could imagine. And then whenever there was a blank space or something, we would pull from that list. Put the thing in here and put it here, put it there. Like a guy punched in the face. I was the guy who stole a handbag that Ryan clothesline, it was my little appearance. So something like that. Beat someone, steal someone, anything that could happen to an NPC.
Got to ask Ryan Reynolds to do something heroic and from there you get the idea of him hanging out the laundry for someone? Or did you say, “Let’s let someone make a clothesline,” and finally you found a place to put it?
We knew there was going to be a purse somewhere. The way we like to work is to say, “Let’s do three versions of something. Here’s one where a guy runs and grabs him. Then we’ll do another one that’s a bit more complicated. Then the one where someone runs and gets tied up. And then we show it to Shawn [Levy, the director] and Ryan. Any little fight action beat or whatever you’ve seen in the movie, usually what we’d do is reference it, put it on video, and present it to these guys.
So in the brainstorming process, are you actually organizing what a stunt or a fight would look like?
Yes. We film it and then we assemble it with music to present the idea. Then we show it to them. This is how we start on one of the action sequences. We did it with the stash, we did it with the higher level combat, we did it with the bank heist. And we make several options. That way they can choose and then we can train them to do it.
This hideout fight is interesting: Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer attempt to loot a house owned by another player, who has protected the place with an automated security force that includes traditional security as well as cowboys, samurai, and a boxer. You have four or five different types of fighting styles that you are trying to bring to the screen. What were the challenges of this?
We wanted to present this idea of a video game boss, so we were referring to video games, like the cowboy turned into Red Dead Revolver. And then there is a Viking and then we had a samurai and a boxer of Punch.
You had a boxer who didn’t fight like a boxer, he fought like a video game boxer, in particular.
In our very first iteration of the stash, we made it big with it. We had this boxer in there with that crazy punch. And he would eventually come in contact with Molotov Girl, sending her flying back. But in the preparation process the movie starts to turn into its own thing, things are truncated, cut, sharpened, and it ends up being what you saw.
[Read: Free Guy’s Ending Lets Disney Have Its Cake and Eat It, Too]
When explaining how a fight is actually going to go, do you have a note or something to keep track of it, or is it just brainstorming in front of a camera?
We approached it by literally starting with the ground floor: OK, here’s a character. What, in our opinion, are its powers? Its limits, its weaknesses, whatever. We think about it all and we kind of create a world. And once you’ve kind of created this world, it’s easy to work with. And so [with Jodie Comer’s character], we think it is of a very high standard. We gave him dual weapons, dual axes – which actually take a lot of skill and are difficult to use – and from there we say, “OK, how many people do we have? Then you go through the process of choreographing the sequence, hooking people up.
Then once you have it rough, adjust it to where you want it. You go through and make a list of rough shots and check out the storyboard guys. We consult Shawn and see what he was thinking. We try to merge everyone’s ideas together, then we plan [previsualization, creating storyboards or a rough version of a scene before shooting]. Once that happens, the model exists and we give it to them. And then they say, “Oh, that’s really cool. This is the first half. Like I said, our very first iteration of the hideout was really big, really big, with a lot of weapons. Big, long, long battle, and then we truncated it. We have refined it. And then when we made a forecast and gave it to these guys, it’s pretty similar to what everyone ends up seeing.
In the final fight, Ryan Reynolds fights a huge version of himself, played by Aaron W. Reed. How does it feel to choreograph a fight when you’re dealing with someone so gigantic? Were you working with Reed when you shot a pre-tour, or did you have another guy that size?
It was funny because when we started the preparation very early, we didn’t have Aaron. We didn’t know what it was going to be, we called it the beach fight. And this fight, man, we went HAM. We had a great brainstorming session on possible weapons we could use: we had Halo’s laser sword. We paid tribute to Golden eye and put a golden AK in the fight. We just threw it all in there, we had this long streak of the craziest stuff. Then they hired Aaron and we were like, “Oh man”. He is 6’6 “, 6’7”. He was a soldier, man. He worked hard. He was athletic and he took a long time. So well done to him.
You’ve worked as a fight coordinator or stuntman on movies, video game movies, and real video games. Are there any differences in the way you approach them? In a video game, you don’t always have to think too much about the shots because you don’t necessarily know where the camera is going to be, right?
I would say our approach is the same. My approach is always very character-driven, first and foremost. What are their strengths, what are their limits, what can they do? Can they fly? Are they the superhero type? Are they robots? Are they just people? Then you create this world and you mix in different choreographies. Then in the video game world, these guys tend to do a lot of motion capture. So you are right. You don’t necessarily have to worry about making a pre-visit. However, I still do a part of that, because once you do a pre-visit it’s a big help for the animators and directors. It sparks ideas. It gives a good model. So that’s the only big difference, but the approach is the same.
You talked about looks or signature characters or moves you borrowed from video games, but were there other ways you choreographed in this one that made it look like a video game ?
Well, for example, for the hideout, one of our guys who worked with us, his name was Nicky. He was like, “Hey man, one of my favorite games is Mega man. “So in our early drafts, we drew a Mega Man cannon. When you blow up a video game player, it will fly across the room. Fly very far, crash into a wall, and the wall explode in. a million pieces. You wouldn’t see a human body go through a wall like that. You would see it hit the wall, hit it. But in a video game world, you accentuate it and enlarge it a bit.
What games did you use as additional references Mega man and Red Dead Revolver?
We used Punch for boxers. We watched cartoons. We watched Horizon: Zero Dawn, Monitoring. Any video game at one point was on our list.
Is there something you tried to achieve that you just couldn’t put to work?
Yeah, the brawl on the beach, when Guy gets his butt kicked and comes back. We did a whole sequence with guns, where he pulls out an automatic weapon of a certain type, and when he goes to shoot the guy, a bunch of rabbits come out of the gun and he gets hit with like 10 different, 20 different plush toys. I don’t know if we shot this or not. But this one was not retained in the final cut.