Genre: Action (sci-fi?)
Premise: (from Black List) A bank teller stuck in his routine discovers he’s a background character in a realistic, open world action-adventure video game and he is the only one capable of saving the city.
About: Matt Lieberman sold this script just a month ago. That helped it finish number 17 on the just-released 2016 Black List, with 15 votes. Lieberman is starting to make a name for himself, with several high-profile projects in play at the major studios. He is currently writing a feature version of The Jetsons.
Writer: Matt Lieberman
Details: 109 pages
Usually I’ll review the number 1 Black List script right away. But the number 1 Black List script in 2016 is a biopic about Madonna. And to put it bluntly, I’d rather bake myself inside of a pizza oven than read a script about the origin of pointy bras.
It’s not that Madonna doesn’t deserve a biopic. In fact, I’m guessing the script is damn good. But I’m sad that this is what the Black List has become – a list of people re-telling stories about other people. The Black List used to be populated with all these weird original gems. Now it’s “The true story of this” and “The true story of that.”
And you know who we have to blame for this? Us. As long as we keep buying tickets to movies like Sully – wonderful real life stories that have no reason to become movies – then writers will peddle more real-life stories to the studios, since they know that’s what they want. And the studios want them cause you’re paying for them.
It’s like people who complain about Transformers. If you don’t want shit like Transformers, don’t buy tickets to it. Don’t rent it. I guarantee you they’ll stop making Transformers movies.
Luckily, if you go deeper into the Black List, you start to find some originality, and Free Guy was the first script I hit where I went, “Hmmm, that sounds interesting.” Ironically, it’s a story about going against the grain. Something I hope screenwriters will do more of in 2017.
Guy works as a bank teller and goes through the same routine every day. He gets up, goes to work, survives a bank robbery, plays softball (where his team always loses), gets drinks with the guys afterwards, then goes to bed. Then does the same thing all over again tomorrow.
Then one day Guy stumbles across some glasses that, when he puts them on, show a map of the city he lives in, as well as a meter for his health, and how much money he’s got. And thus begins Guy’s awakening. He realizes that he’s a background character in some sort of giant simulation.
Guy approaches a hot girl he routinely sees around, MolotovGirl, and after some initial resistance, learns that she’s a player in this game – as in there’s a real person in “another dimension” playing her. The game is called, “Free City.”
As if having his reality rocked wasn’t enough, he learns from MolotovGirl that Free City is about to be closed down in a week to make way for Free City 2. Guy and everything he knows is about to be shut down forever… UNLESS he can find a way to keep Free City operational.
So Guy begins a revolution, telling anyone who will listen that they’re all background players in a game and if they don’t rise up and rebel, Free City is toast. When the game’s programmers learn that the game is rebelling against their code, they pull out all the stops to take down Guy… FOR GOOD.
I love premises like Free Guy. You’ve got some Matrix in here, some Truman Show, some They Live, some Groundhog Day, some Ready Player One. You read Free Guy and you say to yourself, “How come someone hasn’t made this movie already?” That’s when you know you’ve got a good idea.
But it isn’t just the concept that works. Free Guy makes you think! Whenever you can zoom in on those universal conflicts, you can elevate a silly movie idea into something special. When Guy’s going through his daily routine and asks, “What if I took a single step out of my comfort zone? What would happen?” but then doesn’t do it, it hits you hard.
Because aren’t we all Guy? We all THINK about doing something different. But we never do it. It’s so much easier to stay in our lane. To the point where it feels like we’re being controlled. I mean when was the last time you truly took a chance in life? That you truly put yourself on the line? I’m guessing not recently.
That’s the great thing about channeling these universal human truths through your hero. Is that the reader is going to sympathize with your hero. And once you have that, you have them for the rest of the story. Cause we’re going to want to see if Guy finds a way out. If he finds a way out, it means maybe one day we’ll find a way out.
Structurally, Free Guy breaks down into four sections, each with a different story-engine. Remember that in screenwriting, as long as some type of engine is driving the current section of your screenplay, you’re good. The second there’s no engine is the second your script is dead.
The first section is driven by mystery. Guy knows something isn’t right about his life, about the way the world operates around him, and he wants to find out what it is. That takes us through the first act.
The second section is about leveling up. Molotov Girl – the one person who can answer Guy’s questions – is level a million and lets Guy know that she does’t talk to newbies. Hit level 50 and they can chat. So the engine for this section is the goal: “Get to level 50.” We watch Guy rob banks and steal cars until he gets to level 50.
The third section is “RUN.” The programmers designate Guy and MolotovGirl as threats to the game and chase them around the city (as cop characters) to try and eliminate them. Having your characters chased is one of the oldest story engines in the book.
The final section is “REVOLUTION.” It’s another goal – to start a revolution in the city so they can rise up to the programmers and keep the city in tact.
And, of course, Lieberman adds another element of dramatic conflict by installing a literal ticking time bomb – the arrival of Free City 2.
It seems straight forward when you break it down, but as is the case with everything, it’s hard as hell to make something look simple. As I read Free Guy, I noticed numerous components that I could tell drove the writer crazy during the writing process.
For example, you have the old zombie question: Are there video games in Guy’s world (do people in zombie movies know what zombies are)? Because if there is, then Guy would understand what was happening immediately.
However, that’s not as dramatically interesting as Guy having to piece together that he’s part of a false reality. So Lieberman had to eliminate complex games from Guy’s world, even though that doesn’t make any sense. How is this world the exact same as the world we live in, yet they don’t have one of the most popular forms of entertainment on the planet?
These are the annoying rules you have to figure out when writing a script (particularly sci-fi) because if you don’t, if you decide “Eh, maybe they have video games, maybe they don’t,” that unsuredness oozes into the read and we feel it. We know you’re either bullshitting us or not doing the hard work and the final product feels foggy instead of clear.
So I give Lieberman props. This script is pure fun for the very reason that he did all the hard work. And more importantly, Lieberman proves that something good can come out of playing video games 8 hours a day.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: You must know the rules of your sci-fi script, even the rules that you don’t have to explain to the reader. The more you know, the more solid the foundation of your screenplay will be. I read so many scripts where the writer doesn’t know the answers to half the questions about his world or rules, and those scripts are always foggy frustrating reads.