Shawn Levy is a filmmaker who loves to honor those who came before him. Just a few minutes into his Netflix feature “The Adam Project,” he’s nodded to everything from “Star Wars” to “Back to the Future”; last summer’s Disney blockbuster “Free Guy” concludes with a glorious Easter egg-heavy ending that included yet another “Star Wars” wink, well-trod MCU goodies, and even a Chris Evans cameo.
Beyond his love for the modern canon, Levy has spent years building something unique: his own library of original films. “Free Guy” was a massive pandemic-era hit. His 2006 “Night at the Museum” film spawned two sequels (the third is a 2022 animated feature for Disney+); the franchise has earned over $1 billion. Alongside the Duffer brothers and fellow producer Dan Cohen, Levy helped turn Netflix’s “Stranger Things” into a monster hit. Levy loves his influences, but he also loves turning them into something new.
“The Adam Project” sees Levy reteam with his “Free Guy” star Ryan Reynolds (along with Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Garner, and Zoe Saldana) for a time-travel adventure story. Set in the present day, the film follows young Adam (newbie Walker Scobell), who is shocked to discover his older self (Reynolds) literally crash-landed in his backyard with a crazy story about how these two need to change the present to fix the future.
It’s pure Levy: an original feature that harkens back to ’80s adventures, doesn’t shy from emotion, and offers something for everyone. That sort of film has become an outlier, but Levy — a studio filmmaker with a big love for TV — is intent on continuing to pursue a variety of projects. After all, he muses, he knows there’s still an audience for that stuff. (But don’t count him out of the Marvel fray just yet.)
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IndieWire: You’re someone who makes what used to be called “a four-quadrant movie,” a feature that has something for everyone. That’s rare these days. What’s the feedback you get when you say that’s what you’re aiming to make?
Shawn Levy: When I was coming up, I remember that all my peers were making Tarantino derivations. Dark, violent, heavy. But even my student film shorts were sort of crowd-pleasey, broadly escapist stories. I really like movies that can tap into a wide breadth of audience members.
As my career has developed, it feels increasingly rare. It feels like the only four-quadrant movies anymore are Marvel movies. I would argue that many are great, but they don’t have something I really remember loving, which is that Amblin combination of high concept and intimate humanity, where technology and spectacle is in the service of something more humanist, something thematic. I like watching those movies, and I’ve always wanted to make the kinds of movies that I like watching.
I never said to Netflix or Skydance, “I want to make another four-quadrant Shawn Levy movie,” but I definitely did say, “If I’m going to take this on, it’s going to be emotional science-fiction, not cerebral science-fiction.” I got a lot of support on that front, and it has turned out to be another movie that seems to be for adults and young people alike.
This is not a film that leaves itself open to a sequel, though you’re someone who has made many original films that have gone on to spawn sequels. Do you feel a pressure to make sequels these days, or sequel-friendly movies?
I’ll say two things: “The Adam Project” is my 13th movie, and one of the great satisfactions of the career I’ve been able to have is how many times I’ve been able to make something that became a franchise. No one ever gifted me a franchise, no one ever assigned me a title. I eat what I kill, and whether it’s “Stranger Things” or “Night at the Museum” or “Cheaper by the Dozen” or any of them, I love making new stories, original stories. So that’s been a great satisfaction, when those get embraced by the culture.
On “The Adam Project,” there was so much love for it in early cuts at Netflix, and the question of a sequel came up. And Ryan and I talked about it and we both said, “You know what? This thing is exactly what we set out to make, and I think we’re just going to leave this here.” There was never pressure to leave it more open ended, but I suppose, gun to my head, I could come up with sequel ideas for “The Adam Project.” I’m not currently inclined to pursue those, because this movie resolves itself with exactly the feeling that I wanted, which is that combination of warmth and tears, but also hope. I want to leave that one as is.
You have, however, mentioned how much you love Marvel movies, and with “The Adam Project,” you have your own film filled with MCU stars. Has Marvel called you up? Would you do a film if they asked?
[Pauses] Oh my God, I feel like my media training hasn’t prepared me properly. Well, you see it’s literally the first fucking pause I’ve taken in our interview, so I’ll just give you two words: I would. I feel like it’s still hypothetical enough, but it shows just enough of my cards. So we’ll see.
Earlier in your career, you made a number of straight comedies like “Just Married” and “The Internship.” Is that a genre you’re interested in returning to, or are you more compelled by mixing genres?
I like that my career is filled with genre mashups and change-ups. That’s by design and by appetite. I love comedy. I view “The Adam Project” as an adventure time-travel drama, but there’s a lot of laughs and making something utterly humorless is never going to be interesting to me.
But a straight comedy is less compelling to me now than it once was. As I get older, I know there’s a finite number of years we have to live and work and tell movies on the scale that I’m getting the privilege of doing. I want movies that also make us feel. I want laughs, but I want heart, and so I’m going to keep looking for movies that give me the possibility of both.
You’re someone who, for many years, has worked with both studios and Netflix. Is there any way that you can compare the two?
The difference of the making of the thing is not as radical as people assume. It’s not like legacy studios are [up] in your business and Netflix gives you absolute freedom. Certainly I’m sure that is sometimes the case, but less and less.
The difference is, wow, having just come off “Free Guy,” there is still nothing like a big, fat hit movie in the world. But there is also nothing like the global ubiquity and sharing of one’s work that a streaming platform like Netflix provides. My hope and my curiosity is, if you make a movie that’s both populist and fully well crafted, as we tried to do with “The Adam Project,” is there the cultural penetration the way one gets with theatrical?
I’m curious to see if a Netflix movie can permeate the culture the way a Netflix series can, because thus far it’s been a little bit apples and oranges. And frankly, I’m in this alongside all of you as we see our culture shift.
Photo by Alan Markfield for Fox/Disney
All that being said, I do think I will always bounce back and forth between theatrical and streaming. I’m going to go where the story that I love is, but I can’t see giving up theatrical entirely and nor can I see a career that avoids streaming. So I hope to do both.
One of the things that we’ve learned over the past couple of years is that it is very possible to do both.
I don’t know that one is the death knell of the other, and I don’t know that audiences want only one. I love the fact that, just as we’re bemoaning the death of theatrical, we had a nice little hit with “Free Guy” and then we have a record-setting epic hit with “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
I think that clearly consumer and audience appetites are not just one thing. Similarly, my creative filmmaker appetite is not just one thing.
As you said, “Free Guy” was this massive pandemic hit when we didn’t know that was possible. How did that feel at the time? How do you reflect back on it now?
When it was happening, “Free Guy” was a completely thrilling outcome. The reviews, the fan-love, the way it just stuck around at the box office weekend after weekend after weekend, the way it then did overseas and in China as well. So when it was happening, I took it in and savored it and got real joy out of it.
But now, eight months later, to realize that, “Oh, that was by far one of the top-grossing original movies of the past several years,” that gives me pride. Because I need proof of, what do you call it? Data points! I need us to keep having data points that prove the viability of both theatrical and original titles, otherwise we will be a culture filled with only sequels and IP.
The thrill that I get going into a movie-viewing experience and not knowing what I’m going to get, that’s special. And when a movie like “Free Guy” can succeed the way it did, it reminds the people who give us money to make movies that that original model is still extremely viable.
One thing that Netflix is experimenting with in a way that studios have been more resistant to is creative release schedules, as they did with Leigh Janiak’s three-part “Fear Street” series last summer. Now you and the “Stranger Things” team are divvying up the fourth season into two parts. Why is that the right choice for the show?
Just because I’m a stickler for credit where it’s due and I was at Fox for like 15 years: I remember that idea of a serialized movie series [for “Fear Street”] actually predated Netflix. That was how Fox was going to make and release those movies, one per month during a summer, which would’ve been amazing. I remember having that conversation with [former 20th Century Fox president] Emma Watts and with Leigh and that was the Netflix influence: the idea of a viral hit. That Netflix model was in the minds of the legacy studio heads a year or two before “Fear Street” was a Netflix movie.
But with “Stranger Things,” I can honestly tell you it was way less strategic regarding release strategies and more based on — our fans have waited long enough. It’s killing us like it’s killing our fans. We can’t have all of them ready soon enough, because this season is massively scaled, both in terms of cinematic scope and run time. We would rather share some sooner than wait to share all. I am grateful that Netflix has an evolving point of view on release strategies so they’re no longer all at once or nothing.
You’re one of these creators who has a hilarious IMDb profile, which has just dozens and dozens of upcoming projects listed as being on your slate. What is actually next for you?
I have four kids! If my IMDb profile was my life, I’d be in a grave from too much work.
Two weeks from today, I start shooting an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller “All the Light We Cannot See.” It is a World War II epic romantic drama set in France and Germany, shooting in Budapest and France, starting March 15 and spanning several months. That is what I am making next.
It’s four episodes, each just over an hour. Written by Steven Knight of “Peaky Blinders” fame, among others. And with Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Laurie and this new revelation named Aria Mia Loberti, who is herself blind and playing the blind protagonist. So very different, once again, from everything I’ve done. But part of this privilege that I feel I have in telling different kinds of stories is that my work can be based on what I find irresistible.
“The Adam Project” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, March 11. Season 4 of “Stranger Things” will be split into two parts, with Volume 1 premiering on the streamer on Friday, May 27 and Volume 2 premiering Friday, July 1.