Free Guy director and Stranger Things producer Shawn Levy is a filmmaker who wears his influences on his cinematic sleeve, rather than tipping his hat with a sly homage or hidden Easter egg. That is never more apparent than in his new Netflix movie, The Adam Project.
Ryan Reynolds plays a pilot from the year 2050 who travels back through time and encounters his 12-year-old self, who is still mourning the death of his dad (Mark Ruffalo). There are spaceships and wormholes and Reynolds' character wields a futuristic weapon that is this IP's version of a lightsaber -- which young Adam immediately calls out. Would it surprise you to learn that some of Levy's most beloved films are Back to the Future, E.T. and Star Wars?
Below, Levy shares all of the movies that influenced The Adam Project, as well as his career in general -- which includes an Academy Award nomination for producing the 2016 sci-fi drama Arrival. "I could talk endlessly about these movies," he says, "so let's hit it!"
Star Wars, for the sake of fantastical escape. Star Wars was epiphanal for me as a kid in the late '70s, realizing how transportive movies can be.
E.T. for its combination of high concept and emotional themes. In that regard, it's incredibly applicable to The Adam Project. E.T. is about an alien landing on Earth, but it's really about loneliness. It's really about friendship and the defining influence of a formative friendship, like the one between Elliott and E.T. and the way that that friendship heals a child of divorce. So, the idea that it's about one thing while being about something else, E.T. is iconic in that regard, and it was very much my aspiration for The Adam Project.
Back to the Future is substantially more fun, funny, lighthearted and whimsical, but again, a huge time travel premise with a very deeply wish fulfillment-loaded idea: What if you could know your parents in their adolescence when you yourself are an adolescent? It's such a rich notion, and like Adam Project, I think it's a collective human fantasy, a huge what if that the movie answers.
For a movie that isn't even that old, Good Will Hunting is an all-timer. Everything about it, from Danny Elfman's lyrical score to Gus Van Sant's direction to the stellar writing and acting. It's a movie that makes me feel. And it makes me feel in hell yes, fist-pumping, underdog triumphing moments like the legendary "How you like them apples?" scene to the heartbreak and catharsis of "It's not your fault," a scene that clearly inspired me in regards to the final scene with Mark Ruffalo and Ryan Reynolds in The Adam Project.
And this is pretty well-known, but Robin Williams' final line of the movie that was improvised. "Son of a bitch, he stole my line." That was not scripted. That was Robin being Robin. I had the blessing of working with him three times on my Night at the Museum movies, but when your actors are more than mouthpieces for the script, when they are true 360 collaborators and teammates, that's a perfect example of that. That's what I always wanted out of my actors. That what I've found with Ryan Reynolds.
Jerry Maguire is one of those movies, like Good Will Hunting, that if I stumble on it, I'm f*****g finishing it again, for the 37th time. I love a movie star at the height of their powers, doing the thing we love them doing. I love that. But I also love films that remind us that beyond the star wattage is acting chops and, for me, Jerry Maguire is a showcase for both the megastar that Tom Cruise is but also the actor that Tom Cruise is. In addition, it's more than one thing. It's funny as hell. It's charming. It's deeply poignant. It's romantic for days. And there's a blend of tone there that I adore, but it's all in the service of something fundamentally human. A movie about relationships and feelings and the f****d-up road of being human in this world. That's my favorite kind of movie.
When I was an undergrad at Yale, I went to the Yale Film Society weekly to watch whatever movie was showing. And they showed this early, early, early Peter Weir movie about a tragic and true historical battle in which horrific numbers of Australian boys were slaughtered in a battle they couldn't win. It's Mel Gibson's first movie and it co-stars a musician that Peter Weir knew named Mark Lee. So, it's a buddy movie and it's a war drama, but it has setups and payoffs, where you hear a line from a character in the first five minutes, and then, they bring it back in the last five minutes. It was my first sense of superstructure in filmmaking, how if you plant seeds in the first act, boy, do they have a chance of paying off in the third act. The other genius of Gallipoli is the use of music. It is so distinct. It's so unexpected. And music has since evolved to be one of my most adored aspects of the filmmaking process.
Searching for Bobby Fischer is Steven Zaillian's first movie as a director. It's a perfect movie, and part of what makes it perfect is the protagonist is a boy and the performance of that boy [Max Pomeranc] is so pure, so not actor-y, so raw and open. That's what I wanted for Adam Project, and when I found Walker Scobell, I knew he was capable of a similarly authentic performance with no kid actor artifice. That's the lesson of Searching for Bobby Fischer, and it was certainly my hope for The Adam Project.