When I meet Shawn Levy on an August day in Brooklyn, I expect him to be sweating. Why? For one reason, it’s sticky-humid outside, and I’m dripping like a swamp creature. The other is that the big blockbuster Levy has been filming these past few months, Deadpool 3, might not wrap in time to hit its 2024 release date, on account of the Hollywood actors strike.
Levy is not sweating. Well, his manly hands are, but that’s only because—as he takes pains to assure me—he has just washed them in the restroom. No other reason for the dampness, he adds, smiling slyly. Gross.
Perhaps this is to be expected, coming from a director of such juvenile delights as Night at the Museum and Free Guy, his movie about a self-aware NPC (played by Ryan Reynolds) that became a surprise mid-pandemic hit. Levy is the big kid of entertainment—one entering, it seems, a kind of dirty-dad-joke era. As we chat, he tells me that directing a Deadpool movie, and specifically being around Reynolds as the Merc with a Mouth, has caused him to start working (a little) blue, both on set and off. See: that handwashing joke. “Holy shit. I am disgusting,” he says. “I’ll make jokes sometimes, and my wife and daughters are like, ‘Who are you?’ I just scream, ‘Blame Ryan!’”
As scapegoats go, beloved actor Ryan Reynolds isn’t a bad one. Levy, wearing a loose navy T-shirt and jeans, also comes off as so downright earnest, so Canadian, his shifts into R-rated territory feel less icky than refreshing. Not that Levy has ever been the type to stay in one lane. His new project, premiering November 2 on Netflix, is a four-part adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize–winning World War II novel, All the Light We Cannot See; it promises to be pretty much the opposite of Deadpool 3. He has also made robo-smashfests (Real Steel) and romcoms (Date Night). And the ’80s throwback Stranger Things, of course, which he executive produces alongside the Duffer brothers and often directs.
Levy opens our conversation by telling me that he’s a musical theater nerd who became the man he is today thanks to summers spent at the paradigmatic theater-kid performing arts camp Stagedoor Manor. It shows. The man is an animated (but not sweaty) ball of energy. He has just wrapped the photo shoot for our interview at a hip warehouse studio across the street, and, as a first salvo, he remarks on the trendiness of the coffee shop I’ve chosen. “The likes of which this middle-aged fucking father of four” has never seen, he says. “Whatever neighborhood we’re in, let the reader know this is a bastion of cool.” Levy might not think he belongs here—but somehow, as the guy who always knows how to give the people what they want, he fits right in.
Angela Watercutter: How was the photo shoot just now? I always wonder what it’s like for directors to be directed.
Shawn Levy: I was acting a lot in high school and college, and the whole reason I started directing is I didn’t like having to feel self-conscious. Even at 22 I was like, “Oh, that’s going to keep me from being great.”
You must be referring, in part, to the time you spent at Stagedoor Manor, the summer theater camp that also produced Natalie Portman and Sebastian Stan.
I didn’t just go to Stagedoor Manor. I was partially defined by Stagedoor Manor.
On day two, I got cast as Danny Zuko in Grease. I’ve long held a theory that what made me audacious enough to think I might make it as a Hollywood director was having been cast as Danny Zuko at 13.
So how stoked are you about the Stranger Things stage play about to open in London?
It’s thrilling for the Duffer brothers and all involved, but I think it might be extra thrilling for me because I am a theater geek. This is my worlds colliding.
These things do happen when you make a hit show, of course.
You have to remember, when we made Stranger Things we had no idea if anyone would watch it. Back when Netflix didn’t tell anyone how many people watched, there was no metric except cultural noise. The weekend it opened, I’m seeing social media light up. I called Netflix and said, “You know, I think this is gonna be something. Maybe we should think about merchandise and other aspects.” I remember the answer from the Netflix exec was, “With all due respect, we’re in the subscription business.”
That was how unprepared all of us, including Netflix, were for the franchise that this would become.
That thing you mentioned about not getting data from Netflix, is that still an issue? Or do you get a little more intel when you’re the guy who gave them Stranger Things?
I might get a little bit more inside scoop on the data, but not much, to be honest. When Stranger Things 2 premiered, they still didn’t announce data. I was just getting this sense in the nooks and crannies of the unsaid that we were more than popular, that we were record-setting for that corporation. There were very honest conversations where I implored them to share information with us, and those conversations led to “how about we share it with the world.” I’m not saying I’m responsible for that data sharing, but it’s been fascinating being at Netflix for a decade now to see the evolution of a culture.
Right. Now anyone can see the Netflix Top 10 anytime. Having that vantage, and having made studio movies and Netflix series, what’s your take on the streaming wars?
As a producer and director who does comedy and drama, film and television, long form and short form, I’m overjoyed that one form of consumption hasn’t obliterated the other. But I’ve been at Netflix long enough now to see there needs to be a more rigorous oversight of the output.
Meaning shelving movies like Batgirl to save money?
Listen, there’s no question we’ve made original films for Hulu and Disney+ that have been removed from those platforms. Rosaline with Kaitlyn Dever for Hulu. A beautiful original film called Crater that was removed from Disney+ within two months of premiering. But all of us who work in storytelling—an endeavor that’s now referred to as content creation, but I refuse to subscribe to that lexicon—are in some ways passengers to an evolution of culture and how people consume stories and how companies have to balance their priorities, many of which are fiscal. I’m a grown-up. I get that.
So are the streaming wars over?
I think we are thankfully beyond the debate of whether it will be streaming or theatrical. I think it will clearly be streaming and theatrical.
Speaking of which, what’s the status of Deadpool 3? You were about to shoot in London when you came back to New York, right?
No, I was shooting. Just to say the obvious, my passionate hope is that by the time anyone reads this article these two strikes will be over, and we as an industry will be back to work, including Hugh [Jackman, who is reprising his role as Wolverine] and Ryan and me and our several hundred crew members who were in the literal middle of filming Deadpool. I’m really hopeful that we get to a legitimately fair, equitable resolution soon.
You seem passionate about it.
I see how brutal the toll is, not simply for the actors and writers on strike, but for the ecosystem of a creative industry where many thousands of crew members in every aspect of the filmmaking process can’t go to work.
Sounds like you would also like to get back to work. Where will you go when the strikes end?
Within weeks of the strikes ending we will be back in the United Kingdom shooting the second half of Deadpool.
Emma Corrin was talking recently about being cast in Deadpool 3 and how it was an “absolute mindfuck” to be introduced to the secrecy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’ve all heard the jokes about the Marvel snipers who will shoot if you reveal plot details, but it got me thinking: The first two Deadpool movies were made before Disney completed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox. How big of a deal is it that yours is the first Deadpool movie that’s being made sort of under the MCU banner?
That privilege and expectation was not lost on Ryan and me. We spent months working on and honing the story and screenplay in advance of the writers strike. I’m wary of spoilers—
You must spoil.
I’ll simply say the whole challenge and North Star priority on this movie was to embrace and take advantage of membership in the MCU without sacrificing or abandoning the raw, gritty, grounded DNA of Deadpool. It’s very much still the Deadpool we all love, but with many new opportunities.
Does that include cameos?
It sure might. Thank you internet for doing my work for me.
Can you confirm any of them?
If Marvel didn’t come assassinate me, Ryan Reynolds would. Ryan and I spend a lot of time together in real life, scrolling Twitter and reading the daily rumors. I feel like the number of cameos in Deadpool 3 is rumored to be in the eighties, and it ranges from Taylor Swift to Jennifer Garner. I love that there’s so much misinformation out there, no one can tell what might be real.
You already have the biggest cameo: Hugh Jackman.
It can never be overlooked that the dominant characteristic of this movie is that we’re the lucky ones who get Wolverine. That has been a joy unlike any I’ve ever had. As someone who grew up on Greek myths and loved the iconic scale of that storytelling, I love that. It sounds very nerdy and super gee-whiz and rosy-eyed, but if you saw some of the pictures on my phone …
Only if they’re off the record. You couldn’t even describe them.
Shit. OK. [Out of fear and human weakness, I don’t press further. Too great a burden.] Did you end up in any sort of hangups with Marvel? Like, with the content? Let me put it this way: Can you still be R-rated?
Not only have Kevin Feige and Marvel and Disney supported this extremely Deadpool-ian, audacious, R-rated tone, they’ve also supported our super meta, self-referential self-awareness. Some of the jokes are dirty, some of them are cultural observations, but that’s what we love about Deadpool, that he knows he’s in a movie, even though the stakes are real. Our movie is very loyal to that DNA too, with tremendous Marvel and Disney support, in making fun of and being self-aware about everything, including themselves.
Including the Taylor Swift cameo that is definitely happening.
Including the Taylor Swift cameo that this interview neither confirms nor denies.
I had to try.
Sure you did.
Perfect segue: What’s up with your Star Wars movie? Is there a script?
There’s an idea. We have been frozen since the writers strike. We’re stalled.
At least it’s still happening.
The last few years have been a little surreal, but also quite thrilling because all the goals that I had and semi given up on are coming true. I always wanted to make a period piece drama, then I got the rights to All the Light We Cannot See. I’m doing Deadpool. And I got the call from [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy, who basically said, “I see what you’re doing, particularly Free Guy and The Adam Project, both of which have a certain sense of audience delight and playfulness that many of the best Star Wars movies have had.”
Is that what she asked for in a new Star Wars?
She was very clear that it was open terrain as far as subject matter and theme and timeline. She was willing to bet on my interests as long as it felt like a Shawn Levy movie.
Do you know where your movie will take place in the larger Star Wars timeline? Pre-Skywalker, post-Skywalker, etc. …
I like being alive, so I won’t say more.
You mentioned the idea of something being a “Shawn Levy movie,” and I’m wondering where something like All the Light fits into that. It’s not exactly sci-fi or comics or a family comedy.
I often make jokes in my edit room with my editor, who has been with me for almost 20 years. We’d be watching a harrowing emotional scene set in war-torn France in the early 1940s, and I’d sit on the couch and say, [imitates movie announcer voice] “From the director of Cheaper by the Dozen and Big Fat Liar comes a different kind of comedy—this one with Nazis.” I’m aware that the arc of my career is very broad.
With so many streaming services and studios and formats now, does everyone in Hollywood kind of need to be a polymath? Does everyone need a movie, and a TV show, and a producer credit on a documentary?
I think it’s dangerous to be only one thing. That applies to life too. For years now I’ve bounced between comedy and drama, horror and farce, big movies and small movies. The nature of the culture now is so far-ranging, and it’s like there’s no one river. I’m not much of a nature expert, but that might be the right word.
I don’t know if you’ll use this—it sounds more name-droppy than I intend, but it’s on topic. When I did Real Steel with Hugh Jackman, Steven Spielberg was one of the producers. He’s remarkable in a lot of ways he’s not famous for. Just an in-the-trenches collaborator. One day he leaned over to me and said, “You know, you direct like you’re sitting in the audience.” That stopped me in my tracks. Because he found a way, in one sentence, to articulate the core of how I operate.
So are you friends with Steven now?
I’d love to tell you we have coffee every Friday, but sadly, no. We’re both busy. But I’m in touch with him, and he’s always very generous. When I was making Real Steel, he was making War Horse and still watching every frame of my dailies, every night while he was making his own movie. He would send me hand-drawn storyboards, talking about, “Hey, maybe instead of going from a master shot to a close-up …” And he’s literally sending me iPhone pictures of his drawings. That was remarkable. I’ve always tried to be available for other directors like Steven was for me.
Reminds me of the famous story of Spielberg finishing Jurassic Park while starting Schindler’s List.
When people point out, as you have, that I’m premiering an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize–winning World War II drama less than a year before I’ll be premiering Deadpool and Wolverine, I’m like “Yeah, that’s a pretty big pendulum swing, but it ain’t Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park.”
You said “Deadpool and Wolverine.” Is that the actual title of Deadpool 3?
No, there’s no title yet. I sometimes refer to it as “Deadpool versus Wolverine” or “Deadpool and Wolverine” or “Deadpool 3 With Wolvie”—we’ve got a few titles we’ve been bandying about, but boy, it’s a tough one.
I ask because with the strikes and all, the release dates keep moving around, and I swear at one point it was going to come out the same weekend as Captain America: Brave New World.
That changed, yeah?
I think what you’re referring to is that first big weekend in May. But I think they moved Captain America, which finished shooting. Now we have an idea of when we’re desperately hoping to come out, but it’s all dependent on the resolution of the strikes.
That sort of kills the game I was going to play with you, which was to ask you what your Barbenheimer portmanteau would be for Deadpool and Cap.
Right, or like Dead America, which is terrible.
Terrible, but also profound. But no, I can’t imagine Marvel would do that to themselves. We’re definitely not on the same date. There’s just a lot of pieces on the chessboard.
I interviewed Ryan for Free Guy a few years ago, and he mentioned that you two would always be working on the script on the train to and from set, even as you were filming. Is that something you’re also doing on this movie?
What we stumbled into on Free Guy is a creative soul brotherhood, a creative intimacy, a simpatico—that’s the word. That developed and deepened on The Adam Project. The same has been true on Deadpool.
I’m now going to ask a question that I pretty much have to ask everyone these days: How do you feel about AI?
I feel like we’re living in a historic moment in which we literally cannot anticipate the pervasive impact of this technology. I’m certainly daunted and anxious, but I also recognize that it’s both unavoidable and unknowable. Which is why the issues around how it will be used are hard to even navigate.
Do you feel it’s coming for your job?
I maybe naively think the very nature of art and artistic expression is human and defined by things other than thought, facts, and ideas. They’re defined by feeling. In that regard, I’m fairly confident I’ll have a job a few decades from now.
I do want to see what an AI trained on Deadpool would do, though.
I will say this: Being around and ingesting data has an impact even on us humans. I was the family comedy director for many years. I have four daughters. I’m Canadian. I’m pretty clean, I don’t work blue.
Now you’re disgusting! In what ways?
Sexually-tinged dialog. The pansexual openness of Deadpool is delightful.
I’m actually glad you brought that up. When it comes to queer representation in comic book movies, it seems like Deadpool was ahead of all that.
I couldn’t agree more. I love that Deadpool is so audaciously ahead-of-his-time fluid.
It seems even more revolutionary now that schools in some places in the US are trying to ban queer books.
Imagine being scared of ideas. That’s weak.
There’s been talk of a Free Guy sequel. Is that something that’s been floated?
It’s been floated, it floats, because Ryan and I love that movie. I’d say it’s a big maybe, but boy it would sure make us happy.
Are you going to end up pulling a Spielberg and working on multiple things at once?
I will be watching dailies of Stranger Things while I’m making Deadpool; I’ll race to Atlanta to direct part of Stranger Things, and then on to Star Wars after that.
So Stranger Things 5 is far along?
The writing wasn’t complete when the strike started. We’re supposed to start filming in June, and we are on hot standby ever since. It’s killing us, because these fucking kids, they will not slow down the aging process. I beg them to do so, but apparently AI can’t do that. Actually, AI could do that, just not in real life. Only onscreen.
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