“The Adam Project” is not the first time-travel movie to tell the audience they shouldn’t bother trying to work out the rules of the science behind the premise, but it is unabashed in its focus on emotion over the cerebral nature of the sci-fi plot. And as director Shawn Levy told TheWrap in a recent interview, that was the entire reason he wanted to make the movie in the first place.
A version of “The Adam Project” has been in development for nearly a decade, with Tom Cruise at one point attached to star in the story of a man who travels back in time and teams up with his childhood self and his since-departed father to save the future. When asked what finally shifted this project out of development hell with Levy at the helm and Ryan Reynolds in the starring role, the filmmaker was candid.
“I think, if I’m being honest, it was the fact that Ryan and I were clear from the get-go about the fact that we wanted to make a piece of emotional science-fiction,” Levy said. “A piece of science-fiction that is not cerebral first, but emotional first. And I do believe that unlocked it because Lord knows we’re not the first time-travel movie, but we wanted to employ the time-travel trope in a way that made for spectacle and fun and adventure, but we wanted to firmly focus the priority on theme and character and the possibility of real poignance that might be the result of that focus… Simplifying the time travel rules and exposition to its bare minimum so that it is never foreground content, it is background scaffolding to an emotional story. That’s the key.”
As a filmmaker, Levy has always shied away from cynicism. Whether it’s the family friendly shenanigans of the “Night at the Museum” franchise or the emotional drama of “This Is Where I Leave You” or even the character-rich story approach to the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.” In 2021, Levy released a decidedly non-cynical blockbuster with Ryan Reynolds called “Free Guy” (a bona fide hit, a sequel for which Disney is already clamoring), but while that film offered its own unique challenges, “The Adam Project” posited a potentially insurmountable quest: find a kid who feels like he could be a younger version of Ryan Reynolds.
Reynolds has a very specific kind of charm, a singular way of talking, and finding a pre-teen capable of mimicking the “Deadpool” actor seemed impossible. But unbeknownst to Levy and Reynolds, the young man cast as the young Adam, Walker Scobell, happened to be one of the world’s biggest “Deadpool” fans.
“In the same way that you can’t direct someone to be funny, you also can’t direct someone to be more Ryan Reynolds-ish,” Levy explained. “Here’s where I lucked out: I hired Carmen Cuba, who cast ‘Stranger Things’ for us, so I knew that I had a Jedi master of talent hunting in Carmen. We found Walker who was authentic, utterly inexperienced and super grounded and real as a result. What I didn’t know is that Walker has been watching ‘Deadpool’ since he was seven.”
Levy continued, recounting the day he and Reynolds discovered Scobell’s uncanny ability to embody the mannerisms of his co-star: “So he shows up Day One, he somehow knows exactly the way Ryan would say everything – and Ryan and I are like, ‘What is happening? Why do you know every inflection, every pause, every talk-fast, every talk-slow?’ And Walker’s like, ‘I can recite ‘Deadpool 2’, you want me to?’ And we were like, ‘F—k off.’ Cut to he recites all of the movie, including like screen direction. So this kid coincidentally was brilliant but also a mega-fan, so his intuitive sense of the Ryan-ish way to play things was baked in. I didn’t need to worry about that, so we could flow with improv and feed the kid lines, which we did 50 times a day, but he would always spit it out the way Ryan would because he was such an avid fan of Ryan’s coming into the process.”
Mark Ruffalo plays Reynolds and Scobell’s father in the film, Jennifer Garner plays his mother, and the ensemble is filled out by Zoe Saldana and Catherine Keener. According to Levy, his casting philosophy for the sci-fi film – which, while full of emotion, doesn’t skimp on the action – was to find people who could sell the emotional payoff first and foremost. “You need to cast the living hell out of it so that you are casting genre presence and action chops,” Levy said. “Because if all you have is cool, badass hero types there’s no chance of an emotional payoff. I wanted a cast that was filled with powerful onscreen performers who also had straight-up chops, and a script that gave them a chance to show those chops.”
Without spoiling anything, the finale of “The Adam Project” boils down less to spectacle and more to emotion, with an ending that’ll leave many in tears. Levy says hingeing the finale on that particular sequence is part and parcel with where he is as a filmmaker now. “I’m betting that if I do my job right people are gonna ride a feeling,” Levy said. “It certainly worked that way on ‘Free Guy,’ and it seems to be working that way on ‘The Adam Project’. It doesn’t mean every critic is gonna agree – I’m sure people will talk sh-t about it here and there. But the reality is I’m trying to make decidedly uncynical, humanist movies in an era where darkness, nihilism, cynicism are de facto gestures.”
To put it more succinctly, Levy said, “I know what I am now as a filmmaker. I don’t apologize for it, I don’t run from it.”
“The Adam Project” is streaming exclusively on Netflix starting March 11.