“People have been waiting for me to make something a bit commercial and less punishing to the audience” - Ben Wheatley talks hmv.com through making Free Fire
After taking on the complex and meandering dystopia of J.G.Ballard with High-Rise, this time writer/director Ben Wheatley has something rather different up his sleeve with Free Fire.
The film stars Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley and Noah Taylor, with Wheatley co-writing the movie with his partner Amy Jump.
The story follows Larson's Justine who has brokered a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two Irishmen and a gang led by Copley's Vernon and Hammer's Ord who are selling them a stash of guns. Unfortunately, the handover goes wrong rather quickly and the meeting turns into a gunfight…
Ahead of the movie’s release in cinemas earlier this year, we spoke to Free Fire director Ben Wheatley about the challenge of putting together the cast and keeping the discipline on this cinematic bloodbath...
How did you get the idea for Free Fire?
“The whole project actually started with me talking to Cillian Murphy. I had a drink with him, it was this weird speed-dating thing that your agents will sometime set up and he’d wanted to meet me because he’d really liked Kill List. So we met and had a good time and he said at the end that if I ever wrote anything that I thought would work that he’d love to be involved. I went away and thought about that and what I could put him in and the idea for Free Fire came from that. I wrote a draft and sent it to him and he said he loved it, so he was in.”
Did the rest of the cast come together quite easily after that?
“Quite often once you’ve got the first person in things get a lot easier. When it’s just a script floating around that no one wants to do it’s harder, but a name attached gets you a lot of confidence. I’d written the Frank character for Michael Smiley so I sent it to him and he was in.”
“The other roles were a bit trickier. Amy (Jump, Wheatley’s co-writer, partner and co-editor) and I were big fans of Armie Hammer from The Lone Ranger and I asked my American agent if they’d reach out to him, never thinking we’d get him. But they got hold of him and sent him the script and he liked it and said he was in, so that was easier than I thought.”
What about Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley?
“Room wasn’t even finished when we met Brie Larson, I met her and liked her and I thought she was a great actress and so we cast her. Sharlto Copley came in to replace Luke Evans. I’d never really thought about Sharlto, I’d never imagined the role he plays as being South African, but as soon as his name came up it made sense, I love District 9, so I was happy to re-write the role to fit him.”
You had some people drop out, though?
“There was a sales poster that we did that had Luke Evans and Olivia Wilde on it, they were in, but then scheduling got in the way. Luke got Beauty And The Beast and I couldn’t stand in his way for that, and Olivia ironically went off to do Vinyl, so although Martin Scorsese is the executive producer on this film, he still nicked one of my actresses.”
What was it about the script that you think attracted all these stars?
“People seemed to really want to make it. I think people have been waiting for me to make something a bit commercial and less punishing to the audience.”
How difficult was it to get the movie right? It looks like a huge technical undertaking...
“A lot of the skills for pulling off a film like this come from animation or from the work I’ve done with advertising, it’s a lot of small goals, like compressed stories, all put together. That’s how me and Amy envisaged it, a series of parallel adventures that pay off at different times throughout the movie, else it would just be really dull.”
How did you go about planning everything?
"This film has a rhythm, like music, it builds to a peak and then goes down again and then up and then down. So we structured it, we built 3D maps, ran it all through with toy soldiers, make sure it worked in real time. In most movies, if someone leaves a hotel room and goes to a restaurant you can just cut between those scenes when you’re in such a tight location being able to realistically move around is incredibly important.”
How many locations did you look at?
“About seven or eight. The one we choose was near my house, which was helpful, but it also had the stairs and the overlooking office, and in some places, we were going to have to build all that stuff and that would have been a ballache so once I saw that it became the one we focused on.”
It’s a claustrophobic movie, one location for most of it, was it an intense shoot? Did you have to work hard to keep spirits high on set?
“Not really. They’re all funny people and we had a right laugh making it. We shot it in Brighton during the summer and you’d finish shooting at six or seven and the sun would still be shining and we could go for dinner and to the pub. It was quite a relaxed set and I feel like my job on set is to create an atmosphere that relaxes everyone. If you’re stressed and you create a stressful atmosphere for your actors then you’ve f**ked it straight away. I kept it light.”
The film is set in 1978, why did you decide on that period?
“It’s mainly the story and that period with the IRA gets you there. But mobile phones have really f**ked thrillers. Either it’s a very short film or lots of people complaining about bad reception. I also love that period, a lot of my favourite films are from that era, I wanted that flinty tough feel to things.”
What was the most challenging bit of the movie to get right?
“There wasn’t anything particularly lengthy. We shot in quite long, two or three minute takes, so it was more making sure everything was safe as we had a lot of pyrotechnics going on. The actors were reloading their own guns, so they had to be quite proficient in that. It was a lot of actors to be keeping an eye on, for safety more than anything.”
It’s very lean, bang on 90 minutes...
“I like a 90-minute movie, the shorter the better. High-Rise clocked in at just under two hours and that was okay, but I think anything longer than that is too long. I don’t need to see the endless goodbyes of the Hobbits.”
You write, direct and edit your own movies, do you ever think you might fancy being a gun for hire? Just to come in and direct someone else’s movie?
“I’ve done that on TV, but it does make it a much longer process. If you’ve got your own script then you just have to talk to fewer people and things can move so much quicker. One day I will do that for sure, we’ll see what I get offered.”
Does the fact you edit your own work help a lot during filming?
“I edited Free Fire as I shot it, literally putting the footage straight into an editing bay, it does mean you don’t shoot loads of stuff you don’t need and you can show the cast how things are looking. You can stretch the budget a lot further.”
So what are you up to after you finish with Free Fire?
“It’ll be Freakshift. It’s a sci-fi movie set in a future ravaged by ecological troubles and monsters who came up through the ground, and the police force who have to hunt the monsters down before they destroy the town, so it’s a night in the life of them. That should shoot in August.”
How is Silk Road? The show you announced with HBO, looking?
“I’m not sure what’s going on with that, there’s no update at the moment.”
Free Fire is available in hmv stores now, you can also find it here in our online store...