Interview with Ben Wheatley for ‘Free Fire’

Ben Wheatley’s new film, ‘Free Fire’, tells the story of an arms deal in 1970s Boston that quickly goes wrong when personal agendas are brought to the negotiating table. There is a host of Irish talent on display in ‘Free Fire’ with Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley and Jack Reynor happily shooting up the enemy, an enemy which consists of Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer. With so many bullets flying, the question soon becomes, just who will make it out of ‘Free Fire’ alive? caught up with director Ben Wheatley in the December sun at the International Film Festival and Awards in Macau, China to find out more about ‘Free Fire’, how so many Irish actors got involved, and the unusual way in which he storyboarded the film.

How did it come about that you are telling an Irish story with so many Irish actors?
Ben Wheatley: It’s Cillian Murphy’s fault, basically [laughs] I met Cillian, he requested to meet up with me through my agent. It’s always great when actors do that and reach out. I had a few drinks with him, and we really got on well, and he went “If you ever think of me for something…”. I have had a few meetings like that, the one before that was with Reece Shearsmith, and when he said that we went and wrote ‘A Field in England’ to have him in it, and we did the same thing with Cillian. As soon as he expressed an interest, the poor fool, we went “That’s it!”. So then it was a matter of going “Well what is the story?” and I work a lot with Michael Smiley and I wanted to work with him again, and it’s like “What do Cillian and Smiley get up to together/?” then I had this shoot out idea, and I thought it had to be in the 70s, because it doesn’t work in the modern era because of mobile phones and stuff, and it all started to come together. I read this thing about the IRA buying guns in America and shipping them out through the QE2 to Belfast, and I thought “F**k that’s great!” Once that happened, then it all started to come together.

On the other hand then, what made you want to work with Cillian Murphy?
BW: It was meeting him. What we have tended to do more recently is not look at films for actors, you look at interviews and stuff, and a lot of it is done on personal stuff. You meet someone and you like them and you want to see what they would be like in something. You want that spark that’s interesting about them. There is a looseness to him, and an intensity to Cillian.

Obviously Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy were in from the start, what made you cast our re-adopted Irishman Jack Reynor?
BW: He was someone I wasn’t really aware of, and they had said about it through one of the agents. Then I watched all his back catalogue and was like “Wow, he’s F**king great” and then I had a few chats with him through Skype and we really got one well. Then he was terrific on the film. I keep in touch with all of them, and I will hopefully work with everybody again at some point.

The film is an actor-driven action movie, which must have been challenging to plan in terms of setting the movie in one room. How did you go about this?
BW: I built the environment in Minecraft so I could walk around inside it [laughs] It is about that space, and if you get the space wrong then you’re screwed. We wrote it first and I had a kind of 3D idea about how it would work, so I built it and had a look inside it. Then we had a look for a space that would fit that, and we found it! All the pillars and all the walls are built; that’s just a big, clean, empty room to start with. There were maps, story boards… On the other side, you can have improvisation because half the movie is just people chatting, and a lot of the time, because they are all injured, they don’t really walk around too much, so then you can have improvisation in those bits before you get back into the action.

Your previous films are not quite as contained as ‘Free Fire’, but have you built your sets in Minecraft before?
BW: No, but we will be doing it in the future; it’s a great way of working. Once you are physically confronted with the spaces, there’s nowhere to hide. Storyboards you can cheat and go “Well it’ll be all right’, and it’s not, but with something where you can just literally walk around it, you know that it’s going to work.

What it is it with you and ‘70s hair!?
BW: [laughs] I like the ‘70s, I think it’s interesting. You try and get it as close to make it look right, but in terms of specifically with hair I haven’t got a particular axe to grind.

How important was Martin Scorsese coming on board as producer for ‘Free Fire’?
BW: He helps in every respect, ‘cos he gives it a kind of legitimacy, which is great. He also helps with casting, so people are excited.

Surely you didn’t struggle with casting at this stage of your career?
BW: No, but it doesn’t hurt to have it even easier! [laughs] You don’t want to cause yourself trouble! Just having access to [Martin Scorsese] and being able to talk to him and to be within that circle is amazing. When you are talking to people who have had the same sets of problems – editing problems and logistical problems and special problems – just to be able to have access to that is amazing. It’s someone who’s written the rule book for most of it.

Why did you decide to use John Denver songs in the film?
BW: Well the Denver thing was I just love the music. I have been listening to ‘Annie’s Song’ since I was a little kid and then I thought “what would be the most horrible piece of music to lead to death?” and I thought it would probably be ‘Annie’s Song’; you are trapped in a van and with your last piece of energy do you turn off this music or do you just die. I also wanted a diegetic thing with the music, where you have got the original 8-track which just plays out. We did a thing on this movie, which we had never done before; we cut the movie without any music in it, except for the John Denver stuff; we didn’t put any temp music in. We previewed the film without any music in it, initially and it stood up without any music at all. I think if we had layered it over with temp [music] it would have been much more music in it.

Did you deliberately make ‘Free Fire’ to appeal to a broader audience?
BW: This question has come up a bit, and I always thought the other films were quite broad audience pleasers, and only as they come out I learn they’re not! [laughs] I think we always try to make films that lots of people will see, and then we slowly learn maybe not so much. I hope lots of people go and see it, that’s the plan.

To follow on from that, how useful are festivals like the IFFA Macau and the Dublin Film Festival in getting audiences interested in the film?
BW: I think anything that draws publicity to the movie is good; we’ve gotta fight against massive spends from big movies that plaster posters everywhere. Everyone’s got a finite amount of resource and time to give up to movies, so I think anything that can get people interested in cinema is great. With ‘High Rise’ in the UK and Ireland, I did a tour going around as many cinemas as I could, and that was worth it’s weight in gold, to see actual audiences in the cinemas, rather than it just being in London and doing 2 or 3 Q&As and going “Well that’s my job done, I’m fucking off!” [laughs]. I knew there was something going on that was wrong with that. I did a bit of a tour around with ‘Sightseers’ as well, but as soon as we did ‘High Rise’ it was obvious that that’s what we should be doing; working that as much as possible, because people outside of London just don’t bother to go, which is bizarre to me.

Do you enjoy touring with films and seeing your audiences like that?
BW: On a personal note it’s pain in the arse, because it’s a whole day when you only do five minutes work, which is to go “All right!?” and then answer five questions at the end of it, but it’s worth doing because of the connection to the audiences, and to make that trip to the cinema a bit more interesting for them, and then they’’ go out and tell their friends and it bubbles along. You start to build audiences wherever you go. It’s more important to see what they’re saying, what the vibe is of those audiences, and to know there is an actual audience for those movies. Certainly ‘High Rise’ was one where it’s a f**king hard movie, and it’s a bit weird. People think audiences are binary; that’s they’ll go to Marvel movies and they’ll go to art movies, but they’re not, they go across the whole board; people are interested in all types of cinema and if you’re too snobby about it, people can tell and then they’ll stop going.

Does this affect your writing in any way?
BW: What’s changed is that the earlier movies are a bit more punishing to the audience, and they are a bit more like “F**k you, see if you can take this”, and we have kind of grown out of that a bit [laughs] we are stopping doing that. This is like “How much do you like gun fights, do you like them for an hour!?”, but it’s trying to work out what the edges of telling a story are for an audience that’s big enough to sustain your budget. I might light movies that are really f**king opaque, but maybe not everybody does. There’s a bit of that that has happened over the last few years.

Can you talk about your writing process with Amy Jump? I have heard that Sharlto Copley’s role in ‘Free Fire’ was more or less written as you were shooting…?
BW: Yeah yeah. I wrote the original draft, the first draft of this one, and then it sat in a drawer for three or four years, and Amy’s going “I know what you need to do with it, I know what you need to do with it” and I am like “No, no, no”. Sometimes she just wants to let me just stew and sweat, ‘cos she knows she’s a much better writer than I am. Then she did a rewrite of it and then generally we rewrite as we cast, so we rewrote for Sharlto, and then suddenly it became a lot more interesting. We rewrote it for Armie Hammer and for all those guys. Then Amy was rewriting it everyday, which I didn’t worry about. We’d get new pages and I’d be like “Oh it’s getting better all the time!” and she’d be in the caravan on set just going “I can’t believe the pressure of having to write this every day”. She’s claimed she’ll never do that again. She’s had a sabbatical of about a year of no writing, so she’s back on it now. We don’t have a collaborative relationship as writers, in terms of standing together going “What about this line? Ooooh!”. I’ll write a draft, she’ll come in and totally destroy it and turn it into something else, or she’ll write it on her own and I’ll get the script and go “OK, that’s what we’re making”. I don’t give her notes or anything.

How early on did you have the female character in ‘Free Fire’? It so easily could have been an all male film.
BW: It was always going to be that. We were joking in that it’s like ‘Alien’, but it’s like she’s the alien and she’s Ripley at the same time, because she kills more people than anybody else in the whole film as well. It was exactly that; the plot hasn’t really changed at all, what plot there is. I didn’t want to see a thing with all guys, I wasn’t that interested in it. The first question in Toronto after we showed it was “Why aren’t there more women in it?” and I think that ‘70s setting is really great because it gives you no mobile phones, but on the other hand you are really stretching it to go there was a mixed gang of men and women dealing guns together in the ‘70s in Boston. It doesn’t make sense. The next film we’re doing is mainly female cast, so it all balances out, I think, in the end.

Do you remember specifically when you realised how well comedy and violence go together? Was there an epiphany for you?
BW: ‘Tom & Jerry’ probably, between that and’ Monty Python’, I think. Or ‘Time Bandits’ or one of the Gilliam movies. I think it was cartoons probably.

Do you think there are still a lot of people disturbed by that combination?
BW: Yeah, but I think the edge of being disgusted and finding things funny, and calling into question why you are laughing is what’s interesting. Drama should be questions about your morals, and so should comedy and violence be the same thing; why is it funny? Why do I think it’s funny?

What are you doing next?
BW: We are meant to be doing ‘Freak Shift’ next, which is a sci-fi thing, which is hopefully shooting in May so that’s next. It’s [about] monsters crawling up through the ground and smashing up the city; there’s a special police force that goes out and deals with it, which is mainly women. They have all been hired to be in the police force thinking they are going to be on the day shift, and then they got f**ked off to go to this terrible thing of cleaning up and destroying monsters. If you commit a crime you can have your sentence reduced by doing three weeks on the freak shift. ‘Wages of Fear’ is in development at the moment, which is the second remake of the original, and then I am doing ‘Hard Boiled’, which is an adaptation of a Frank Miller comic, and that was leaked to Deadline by someone. It’s very early stages of that. It’s true but it’s vague. There are no contracts or anything like that so it could just as easily not happen as happen. If it goes it will be great.

Words: Brogen Hayes

‘Free Fire’ is released in Irish cinemas on March 31st 2017. Watch the trailer below…