Released nationwide this week after making a splash on the festival circuit last fall, the movie "Free Fire" is an over-the-top crime-thriller about a black market arms deal that goes horribly, unexpectedly wrong in 1978 Boston. The film has earned a great deal of praise for its cast -- which includes recently-minted Oscar-winner Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, and Armie Hammer -- and for writer-director Ben Wheatley ("High-Rise," "A Field in England"), who turns a simple story into an audacious exercise in action filmmaking.
CITY talked with Wheatley by phone, discussing his methods, exactly how that fantastic ensemble came together, and the practical magic of making movies. An edited transcript of that conversation follows. You can check out CITY's review of "Free Fire" here.
CITY: How did the idea for "Free Fire" come about? I'd read the story was originally inspired by an actual FBI report?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I was doing research for another movie years ago, and I found this thing. I read it, and it was surprisingly chaotic and not much like anything I'd seen in films. Which I guess is not a massive epiphany, frankly. But I looked at it and thought, "God, there's something in this story, in this experience that I'm not feeling from movies." And I wondered what it would be like to be in the middle of it. So that just mulled around in my head a long time. And always with the films that Amy [Jump; co-writer] and I make, we try to find the bits of realism within the genre and bring that back to the audience.
So I was thinking about that for a while, and I came across this other thing I was doing some research about -- the Troubles in Northern Ireland -- and I'd seen that there had been these Irish guys coming over to America to buy guns to take back with them. And that started making me think about a 70's setting. From there, I met up with Cillian Murphy and I thought, "I really want to make a movie with him, so who could he be?" And I just started putting all those pieces together.
I have to imagine this film was a bit of a challenge to make, simply from the logistical side: you're working in a confined space, with lots of characters to keep track of. How did you go about planning it all out? What were some challenges you ran into?
I mean the main challenge is because it's in real time and in one space. In a normal movie, you never worry about where other people are, particularly. So in "Die Hard" or something, you're up there with Bruce Willis in a vent and he's crawling along. You're never cutting back to Hans Gruber having a cigarette, looking out the window. You never think about him and what he's up to -- he could be eating a sandwich. In this movie, you're very aware that everyone's still there in the room, so you have to keep coming back to them all the time. It's like a series of spinning plates.
In a normal movie, if you have a scene in an apartment and the character goes to a bar or the park or something, you never really have to accommodate the drive. You don't know how the characters got there really. They just kind of teleport there. Obviously they got there somehow, but as an audience member, you don't care about that. But in real time, you have to show that travel. If the story demands that a character's at the other side of the space, you need to see them do it, and that causes all kinds of logistical issues and stuff. So that was a challenge.
The other thing is that most of the effects in this film were practical. Every gunshot and every little explosion and pyrotechnic has to be plumbed into the walls, set into the set in some way and often plastered in. So the decisions of where those hits happen have to be made many, many weeks before you shoot. You have to be very precise with the blocking.
I'd read that you blocked out the set in "Minecraft" to start with?
Yeah, I mean people have been prevising stuff for 20 years or more, you know? But it started off as a very expensive technical exercise. You'd have to get these 3D guys in to do it and it would cost you loads of money, but this was -- obviously a child can use "Minecraft," so you could just sit down and build it like you would build it in Lego. Certainly for a very simple space like a factory, it gave us a chance to see where the pillars should be and how far you can walk between the things. Then I could share it with Laurie Rose, the director of photography, and Paki Smith, the art designer, and we could all talk about it and actually stand in the space and walk around it. That was really invaluable.
"Free Fire" is a violent film, but the tone stays generally pretty comedic throughout -- almost slapstick in many ways. That can be a tricky line to walk. How did you make sure you got that tone exactly right?
I guess it's just taste and having a sick sense of humor [laughs] -- and having done some slapstick and comedy stuff in the past. I've got background in viral online videos, which back in the day were all about -- viral video is like the edge of technology, but it was also stealing from Mack Sennett and Harold Lloyd and Chaplin and all that stuff. It was all the same old slapstick gags recycled. So I kind of have done quite a lot of it.
But the thing of the violence in the film is that sometimes it feels real, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes there's a chance to laugh and sometimes not, and I think that's really important. If it was just all really gratuitously horrible violence, you wouldn't be able to watch it. It'd be too much. But I think you need that pressure release. I've watched the film with big audiences and people really dig it and have a good time watching the film, which is a real change of pace from the films I've made in the past, which have been a bit more grueling and difficult. It's lovely to see an audience really appreciating something.
You put together a fantastic cast: Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, to name a few. Their chemistry together is definitely one of the reasons the film works so well. Can you talk a bit about how that ensemble took shape?
It came together initially through Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, who were the first people in because I wrote the parts for them specifically, right at the beginning. Then Amy and I had been big fans of Armie Hammer in "Lone Ranger" -- we just really liked that movie -- so we contacted our agent and said, "Look, is there any chance we could talk to Armie?" And we never thought we were going to get to him because he felt like too much of a Hollywood idol, a movie star. But we were talking to him within about three or four days, which was pretty amazing. And he just committed straight to the movie, and that was great.
Brie was a weird one because I'd met her, just a general meeting in LA, and I really liked her and thought she was really smart, and I knew she was a good actress -- that was never an issue. She had exactly the right attitude for the part. And "Room" wasn't really finished by that point. When I met her, she was just going off to shoot "Room." And by the time we did "Free Fire," it wasn't even finished. It was really amazing to see someone that you knew go through that rise right up into the run-up to the Oscars. We were all really proud and amazed by that whole journey.
You touched on it a bit earlier, but I wanted to go back to your use of mostly practical effects in the film -- including one pretty nasty moment between a van wheel and someone's head. Working practically adds another element to what was an already complex shoot. But how does that added realism change the atmosphere on set?
It really helps everyone, I think. You want to eliminate as much stuff from the set as possible that will get in the way of the actors sinking into their roles. So firing actual guns -- blank firing guns -- is important because you can't really fake that look in someone's eye of firing, because it's so scary. No matter what any tough guy says, the actual holding of a gun and the firing of it is alarming. It's basically holding a firework -- or I dunno, like a piston, a firework piston in your hands. It's incredibly loud. It's fiery. And the recall sends your hand back toward your head, which is not good. When people are just miming it and putting in the muzzle flashes and all the bullet cases coming out afterward, you tend to get stuff that doesn't look quite right. So that was important.
The truck stuff -- we'd seen the truck gag on "Penn and Teller," the magician show, and it was really amazing. They ran -- I can't remember which one, I think it was Penn -- and they ran him over with an 18-wheeler and it didn't kill him. It was an incredible bit of practical magic. And one of our effects guys, Dan Martin, was saying he knew how to do it -- that it was a counterweighted truck with a rubber wheel. So we built that, and it was incredible on set. It looked completely real.
At the end of the day, for me as a filmmaker, it eliminates a load of really sleepless nights at the other end of the process. 'Cause you look at the stuff and you go, "This is real, so I don't even have to think about it."
Your wife, Amy Jump, has been collaborating with you as co-writer and editor since your first film. What's your working relationship like when you're putting a film together? Has it changed over time?
No, not really. The writing process is always slightly different, but that's because of the projects themselves, I guess. They need different types of collaboration sometimes. And the editing is always pretty much the same. But the writing side of it isn't like the whole world of people finishing each other's sentences or pouring over a script and throwing bits in and chatting and stuff. When we write together, I generally write the first three or four drafts and then she'll come in at the end and rewrite over the top of it. And then we don't really talk about it. So on "Free Fire," she'll come in and rewrite every line of dialogue across the whole movie. But the structure and the plot and the ideas of it will have been from the original script that I wrote.
I'd heard that your next project is going to be a science-fiction film. Can you talk a bit about that? What else is in the pipeline?
Yeah, "Freakshift" is the name of it, and it's about a sort of police force that go out at night and are like bug exterminators. The city they're in is infested with these monsters who burrow up through the ground and smash everything up at night. And they basically have to hunt them down and kill them. I wanted to make something that was a bit like "Hill Street Blues" but was also like "Doom" the video game, and so it has all the action and tension that's in "Free Fire." But it's got a more traditional kind of story across it.
And I'm writing "Hard Boiled" for Warner at the moment, a Frank Miller and Geof Darrow adaptation, a comic book thing which is coming along. There's other odds and ends, but that's where the focus is at the moment, and getting through "Freakshift," which will hopefully shoot in August.
You've been pretty prolific over the last few years, and it sounds like that'll be continuing into the future. When you're working steadily like that, how do you keep the creative juices flowing and avoid burning out?
Well, I started directing quite late, so I've had many years when I've not been doing any directing. And I think as a pro rata, I'm just making up for the lost time. Basically with directing and making films, if you're able to make them, you have to do them. Because it's such a rare thing for the stars to align and a movie to actually get made. There are so many moving parts to it and it's so complicated that you've got to keep pushing forward and making stuff. I never really worry about burning out because it's the greatest job and the only job I want to do.
The thing about working is that -- you know you wouldn't say to a bus driver or someone, "You work a lot. Are you worried about burning out?" It seems to me this is the only job in the world where people worry if you're working year-to-year that there's some kind of problem. [Laughs] Everybody else is desperate to work all the time, otherwise they'd lose their apartments, you know? And I'm exactly the same; I wanna be working because it's my job, and when I'm not doing my job, I'm feeling miserable