Ben Wheatley interview: Free Fire, Minecraft, Statham

Free Fire director Ben Wheatley chatted to us about the film, Martin Scorsese, Freakshift and his Jason Statham double-bill theory...

We have a lot of love for Ben Wheatley here at Geek Towers. His films, from Kill List to the star-studded ilk of High Rise, never fail to impress. And on TV, he directed the stellar opening episodes of Peter Capaldi’s stint on Doctor Who.

And now he’s brought us Free Fire, a thrilling close-confines shootout movie which plonks Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and more in a warehouse full of semi-automatic and lets chaos ensue.

Wheatley wrote the script for Free Fire with his wife and writing partner Amy Jump, having been inspired by an FBI incident report from the 1980s. The mighty Mr Martin Scorsese was involved in the movie as an executive producer.

The resultant film is light on plot (‘gun deal gone wrong’ is all the synopsis you need before seeing it) and high on bloodshed and chuckles. You can find our four-star review of the movie here.

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Towards the end of a massive publicity tour, Mr Wheatley chatted to us on the phone about how the film came together, what he’s working on next (spoiler alert: it’s a monster movie with Alicia Vikander) and, of course, Jason Statham.

A lot of the interviews I’ve read about this film mention an FBI report you read, but they kind of gloss over it in the first sentence. I was wondering, could you tell us a bit more about what that was, and how it came to you?

Yeah, well it was just… I was doing some research on… um, I think was actually Rob Hill [star of Wheatley’s 2009 crime drama Down Terrace] that found it originally, back in the day. This would’ve been in the late nineties, mid-nineties, or something. He found it.

It was a report that was about a shootout that had happened in Miami, and it had been, if I can remember… it was like the FBI had been tailing these guys who were going to rob a bank. And they had got all sorts of weapons on them, and body armour. Um, and I think two FBI cars pulled over this car with the criminals in it. And a shootout started between all parties.

And it just went on for ages, so, and they were shooting away at each other. And it kind of… no one was dying, but they were all kind of getting wounded. Eventually, I think, a couple of the FBI guys were tragically killed. But it was, when they did the report… the report reads, kind of, shows the… it’s got a coroner’s report as part of it as well.

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It shows where all the bullets went. How they entered the bodies, and how they exited. How many shots were fired by each person. And what the actions were, as much as they could remember them.

And, reading it, I was just amazed by it. I mean, it’s like a short story, really, when you read it. Just in itself. And I thought, there definitely seemed to be something in that story. The story of action, that I wasn’t seeing really in drama itself, it wasn’t being addressed.

And when did Cillian Murphy come into it, because I’ve read that he approached you?

I’d been thinking about it for a long time, you know? Like some kind of procedural, shootout, action film. But I didn’t really have an idea for it, except that. And basically yeah I met with Cillian in, I dunno, 2012, or 11, or something like that… and he’d talked to my agent and said ‘do you wanna meet up?’ which was really flattering. And it’s always exciting when an actor shows any kind of interest in the stuff I’m doing, so yeah, I went out and had a drink with him.

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We got on really well, and he basically said, ‘can you think of anything? If you ever think of anything that I would be good for, that I would fit, any films you’re making, please get in contact.’ And I thought, I’d be a fool to let this kind of chance go, so I thought, what film could I make with Cillian, you know? And I started thinking about it.

And then, one of the ideas I had was based around some research I’d been doing into The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I’d read about this stuff, like, the IRA buying guns in America and ferrying them across back to Belfast in the QE2. I thought that was really interesting, and I started reading around that, and kind of realised that there was this kind of world, where…

I wanted characters in this film, but I didn’t want to have normal, stock, kind of, goodies and baddies or kind of, like, American crime stuff. Because it wasn’t that. It’s been done so much. They seemed very trope-y, and kind of generic, so I wanted a set of characters that would have real lives and real backgrounds and real stakes, you know?

And so the idea of people coming to America to specifically buy guns, that felt like a… it felt more interesting than your off-the-peg criminal types.

And when did it become Sharlto Copley that he was buying guns from? Because he’s just terrific.

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Well that was just a bit of luck, really. Again, he’d… we’d cast it, and I think it was… someone had dropped out, and we were just going, you know, ‘arghhhh.’ And Sharlto’s name came up, and I hadn’t thought of him originally. But I loved him so much in District 9. I was like, ‘aah, that’s such a great idea.’ And I chatted to him, we got on really well. And we just changed the character to fit him.

He would’ve done it in an American character, but I just thought, I like his accent. And I like the mixture of accents in the film, and I like that confusion where people are speaking the same language but they can’t understand each other. You know, which is basically the theme of the whole film.

So I kind of, I wanted to hear that, I wanted him to stretch that accent as much as possible and kind of take it for a walk. So I said, ‘no, don’t worry man, just be yourself.’ I mean, obviously he’s not playing himself, it’s not really him, it’s a performed version.

And then we talked about kind of characteristics of guys that would be running guns, um, out of South Africa around that period. And Sharlto had a load of great ideas about it, and he kind of developed the character from there.

When did Martin Scorsese get involved? How did that happen, and what was it like to not just meet him but also work with him?

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It was… I’d met him through… he’d been interviewed in the Telegraph, I think it was, while he was doing Hugo, they asked him what he was doing in the evenings. And he was saying, ‘oh, I’ve watched some movies, like, local filmmakers’, and he said he’d seen the Andrea Arnold movies, and he’d seen Joanna Hogg’s films, and then he said he’d seen Kill List. And he liked it.

And I was like, that’s great, so I talked to talked to my agent and I said, ‘can you get in touch with him and see if he wants to meet up?’ Just because, being a massive film fan, that was it for me. That was a high point, you know. So that got sorted, and I met him and it was just as great as I’d hoped really. He totally is amazing to meet in the flesh, and we chatted for a good couple of hours and then that was that.

And then, a few months later, we got contacted by Sikelia, which is his company, and they said ‘oh, if you’ve got any projects that you’re doing, you might want to show them to us and we might be able to help’. So, I sent Free Fire over and they got involved at that point.

What was his feedback like? I imagine he must be a great person to ask questions of.

Yeah, but I didn’t really. We took the film to show him once it had been finished, really, except for the music. Because he’s just busy, you know? It’s like… so, we showed it to him…

The thing is, with movies, you show people stuff half-made, it could make them really… it can put them off the film forever. You only really get one fresh go at showing something to someone. And once you’ve done it once, they can never really look at it again. So you really have to pick your moment when you show a movie.

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You show it too early to someone, there’s so many excuses you have to make about something that’s half-done. If you have to kind of explain, ‘yeah, it’s a bit slow, the sound’s a bit bad, that’ll be better’, you know, by that point you’ve made so many excuses that it’s not worth getting the feedback.

So we held it right until the very end, you know, we showed it him just before we had the score written, really. There was an edit of it that was a very very tight, but it hardly had any music in it. Um, but even on that version, he really enjoyed it, which was a massive relief. So we kind of chatted about that, and he just gave me a lot of confidence really.

Just to backtrack a bit, I’ve read that you built the warehouse from the film on Minecraft. How long did that take? How big was it? Why did you want to do that?

It was to scale, because you can build to scale on Minecraft. I think the cubes are like a metre square, that you move around with, the general blocks. So you can build things to the right scale. Um, and then it’s just a really helpful aid, you know? Because you can build stuff and then walk around inside it.

And then you can look at all the viewpoints, look at where all the people are shooting from, and work out whether they can see each other, whether the distances are too long. Minecraft also supports different fields of view, which are basically lenses, so you can see what the wide-angle lens looks like in the space, and what the long lens looks like in the space. Which is pretty amazing, you know?

And you can put lighting in there, to a degree. Um, and so we had all the stairs up to the offices, overlooking the space, and all that stuff. And the length of corridors, and see how long it takes to walk in. You know, how long those things each take. And it was great. Basically, it was Minecraft because I can use it.

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You know, I don’t need to learn a computer-aided design package, or some bit of complicated 3D, I can just sit there and just knock it up. It’s just my time, then.

I didn’t fill all the walls in, and stuff like that, because it was gonna take me forever to do that, so Andrew Starke, the producer… his son did it. Basically I just roughed it out and made the skeleton of it, and then he spent an afternoon just filing the walls in and putting the ceiling on and all that kind of stuff.

That’s brilliant.

It was really useful, you know? And I’d do it again. Like the one I’m looking at now is, there’s an animation package that comes with Grand Theft Auto, which you can do loads of car stunts on and stuff. It’s quite useful.

Jumping forward again. When you were all on set, you had earplugs in because of the noise. What was it like trying to direct people in that kind of environment?

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Yeah, it’s fine, you know. I don’t remember that being an issue. I know the actors were a bit worried about it, just because they can’t… your own voices sound weird. As you do when you’ve got your fingers in your ears. You’re not confident in your own voice because it sounds different.

It was fine. It was a nasty nasty dirty place, but you know, not as bad as digging a ditch or doing a proper job.

And is there a knack to filming someone getting shot just right? You have some really wince-inducing ones in this. People were gasping in the cinema when I saw it.

Yeah, I think most of the gasps in the cinema are to do with things that are a bit more relatable, aren’t they? Like people putting their hands on syringes and things that are… I think the bigger-ticket violence, people have no understanding of what that would be, so it doesn’t affect them as much when they watch it.

I think it’s stuff like, you know, the bit where Jack Reynor gets the crowbar thrown at his fingers, that’s quite… people go ‘ahh!’ at that. Just because you know what it’s like to stub your fingers on stuff, you know?

But yeah, I think the world of films… where people flying backwards when they’re shot, is kind of a bit weird. Basically, physics dictates that whatever the recoil of a weapon is, is how much pushing power it has on someone. So, if a pistol just kicks slightly, that’s all the power it ever has when it hits someone.

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You don’t really slide through the air, that’s just movies, you know. So that’s kind of what we were trying to get to. And apparently, a lot of people who fling themselves about when they’re shot, is from seeing stuff on TV. It’s a learned reflex, you know, and if you’re shot in the back, you don’t, sometimes, depending on what the calibre of the weapon is, you don’t even notice it, you know?

Obviously you notice it, but you don’t have that kind of incredible… you wonder what it is, you don’t know immediately that you’ve been shot, so you don’t throw yourself around. But if you see a gun firing at you, you tend to flop onto the ground.

There’s been a lot of talk on the web recently about another project of yours, Freakshift. What can you tell us about that one?

Yeah, well it’s a film we’ve been trying to get made for a long time, and it’s a sci-fi movie. An action movie. And it’s basically about a kind of future that has had some kind of ecological disaster. And these creatures burrow up through the ground. They come up at night, and just maraud around smashing things up.

And there’s a police force that goes out at night, that have to deal with them. They’re more like rent-a-kill or something. And they’re often made up of people who’ve been sentenced to time in county jail. And they’re kind of given the option of doing three weeks on the Freakshift or three years in prison. Because the life expectancy is quite short on the Freakshift.

So, it’s basically about this woman who’s family are killed, or her husband is killed, and she’s arrested for breaking curfew and she’s put on the Freakshift. And it’s her kind of experiences of trying to survive a night, and where it goes from there, so yeah, it’s kind of lots of monsters and shotguns and action.

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That sounds great! And is Alicia Vikander definitely signed on, or is she circling? The internet can’t seem to agree on it.

Yeah, well it’s not an official official official thing, it’s kind of, it looks as good as these things get until you hear otherwise.

Do you know what you’re going onto straight after this, or is it up in the air?

It should be Freakshift, yeah. That’s meant to be shooting in August, so it’s kind of, I’ve just got to finish this tour which kind of basically ends Saturday [1st April]. So, then I can get straight into it. I’ve got people waiting, you know, art department people and location scout people. I’ve been doing endless Q&As up and down the country so I haven’t been able to get to them, so yeah it all starts Monday for me, which I’m really excited about.

Just one random thing before I have to go. You directed Peter Capaldi’s first Doctor Who episodes, and now he’s nearing his end on the show. Have you been able to keep up with it?

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Um, I saw the first two series of it, yeah. Um, and yeah, it’s really dictated by my son, who was a big fan of it at the time. And he’s getting a bit older, so he watched less of it as it went on.

It’ll be interesting to see where they go, with the new Doctor and the new showrunner of Who. But, you know, I hope they do something radical with it.

If I’ve got time, our traditional Den Of Geek closing question is this: what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Oh, well that would have to be Crank.

Brilliant.

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But Crank has to be watched in a double bill with Collateral.

Fair enough…

Because he’s in Collateral, isn’t he?

He is.

And he passes the briefcase to Cruise, and I’ve always imagined that Collateral is the day before Crank. And then he goes home, and then he wakes up in Crank. The two join together, don’t they? Yeah.

I’d never thought of that, but I’ll need to do the double bill now.

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I think… Collateral is based in LA, isn’t it?

I think so. [Having looked it up, I can now confirm that it is.]

Yeah yeah, there you go. Double bill. I saw Crank in LA, when I was there one time, and it really made me feel homesick. Because he’s so quintessentially a Brit abroad in that, just a fucking… you know… just in a complete bad temper, and not having enough Marmite or cups of tea. [Laughs]

[Also laughs]

What’s the general answer to the Jason Statham question?

You do get a lot of Cranks, to be honest.

Crank is good, though. It’s a great film.

You get a few Lock Stocks as well.

Eeeeh…. yeah, that’s too early Statham for me. I think, yeah. I’ve got a soft spot for the first Mechanic, as well. I quite like that, and yeah… I think he’s great, Statham, I think we should have more Statham stuff. They should put him in Star Wars, he’d be good in that.

He’d be great. I’d love to see that…

Yeah. I always like to think, all the Stormtroopers are all cockneys aren’t they, in Star Wars, because of where they shot it. You know, there’s not enough cockney Sith lords and stuff. Cockney Jedi.

[Laughs] It’d be better than… have you seen, today, they’ve been saying Gary Barlow’s in the next one?

Yeah, that’s an… [Laughs] … inspired casting, isn’t it? I look forward to James Blunt turning up as well. Maybe all of Coldplay.

Ben Wheatley, thank you very much!

Free Fire is in UK cinemas from Friday.