Free Fire: Ben Wheatley on His Weird War Movie

The mad genius behind Kill List and High-Rise sets up an arms deal then lets it blow sky-high in his latest film, Free Fire.

In Free Fire, a group of IRA members led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) shows up at an empty Boston warehouse, late one night in 1978, to buy guns from a South African arms dealer named Vern (Sharlto Copley). Brokering the deal are business associates Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). But it only takes a personal grievance here or a sarcastic comment there to set the two sides off against each other, and the warehouse soon turns into a shooting gallery where it’s soon every man or woman for themselves.

Free Fire is the brainchild of director/co-writer/co-editor Ben Wheatley, whose maverick career (which also includes TV and commercial work) has jumped from genre to genre in the course of six films. Starting with the 2009 crime thriller Down Terrace, Wheatley (mostly working with co-writer and co-editor Amy Jump) has tackled horror (2011’s breakout Kill List), black comedy (2012’s Sightseers), psychedelic historical fiction (2013’s A Field in England) and dystopian satire (last year’s High-Rise).

This time around Wheatley has set his sights back on the crime genre, giving it a visceral immediacy and 1970s aesthetic that attracted none other than Martin Scorsese, who served as an executive producer on the project. Den of Geek spoke with Wheatley not long ago in L.A. about the conception and making of Free Fire, along with his upcoming projects Freakshift and a remake of the 1953 classic The Wages of Fear.

Den of Geek: This movie almost felt like a one act play in a way. Did you set out to have it just be one extended sequence, in a sense?

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Ben Wheatley: No. I think there’s, certainly under the hood of the script, there’s definitely sets of acts, you know? Even if you were just to split it up into the first act, which is not shooting, and then a long, extended middle act, then with a wrapping up which is a five or six minute end act, you know, so yeah. It’s been interesting. People going, “Oh it’s just half an hour of setting up, and then the action.” If you think about most movies, the setting up is usually about two minutes or three minutes. It’s rare to spend that much time with characters, you know?

Was there any temptation to take it outside this one location? Or was the story, in your head, always this one place?

Yeah. It was always that. It was to do with the wounding of the characters, that they’re reduced in their options. As soon as they got more options, then they’re going to be running all over the place. Then it just becomes thin, you know? The fact that they’re there fighting a trench war was the thing that interested me.

You also seem to be saying something about how any kind of stand-off, whether it’s the one we’re having in North Korea right now or something else, can just completely escalate out of control at a moment’s notice.

Yeah. It’s a war movie as much as anything else, you know? It’s a weird symmetrical war movie where you see both sides of the argument, which is rare for a war film. It’s usually you get your good platoon and then the faceless enemy that they mow down by the thousands. The audience is definitely encouraged to hate the other side, whatever side it’s set on. This is like two sides, and you’re going, “Well they’re all reasonable. I like all of them.” That plays to the stuff I’ve been doing for years, which is the idea of good and bad, within movies, is always — the black hat/white hat thing is very unreal

Even despicable, horrible people who do terrible things are also human. And that’s part of the way how reconciliation works in the end is to try and find that humanity in people, rather than just hating them, you know? I think there’s a version of this movie where they don’t kill each other, where they get on all right and the gun deal goes okay. It’s all just cool. They probably would all get on in a bar, just about, except for maybe Vernon who is too irritating. The rest of them would probably all really get on. They’re in a really awful circumstance which just goes further and further wrong.

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What led you to set it in the 70s? Was it a particular mood or look or aesthetic you wanted to capture?

It wasn’t necessarily the look in terms of the clothes and stuff, because that is what it is. I mean I like the idea of period movies and sci-fi movies because they can punch us back out of the moment that we’re in. We can talk about stuff that’s going on now without it sounding preachy, so you can take different lessons from it or understanding or meanings from it in a way that if it was like a contemporary thing, everyone would be going, “Oh God. Really? What are you saying?” You know?

How long did you look until you found the right warehouse to shoot this in?

I think it was about a month of looking at places up and down the UK. Then, weirdly, it was one really near my house so I was like, “Brilliant. I can’t quite believe I’ve gotten away with this, but fine. We’ll do it.” I think Brie Larson thought she was going to actually go to Boston until about a week before the shoot.

Any particular films or filmmakers that influenced you on this one?

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I think the one that I realized, and it was as we were shooting it, was Evil Dead 2 in the sense that it’s the aggressively moving camera, aggressive action and gags. It’s that, and I guess Peckinpah’s stuff is always in the back of my mind. It wasn’t like I rewatched a load of stuff and go, “Oh let’s do it like that.” Certainly, yeah, the way that Laurie (Rose, cinematographer) and I were really pushing the camera about was more of a Raimi kind of thing. For me, Raimi and Scorsese are people that I’ve, from a very early time, watched their stuff and thought, this is what filming is, you know? Where it’s like a full-on dynamic movement of camera.

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You can actually call him Marty now, because he was an executive producer on this.

Yeah, I don’t (laughs). I call him Mr. Scorsese, is what I call him.

What was his input on this? What was your interaction like?

He and his partner Emma Tillinger Koskoff read the scripts and stuff, the original drafts, and not much came back from that in terms of notes. The main thing was we took the edit to New York before it had the music on it, sat with him and we watched it. Then there was a long discussion about the film after that, which was great, you know? He was very generous about it, and he really liked it. It could have been a real disaster if he didn’t like it. I don’t know what we would have done really, but it was fine.

When I interviewed you for Kill List, you were talking about Freakshift then. But that is now your next film.

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Yeah. Finally, yeah.

Has it changed much during the ensuing few years?

It’s pretty much the same. The draft’s changed a bit over the years, but finally its time has come. I’m glad I didn’t shoot it back then. I wouldn’t have known what I was doing. Having done Free Fire is a great primer for the use of physical effects, action, action editing and stuff. I think it would have been overwhelming, that movie, to do immediately after Kill List.

I seem to recall something about a police station under siege from creatures of some kind…

No. It’s more like a future where they’ve been doing fracking, and they’ve upset stuff under the ground from shale gas. These monsters dig their way up each night, and then maraud around the city. The city sends these guys out to basically stop them, so they’re a little bit like exterminators. It’s not terribly glamorous. It’s not something that’s suddenly happening. It’s been happening for a long time, and it’s like Hill Street Blues. It’s like a day and a night of the shift that has to deal with the creatures that night, and then there’s various stories within that.

If you remake The Wages of Fear after this, are you going to call William Friedkin (who remade the film as Sorcerer in 1977) and get his two cents?

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I had a slight conversation with him via Twitter, but I don’t know. I wonder how excited he’ll be about it. Not massively, I wouldn’t have thought, you know?

Free Fire is out in theaters this Friday (April 21).