Cult di­rec­tor Ben Wheat­ley takes aim at ac­tion movies

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - James Mot­tram

Two gangs go to war in a ware­house in 1970s Mas­sachusetts af­ter an arms deal goes wrong.

As pitches go, di­rec­tor and co- writer Ben Wheat­ley’s Free Fire – which goes on gen­eral re­lease this week af­ter screen­ing at the Dubai In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in De­cem­ber – is un­err­ingly sim­ple.

It is the sta­ple ac­tion-movie shoot- out “taken to the nth de­gree”, says the British di­rec­tor. Testos­terone flows, in­sults fly and trig­gers are pulled.

“I wanted to get back to that feel­ing of mak­ing some­thing that was about real peo­ple un­der real pres­sure in real jeop­ardy,” he says. “It wasn’t about su­per­heroes blow­ing up plan­ets and cities dis­solv­ing.” Famed for low- bud­get cult movies, in­clud­ing Kill List and Sight­seers, Wheat­ley was in­spired to build an en­tire movie around a fire­fight af­ter read­ing an FBI report of a shoot-out that hap­pened in the 1980s.

“It was re­ally messy and went on for ages,” he says. For two hours, guns were fired, in­juries sus­tained, but no one died.

“They were fir­ing at each other from point-blank range and not hit­ting each other,” he adds. “Even peo­ple who are trained, in the moment it’s so ter­ri­fy­ing and dif­fi­cult, you can’t ac­tu­ally do it.”

Using this as a frame­work, he built the mother of all stand-offs be­tween an IRA gang – led by Cil­lian Mur­phy and Michael Smi­ley – and a group of shady arms deal­ers, in­clud­ing loud­mouth Ver­non, played by District 9’ s Sharlto Co­p­ley, and sharp-suited Ord, played by Ar­mie Ham­mer ( The Man from U. N.C. L. E., Noc­tur­nal An­i­mals).

Also in the mix is Brie Lar­son (win­ner of the Best Ac­tress Os­car last year for Room) as the shady me­di­a­tor of the deal. But af­ter two foot sol­diers in the ri­val gangs trade blows, the sit­u­a­tion es­ca­lates into an all-out war. The shoot was any­thing but easy, f ir­ing off hun­dreds of blanks in a con­tained space.

“It’s not just that it’s loud, it’ll make you feel sick,” says Wheat­ley. “The ri­fles are so loud. One time, I didn’t have the ear pro­tec­tors on and they were shoot­ing past us from about 20 me­tres away – and the sound of it went through my head and it made me want to throw up.”

Minia­ture ex­plo­sive de­vices that sim­u­late the im­pact of the bul­lets – called squibs – were ev­ery­where.

“It’s prob­a­bly the most dan­ger­ous film I’ve ever done,” says Co­p­ley with a laugh.

The South African-born ac­tor was not too wor­ried, though, not even when it came to a scene in which Ver­non catches fire – he in­sisted on do­ing the stunt him­self, which was sched­uled on the last day of the shoot.

“I nearly chick­ened out,” he says. “I was to­tally gung ho, ful­lon ma­cho, ‘I’m go­ing to do this’. Then in the morn­ing, I saw how se­ri­ous all the stunt guys were about burns.”

Yet Co­p­ley did not back down – cov­ered in a flame-re­tar­dant gel that did its job – he lived to tell the tale. “It was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” he adds.

Even the ba­sics of film­ing were tax­ing for the ac­tors, with the lo­ca­tion – a former news­pa­per print­works in Brighton in south­ern Eng­land – cov­ered in filth.

“It was clean dirt, but it was dirt,” says Ir­ish ac­tor Cil­lian Mur­phy ( 28 Days Later, Peaky Blin­ders).

“It was a pris­tine ware­house be­fore we got there. They dis- tressed it to the most in­cred­i­ble level of de­tail. None of that rub­ble or dirt was there – all that dirt was shipped in.”

Co-scripted by Wheat­ley’s wife and reg­u­lar writ­ing part­ner, Amy Jump, the film draws its in­flu­ences from 1970s thrillers such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Who’ll Stop the Rain, although the spirit of Quentin Tarantino’s Reser­voir Dogs also looms large.

“In­evitably, peo­ple will draw com­par­isons,” says Mur­phy.

“I think that’s OK. Reser­voir Dogs was one of the great films of the 20th century, but enough time has elapsed … it’s fair enough to wear that in­flu­ence now.”

An­other shadow cast is that of Martin Scors­ese. The di­rec­tor of Good­fel­las be­came a fan of Wheat­ley’s af­ter watch­ing his break­out movie Kill List (2011) and joined Free Fire as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. “Meet­ing him was the high point of ev­ery­thing I’ve done,” says Wheat­ley.

is in cin­e­mas from to­mor­row

Courtesy Diff

Two ri­val gangs fight it out in Free Fire.

Photo by Jason LaVeris / FilmMagic

Di­rec­tor Ben Wheat­ley.

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