FEATUR ING NON-STOP ACTION AND AN ENSEMBLE CAST INCLUDING OSCAR WINNER BRIE LAR SON, FREEFIRE IS BEN WHEAT LEY’S BRUTA L HOMAGE TO HARDBOILED THRILLERS. CRIMESCENE MEET S THE DIRECTOR TO DISCUSS SHOOTOUTS, THE ’70S AND MART IN SCORSESE.
Director Ben Wheatley talks classic crime, Scorsese and filming the ultimate shoot-out.
After his hitman horror Kill List, killers-in-a-caravan comedy Sightseers, the Lsd-fuelled Civil War tale A Field In England and J.G. Ballard adaptation High-rise, Ben Wheatley has fast become one of the most admired British filmmakers of his generation. So much so, he caught the attention of Martin Scorsese. The esteemed director of Mean Streets and Goodfellas was in the UK making Hugo when he encountered Kill List, Wheatley’s 2011 follow-up to his no-budget debut Down Terrace.
Understandably, Wheatley was ecstatic when he read an interview with Scorsese waxing lyrical about this discovery. “[ Scorsese’s] Taxi Driver was the first film I ever saw where I realised there was a director involved,” he says, fighting off a cold when he meets Crime Scene at London’s Corinthia Hotel. “It was so different from anything I’d seen. Up until that, everything else felt generic, but that felt really raw and alive and the camera moves were incredible.”
When he was promoting Sightseers in New York, Wheatley met Scorsese at his office – and so began a beautiful friendship. Offering up poster quotes for A Field In England was one thing; but now Scorsese is the executive producer on Wheatley’s sixth film, Free Fire, nominally set in Massachusetts in the 1970s. As a weapons-for-cash exchange goes bloody and brutal in a deserted warehouse, aptly – given the Scorsese connection – it’s Wheatley and his co-writer/wife Amy Jump’s first foray into the crime genre.
While the obvious influence for this one‑location thriller is Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Wheatley chuckles when asked about his inspirations. “I did a press release saying it was all influenced by basically every crime film ever made, from The Big Sleep to Tarantino. But I wanted to get back to that feeling of making something that was about real people under real pressure and in real jeopardy, but much smaller stakes. It wasn’t about superheroes blowing up planets and cities dissolving. Crawling up a flight of stairs is one of the big action sequences in the film!”
The plot begins as two IRA gunmen – Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) – arrive to buy a truck-load of rifles from mouthy South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). But when the hot-headed Harry (Jack Reynor) spots Chris and Frank’s junkie minion Stevo (Sam Riley), with whom he’d had an altercation the night before, so begins the Mexican stand-off to end them all. “Free Fire is an example of unchecked male ego,” says Copley. “It’s literally a bar fight gone ultimately wrong.”
Oddly, the starting point was a British crime film: Julian Jarrold’s Red Riding: 1974, the first in the trilogy of TV films that came from David Peace’s sensational quartet of books set around the time of the Yorkshire Ripper. It was the bar shootout in the film’s final stretch that really fired Wheatley’s imagination. “I wondered, ‘How many people have ever been shot in the UK in one shooting?’” His research swiftly led him to the answer: not many. And so Wheatley went down a “rabbit hole”, investigating stories of real-life shootouts.
“It’s very different from what you see in the movies,” he explains. “If you’ve not got military training, you’ve got no chance with a gun, basically.” One particular ’80s shootout, according to an FBI transcript he read, went on for 90 minutes, with rivals sustaining injuries but not dying. “I thought that was interesting – they were firing at each other from point-blank range and not hitting each other. Even [ for] people who are trained, in the moment, it’s so terrifying and difficult, you can’t actually do it. I thought that could be the basis for something.”
Other ideas then began to percolate: setting it in the ’70s automatically ruled out the use of mobile phones. “It had to be set in a period where you couldn’t just pick up a phone and go, ‘Oh, we’ve been shot!’. That would’ve changed the shape of it.” Suddenly, reaching a landline in an office upstairs becomes a vital plot point as characters race – or rather crawl because of leg wounds – to phone in reinforcements. It’s one of several “mini-missions” that Wheatley structures the film around.
Then there was the setting. Originally keen to work with Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, Wheatley “tried to think of a way that they could be put together.” Also keen
An example of unchecked male ego, it’s literally a bar fight gone ultimately wrong
to make an American-set film, Wheatley had read stories about the IRA buying guns in America and smuggling the contraband back to Belfast on the QE2. “But the film itself is very unspecific – there are no dates in the film and it also never says where it is either,” the director adds. “There’s a reference to Massachusetts but there are no specifics. We were very particular about that.”
While Wheatley admires crime writers like James Ellroy (“I’ve read a lot of his”) and Raymond Chandler (“all that LA crime stuff”), it was ’70s films that provided a “tonal” model for Free Fire – like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Straight Time and Charley Varrick. “There’s a toughness to them which is different,” says Wheatley. “I think it’s a generational attitude. How they deal with their masculinity. Their own morality is completely different from now. The ’70s movies are much harsher than they would be now. The characters are colder.”
On set, film references were made. “We talked about a lot of stuff,” says Reynor ( Sing Street). “I think Ben has a deep-seated love and respect for hardboiled action movies, like Point Blank, the Lee Marvin film. I know he loves that.” Wheatley even gave Reynor a copy of 1978’s Who’ll Stop The Rain (aka Dog Soldiers), in which Nick Nolte plays a Vietnam veteran turned heroin smuggler. “That’s the thing about Ben – he’s a wealth of knowledge when it comes to these really old-school action films.”
Although Free Fire is technically Wheatley’s first American film – and even features Oscar-winner Brie Larson ( Room) and Armie Hammer ( The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) in the cast – it was actually shot in Sussex, in the old printing works belonging to the Brighton Argus newspaper. With the production shipping in dirt to distress what was a pristine warehouse and turn it into a filthy, rubble-filled hovel, Wheatley makes no apologies for keeping the production local. “They bring Gotham City to London all the time, so it’s not as odd as it sounds.”
Even the opening scene, at the docks, was shot in England – at Shoreham. In a strange stroke of luck, the production even found an abandoned Gran Torino car sitting there. “We looked at it and it had tax discs in it from New York 1974 – what is this car doing here?” says Wheatley. “It was basically bought in America, in New York. Someone had died and it had been shipped to Shoreham. The guy who got it in Shoreham died and it sat there since the ’70s. So we went ‘Can we use it?’ And they went ‘Yeah!’ It was really bizarre.”
In keeping with the old-school movies Wheatley was influenced by, he was keen to do as much as possible in-camera. From the bullet blast muzzle flashes to a head being squashed by a tyre, the production employed practical effects rather than digital trickery. Continuity was a nightmare, though, with each bullet fired needing to be accounted for. “If you fire at the wall and dust comes out of that wall, that all has to be built into panels in that wall – it’s not something you can make up on the day.”
Most shockingly, Sharlto Copley ( District 9) volunteered to shoot the scene – without a stuntman double – where his character is set on fire. It was filmed on the very last day of the shoot. “I nearly chickened out on the morning,” the actor laughs. “I was totally gung-ho, full-on macho, I’m going to do this. Then in the morning I saw how serious all the stunt guys were about burns, they really don’t mess around. I’d never done a burn before. I think I’d done something with a flame on an arm once but nothing like this.”
Sadly, as romantic an idea as it is to imagine Martin Scorsese arriving in the mean streets of Brighton, the director didn’t make it down to Wheatley’s set. But he was kept fully up to date on Free Fire, as it went from the shoot to post-production. “Nothing goes through without him seeing it and being across it,” says Wheatley. “We had to take it to him and show it to him, which was terrifying. But he loved it – he thought it was great.” High praise indeed. Free Fire opens on 31 March.
Cillianmurphy as Chris. Rogues’ gallery: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor.
Michael Smiley plays an IRA gunman whose arms deal goes off the rails. Justine (Brie Larson) brokers an illfated meeting betweenira gunmen and a gang with a stash of guns.
Armie Hammer on set with director Ben Wheatley.