Ben Wheatley: Free Fire, Scorsese and Making Things Personal

April 24, 2017
The cult favourite behind High-Rise and Sightseers is in top form with the hilarious, suspenseful and violent, Free Fire, starring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, and more.

It’s the late ‘70s in Massachusetts. When two Irishmen meet with a gang of American arms dealers, in an isolated factory, for a ‘by-the-books’ gun deal, things turn south quickly. Guns are drawn and taunts are fired liberally. Everyone is left struggling for survival and soon they learn that the deal was doomed right from the start.

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire comes hot on the heels of last year’s visual feast, High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston. Before that, Wheatley directed a string of indie classics such as Kill List and A Field in England. He has also directed for television including the first two episodes of Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi. A seasoned and divisive filmmaker, Wheatley’s films are defined by their high-stylisation, their psychologically complex characters and mixture of comedy and dark subject matter. He also has a number of upcoming projects including the television series Silk Road set to air on HBO and an adaptation of Hard Boiled based on the Frank Miller graphic novel.

We thought we’d hit you with a tough question first. Not long ago you directed two episodes of Doctor Who, but who’s the best Doctor?

Tom Baker.

We bring up Doctor Who because since then your career has exploded on the international stage with High-Rise and Free Fire. Could you talk about how those bigger budget films have affected your filmmaking process?

I think that my day to day process is pretty much the same as it’s been since Down Terrace [2009]. But what those budgets mean is, in terms of the control of the image, there can be sets built where you can control every aspect of those sets. And the other side of it is with more money you can use more camera equipment, so I can move cameras around in a more dynamic way than I could do in the earlier movies. But, generally, on the floor, when I’m working, it’s the same way I’ve worked since the beginning and with pretty much the same crew, as well.

You’ve co-written and co-edited all your films, excluding Down Terrace, with your wife, Amy Jump. Why do you two always work together and what does she bring to your films?

Amy had a lot to do with Down Terrace behind the scenes as well, so it’s no coincidence that that film fits in with my others. Also, she’d edited a short film called Rob Loves Kerry, which you can find on the Down Terrace DVD. So, she kind of developed the editing style that is in Down Terrace on that short. And if you see that, you’ll see what I mean. What’s interesting about Amy, for me, is that I’m a fanboy and a cinephile and I bring that to the filmmaking, but she sits outside both the industry and fandom. She’s not that interested in it. She’s interested in images and storytelling, but on her own terms. So, that works as a filter, really, but it also makes our films stand out.

Amy Jump

For contemporary directors, it’s not very common for them to edit their own work. What do you think being in control of the editing does for your films and what is the importance of editing for you?

I think that there’s an idea that you can’t edit your own stuff, because you’re too close to it. But I don’t sign up to that. I’m incredibly tough on the material and Amy is even tougher on it. And I started as an editor, so it’s one of my core skills. I love editing and I think that the control of the frame, in the cut, is complete control of the film, and why you would let someone else have that control over you or having to negotiate with someone else, seems crazy to me. So, that’s why I do it and it’s just quicker. Instead of talking to someone about it I can just do it. But it’s not that unusual, because the Coen Brothers cut their own stuff. I think a lot of directors are quietly cutting their own stuff in the background. (Laughs)

Directors must get annoyed when the studios step in and take over.

Well, that’s a different thing. If you’re doing a studio picture, the editor is a different kind of beast and the control of the film is very different. But when you’re making the films we’re making; Rook Films is owned by me, Amy, and Andy Starke. We own the company that makes the movies. We are in complete control of every aspect of it. So, there is no one telling me what to do and I have contractual final cut on everything. That’s control.

Free Fire is just one room, one set. How much preparation did you put in before shooting and did you find the one location liberating or restricting creatively when compared to something like High-Rise?

We put a lot of preparation and planning into Free Fire. It was a very detailed script and there were two-thousand storyboards and we built 3D models and built kit models and paper models of the set. So, that side of it was kind of ridiculous. But I felt that the space, even though it’s just one, kind of, big factory, it’s almost like an infinite space, because once you got onto the ground it was very different. And because of the way it was designed, the walls and what-not can move around. It’s almost like a series of small spaces rather than one big space. So, it never got old weirdly. The difference between it and High-Rise is that when you’ve got a lot of locations, like you have in High-Rise, that becomes very stressful, because you’ve got to get in and out of them very quickly. And you might feel that you’re not there as long as you’d hoped to be. So, even though it becomes visually richer on-screen, it’s very different. I think it’s swings and roundabouts, really.

Martin Scorsese is an executive producer on Free Fire. What was it like working with him and what do his films mean to you?

Seeing Taxi Driver when I was a kid, was the first time I think I understood that there was an actual director behind the camera. I had never seen a film like it. It was almost like the beginning of cinema for me. And it was such a random thing. I’d rented a VHS copy of it from the video shop, looked at it and thought “a film about a taxi driver. That sounds really boring.” I thought it was something to do with Danny DeVito and a taxi. I was such an idiot. So, I watched this thing and it just rearranged my brain, basically, in ninety minutes, or however long it is. And I’d never had that experience before. Then I started looking out for his other movies and the next film that did that for me was Goodfellas. It was kind of akin to taking drugs, in a way. It was just a sharp rush. Just images, one after the other. So, he’s incredibly important to me in that respect. Since I was a teenager, I’ve read everything about him, watched all his movies, all the movies that inspired them, and so on. But then to meet him was just insane. It’s a rare moment that you meet someone who you’ve read books about. It’s kind of odd. But his involvement in the movie was very generous and gentle. He was more of a sounding board. He watched the movie just before we’d put the music on it and midway through the sound-mix, so the cut was locked, but we hadn’t had the score written, and he just chatted us through it and pointed out bits he felt weren’t clear and what he liked about it. We had a good chat. It made me very confident about the film.

One thing that’s similar between you and Scorsese is your use of violence. In Free Fire, in particular, you just went for it in that regard. Because it’s so prevalent in your body of work, what role does violence play in your films?

Sometimes it’s part of the gear changing of emotions in the movies we make, in that, they go from funny to horrible and back again really quickly. Partially, it’s a physiological thing of releasing those endorphins in people as they’re watching; the fact that you shake people up chemically. And that’s the kind of cinema I’ve always enjoyed the most; when you’re rushing backwards and forwards between different positions and trying to make sense of it. It’s that thing of being shown violence which you agree with and you like and laugh about and then being shown violence that goes too far and then you realise, though you were laughing about it earlier on, your moral position has shifted; and dealing with that shift, that backwards and forwards. That’s partially what we’ve been doing in our films. Going “you like violence. You’re a genre fan, but you really like it. What is it that you like about it? And how do you feel about it when you’re actually served it up?”

Free Fire has a brilliant cast too with Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and more. What was it like on set? What did the atmosphere feel like?

It was good and upbeat. We shot in Brighton, on the south coast in the U.K. It was summer and it’s a great town to be in during summer, so everyone was really happy to be there. They all got on really well though and we’re all still friends now. There were emails bouncing around with everybody cc’d in on it. We were sharing photographs and if you look on Instagram between Armie Hammer and Jack Reynor and Michael Smiley, everyone really, you can see that. They all became good friends. Also, they’re all on set most of the time, so it was quite intense and I think they really liked that. I work quite fast, so they’re always filming, meaning there’s less time for introspection and looking at Facebook and all that shit.

They must have loved the dialogue in this too. It’s just so sharp and witty and funny. What’s influenced your writing most, do you think?

The original draft was very dark and miserable. Amy rewrote it basically, and made it really, really filthy. She added all the really ripe, vile bits into it. She never ceases to amaze me with her dialogue. (Laughs) How brutal and detailed it is, like the taunts that Stevo [Sam Riley] gives Harry [Reynor], that’s all Amy. (Laughs) So, the cast loved it and it was nice to have an ensemble where everyone has a decent chunk of stuff to do in it. When we were pulling it together, we could see they all really brought their A-game, because they’re all in every scene together. They could see what level the performances were at and then they all adjusted themselves accordingly.

So, at the end of the day, what inspires you to make a film? What’s the correlation between Down Terrace and everything up to, and including, Free Fire?

There’s a lot of things that make a film. A lot of the time I’m just thinking about stories, and walking around, and I’ve got music on and they bubble around in my head. If they can last through that then they get written down on scraps of paper, and then eventually I’ll just blast out a script and see if it can last, see if there’s ninety minutes in it or not. But the other end of it is, I watch a lot of movies whilst thinking, “well I’m enjoying these films, but what’s missing?” I feel that there’s a story that’s not being told here and I’d like to see it. So, I just go and write it. That’s one part of it. At the end of the day, my stories are two different things. They sit inside genre, they’re genre movies, but they’re also often a commentary on relationships, because they’re written and made by Amy and me, a couple, so they’re always about that state of what we’re up to. That’s where it comes from. And at the end of the day, you always make stuff that’s personal, because it’s the only thing you know.

Free Fire is playing at the 2017 Revelation Perth International Film Festival, from July 6 – 19, 2017

Lochley Shaddock is a novelist, essayist, film critic and screenwriter/director

Read our review of Free Fire.

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