As part of a twenty six date tour around the country, writer/director Ben Wheatley arrived at Edinburgh’s iconic Cameo Cinema on the evening of Tuesday 28th February, on this occasion joined by actor Sam Riley, to introduce Free Fire, an action comedy set during a disastrous warehouse arms deal in 1970s Boston which also stars Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor and frequent Wheatley collaborator Michael Smiley.
Having attended a similar event at the Cameo for High-Rise the previous year, Wheatley said it was lovely to be back and teased the sold-out audience with promises of free t-shirts and exclusive Japanese posters for anyone who asked a question about the film which he said was “short, violent and has plenty of salty language,” but suggested that rather than spending the film thinking of a question in hopes of getting a shirt while he and Riley nipped out for dinner and a few drinks they just let the experience wash over them.
Returning the auditorium as the credits rolled, Wheatley was asked about the process of the creation of the film and explained that it started with the casting of Cillian Murphy whom he had wanted to work with. “I had a call through his agents, so we met up and had a drink and got on pretty well, and he said “If you’ve ever got a role that might fit me, don’t hesitate to call.” So I went home and wrote this.”
The process was similar to the of writing Kill List where the roles were crafted specifically with Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell in mind, and indeed Michael Smiley was the second actor cast for Free Fire. “Sometimes I think of the actors first and write the characters around them. Brie Larson was blind luck – nobody had seen Room when we cast her.” Casting for the personalities of the actors rather than their other work he explained “I don’t want their performances from other movies, that’s already been done. It’s not a question of talent, that’s a given.”
Speaking of his Hollywood leading man, Wheatley said “Amy (Jump, Wheatley’s wife and co-writer) and I really liked him The Lone Ranger. Not many people did. I really liked Armie Hammer in it.” Having spoken to his American agent about the possibility of working with Hammer, Wheatley had thought that realistically it would not happen, that he was “off somewhere in America being beautiful and nine feet tall,” but three days later “I was talking to him on Skype and he was cool.”
Particularly looking forward to working with Murphy and Smiley, Sam Riley said “Everybody was really excited to be there working with Ben, so as far as actors can we left our egos in a pub in Brighton the night before.” Recalling the cast playing games of table tennis upstairs on breaks in filming, in costume and covered in blood, Riley sighed that inevitably “Armie Hammer was best at that as well. He’s really a despicable human being.”
The entire film told in real time in a single location, the production was very different to anything Wheatley had done before. “The way it was shot and lit, the camera can turn any way, so you have A-list actors lying in shit in case their foot is in shot.” Editing as they went and with Jump modifying the script to accommodate improvisations the actors might make, Wheatley asking for one take as written then a second with the actor’s own paraphrasing, anything which changed the characters would be incorporated into later scenes.
Conversely, with all pyrotechnics required to be planned several weeks in advance for health and safety considerations they had to know precisely where every gunshot was going to occur, preparation which extended to the planning of camera shots, the entire set having been modelled in Minecraft so Wheatley and his director of photography could network their computers and walk around it together to ensure the characters would be where they needed them to be, never unexpectedly straying into a line of fire.
Wheatley added that they were very conscious that the bullets were counted so the scenes were accurate, other than Riley’s Stevo who “should have had a rucksack,” and asked whether his stars had been given training in firearms he confirmed “yeah, about twelve minutes.” Wheatley was himself volunteered to test out one particular special effect involving a truck in order to prove it was safe, duly lying down to be rolled over as the crew stood around filming on their iPhones, then promptly suffered a panic attack immediately afterwards.
Most often working with one camera on his previous films, much of Free Fire was shot with two though some scenes had as many as six, though some were small remote cameras concealed on set, such as the one strapped to an exploding gas canister fired at Riley, leading Wheatley to reminisce of the “danger to reward ratio” of filmmaking.
With all his films very location specific, what started as an awareness of budget has become part of his style. “I did a film in a house, a film in hotels and a house, a film in a caravan, a film in a field. It’s a theme.” The former printing factory of the Brighton Argus standing in for the Boston warehouse where the film is set, Riley pointed out that the paper had not even come down to report from set despite the presence of Brie Larson and Armie Hammer.
The shoot itself was not glamorous according to Riley. “You come to work every morning showered and washed, and the only way to maintain continuity? Eight actors rolling in the filth.” With some sequences filmed as a continuous take run-through, the actors would fill their pockets with blank ammunition, a process described as “terrifying” by Riley. “You didn’t have to play the adrenaline, it was all there.”
While the actors were firing blanks on set, Wheatley was aware the sound of a live round was different, so the production went to a Ministry of Defence firing range to capture real bullet sounds which they modified over the course of the film in order to prevent it becoming repetitive, the sound design reflecting the growing tiredness of the besieged characters. With little music in the film, Wheatley compared it to the “very sparse and selective” soundtrack of The Taking of Pelham 123.
Speaking of his many influences and his own varied style, Wheatley said he was “as happy watching a Tarkovsky as a Terminator” and asked about Free Fire being consciously more commercial than his other films he said “I wanted to make an action film, not a psychedelic time-shifting action film,” referring to his bizarre antics when lost in A Field in England, comparing his latest to “Evil Dead 2 and Tom and Jerry more than other warehouse based crime films.”
With Martin Scorsese an executive producer on the film, Wheatley had read in a newspaper article that the legendary director had seen and enjoyed Kill List and had managed to arrange a meeting at his home while on the American publicity tour for Sightseers: “As a film fan that just melted me.”
Currently trying to put together a science fiction film he has been working on since 2011, Wheatley said that Freakshift would be about “women with shotguns fighting giant crabs.” Another change of style from the unpredictable director, quite rightly he believes of the project that “It sells itself.”
Free Fire is released nationwide on Friday 31st March