It’s probably fitting that Free Fire didn’t get a fair shake at the box office, if only because it seems destined, if not conceived outright, for a spot in the “underappreciated cult classic canon.” While the film, boasting an A-list cast led by Brie Larson, would appear to be co-writer/director Ben Wheatley’s most commercial film to date, Free Fire winds up shooting its way so far through the mainstream action genre that it winds up back in arthouse territory. The ‘70s-set plot involves an arms deal in an abandoned warehouse gone horribly wrong, but the particulars aren’t especially important. What is important is that Wheatley takes just about every Die Hard-style action movie trope to its furthest limit. Remember the scenes of John McClane dragging his bloodied torso around the Nakatomi Plaza? Well, pretty much every character spends most of the movie doing that, except in far more excruciating detail. You know the pleasingly cathartic sound of gunfire in a good John Woo movie? There are so many gunshots (seemingly pitched much louder than in most movies) in Free Fire that the viewer’s brain and ears simply become numb to the sound. There are no Bond-style one-liners, no Chow Yun-fat-esque displays of virtuosic gun fu, just a motley collection of pathetic characters trying and failing to get the hell out of dodge. It’s a hell of a fun time of a movie that, in its insistence on staying away from unnecessary character exposition and manipulative pathos, feels like an existential experience. If you haven’t seen it yet (and according to the box office receipts, it’s a statistical probability that you haven’t), you really should. In the meantime, we caught up with Ben Wheatley to talk about his creative process, how Free Fire is closer to Evil Dead II than any actual 70s movie, and why he designed the set in Minecraft.
NOTEBOOK: You collaborated on Free Fire, as you have on just about all of your other films, with your wife Amy Jump. Do you two have a consistent collaborative creative process or does it vary from project to project?
BEN WHEATLEY: There’s only been two films that we’ve written together, which are Kill List and Free Fire, and I’ll tend to write the initial draft and get it to the point where it just about works. With Free Fire, we financed it off that first draft I wrote, but as we were going into production, she would come in and rewrite it. I think she probably rewrote every line of dialogue in Free Fire.And then, at that point, I’d look at it and go, “Yep, okay, it’s all better than everything I wrote, that’s fine—moving on.” Then, she was on set and rewriting every day while we were filming to accommodate the changes in performances that were happening on the floor. People were improvising and changing their characters, so if we liked what they were doing, she would run with it and change the script to accommodate it. And then there were other things going on, like with Noah Taylor. We really like Noah Taylor, and when we looked at the rushes, we’d go, “God, he’s really good and yet, he doesn’t have enough to say in the film.” So, then, Amy rewrote to put more Noah Taylor in.
NOTEBOOK: Was Brie Larson’s part written with her in mind?
WHEATLEY: No. With all the characters, we kind of rewrote the script after they were cast. I think Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley were specific parts written for them, but then, as we do on all the films we’ve worked on when an actor is confirmed, we look at their meter and their character and kind of change their dialogue to fit them a bit more.
NOTEBOOK: Using Larson as an example, what aspects of her performing style did you incorporate into the character that hadn’t been there before?
WHEATLEY: Well with Brie, and generally with actors, I’m not massively interested in stuff that they’ve done before. I mean, what I’m interested in is them, you know? So, I’d seen some of Brie’s other stuff, but I met her in L.A. and probably had a good couple-of-hours chat with her, and I just really liked her. There’s never any doubt that people are good at acting. That should be a given at the level that they’re at, so it’s more about their personality, and I felt that she was so sharp and intelligent and yet, inquisitive and sensitive, as well. But there was a toughness, and I thought those characteristics were going to work really well for the part, so just listening to her talk about the things she was interested in was much more informative to me than what movies she’s been in.
NOTEBOOK: One thematic question that I feel like you often visit in your work, especially in your last two films, is how far people can be pushed physically and psychologically and still remain human.
NOTEBOOK: Is that a theme that’s always interested you?
WHEATLEY: I think the thematic stuff in the work is tricky for me to identify while I’m making the film. Whenever I approach each new project, I always think, “This script is going to be markedly different from the other scripts I’ve written.” And we’ve kind of achieved that across my movies, but at the same time, after they’re finished, I’ll often look at them and disconnect from my role as a director or a writer on it and look at it as a viewer and a critic. That’s when I see the connections between my other movies I hadn’t intended. So, I think that it must be an ongoing thing. I mean, it keeps coming up, but it’s not conscious. It’s more like, “What I really want to investigate in this movie is people trapped in one space because I haven’t done that before. Oh fuck, I have.” [laughs] Some of it’s intuition and you just go with it. It’s dangerous to pick over your own creativity too much because it’s a very personal thing and I quite like it being a bit mysterious. But then, once you’ve made the film, that’s when that categorizing eye comes across it and you act more like you would do if you were a critic.
NOTEBOOK: Was the decision to set the movie in the 70s something that came from your wanting to take on the 70s style, or do you think this is a story that could only really be told in that time period?
WHEATLEY: It’s a very specific story that can only be set in the 70s because of the historic bits about the Irish and the guns and Massachusetts and how all these things kind of bleed together. But, in terms of the 70s style of it, there’s style as in style of clothing and style of look, but there’s also style of filmmaking from the 70s. If you actually break it down, it’s not that reminiscent of 70s filmmaking. That style is very different because I think that the shooting of multiple cameras on digital, you know, Steadicam, technocrane, all these things just didn’t exist in the 70s. That’s the conversation I’ve had with Laurie Rose, the DoP, and we asked ourselves, “Should this be on film? Should it be shot on old lenses?” And we thought, “Why change the language of our own filmmaking just to kind of ape somebody else’s?” You know, Free Fire is an extension of the filmmaking language that we’ve developed through all the movies that we’ve made, so technically, it's not much like a 70s film. If anything, it’s more like Evil Dead II in camera style, but it would be kind of slightly tricky of me to say, “Oh yeah, it’s like [The Taking of] Pelham One Two Three or it’s like The Outfit” or those movies, because it just isn’t.
NOTEBOOK: I read that you built a copy of the set in Minecraft, and so much of the script is premised on specific locations within the warehouse. When you wrote the script, were you just coming up with different places and then just adding it to the model, or did you come up with a fully-formed set first and use it as inspiration for the script?
WHEATLEY: Most of the actual location was like a big empty box, so everything you see in the set, all the pillars and low walls and the rubble and all the old machinery, that was all dressed in. So it was very specific. That’s why I built it first in 3-D: so that I could make sure that the distances everybody traveled and the timing of it would make sense. It’s very difficult filming in a real environment in one space. You don’t have the luxury you have in a normal movie where you can just cheat time or chop scenes out and no one would really notice it. As soon as you started to do that with this film, you’d start to get people popping up and moving around the room really quick, and it becomes disconcerting. So the only real way to get it right was to walk around it in 3-D. I used Minecraft because it was cheap and easy, and it has the real-world measurement to it. I could also share the design with Laurie Rose, as well as with Paki Smith, the designer, and Andy Starke, the producer. We’d started using Minecraft, Laurie and I, when we were doing High-Rise, and we used to play it a lot because we were away from home, and we could play it with our kids over the Internet, so it was a sad kind of modern parenting way of keeping in contact with our children virtually.