Following a foray in to 1970s dystopia with his acclaimed adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise last year, director Ben Wheatley’s follow-up feature was always going to be a major event. Action-comedy Free Fire doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it may very well be his finest offering to date.
Though set in the same time period as High Rise, this is a far cry from the ominous vibes of Ballard’s hellish vision of a society in decline. When it comes to dishing out a combination of razor-sharp dialogue and brash, gooey violence, few British directors have proven themselves to be quite as deft at delivering the goods as Wheatley. Free Fire finds him in his element.
Shot in a warehouse in Wheatley’s hometown of Brighton, but set in 1970s Boston, the film chronicles the chaos that ensues when an arms trade between two disparate bands of misfits rapidly goes south and bullets soon start flying. Co-written by his wife and frequent collaborator, Amy Jump, and laden with generous helpings of the duo’s trademark wit, Free Fire looks set to be a cult classic in the making.
Paul Weedon caught up with Wheatley and a selection of his cast - Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer and Jack Reynor - just prior to the film’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in October where they discussed their experience of making the film as well as various other topics in between. With spoilers ahead, here are eight things he learned.
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1) Free Fire wasn’t originally intended to be as funny as it ended up being
Ben: I think it started off as quite a serious film and then it… changed. It’s a comedy thriller, I suppose… I think the original script that I wrote was a much more dour B-movie style serious script and then when Amy [Jump] got her hands on it, she made it funnier and saltier. And then the level of improv stuff got layered over the top of it and it changed it a bit more. But the action had always been there – the action hadn’t changed from the first draft, so that was always quite funny.
Armie: Shit just started happening where it was written and we’d finish the scene and you’d see everyone in the corner kind of laughing and I don’t think anybody really intended it to be.
Ben: One of the things I remember specifically was with Sharlto where we made the decision quite early on that Vern was really just a bit shit. We decided that very early on and Sharlto gave me two options – he said “I can play it like this, like a really hard ex-military, highly trained killing machine, or I could be a bit rubbish.” And it’s quite funny that he can’t shoot straight and it helps us that he can’t shoot straight, so once we got that and went down that road that was it wasn’t it?
Sharlto: That tonally made a difference too. All of us were looking for moments of humour when we didn’t necessarily know it was going to be the case.
Ben: And in the cut I always look for… people muscle their way in to the edit by performance. That’s how we always work. It’s pretty democratic like that – if you’re good you get more shots… [Laughs] Jack: I thought I got cut out of a lot of scenes. [Everyone laughs] Ben: But it helps the film. That’s what you want. And also, when you have a cast like this, why fight it? You don’t want to stop them being good. You’ve got to encourage it.
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2) The characters changed and evolved as the cast came on board
Ben: As with all the scripts, we always tailor them back to the people that we cast, just on the basic level that people’s meters are different. The way they speak is different. You don’t necessarily want to hobble people and make them speak in a certain way if it doesn’t add anything to it.
When Sharlto came on, we took the decision there that there’s such a rich history around the South African side of it, so why change it? Why try to make him have an American accent when we can tap in to that? I’m always kind of a believer in that thing of not giving actors another layer of arse and aggravation of having to do an accent, because you want to get to them and the bit that you like about them.
Sharlto: There aren’t a lot of South African characters out there, so as soon as I said I’d do anything, I knew some of the other actors were doing other accents and it’s set in Boston, so I was thinking, “Do I have to do it with a Boston accent?” And when Ben said, “No, do it as a South African”. I was like, “Okay. Wow.”
And when you get to do the character that’s the mouth, then that’s a lot of fun because you get to do a lot of improv stuff and sort of go nuts and know that even if you’re pissing off the other actors, it’s like it’s meant to happen in the scene. [Laughs]. “I’m not going to let you talk because my character is just going to dominate now.”
Jack: I think my character’s just a bit of a toerag really, man. I thought to myself, “Right, what are the scumbags in Dublin that I know like? Can I make an American one of those?” And that’s the long and the short of it, to be honest.
Armie: I looked more in to Vietnam stuff, just because that was kind of the backstory that we’d decided that Ord would have – he’d had experience in Vietnam, whether it be special forces or whatever. So he’d seen some shit and lived through some shit that now, whenever people are firing around him in a warehouse, he’d be like, [shrugs] “I’m gonna let this work itself out. I’ve made it through worse. I’m sure this will be fine. I might as well smoke a joint.” He’s this guy who comes back and he’s supposed to be this hired gun who’s supposed to help Vern sort this deal out and is really preoccupied with just hiding in corners.
Sharlto: Also, Armie had done so much military stuff before, hadn’t you? Armie could shoot and I could shoot, but Armie was incredible with guns.
Ben: That bit where Armie’s gun jams. It’s in the film and it jams for real and he just strips it and puts it back together again. We all looked at each other and the armourer goes, “What did you just do?”
Sharlto: That’s also how I opted to make Vern shit. I was like, “I’m not going to compete with this guy.”
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3) Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s sparse score took its cues from 70s action thrillers
Ben: What I’d planned to do was to do it like a Morricone score, where the music would all be written before the film and then we’d play it in, but it just didn’t come together really. Ben and Geoff had written this music, which was absolutely incredible, but we never used it. It sounded right, but everything changed as we discussed it, so I’m kind of glad we didn’t use that, because it would have been tied in to something that wasn’t right.
The other thing that I found was I bought the soundtrack for The Taking of Pelham 123 – the David Shire soundtrack. I got it home and it was eighteen minutes long, but that’s really interesting, because that film has such an incredible soundtrack, but it’s really short… I spoke to Geoff and Ben about that and when they made the music they made it really small – only where it was definitely needed…
A lot of those seventies movies had this jazz inflection, which basically meant that all bets were off because they were musicians who would take from all over the place. You could have crazy drum solos. You could have sax and all this kind of stuff. And they just went at it really.
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4) Wheatley’s on-set editing blew everyone’s minds
Armie: I’ve never seen any director ever do this. He literally has a mini edit bay built on set with a feed coming right from the camera and as the information is coming, he’s editing in real time and going, “Okay, I wanna cut that here.” And at the end of the day he’d go, “Okay, we need a quick shot of the gun,” because he’d know, “We don’t have that. We need that.” He’s really shooting to service the edit… On the last day, I’m sure that he was like, “Right, that’s the assemble  done”.
Ben: It was, yeah. Until I got home and then my wife just threw it all out.
Jack: You’d shoot a scene in the morning and you’d go out for lunch and come back an hour later and you’d watch what you’d just done in the morning cut. It’s fucking insane.
Ben: I mean it really helps with action. Performance in action isn’t as important for an assembly cut. It is important later…
Armie: He says in front of his actors…
Ben: It is later on, obviously! It’s fine-tuned later on, but it’s more to make sure that all those angles have been shot so that the logic of the thing makes sense, but drama performance is a different thing. That takes much more time – scouring through the takes to get it. It’s more the thing where it’s that nightmare, which happens very rarely, but you cut a scene and you go, “Right, where’s the close-up of Sharlto now?” and you don’t have it. But with an action film you need those bits where someone’s picking something up or the story isn’t going to get told. In a traditional way you’d shoot cover, but we just didn’t have that luxury. It had to be done on a B-movie schedule.
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5) Executive Producer Martin Scorsese gave his advice sparingly
Ben: His advice was to make the sound mix clearer. “Make sure you can hear all their voices.” That was the big one. But he loved it. I went to show him in New York over at Sikelia, which is his production company. He’s got a screening room there and it’s a bit like the end of The Wizard of Oz where you pull back the curtain, go in to the room and he’s there.
Andy Starke and I, the producer, had been there in New York for about two or three days trying to sort out this meeting and getting more terrified that it wasn’t ever going to happen. And then it happened and so the pressure was mounting and mounting and then the first thing out of his mouth was that he really loved it, so that was a relief.
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6) Wheatley holds the record for directing a scene with the most penises on screen in a BBC comedy series
Sharlto: It was summer in Brighton. There were a lot of nice weather days. I was staying on the beach and it was the one time where I was like, every now and then, I’d be annoyed that I had to go to work on that day. “Fuck, man”. And every moment I got I just went out. Brighton was fantastic. I love Brighton as a city, so I was like… I really wish you’d shot outside. [Laughs].
Ben: You had a naked bicycle ride go past, didn’t you?
Sharlto: Yeah. From my apartment that one day, the naked bicycle ride rode past… We don’t do stuff like that in South Africa. Someone would get killed. Naked ride? Someone’s gonna die. So, like, we had these cyclists, these naked cyclists come and stop on the lawn right in front of our place and I’m busy eating a tuna sandwich. Picture me with a tuna sandwich and a hundred naked people, or more.
Ben: I saw that one year and I walked round the corner, I had headphones on and they just came at me. Hundreds of them. And I’d never seen so many different types of penis…
I actually hold the record for the most amount of penises on-screen in a BBC TV show. It was a TV show called The Wrong Door. It’s a comedy thing and the gag was that they’d made uniforms that could go invisible for soldiers, but basically the clothes just went invisible and they were there naked, all standing in a row. And he tracked round so it was a row of arses and the camera tracks round and it’s cock, cock, cock, cock, cock, cock all the way down the line…
Sharlto: And how did that make you feel?
Ben: It made me feel good, because it’s too vagina-centric, television.
Sharlto: I have to say that with Game of Thrones, I think they’re balancing it now.
Ben: The one is Rome. Rome was the good one for it. I mean the introduction of James Purefoy just standing there, stark bollock naked like that and them shaving him with these big shears. That’s why I was desperate to work with him in High Rise.
Sharlto: “I saw your naked shot in Rome and I really wanted you for this movie.”
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7) Sharlto Copley volunteered to be set on fire
Sharlto: I wanted to do it. I just want you to confess why you did it as the last shot of the film. I want you to admit that you did it for insurance.
Ben: One answer is that I thought I’d give you extra time to be talked out of it, but the real reason is that if he fucking burnt himself it would mean we couldn’t match the continuity.
Sharlto: [Laughs] I would do the same thing if I was in your shoes and some stupid actor was going, “I want to burn myself”.
Ben: People were telling you right up until the last day saying, “You don’t have to do it.”
Sharlto: You were trying to stop me.
Ben: “No, no, no. I’m going to do it.” It was fucking terrifying. But also there’s a massive amount of safety procedure… You could say ‘safety procedure,’ but there’s also a lot of theatre around how it works. You have to have forty minutes of people scouting it out either side and then you’ve got a rehearsal… Just to do that shot took about four hours, didn’t it?
Sharlto: That’s true. And in the morning, before we started, I did have little twangs of, when I saw how seriously the stunt guys were all taking it, I did think “Wow. Maybe this is a bigger deal than I had imagined.”
Ben: Yeah. “I’m on fire.”
Armie: I like that we’re referring to health and safety and also talking about immolating someone. “We have to be really safe… while we light a man on fire.”
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8) Ben Wheatley volunteered to have a van run over his face to put everyone else at ease
Ben: The van running over Sam Riley’s head is a real van. It’s not CG. It was taken from the Penn & Teller trick where you counter-balance the wheels so that the front wheel is a dummy wheel but the other three wheels are real and the van is weighted on one side, so you can run it over and that was cool, because it’s all in-camera. But Sam’s wife saw them building it up and she wasn’t best pleased about it. She was worried and a bit scared. She said to production, “He’s not going under that thing,” so I said, “Oh, I’ll do it. I’ll test it.”
I’m not a brave person, particularly, but I thought, “How bad could it be?” So then you get someone telling you that you’ve got to turn your neck with it so it doesn’t break your neck. So I lay there and the whole crew is just watching and I’m like, “Oh, this is bad, man.” And this fucking wheel’s coming towards me and it looks really real.
Sharlto: It’s very disturbing.
Ben: And they’re all taking photos and I get up and I’m absolutely fucking traumatised. “There you go, Sam.”
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Free Fire is on general release in UK cinemas now.
Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap