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We’re big Ben Wheatley fans here at BMD. Rumor has it, our own Scott Wampler had a Tiger Beat-style centerfold of the English filmmaker custom made just so he could hang it above his bed. The Fantastic Fest regular has jumped and mashed genres with instant classics like Kill List, before delivering last year’s ice cold satire, High-Rise. In-between, Wheatley churned out the sickly-sweet slaughter romance, Sightseers (with an assist from the always great Alice Lowe) and the psychedelic period piece, A Field in England. Now comes Free Fire, his take on the action picture, which is an 86-minute shootout between a bunch of hapless, unlikable goons. In typical Wheatley fashion, it’s a riot.
We had the chance to talk with the filmmaker, and what followed was a candid conversation regarding how he subconsciously mines influences, pre-visualizes his movies on the cheap, and loves Tom & Jerry cartoons…
BMD: You make personalized versions of genre movies. Do you see Free Fire as your “action film”?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I think it is an action film. It’s certainly full of action. All of the films I’ve done have been filtering genre through my own experience. I’m just lucky enough to exert a huge amount of control over what I’m doing.
BMD: But it’s not necessarily in line with what we generally think of as an “action movie”. Usually, those are very set piece driven, where here we’re stuck in one giant room with these people just firing bullets at one another.
BW: Right, but you could say that about John Wick, or any movie really. You can reduce it down to nothing. You could say The Terminator is simply a series of scenes where robots walk into rooms and kill people.
BMD: Sure, but you don’t see [Free Fire’s staging] as somewhat idiosyncratic?
BW: I think it’s just simply my version of what a gunfight might look like.
BMD: Your film is based on an FBI report regarding a shootout in a Miami warehouse, where a bunch of criminals were firing at one another for hours. What about this report made you go “there’s a movie here”?
BW: Because it didn’t sound like anything I’ve ever seen in a film. The idea of firing at close range is not something we’ve been conditioned to understand from watching TV and movies. This concept of people being really accurate when firing guns, especially when people are firing right back at them, makes them always seem like Special Forces operatives or something. Yet it’s unlikely you’ll ever be that good. Video games have lied to us and told us we can be. But there’s something much different about being at a rifle range, firing at a standing target, than if the target’s moving and firing live ammunition right back at you – from what I’ve read, at least.
BMD: With the single setting – this massive warehouse – how did you plan the geography and how the characters were going to move and interact with their surroundings?
BW: The script was the starting point, and it was very meticulously written. Then we went through a series of test phases – building models and mapping out the movements. We were lucky to find a location that was almost exactly what we’d planned, and then we built a bunch of cardboard extensions and models of the space inside – all the pillars, and the windows and the dressing. There’s nowhere to hide in a single space during this movie – one wrong move and that’s it for the character. So, I went through quite a lot of storyboards – there’s 1700 storyboards – to really plan out the final stages of how it would look.
BMD: Is it true you even used Minecraft to visualize the warehouse setting at first?
BW: Yeah, but that’s just a simpler version of pre-visualization that many people use when plotting out their movies. You can just build a crude version of what you want to see using the pillars and mapping functions. You can build it quite quickly and then just walk around inside of this manufactured space to get a feel for it. I shared that with a few other crew members – [cinematographer] Laurie Rose and [Production Designer] Paki Smith – so that they can see what we were trying to build.
BMD: This fits with the way you commercialize your own filmmaking by reducing costs. Every dollar is stretched in service of your vision.
BW: There’s all sorts of stuff that you can use, video game-wise. There’s even an editing and design function in Grand Theft Auto that I’ve used before.
BMD: With all your films, there isn’t necessarily a traditional three-act structure to them. I was wondering if this was a conscious aversion to ‘traditional’ storytelling’?
BW: I think there’s always a three-act structure, you just have to look for them a bit more if it bothers you. The absence of an act structure is only noticeable if that’s what you’re conditioned to expect. [In Free Fire] the first act is everything before the first shot is fired. Then we move all the way up until [Redacted Major Character Name] is killed. Then, you have the run out and conclusion. It’s pretty simple stuff. My films are always written in these three-act bumpers, and they’re edited that way, as well. Even High-Rise was edited in thirty [minute], sixty [minute], thirty [minute] blocking.
BMD: You’ve been pretty open about your cinematic influences – for example, you brought a 35mm print of The Devils to Fantastic Fest the year A Field in England played – and I was wondering what films inspired Free Fire?
BW: At the time the film was being made, there was a description going around that said it drew from crime films from the 40s all the way up to Tarantino. But that was more like a press release type deal. When I look back on movies, it often feels like things bled into my work subconsciously. But what was casting a longer shadow across [Free Fire] was a lot of Sam Raimi stuff, like Evil Dead II, or even [the Coen Bros’] Raising Arizona, and even Tom & Jerry cartoons.
BMD: I love that you bring up Tom & Jerry, because I’ve seen you reference those cartoons on numerous occasions. Can you expand a little bit on how you’ve always drawn from them?
BW: It’s the visual storytelling, really. Animation – stretching back to the Fleischer Brothers, up to Warner Bros., and even Pixar – shows a precise control that the creators own over the slapstick and visual gags that’re inserted into the work. To me, that’s much harder to bring out in live-action films, because you can’t exercise the same control over the environment. So, I always try and channel that energy into my filmmaking. But I think that whatever makes up your filmmaking DNA – be it someone like Scorsese, who draws on everything from silent films to French New Wave to documentaries – is what you’ve grown up with. For me, its New Hollywood movies and European films, but also playing video games like Counterstrike and watching cartoons. It all goes into that creative melting pot.
BMD: How was working with [Executive Producer] Martin Scorsese?
BW: It was great, as you would probably expect. He’s a fantastic film fan and a consummate expert at master filmmaking – he knows the ins and outs of how production works. He’s not too overbearing on the creative side during pre-production, but he definitely helped with casting and financing.
BMD: I’ve often seen your filmmaking referred to as ‘non-commercial’, but I always seem to find a commercial element in all of your films, even if it boils down to the budget-minded way that they’re produced. Can you speak about finding a way to sell your personal vision at all times?
BW: I like commercial films, but I wish I lived in a world where the films we consider ‘art films’ now are more like blockbusters. If you look at something like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, that’d be a very odd movie to sell today – this buddy comedy with a musical number in the middle. What is that? But the cinema from the '40s all the way up to the '70s was all very interesting and existed outside of confined genre spaces. Now, we’ve got less of a reach in terms of that. With regards to my films, I always strive to make commercial films – you never make a movie that nobody wants to see. What’s the good in that? That’s madness. You’re taking large amounts of people’s money and making art, and it’s your responsibility to get it back to them. [laughs] If that doesn’t happen, something’s gone terribly wrong and you’re in trouble.
Free Fire is out in theaters beginning April 21 courtesy of A24.