Ben Wheatley’s films are sick and twisted in the best way possible. With Free Fire, the genre experimenter goes for pure fun, delivering a 70s-set action-comedy that sees an eclectic cast – Hollywood A-listers and sweary Brits – spraying each other with bullets and spiteful one-liners.
The anarchy of Free Fire is summed up by Cillian Murphy: “F*** the small talk, let’s buy some guns.” What follows is a non-stop shootout in a warehouse between two bickering gangs. On one side, there’s Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor; on the other, it’s Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti. Dodging ammo in the middle is Brie Larson, the unfortunate peacemaker. Oh, there’s also a mystery sniper, a ringing landline, and other revelations in store.
When we meet Wheatley, he’s only been in London for a few hours, having just flown in from SXSW. So far, Free Fire has been a festival favourite: it opened TIFF’s Midnight Madness and closed London Film Festival. A cult following seems inevitable. Given the lengthy planning Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump injected into the script, that’s no surprise. For research, the pair dived into FBI reports from the 80s, which sprung a few surprises.
“I read a transcript of a shootout in Miami,” Wheatley explains. “It was fascinating. It counterpointed how Hollywood deals with action. It’s a mess, it’s chaotic. They’re trained, but they’re still not that good at stuff. When people are shooting at them, they don’t shoot back straight. People slag off the Stormtroopers in Star Wars for not shooting straight, but when people are actually firing at you, it’s terrifying.”
Among Wheatley’s fans is Martin Scorsese, who serves as the film’s executive producer. “He helped us with the casting. He gave weight to the project for financing. Effectively, the greatest living filmmaker looked across the film and would tell us if we’ve f***ed it or not.” Anything specific? “It was mainly about sound and clarity of certain lines. I was always slightly against dialogue replacement, because I think it’s a cheat. But there were elements we had to reiterate and clear up, because you’ve got so many people talking and so much gravel and shit and gun stuff.”
Free Fire is Wheatley’s first film that received a test screening, but he’s still sceptical about the process. “We played it to 300 people in Kingston, but it was to give everyone confidence about the release. The thing about test audiences is they have one thing in common: they like to see films for free.” He laughs. “That discounts them from giving you anything halfway useful.”
The visceral pain inflicted upon the characters ensures the gags are sharper: when you’re losing blood, the insult must be worth it. Copley’s Vernon gets his own catchphrase (“Watch and Vern!”) and Larson unleashes a rarely seen vicious side. Most of the dialogue was written specifically for the actors, Wheatley says, and Jump would rework lines on set. His creative partner still doesn’t do interviews (even Terrence Malick has broken his silence). Does she just want the work to speak for itself? He nods.
Jump has a writing credit on all of Wheatley’s films since Kill List (the one that caught Scorsese’s eye) and a recent Sight & Sound article claimed: “Wheatley and Jump could yet turn out to be England’s belated answer to Rainer Werner Fassbinder.” He agrees it’s an odd comparison, as was a Guardian critic labelling them the new Powell and Pressburger. “You’re on a hiding to nothing, aren’t you? It’s flattering, but not helpful.”
Really, Wheatley has been marking a unique path as a genre filmmaker. While many directors follow the “one for me, one for them” pattern, he’s stuck firmly with oddball projects – next up is Freakshift, a monster movie starring Alicia Vikander. Yet he still directs commercials whenever possible.
“I’ve always been a fan of ads. We didn’t earn enough money to have a life until we did High-Rise. So that’s four movies in. When Amy and I did A Field in England, that was a year-and-a-half, and it wasn’t enough to pay the mortgage. The last thing I did was the Premier Inn adverts that are on TV at the moment.”
Wheatley’s past TV work includes BBC sitcoms, Doctor Who and – which I have to ask about – snippets of Shooting Stars. “Yes!” he exclaims. “I did ‘Tiny Eyes’ and all that stuff. I’d do the Vic and Bob stuff not for the money – they never paid much, to be fair – but because it was a laugh.”
For the moment, though, Wheatley is touring Free Fire around the UK. Directors always want their films to be seen in cinemas, and he’s ensuring it happens. “Free Fire is getting a really good push, but it doesn’t have the hundreds of millions dollars of advertising behind something like Kong: Skull Island.” It’s word of mouth, he believes, that makes a difference. “I felt that from the High-Rise tour; you need ambassadors who’d enjoy it and tell their friends.”
With such frenetic, claustrophobic action, Free Fire is certainly a change of pace from Wheatley’s collaboration with Tom Hiddleston from last year. “High-Rise was so weird and difficult for a mainstream audience,” the director recalls. “When people liked it and it made money, it was a relief.” Plus, he just enjoys the tour. “It’s no good to hide in London and do a couple of screenings and do Curzon and go home and then get cross when no one goes out to see it.”
And what’s been the reaction so far? Wheatley smiles. “You go into cinemas and everyone’s really buzzing. They’re excited about it, and they enjoy seeing it. People just love it.” He may not trust test audiences, but the numbers don’t lie: Free Fire is a total blast.