Ben Wheatley's new 70s shootout Free Fire is a fast-paced, action-packed, trigger-happy thriller that upends the traditional gunfire movie into something more modern and realistic. It's a departure from the quiet violence of Wheatley's previous features like Kill List and High-Rise and sets the stage for Wheatley's mainstream ascent. Starring Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley as IRA members looking to buy guns from a South African arms dealer, Free Fire has a dynamic ensemble that make the most of their cramped single location set. Brie Larsen, Armie Hammer, Babou Ceesay and Sharlto Copley round out the cast. I recently caught up with Wheatley to talk about the fucked up state of the world and meeting one of his heroes, Martin Scorsese.
VICE: I really enjoyed the film, especially the way the cast worked together. There's a lot of energy and a lot of sparks between them, literally sometimes. Did you have any these actors in mind when you initially wrote the script?
Ben Wheatley: Initially, yeah, Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley—both parts were specifically written for them. But then generally we rewrite the script to fit the actors once they're cast as well. And we've done that since the beginning, you know, since the first film just to make sure that the actors can say the lines you're saying—you're writing, you know and sometimes I feel that when you see bad acting in movies it's not necessarily the actor's fault it's just that they're having to say lines that no one has ever said in the history of humanity, you know, and it's hard to say them without sounding like an idiot. And sometimes they speak in a certain way or they have a certain attitude to them that they kind of wouldn't say those kinds of things and you wanna give them as much chance as possible.
So do you spend a lot of time then with the actors before you kind of revisit their lines?
Well it will be like from having met them and Skyped with them and then also we look at interview stuff that they do on chat shows and stuff and try and see inside the person to a degree because the other performances they've done in other movies aren't that helpful usually because they're for those other films. But when they've been in chat shows and stuff, they kind of can't really hide.
Why did you set this in the 70s? I mean, other than the fact that they can't call for help with their cell phones...
That was a big reason but the main part of it is that the story itself had been about the IRA buying guns in America. That was a late 70s story so the actual history of it kind of pushed it to that era. But I also really like period movies and I think that period movies and sci-fi movies are kind of the same thing, which is to step outside of the contemporary moment and you can say things in the past and in the future that you can't say now. Or you could say now but people would just be like 'ugh, that feels like a bit preachy' or 'it's too close to what's happening in this moment.' I've done three period movies in a row now and I think the next one we'll do will be a sci-fi.
Is there something in particular that you like about the 70s themselves? That decade?
It was a decade when I was a kid so I know it a bit and a lot of —when you're making a film about characters in their thirties or you know early thirties to late thirties—but they're right around the age my parents would have been at the time so that's kind of interesting to me to kind of look at that generation and see how things have changed between then and now. Also the 70s is kind of what I think until about a year ago, felt to me like a mirror to what was happening now. You know with an economic downturn and everyone worried about ecology and you know these things seem to be in alignment. But then I've kind of had to retire that theory because I look at what's happening now in the world and I can't see any connection to any kind of period. [laughs]
It's kind of difficult to know where you are. And you kind of think well, "Maybe 30s, 30s Europe maybe?" I don't know. It's hard to say.
It is. It feels like we're out of step, out of time. Unchartered territory for sure.
Yeah, there's no future and there's no past. And that's the, you know, the weird moment of once there's no truth to anything then everything unravels very quickly innit …
And there's maybe more of a connection to what we're feeling in North America and what you're feeling in Europe these days. Like, usually it feels like one is more progressive than the other but sadly it feels like we're all in this shit together.
It does, doesn't it? [Laughs] There's no scrambling to the moral high ground. [Laughs] It seems like some stuff has come out of the woodwork. I don't know, we'll see, it might be good, we might look back on the period of stability before as a period of extreme hypocrisy and you'll need it all to be played out and then it all goes back in the cupboard again. Who knows!
Who knows! So it's rare to see a shootout like this. It's been awhile since I've seen this kind of action. Obviously it's amplified by being set in one location but, what is it about this kind of intense gunfire that really drew you?
I think it's because I wanted to make something that is personal and close and on a human scale and that you would feel it as the audience. And it's a series of interlocking kind of stories which aren't really necessarily you know traditional plot stories. It's a story of dynamic movement and of space, which is kind of like the way you would write a kind of cartoon or like, a Tom and Jerry cartoon, or the other thing I was thinking about quite a lot was The Evil Dead too. It's very tense and has loads of action in it but then it's horrible but then it's funny at the same time. And the other thing is that I read this transcript of this shootout in Miami that happened in the 80s and realized that really every shootout that's ever been done in film is always, it becomes quite distracted and not really much like the reality of that experience, which is much more chaotic and terrifying and kind of low level. And you know I think that sort of started me on the road to it. And I thought, 'I want to see that and I wonder why it hasn't been seen' and why the tropes of cinema have been that the gunfire in movies is very, very quiet usually and the people are always experts and guns never go wrong and you can shoot for, you know, miles and that they always hit their target and all these things that we've been dealing with since the cowboy movies and the reality is much grubbier and harder.
How do you balance building character in a movie like this versus maintaining that tension in the action?
Obviously you know the dialogue does the heavy-lifting but within the editing itself it's making sure that the eye lines are maintained and that you're doing the rounds of all the characters reacting to stuff all the time because the essential problem with doing stuff all in one space is that you—you start to worry where people are if you don't see them for a long time, in a way that you don't worry about in other movies.
How did Martin Scorsese get involved?
He'd been interviewed in an English newspaper and he'd said that he'd seen Kill List, one of the films I've made, and I read the paper and went "Wow, that's really crazy I can't believe that!" because I'm a massive Scorsese fan and you know I wouldn't have been making movies if I hadn't seen Taxi Driver when I was a teenager, I'm sure of that. So I talked to my agents and said, 'Could I get to meet him? Is that possible?' And they sorted it out, which is like one of the greatest things they've ever done for me. [Laughs] I kind of went to meet him in New York and I had a chat with him and got on with him really well. It's just really bizarre, because he's just a guy but he's also like the greatest living filmmaker as far as I'm concerned and it was just kind of primal to meet someone when you work in an industry and then they're the best version of what could possibly happen. And then also just to think about, 'Oh shit, I've got loads of coffee table books I've bought about this bloke and now he's sitting in front of me.' It's odd. But he's very generous about talking to people and chatting and he can talk all day about cinema. And then afterwards his production company contacted me and said, you know, 'If you're ever putting something together, why don't you pass it by us and we might be able to help' and I went 'Yeah, yeah I'll be doing that, don't worry.'
It's amazing. Often you meet your heroes and they disappoint you so…
Yeah, does that happen? I've not really met many of mine and they've always been alright. Have you had that experience?
I have and it's made me just not want to meet them anymore.
[Laughs] Who was the hero you've met that let you down?
Well I met Johnny Rotten once.
[Laughs] Well, yeah. But that is the thing, if you're going to meet Johnny Rotten, that's it, you know what you're getting, don't you?
It's true, I should've prepared to be disappointed.
Yeah, the clue is in the name, you know? [Laughs]
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.