Cult director Ben Wheatley takes aim at action movies with new film Free Fire
Two gangs go to war in a warehouse in 1970s Massachusetts after an arms deal goes wrong.
As pitches go, director and co-writer Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire – which goes on general release this week after screening at the Dubai International Film Festival in December – is unerringly simple.
It is the staple action-movie shoot-out “taken to the nth degree”, says the British director. Testosterone flows, insults fly and triggers are pulled.
“I wanted to get back to that feeling of making something that was about real people under real pressure in real jeopardy,” he says. “It wasn’t about superheroes blowing up planets and cities dissolving.”
Famed for low-budget cult movies, including Kill List and Sightseers, Wheatley was inspired to build an entire movie around a firefight after reading an FBI report of a shoot-out that happened in the 1980s.
“It was really messy and went on for ages,” he says. “For two hours, guns were fired, injuries sustained, but no one died.
“They were firing at each other from point-blank range and not hitting each other,” he adds. “Even people who are trained, in the moment it’s so terrifying and difficult, you can’t actually do it.”
Using this as a framework, he built the mother of all stand-offs between an IRA gang – led by Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley – and a group of shady arms dealers, including loudmouth Vernon, played by District 9’s Sharlto Copley, and sharp-suited Ord, played by Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Nocturnal Animals).
Also in the mix is Brie Larson (winner of the Best Actress Oscar last year for Room) as the shady mediator of the deal. But after two foot soldiers in the rival gangs trade blows, the situation escalates into an all-out war.
The shoot was anything but easy, firing off hundreds of blanks in a contained space.
“It’s not just that it’s loud, it’ll make you feel sick,” says Wheatley. “The rifles are so loud. One time, I didn’t have the ear protectors on and they were shooting past us from about 20 metres away – and the sound of it went through my head and it made me want to throw up.”
Miniature explosive devices that simulate the impact of the bullets – called squibs – were everywhere.
“It’s probably the most dangerous film I’ve ever done,” says Copley with a laugh.
The South African-born actor was not too worried, though, not even when it came to a scene in which Vernon catches fire – he insisted on doing the stunt himself, which was scheduled on the last day of the shoot.
“I nearly chickened out,” he says. “I was totally gung ho, full-on macho, ‘I’m going to do this’. Then in the morning, I saw how serious all the stunt guys were about burns.”
Yet Copley did not back down – covered in a flame-retardant gel that did its job – he lived to tell the tale.
“It was an amazing experience,” he adds.
Even the basics of filming were taxing for the actors, with the location – a former newspaper printworks in Brighton in southern England – covered in filth.
“It was clean dirt, but it was dirt,” says Irish actor Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Peaky Blinders).
“It was a pristine warehouse before we got there. They distressed it to the most incredible level of detail. None of that rubble or dirt was there – all that dirt was shipped in.”
Co-scripted by Wheatley’s wife and regular writing partner, Amy Jump, the film draws its influences from 1970s thrillers such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Who’ll Stop the Rain, although the spirit of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs also looms large.
“Inevitably, people will draw comparisons,” says Murphy.
“I think that’s OK. Reservoir Dogs was one of the great films of the 20th century, but enough time has elapsed … it’s fair enough to wear that influence now.”
Another shadow cast is that of Martin Scorsese. The director of Goodfellas became a fan of Wheatley’s after watching his breakout movie Kill List (2011) and joined Free Fire as an executive producer.
“Meeting him was the high point of everything I’ve done,” says Wheatley.
• Free Fire is in cinemas from April 27th
Updated: April 25, 2017 04:00 AM