Director Ben Wheatley on his latest magnum opus of violence "Free Fire" [Interview]

[You can read my original interview with Mr. Wheatley HERE]
Ben Wheatley, no doubt, has a twisted sense of humor, just watch “High-Rise,” or, even, “Kill List” for further proof of his subtle dark comedy in the most twisted of situations. His latest film, “Free Fire,” is an ultra-violent action-comedy that features a barrage of bullets, zingy one liners and, yes, even a little bit of slapstick added to the mix. It is a more lightly conceived and minimalist affair than his previous works, but no less thrilling in its unadorned love for chaos.
The plot is simple: the time is 1978 and two gangs set a meeting in an abandoned Boston warehouse for an arms deal. It doesn’t go at all as planned, in fact, it turns into the worst-case scenario for both parties as a full on shootout between the two gangs happens. Bullets fly, head games ensue, tactical positioning get developed, gore and lots of foul language is also at the rendezvous.
Wheatley stages it all masterfully — from the editing to the sound-mixing to the shot composition, he achieves an enveloping atmosphere that recalls the very best moments in “Reservoir Dogs” And yet, this is unlike anything we’ve seen before in an action movie, a minimalist depiction of chaos at its grisliest.
We spoke to Wheatley about his inspiration for the film, Martin Scorsese‘s involvement and his next project, “Freakshift.”
I read about the fact that an FBI report influenced this movie, but there were only one or two sentences mentioning that. Can you possibly elaborate on what this mysterious FBI report was exactly?
It was a transcript I read in the 90’s. It was about a shootout that happened in Miami where, I think it’s quite a famous thing, the FBI switched from using .38s to using 9mm because the pieces they were using weren’t powerful enough to penetrate the body armor of some of the guys they were shooting at in this incident. So the story goes these guys were off to rob a bank with automatic weapons and body armor, then they ended up in the middle of a shootout with the cops and it went on for ages. This report I read was a blow by blow account, a sort of forensic thing of how many bullets they fired, what injuries everybody had and, yeah, I was reading that and saying “wait a second, these FBI agents were firing at people and missing at point blank range? How could highly trained people like that be missing such easy shots?” In movies anybody can get that “dead shot,” even people that have never used a gun before can pick up a gun from the floor and know how to use it.
Yeah, it just magically happens.
[Laughs] That’s right. The reality of it is much messier and then I started reading around it and the reports, all the first person accounts, the experiences and diaries of cops going, you know, how terrifying it all was and how they felt they were moving in slow motion. Actually the reality of it was much weirder than the film, the people were seeing black and white and they would see tunnel vision because all the bullets would just shut down everything except what they needed to look at so it was just them and the end of the barrel of the gun of the other guy.
Very non-cinematic
Yeah. There’s something about that kind of procedural, close quarter fighting that I haven’t really seen before and the chaos of it.
And I guess that started off as the blueprint for “Free Fire”?
Yeah, that was something that was always in the back of my mind. I also had the thought of a fight that would be in a room or in a small space and then I started thinking about action movies in general and thinking about about what are the building blocks of an action movie, and could you reduce those down to their core? What would you get if you shrunk them down to hardly anything and would it still be as thrilling, you know, if you would reduce car chases to people crawling, what would result? When I see buildings and planets blowing up in current movies, why do I feel less affected by that? I also saw it in my own movies where you might have things where being shot in the head might induce more gasps because it isn’t very relatable, so I thought maybe if I made a movie about those unrelatable beats, it might end up being more intense.
That’s what I liked about the movie, it’s almost like a minimalist attempt at an action picture. I want to talk a little about the actors, I read it was Cillian Murphy that called you about the project
He’s just a smart guy. He was kind of looking around, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person he contacted, he was kind of looking around to see who was making what and he was following his own nose and he liked “Kill List.” So he asked, “What are you up to?” He told me to think about him for other stuff and I was like “shit, for other actors to be interested in what I do is amazing” so I just went back and wrote “Free Fire.”
Had you ever met him before?
No. So, I was like, if he’s interested in working then that’s good because he’s great and I wouldn’t have thought about him before, but you sometimes have the feeling that some people are too away from your circle to kind of want to work with you. But I said the same thing about Armie Hammer as well. I was like “He’s never going to do it.” I talked to his agent and asked “is he interested?” and then immediately he read it and it was on.
It’s actually going to be a pretty big year for Armie with “Call Me By Your Name.”
Yeah, I heard all sorts of stuff about that.

It’s incredible. He just owns that movie. Let’s talk about the warehouse. I heard you used Minecraft for that.
I used Minecraft to build a version of it so that I could walk around it. Minecraft is cheap and easy to use, you don’t have to have any skills to use Minecraft, I sat there and just built it like someone would do the same with Lego. It meant that you could actually see how long it took to walk from one end to the other and all that kind of stuff and how big the space needed to be to make gags work. It was a really useful tool. Recently I saw an animation technique with “Grand Theft Auto” where you could place buldings and cars and make a blueprint with that as well.
When you were on set you also had earplugs because of all the noise from the shooting, how was it directing people in that kind of environment?
It was alright, really, but I didn’t have earplugs because I had the headphones on because I was listening to the dialogue and that’s protected through the mix. Actually, only through doing all this press have I heard various actors complaining about having to act with earplugs, you know, I didn’t, I wasn’t even conscious of it [Laughs]
Oh yeah? They didn’t even mention it to you at all?
No, I don’t think there was really much of a choice.
It’s obvious in the screenplay that there would be many gunshots.
Yeah, there was no getting around that one.
Did you have any influences making this film? The shootout sequences are incredible, well, actually the entire movie is a shootout [Laughs] but the visceral quality is quite stinging and pulse-pounding.
I mean, we did the press release and it stated that it was like going from “The Asphalt Jungle,” through Scorsese stuff, through Michael Mann and Tarantino, it was a whole big chunk of influences, even John Carpenter actually, but when you get there on the day it’s something else. It’s weird. I’m not one for watching movies before making something, you know, but I actually felt it ended up being more John Carpenter than anything else, and Sam Raimi, more like “Evil Dead II,” than it did anything else in terms of the camera movements. And also “Raising Arizona,” you now that kind of flinging camera type thing.
I actually mentioned post-screening at the TIFF premiere that it almost felt like a sort of mix of Looney Tunes, Sam Raimi, Tarantino and Michael Mann’s “Heat.” [Laughs]
Yeah, yeah, I think we knew it when the typewriter bounces down the stairs and hits Shelton and just goes “BING!,” we knew we had a little bit of that going. It’s the universal language of slapstick.
Slapstick is ageless
It’s the mean laugh, people like the mean laugh.
I want to talk a little bit about Martin Scorsese and his involvement. How did he get involved?
I read an interview where he’d been interviewed in the U.K making “Hugo” and he said he’d seen some films from local filmmakers and that he’d seen “Kill List,” and he liked it and I was like “Is there any way I could talk to Scorsese because that would make my …. my career!” [Laughs]
Oh yes, definitely, not just your day. but your career [Laughs]
In terms of the world of film I was like “Geez, everything else pales in significance really,” so I got to meet him in New York and chat with him and it kind of worked from there really.
Did he give you any advice, any input?
Yeah, he’d seen the script and thought it was all ok, and then we had a good chat with him about the edit. And he gave us the advice that maybe we shouldn’t really put any music in the film and I was like “Oh, I don’t know that’s quite bold” [Laughs]. But a lot of it was more about story points and the clarity of the mix and all that kind of stuff, which is really useful.
What do you think about a filmmaker of his clout having trouble, in this day and age, making a film like “Silence”?
Well, I don’t really know the ins and outs about what happened there … Actually, I think I do, I read about it.
Yeah, “Silence” took around 13 producers to make.
Yeah, and “Gangs of New York” was also a little problematic. If you look at all his projects, they all take time to do, and I don’t think any filmmaker, or very few, that could get stuff made straight away because of the amount of money, the tectonic plates that have to move to amass all this cash together is such huge sums of money all the time. I’m not surprised about how hard it is to make a film these days, even if you’re Martin Scorsese, but you’d think people would be bolder in the way they finance things.
Did you see “Silence”?
Yeah, it was terrific.
There’s a lot of talk on the web about “Freakshift.”
Yeah, so that’s next, which is hopefully in August.
Any details you are allowed to share about that?
Um beyond that it’s actually this action-adventure-comedy-violent kind of sci-fi thing.
Might be some slapstick I guess
[Laughs] Oh yeah, I think all the films that I’ve made have had that, even the most bleak one. That’s a given, I think it’s just something you have to give the audience because it’s just mean to do something that is just miserable. So yeah, with “Freakshift,” I kind of want to make something that is like “Hill Street Blues,” but it’s also like “Doom” the video game.
That’s an interesting mix
Yeah, a lot of shotguns and a lot of creatures popping up (imitating “Alien” jumpscare) and then BOOM! Very kinetic, very fast.
Do you have anything else lined up after that?
Well, there’s that and there’s all sorts of stuff. I’ve got “Wages of Fear,” I’m also writing “Hard Boiled” for Warners at the moment …
Frank Miller or John Woo?
Frank Miller one.
Oh I thought maybe you were remaking the John Woo one [Laughs]
Yeah, wow, I would be shredded if I remade that one.
Well, some great action has been remade in the past, Scorsese did it by remaking “Internal Affairs” into “The Departed.”
Cape Fear” as well, and the sequel to “The Hustler” as well. Actually, “Wages of Fear” is giving me the fear [Laughs], a remake of a movie that’s already been remade brilliantly. I’m afraid to fuck that one up, but we’ll see.
“Free Fire” is in theaters now. 
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