'Free Fire' Director Ben Wheatley -- The Politics of Violence
The films of English director Ben Wheatley have been occupied, to date, by crime families (2009's "Down Terrace"), hitmen (2011's "Kill List"), murderous tourists (2012's "Sightseers"), English Civil War deserters (2013's "A Field in England") and post-apocalyptic class corrupters (last year's "High Rise").
With "Free Fire," the filmmaker's latest, a group of trigger-friendly amateurs, idiots and narcissists join Wheatley's growing ensemble of eccentrics who are hurled into violent, character-defining scenarios. The film-featuring an ensemble cast that includes Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson and more-follows the simple premise of an arms deal gone wrong, escalating into a full-fledged shootout between a dozen different characters.
Wheatley sat down with EDGE during his recent visit to Boston, the morning after the filmmaker spoke to a sold out crowd at the IFF Boston screening of "Free Fire" at Harvard Square's historic Brattle Theatre.
Crafting a Real-Time Gun Fight
EDGE: What struck me most about 'Free Fire' were its technical aspects. How do you even begin to approach blocking and filming something that is, essentially, a 60-minute gun fight within a 90-minute, real-time story?
Ben Wheatley: It's kind of like an animation sequence. I mean, all action is like that. There is a lot of crossover between those two disciplines.
But, it always starts with the writing to make sure there's enough story. The script can't just be a bunch of dialogue and then 'gunfight, gunfight, gunfight.' We knew going into it that the interest would only be kept if we were following people with different stress points and different stories. That's the plot, but there's also the narrative of action. Now, it's easy to write this shit on the page, because the page is really malleable. If I'm writing, say, a scene where a guy would barrel roll into this room and then flip the table we're sitting at --
that's really easy to write, but how many rolls does he have to do? How long does it take him to flip the table? That's where the storyboarding comes in. That's where you really begin to understand how to work with everything.
EDGE: I'd imagine you have to approach this content a bit differently, being in just a single location and taking place in real time.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, this film was particularly difficult because it is in real time and in one space. In a normal movie, characters literally teleport from scene to scene. You never see them drive up or journey places; we're not often concerned with that as viewers.
In a movie like 'Free Fire,' where you know where everyone is at all times, that becomes a massive issue. Take 'Die Hard' as an example. You don't really give a shit what Hans Gruber is up to while Bruce Willis is crawling around in ducts. But if you suddenly cut to a split screen of Hans having a cigarette or something, smoking, looking out the window, using the toilet, whatever, it'd be extremely distracting. You'd be like 'What the fuck is Gruber doing?' That'd be really boring, and most movies have this luxury where they can go 'Fuck it.' You don't really care what Ronan the Accuser is doing all throughout 'Guardians of the Galaxy.' But what is he doing? Is he just sitting there playing fucking Puzzle Bobble or something?
But, in this film, you see everyone most of the time. In the scenes where you aren't seeing certain people, you worry about where they are. You have to make sure all these stories are like a series of spinning plates and you need to keep them going all the time.
Keeping it spinning
EDGE: You definitely kept those plates spinning in the editing room. You've been the editor on all six of your films. Is there any specific reason for that?
Ben Wheatley: I came up as an editor, so that's my bag. It's just much harder for me to watch other people edit. Why explain it to someone when you can do it twice as quick?
EDGE: And what about the sound in this film? It felt so meticulously crafted as I was hearing gunshot after gunshot echoing within the film's warehouse location.
Ben Wheatley: I usually approach sound in a slightly different way. Normally, you get the edit, then you get the track laying, and then you get the sound mix. The way I work with Martin Pavey, who has done the sound design on all the films I've done, is that he's usually the first employee of the movie. We start doing the track laying before we shoot the film by gathering the sounds that we want. Then we will record the ambiances and such while we shoot the film. By the time we get into the editing room, I edit all the sound in and sound mixes happen as I cut. By the time we lock the cut, it's almost as if the sound mix is finished as well.
EDGE: Violence is a fairly prominent theme in your films, especially 'Free Fire.' How do you approach violence in your work?
Ben Wheatley: I think, in the films I make, there are generally consequences to violence. And it's not anonymous. It's not just hordes of people showing up as baseless goons to be murdered. I think that balance is important. This film, however, does kind of contradict what I've said in the past because it is more of a fun, cartoony approach to violence, to a degree.
But, it still has that flintiness to it where it's harsh. It goes between being funny and being nasty, backwards and forwards, you feel it and then you don't feel it and then you feel it again. If you're going to dig deep under the bonnet of it, it's a conversation of why do you enjoy genre films and what do you enjoy about them. We like seeing all this death and destruction, but why do we like it so much? That's a really important question to ask.
EDGE: For me, I saw a lot of our current world reflected in 'Free Fire.' There were some major tensions happening between our current administration and North Korea at the time I saw this film, and I couldn't help but draw a parallel to this movie about a bunch of idiots boasting their egos with weapons they shouldn't be handling.
Ben Wheatley: [Laughs] I think that all genre stuff is political. It has to be. It's often made in the moment of a certain time. Now, this was made two years ago, but it's still relevant in the sense of talking about mutual destruction, where once you get deep into a certain level of violence it becomes incredibly hard to get out. You can apply that to what happened in Northern Ireland, to a degree, but you could also apply it to war and terrorism and ground troops. For me, this week, it's the fucking snap election happening in the UK. That is going to be an absolute bloodbath. I look at that and think, 'Well, that's like "Free Fire" to me.'
THe Scorsese connection
EDGE: Was it tough balancing the politics of the film with its entertainment value?
Ben Wheatley: 'Free Fire' is as political as 'High Rise,' but it's not as hard. It's entertainment and it's meeting you half way. In the same way, it's like the reading of George Romero's 'Dawn of the Dead.' It's essentially a very simple movie, but it's also a complex and very political movie. But you can still enjoy it if you're just a fan of zombies getting their heads chopped off.
EDGE: This film has Martin Scorsese as an Executive Producer. That has to be crazy for you.
Ben Wheatley: It was amazing. Just getting to meet him was amazing. I've met with him a few times now and it's always a massive treat. He's exactly how you'd think he would be.
EDGE: He seems like a walking, talking film encyclopedia.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, totally. He loves film, inside and out. It's actually intense. When I met him, he knew everything about everything I'd done, right down to the DVD extras and the whole nine yards. I was like, 'Damn.' But, at the same time, he probably has that same level of knowledge about everybody. I think at that level, when you're totally at the top of your game, you need to look at cinema as a whole and explore all the corners of it to see what's happening. If you take film as a craft seriously, it's not looking backwards but looking forward.
The changing industry
EDGE: Speaking of Scorsese and looking forward, his upcoming film 'The Irishman' is going to be released exclusively on Netflix. How do you feel about where the film industry is going?
Ben Wheatley: I don't know. I think that, on one level, I'm sad about the way TV works. It's very long and it only ever ends when people don't want to watch it anymore. The concept of dribbling a story out in fucking crumbs for hours, that is a bit depressing.
On the other end, getting people into cinemas is a problem. Films on TV are not a problem. As the other ends of technology go up, your TV or projector at home is literally just as good. It's almost like that moment where the arcades got fucked because you could buy machines for your home that were just as good. There will always be a place for watching stuff with an audience -- watching films with an audience is important. But if the cost of where we are going as an industry is 'no audience,' we need to move fast. I worry that the massive corporations coming in and buying everybody out will lead to them owning and producing everything, and then you just have a systemic problem of a lower quality to the work.
"Free Fire" is in theaters.