Controlled Chaos: Ben Wheatley orchestrates a wild standoff in 'Free Fire'

Movies Features

It's 1978 and a bunch of mugs, thugs and IRA foot soldiers have converged on a grimy Boston warehouse to do a weapons deal. If not exactly a piece of cake—when crates of seriously big guns are involved, it never pays to be too cavalier—it shouldn't be too complicated. And yet it gets that way, and fast…a little drug-fueled paranoia here, some macho swagger there and a healthy dollop of twitchy anxiety on top turns the meet into a free-for-all that traps everyone in a crossfire that's equal parts bullets and words…lots of words.

U.K. writer-director-editor Ben Wheatley and his wife and longtime collaborator, writer-editor Amy Jump have made five features to date: the offbeat thrillers Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012), the ’shroom-inflected 17th-century drama A Field in England (2013), an adaptation of J. G. Ballard's bitter social-climbing satire High Rise (2015) and the mordantly witty Free Fire, in which an illegal gun sale goes from business-as-usual to full-blown mayhem in a matter of minutes and stays there for the better part of an hour. You could be forgiven for thinking it must be Wheatley's nod to Reservoir Dogs-era Quentin Tarantino—reviewers can't seem to stop saying as much—but Wheatley and Jump aren't looking to recreate the smart-talking, trigger-happy Dogs on an epic scale, nor are they taking a dip in the pool of Guy Ritchie-esque snark. Free Fire (from A24) has its own distinct tone, and please don't call it a comedy thriller.

"Well, if people are laughing it's a comedy, yeah?" Wheatley says with a touch of resignation. "But it's not a comedy… the laughter comes from the characters, making jokes to lighten the mood or just because they're that person…that's what they do." And given the substantial cast of characters—including scruffy IRA buyers Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley and their flunkies, Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti; sharp-dressed seller Sharlto Copley (of 2010's surprise Oscar-nominee District 9) and his accomplices; and cool, collected middlemen Armie Hammer and his gimlet-eyed partner, Brie Larson—there’s a lot of crosstalk amid the crossfire, much of it accompanied by the strains of John Denver's saccharine earworm, "Annie's Song," the singer-songwriter’s sole number-one U.K. hit.

That's quite a lineup of English, Irish, American and South African actors preening and posturing and losing it a filthy warehouse, a practical location in Brighton with a second-floor office overhang set-dressed with purpose-built "pillars and low walls in the right positions" to provide cover and complex sightlines once the gunplay starts. "But it was a clean space, basically," Wheatley interjects. "It couldn't be as dirty as it looked because that would kill the actors, basically—you'd never know what was in it, like glass or asbestos or debris…nasty things."

And casting was key: The actors have to establish their characters quickly, then take them through a rapid-fire series of reversals and revelations, not to mention a tangle of accents: "They say we're separated by a common language between America and England, but I think the idea that these accents are literally impenetrable to each other is kind of cool, you know? That's the melting pot of immigration…coming in and speaking and nobody understands what anybody else is saying. For me that was almost like a metaphor for my filmmaking on this picture: I'm coming to America and making an American film set in an American genre idiom and it's about Europeans and Africans turning up and saying, 'What are we doing here?' Completely fish out of water and trying to negotiate this thing, so that was kind of interesting to me."

Though U.K. actors have a well-deserved reputation for being versatile and disciplined, the end products of drama-school training that prepares them to handle everything from Shakespeare and Mamet to Hollywood rom-coms and action pictures, Wheatley happily gives equal props to their American cousins.

"English drama school training can have a downside," he says, "in the same way that a lack of formal training can have in America. U.K. actors can be a bit samey-samey because they've all studied, whereas in the U.S. you can do an audition and there are people who just jump out at you... they have a presence. We really started out thinking about actors we wanted to work with—the film was written originally for Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy.

"What Amy and I tend to do is look at interviews and stuff on TV; we're not so much interested in the movies actors have done..... we want to see the crack in the armor, when they aren't trying to promote some project or making jokes. That's when you can see people, and then the rest of it is done with conversations. You know, half the battle is figuring out who's smart and cool and interesting and someone you can be with for eight weeks. Then it's just pushing types together.”

The ’70s setting isn't just a matter of style: "There's the IRA angle," Wheatley points out, "and that plot point is very much of a particular time—it's kind of what led us to the ’70s. But then there's also the technology, which is really a massive thing." He's talking about cellphones, of course—the pesky little lifelines that can punch a hole in the best-laid narrative trap. How much suspense can you generate when all someone has to do is call for backup or dial 911 to get the police on the scene?

"That's very much an issue when you think about today's horror movies and thrillers," Wheatley concedes, "but we didn't actually think of the absence of cellphones as a driver for Free Fire's plot... it came later." But it pays off: The moment when a landline no one knew was there rings shrilly from the second story—a long flight of painfully exposed stairs away from the warehouse floor—is an electrifying jolt.

And unlike ’70s-set films that wallow in the sheer awfulness of the era's worst fashions—beige and burnt-orange everything, polyester vests and tab-front bellbottoms, leisure suits, platform shoes, massive sideburns and “Charlie's Angels” flips—Free Fall errs on the side of a more realistic rendering, rather than what was depicted in period fashion magazine spreads.

"What we looked at was street photography," he explains. "There's an idea about what the ’70s looked like from modern movies because people have slowly picked the bits that they like about the era. But when you go back to pictures of what real people were actually wearing, it's crazy and then it's really modern as well. You go like, oh, okay, these are clothes we're wearing now and those other things are really, really weird.

"I have a theory that people stop buying clothes in their 20s... they kind of give up on fashion and then they look the same for the rest of their lives. Like all the old ladies in ‘Monty Python’—when I was a kid an old granny would look like that because those were the clothes that they wore in the ’30s. All the characters in Free Fire have a moment where they've stopped thinking about clothes.

"Smiley's character dresses in ’50s style—maybe the trousers are slightly wider because he couldn't get any other trousers, but he dresses like someone who was a teenager in the ’50s and was into rock ’n’ roll and Johnny Cash, plus that Irish thing of being obsessed with cowboys... that's his character. Armie Hammer dresses in more ’60s than ’70s clothes… like Woody Allen's mate in Annie Hall, Tony Roberts. And Brie's got the Cybil Shepherd hair from Taxi Driver and the classic purse... I think Amy may have specified what it was because, yeah, she knows her bags."

The only peacock in high-’70s drag is Copley, all tight plaid suit, spray-styled hair, porn ’stache, seriously wide, spread shirt-collar…."and his clothes are horrible," Wheatley laughs. Perhaps that's part of the reason Copley's Vern winds up getting set on fire. "Someone sent me this on Twitter," Wheatley says, scrolling quickly thorough his cellphone pictures. "This is Dan O'Bannon, who wrote Alien, standing outside the set in 1977—I mean, it’s the same clothes. I was really chuffed because it's the look—it was like boom, we got that right!"

And while the soundtrack isn't wall-to-wall music cues, composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow found serious inspiration in the obscure "Do the Boob," by The Real Kids. "It was something I found online while searching for Boston groups…when Geoff and Ben heard it they threw out everything they'd already done as "too clean, too brass and Taking of Pelham One Two Three pastichey and said, 'This song is so sleazy, so kind of smacky and nasty.'

"Basically they wanted it to sound as though I went out and bought a prog-rock album and it just fitted the movie…and they were going to go off and write that album. They were becoming characters as musicians and they put this band together and made this album. They'd taken references from Lalo Schifrin and David Shire—not actual music references but more attitude. Like when you listen to the Dirty Harry soundtrack and think: Why is it so fucking weird? And it's because they were experimenters and liked weird instruments and kind of cracked open the saxophone and the weird tom-tom drums."

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the movie's guns—and there are a lot of them—are characters in their own right, they speak volumes about the men and woman wielding them. "There were pistols and there was the AR-70 rifle and there are characters with weapons like the [World War II-era] M1 carbine and Garand, and they were all linked to the characters in the same way that the costumes were.

"The snipers were basically guys who met down the bar and were like yeah, I'm a sniper... well, I was, when we landed on Omaha—both those characters are meant to represent that older generation. And then everyone else is a mixture of kind of showboaty, massive magnums that were probably motivated by seeing something like Dirty Harry and nasty little throwaway .38s.

"I don't believe the film glorifies guns; I mean, the moral of it is that they don't solve anything and there's not much ‘Oooohhhhhh, guns’ kind of thing. I think the power of them is seductive to people on the rifle range, but in the real world it's terrifying… I've read a lot about people being really bad shots in shootout situations because they're mortally afraid. You always read this stuff about Star Wars like, ‘Oh, the storm troopers can't shoot straight,’ but that's probably quite realistic, honestly. If someone's trying to murder you, all calm goes out of the situation.

"I think it's from videogames that people kind of assume that it's easy to shoot, because there are no consequences—you take risks in a videogame that you'd never take with your own physical being. When you see the way tactical, the way soldiers actually move, there's no heroism, no Rambo-ing about because you'll just be dead straightaway."

The film's actors came away with the usual war stories—"they got dinged up and bruised and hurt doing it, which I hadn't really considered… Smiley's in his 50s and wasn't happy about rolling around on the ground for several weeks"—but for all the intensity of the shoot, Wheatley says Free Fire was a surprisingly upbeat set. "I know that's not the usual story," he concedes, "but it was. Because [the set] was lit 360 [degrees], it wasn't like every time we set up all the lamps came in and the flags went up.

"Usually it's about the DP: You set it up, the actors come out and do their thing and that's it—they go back to the trailers and wait for another two hours to come out again. Here they were acting all the time and it was kind of intense, like a kind of performance-art piece in a way. Plus they were all out together at night. [Actor] Jack Reynor lived over the top of this pub called The Great Eastern. The manager told us it was a quiet time during the summer and they were going to let some people go, but they kept them on because the crew and actors were there every other night—it was brilliant."

As for what's next, Wheatley isn't sure. "We were supposed to be doing Freakshift, which is kind of a sci-fi-action, woman-led mixture of ‘Hill Street Blues’and the Dune videogame" from an original Wheatley-Jump script. "That's what's meant to be next, but I've also written Hard Boiled, an adaptation of Frank Miller and Geof Darrow's comic book for Warner's, so that's kind of bubbling along in the background, subject to the writers’ strike and whatever's going to happen with that. So that's where we are at the moment."