With his sixth film, the newly released Free Fire, director Ben Wheatley has followed up his two most experimental films, A Field in England and High Rise, with his most unashamedly crowd pleasing to date. Read my full review of Free Fire here.
Set in 1970’s Boston, the film is a subtle subversion of action movie tropes, as a gang of criminals and the dealers they are planning on buying weapons from find themselves in a fatal disagreement- leading to a long, bloody and hilariously slapstick feature length shoot out. Co-written with his regular collaborator Amy Jump and starring a mighty ensemble cast, with Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley and his regular collaborator Michael Smiley, the film is his likeliest to achieve mainstream success yet.
Film Inquiry chatted with Ben about where Free Fire fits in to his eclectic filmography, his deep respect for actors and about the deliberately disturbing nature of onscreen violence in cinema.
Alistair Ryder for Film Inquiry: Your movies always get divisive reactions; how have audiences been responding to Free Fire so far?
Ben Wheatley: I’ve been lucky to tour up and down the UK for the past two and a half months showing this film to audiences and one of the main reasons I’ve done it is so that I can actually see what people look like – who’s coming out to see the films and who is supporting them. I’ve toured with two of my films before and seen what audience reactions are like.
After Kill List, the audiences were muted and upset, whereas with High Rise, well, that’s a hard film to tour and do a Q&A afterwards because the audience are a bit fucked (laughs). Free Fire is the easiest of the three to tour, because it’s just fun and it always gets a great response.
Is there any part of you that still gets nervous playing these films to preview audiences?
Ben Wheatley: No, by this point the film is done, so there’s nothing for me to be nervous about from my perspective. Plus, there’s already so much opinion on the net, so there’s already large sections of positive opinion and little pockets of negative opinion. So by that point, it’s fine. I’m not affected by negative responses, because it’s all a numbers game. By your own tastes you can’t like everything, so you can’t immediately expect an audience to do so either. I’m just really happy that so far, audiences are really taking to the film.
Each one of your films feels completely different to the last. Where do you think Free Fire fits into your eclectic filmography?
Ben Wheatley: They seem different on the outside, but there’s themes that run through all the films that are similar and link together in a jaggedy way. I think Free Fire has elements of A Field in England in it, in some respects: the enclosed space, the limited cast, while the final scene in A Field in England feels to me like a shorter version of the central action sequence that takes up the bulk of Free Fire.
Would it be fair to say that you’re interested in confined spaces? Your films effortlessly generate tension and paranoia from the claustrophobic settings, so is it a conscious decision for the action to always take place there?
Ben Wheatley: It’s not on purpose, it would be weird to decide consciously to make a series of films about confined spaces (laughs). Woody Allen doesn’t get criticised for setting most of his movies in rooms does he?
Free Fire is set in 70’s Boston, but filmed entirely in your hometown of Brighton. How did you embark on creating a believable transatlantic period setting?
Ben Wheatley: A lot of films are shot in the UK instead of on location, so it’s strange the amount of people who have been interested in me filming this in Brighton. I mean, Star Wars isn’t filmed in space, it’s filmed in an estate in London with armies of cockneys playing the extras (laughs).
But the fact it looks authentic is all down to the art department, so if we shot it in America, we’d still have to do the same thing. You’d have to fabricate all the signage and design everything from scratch because it doesn’t exist anymore, because finding legitimate period features would only inflate the budget.
As a director who makes violent movies, I was wondering if there are any portrayals of violence in cinema that disturb you?
Ben Wheatley: For me, it’s all about tone, not necessarily what you see. I mean, even I find Kill List disturbing, but it’s meant to be; it’s a horror film. I think the violence in Free Fire is considerably less disturbing because it’s slapstick and the general tone is comedic. It all relies on the individual scale of what each audience member finds offensive or what you find difficult. Mine’s obviously quite high because I’ve seen a lot of movies, but Free Fire definitely packs less of a horrific punch than something like Kill List, or even something like High Rise.
Speaking of High Rise, what with Article 50 just being triggered and Britain leaving the European Union, the dystopian class satire has taken on a new relevancy. You’ve also previously described Sightseers as a “recession era comedy”, so I was wondering if you consider all your films to be political in some way?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I think all filmmaking is political, whether you like it or not. Whether you set out to make a political film doesn’t matter, a film should be about your experience, and your personal experiences are always informed by the world around you at the time. I think Sightseers, Kill List and Down Terrace are explicitly political.
Down Terrace was about the erosion of social contracts and the idea of city states, or rogue states, declaring “war on people” and being beyond law. That was definitely a reaction to what was happening with the Labour government at that point, and I think you could definitely read in to Free Fire in that way as well. It’s basically a war film where no sides will ever back down or compromise, and it doesn’t end well for anybody.
Would it be fair to call Free Fire your most mainstream film to date?
Ben Wheatley: I think there’s strategies in the other films which were a bit punishing to the audience, whereas this meets them halfway instead of rubbing their nose in it in a way some of the other movies did. In that way, it’s kinder to the general audience, but I still think it is a pretty weird film.
So, nobody beat to death with a hammer then?
Ben Wheatley: Well, I never felt that was the problem people had with Kill List – that’s a strong scene. I think people may have just had an issue with an entire film designed to be an assault on the audience member, which makes people uncomfortable and not necessarily enjoyable, and that turns into word of mouth that says “don’t see this film, it’s really horrible!” (laughs). When you get out of Free Fire, the feeling is that you’ve had a good time, you’ve had a laugh and you want to see it again.
You make genre movies, yet you repeatedly work with acclaimed actors. Seeing as genre movies wrongly don’t get acclaim for their performances, I was wondering if you consider yourself to be an actor’s director in any way?
Ben Wheatley: I always find it to be a slippery slope to define any film as a “genre” film. All movies are genre films, even if they are art films, or social realist films, they belong to a wider categorisation. I’ve also never been quite sure of the term “actor’s director” either, I mean, it’s probably a good idea to be a director of actors if you’re a director! Being able to be friendly and knowing with your actors in order to get performances out of them should be the main bit of your arsenal of being a director.
I mean, I have a deep love for actors; the job they do is incredibly hard and it is fundamentally counterintuitive. Our whole adult lives we are taught to hide our feelings and not give anything away and their job is to show their feelings and give everything away, which makes me feel incredibly protective of them when they’re on set, because they’re open in a way every crew member, including the director, is not. It’s a responsibility to make sure they’re all right.
Are there any actors that you admire that you’d love to work with?
Ben Wheatley: (without hesitation) Lee Marvin.
After watching Free Fire, which movies do you recommend people go back and visit?
Ben Wheatley: The Evil Dead II is one and then the Warner Bros. Tom and Jerry Cartoons. On a crime front, which is not necessarily connected but I don’t think is seen enough, is Who Will Stop the Rain, which is also called Dog Soldiers for some reason although it has nothing to do with the Neill Marshall film. Then there’s The Outfit and of course, Point Blank.
What are your next projects after Free Fire? You seem to have a lot in production…
Ben Wheatley: Well, they’re not in production – they’re in mentions on the internet, that’s what they are. We’re hoping to turn over in August on a sci-fi film called Freakshift, that’s the most likely thing that’s happening next.
And that’s starring Alicia Vikander, if I’m not mistaken?
Ben Wheatley: According to the gossip on the internet, yes (laughs). I’m not denying it, but I’m also not confirming anything just yet.
Your IMDb also says your directing a feature film spin-off from the TV series Ideal, is that also in the works?
Ben Wheatley: Well, that is the weirdest thing where somebody did a press release saying I was doing it and didn’t ask me- and that sticks in your IMDb forever!
You did direct multiple episodes of that show – do the lessons you learnt while directing TV still help when making feature films with total creative control?
Ben Wheatley: Of course, it’s the absolute bedrock of what I do. It taught me how to work efficiently, get through a tight working day and feel confident that you’ve shot it properly. But you don’t get so much control as a director.
I was asked to write a show for HBO called Silk Road, where I was given complete creative control and told to create something extreme and completely fucked up. So I did, and I haven’t heard from them since. Imagine the hammer scene from Kill List, but for ten hours – that’s what that show would have been like (laughs).
Free Fire is out now in UK cinemas and is released in the US on April 21. All international release dates are here.
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