For many years, director Ben Wheatley has been one of Britain’s top genre exports from his early supernatural crime-thriller Kill List to the dark comedy Sightseers and the trippy war movie, A Field in England. Last year, he even took on the difficult task of adapting J.B. Ballard’s High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, a crazy movie that also paid homage to another great British filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick. (All of these movies were either written, co-written and/or edited by Wheatley’s long-time silent partner, Amy Jump.)
Wheatley’s new movie Free Fire features an amazing ensemble cast that includes Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Michael Smiley and more, as it sets up a gun deal that goes wrong and turns into a violent shoot out inside an abandoned warehouse.
The movie shows the amazing skills of Wheatley and Jump with terrific dialogue and some of the most insane action scenes, all taking place in one single location. And it also says a lot when a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese comes on board to act as executive producer on your movie.
LRM got on the phone with Wheatley earlier this week to talk about the movie and other things he has in the works.
LRM: Was this a response to “High-Rise,” which was also one location but was a lot more complicated, I’d assume? Was this an answer to that?
Ben Wheatley: I wish I was in control of my career as much as that, that I could make statements for each film I make. We write a lot of scripts, Amy and I are both writing stuff all the time. What gets made is really out of our hands, because it’s so complex, the raising of money and what not. That was one of many scripts that was on the starting block to get financed. It was just the one that muscled to the front, that had the most good will with people. But yeah, we’re always trying to make stuff that’s different so we don’t make the same movie again and again, but it would have been hard to make a film the same as High-Rise immediately afterwards, unless we had done an adaptation of Concrete Island or something.
LRM: You’ve been collaborating with Amy Jump since “Kill List” so are you two writing a lot of scripts that are in always in some form of development?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, yeah. When I look at it, Kill List was the last one that we did write together, because she kinda co-wrote Sightseers, and then A Field in England and High-Rise were both ones she did on her own. Behind the scenes, there are a lot of scripts being written, so there will be a lot of ones that we will write together or ones that I’ll write on my own or ones she’ll write on her own, as well.
LRM: I was impressed when I saw Martin Scorsese’s name in the credits because I didn’t know about that until I saw the movie and saw him listed as executive producer. How did that come about?
Ben Wheatley: It came through basically hearing that he liked Kill List. I had read an old newspaper article recently. I saw that he liked it, and I was intrigued by that. I was obviously really excited that he liked it, and I got my agent to see if I could get a meeting with him, just say “Hello” and that happened. It was actually during the Sightseers press in America, I met him in New York, and then we kind of got on, and it kind of went from there, really.
LRM: Obviously, there’s a lot more dialogue in the beginning and then it turns more into the shooting and the way the action is set up. Was that stuff you figured out in advance and had in the actual script? Or did that develop later once you got on location?
Ben Wheatley: A bit of both. The script has a lot of detail about all the action stuff, it would have to be, because the script is the blueprint to the movie, and that’s how they managed to finance it, because they have to know how much it’s going to cost. That was that, but then when you get in the space, things occur to you. I’d walk around and find things and go “This can work here and this is a good joke,” like Noah Taylor behind that big rolling cable drum thing was something that we found in the location, and thought, “Let’s do something with this.” The compressed air cannisters started off as a much more modest thing and then got bigger as we went on, because it just felt like it needed something massive at that point in the movie. It’s finely planned and put together, but I’m always open to change things if we come up with a better idea.
LRM: Was that location an empty space or was it already a warehouse that was abandoned and just needed dressing up?
Ben Wheatley: No, it was totally clean and pristine, a big white box. It had the staircase in it and the offices above, but the rest of it was all brought in. We built all the pillars, all the walls, all the peeling paint, everything, was all done to that space. And it kind of had to be, because if you’re shooting in a real, abandoned place, you gotta work with what’s there or you can end up killing all the actors through asbestos poisoning or broken glass or Weil’s disease or tetanus, or any number of horrible things.
LRM: No, don’t want that. How did you end up putting together the cast for this? It’s obviously a very eclectic group of characters. Michael you worked with before and Cillian Murphy is a no-brainer, what about some of the others?
Ben Wheatley: It was written for Cillian originally, so that’s how he got involved, and for Michael Smiley, so they’re two people straight off the bat. That’s not a casting issue. You just have to ask if they want to do it, and they go “Yes” or “no,” and then Armie Hammer, I just really liked him from seeing him in Lone Ranger and just talked to my agent and said, “Can we talk to Armie Hammer?” and that was a lot easier than it deserved to be really. There’s no great story in it. It just happened really quick and he really like the script, and everyone really responded well to the script, which is great. Brie Larson, I’d met her in L.A. as part of a general meeting, just chatted with her and really liked her and knew from the word that she could act obviously but I thought her as a person was kind of interesting, kind of forthright, smart and charming. Room wasn’t even finished by the time we started Free Fire. She’d only been shooting it, so the whole Oscar thing was way away in the distance at that point. Sharlto Copley came on quite late to it, but I was a massive fan of his from District 9, and we just got on really well when we chatted, so it kind of came together like that.
LRM: Armie is having this amazing year, just by the coincidence of being in this movie and “Call Me By Your Name” and another movie at Berlin. He’s really coming into his own, even though he’s been doing bigger movies for a while now like “Lone Ranger” and “Man from UNCLE.” He plays an interesting character in this one who isn’t really on anyone’s side, except maybe his own.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I think he’s done some great work this year, and I think he’s very clever and the agents are very clever. They’ve got a real strategy together for getting him work, and he’s very adventurous, Armie, and that will hold him in good stead. The thing is that I really liked Lone Ranger and UNCLE, and I didn’t really understand what happened with those films, why they didn’t find a bigger audience in a way. There ware some slightly mean reviews of Lone Ranger, which I just didn’t really understand, so for me, he’s like a big movie star, and it’s only a matter of time I think.
LRM: Why was it important to have a woman in the movie? Obviously, these movies tend to be very male-dominated usually but having Justine creates a completely different dynamic, almost automatically.
Ben Wheatley: It’s just the way that it panned out. We had made A Field in England, which is a film with no women in it, and I didn’t want to do another film that was just all guys. It’s just a very different dynamic and also, she’s at the center of the film, in a way. Everything pivots through her, the plan, the whole thing that’s gone wrong. Her role is like the last girl but she’s also adjacent at the same time. She kills more people than anybody else in the movie. It’s complicated, but it’s playing with that seventies character to a degree, that she was almost there looking at the audience going, “I can’t believe how bad things were” in terms of sexism and these guys’ attitudes, and yet, she’s looking into a future where it’s going to be better in a way.
LRM: I was more surprised by Jack Reynor and Sam Riley, who were the most unrecognizable between their facial hair and the accents.
Ben Wheatley: I mean, Sam was fantastic, and Jack. The thing that we felt we had, and the actors said It the same, is because there are so many scenes where they’re all in it, there was a definite feeling on set where they all looked at each other and went, “Sh*t, we gotta bring our A-game here. There’s no coasting,” ‘cause everyone is so great. You felt it in the room. They’re all jostling for position. It definitely helped the movie.
LRM: Music plays a big part in this, and having John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is amazing, so did you already know the songs you wanted to use when Geoff(Barrow) and Ben (Salisbury) started scoring it?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, pretty much. The “Do the Boob” song at the beginning was really the one that colored the whole movie. Before that, the conversations I’d had with Geoff and Ben were more about David Shire, much more heavy industrial brass noise that ‘70s movies kind of had. When I got that track, Ben and Geoff were like, “Well, it’s much more smacky and dirty and garage-y and that will color the rest of the film’s music,” so they went away and recalibrated it to this more broken freeform jazz type score. And the Denver stuff was all in it from the beginning—that was all in the first script—and I just really like John Denver, and I like that kind of sweetness and the romance of that track being up against something really terrible that’s going on.
LRM: I was in a Japanese restaurant the other day and “Annie’s Song” came on, and I almost jumped behind the table. I hadn’t heard that song in 25 or 30 years and now I’ve heard it a number of times in the last week. Any idea what you want to do next? Are you edging any closer to doing a studio movie now?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I’m getting there. I’m writing stuff. I’m writing Hard Boiled, the Frank Miller and Geof Darrow adaptation for Warners at the moment, so that will be a big old studio picture when it gets out the other end of the sausage machine, but it takes time. I think we’ll probably shoot another movie before that happens.
LRM: Is that “Freakshift,” the one you’re doing next?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, yeah, that’s in August hopefully.
LRM: And that’s also with Armie Hammer?
Ben Wheatley: Yep, yeah, he’s in that, and if the internet rumors are to be believed, Alicia Vikander as well.
LRM: I am a “Man from UNCLE” fan, so I’ll be happy to see them doing more movies together if they can.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, well their scene together was fantastic in that movie, I thought.
LRM: “Hard Boiled” is an interesting one, because Geof Darrow’s artwork, he was doing the big budget storyboards a long time ago, and I assume that will be a big movie. Are you writing it with those visuals in mind?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, yeah. I want to bring that Darrow look to the screen, as much as they did it in The Matrix. It’s quite a challenge, but it’s also that tone, that Frank Miller-y tone to it and the fun tone of the comic book, mixed with the violence. The script’s in a pretty good shape. I got high hopes for it, but I’m sure I’ll be answering questions on it for the next two years with people going, “Where is it?”
LRM: That’s how it always happens. Have you been working with Frank Miller at all on it?
Ben Wheatley: No, but I’m in Chicago at the moment, so I saw Geoff yesterday, and that was brilliant. I’m such a horrific fanboy. (laughs)
LRM: His artwork is so great and he’s done so few projects over the years, it’s a treat when he has a new one.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, he’s a very cool guy. He’s very funny, so it was really a joy to meet him.
LRM: So you’re a big comic fan in general and been reading them regularly over the years?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah.
LRM: Anything else on your plate or do you have to finish up the promotion for “Free Fire” first?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I think that’s probably enough to be going on with to be fair. (laughs) I’ll be free of Free Fire on Saturday, and then I can get down to doing the pre-prep stuff for Freakshift starting on Monday after I get over my horrific jetlag of being here for two weeks.
LRM: Also, I was curious about collaborating with Amy, because you did “Kill List” together and now this, so is that a very organic way you work together? How do you two collaborate?
Ben Wheatley: It’s not very organic, no. It’s more binary. It’s more like I write something, and she rewrites it, and then it’s either finished or it blows up. That’s kind of the way we’ve always worked. I kind of just try to twist her arm to make my scripts better, and that’s how I work with her.
LRM: But as the director, you probably have the last say in things anyway, so you can always redo things on the set.
Ben Wheatley: Not really, because of the way we work—because she’s the editor as well—so it’s much less of that kind of auteury French kind of thing of being the director at the top of the pyramid. We are—certainly on the last three or four movies—they are kind of co-made between the two of us. I tell you, a writer/editor has quite a lot of control over the movie, as much as a director does. I do get the deciding kind of vote often, but you have to be very careful about that, usually. You can’t just maraud around or otherwise, you end up in a very lonely place.
Free Fire opens nationwide on Friday, April 21. You can watch a video interview with the cast below.