English director Ben Wheatley appeared at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse this week to discuss his new film, action comedy Free Fire. Like the film itself, Wheatley is funny, irreverent and sweary; he is a slightly grumpy, bearded bear of a man, with a rapid-fire Essex accent and a nice line in self-mockery.
Asked what inspired Free Fire, Wheatley talked about reading the transcript of a big messy Miami shootout in 1996, in which hundreds of shots were fired, but not many of them hit their targets – ‘no epiphany, this, but it didn’t ring true to Hollywood.’
Was he influenced by the austere films of the ‘70s? Wheatley said Free Fire ‘was closer to things like The Evil Dead and Tom & Jerry … the characters should be extras, but they overpower the main characters, drag the film down to their level. The minor characters break the film.’
Free Fire – essentially one big shootout in a warehouse – was ‘lit in the round, 360 degrees, shooting with lots of different cameras at the same time. A lot of clever shit goes on behind my back,’ said the director – planning and choreography was crucial. Wheatley started out as an animator, which obviously helped when composing the 2,000 storyboards that plot out the positions and movements of the characters. ‘We built it in Minecraft and measured it out, walked through the whole script with sightlines.’ It may look chaotic on the screen, but the final script was ‘a load of maps with dotted lines and arrows’.
Wheatley was asked about the use of music in the film. ‘Some is written in,’ he explained, ‘like the John Denver track, a song I remember vividly from when I was a kid. I still listen to it. [Annie’s Song] is not an ironic choice.’ The score was different, recorded as a band by Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Ben Salisbury. Its’ jazz drumming and skronking sax is an attempt to create the kind of 1970s prog album that Wheatley might have listened to.
How did Martin Scorcese (credited as executive producer) come on board? ‘He was making Hugo, had seen Kill List and liked it, so I asked my agent to arrange a meeting in New York. It was bizarre. When I saw Taxi Driver it totally turned my mind around of what a filmmaker can do. He’s still just a man … we got on alright.’
A member of the Cambridge audience asked whether Wheatley’s films were about the absurdity of violence. Free Fire, he replied, was ‘much broader. It forces us to ask the question “what am I in this moral universe?” If you watch something like John Wick with the sound down … is it worth the deaths of so many people? The moral of the story is: don’t play with guns.’
‘There’s lots of slithering around,’ observed one questioner. Was this ‘horizontal’ stuff a reaction to his previous film, High Rise? ‘It’s more interesting on the floor,’ enthused Wheatley. The slithering was something I was quite excited about from the start. There are no mobile phones, so it’s difficult to get out of the situation’. The 1970s setting granted freedom: ‘it’s to do with a time before technology. Mobile phones have scuppered film writers. They are un-cinematic.’
Asked about cult films, Wheatley said ‘a cult film is a failed film that didn’t make any money and has been rehabilitated by critics … you should never try to manufacture a cult film.’ But he was not attracted to the idea of making Hollywood blockbusters: ‘you get a lot of nervous people around big budget films … it must be absolutely terrifying going down that route’.
Free Fire is a lot more universal than his previous work (‘he’s stopped punishing the audience’), ‘but it’s still quite a weird movie. It won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival. This is better than any review you can get.’
On casting the film, Wheatley sang the praises of Armie Hammer: ‘he’s good at everything, really tall and good looking. He’s an absolute bastard’. He said that Luke Evans (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast) was going to do it, but dropped out to be in ‘a film about talking candlesticks’. Sam Riley was a revelation: ‘god, he’s like a young John Hurt’.
What advice would he give to his younger self, when he was just starting out? ‘Get walking and do some exercise.’
What was next? ‘A film about giant women fighting crabs.’