For any filmmaker, having the legendary Martin Scorsese involved in your movie would be a thrill. For Ben Wheatley it was an undoubted high point, but also, he admits, a terrifying experience.
Free Fire, the ’70s-set shoot-’em-up, is British director Wheatley’s sixth feature and will come blazing on to UAE cinema screens this week. Scorsese, the man behind a slew of classics such as GoodFellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, is executive producer.
“It was amazing, just being able to meet him. That would have been enough for me,” says Wheatley. “It really made it all feel very real. When I started watching movies and I was just a fan, I bought loads of books about Scorsese and read as much as I could about him. I watched all his films and bought them all. It blows my mind.”
In Free Fire, we meet Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) who are heading to an arms deal in a Boston warehouse. Suave middleman Ord (Armie Hammer) and fellow intermediary Justine (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) have set up a meeting with South African dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley). Each side has their own assortment of hired goons to help seal the deal, but all does not go smoothly.
Within minutes, trouble flares as it becomes clear that everyone involved in the deal has their own agenda. For the next hour-and-a-half, the warehouse becomes the scene of an almighty shoot-out. The action is visceral, relentless and often hilarious, with the director happily poking fun at the ridiculous situation the group finds itself in.
It’s a set-up and setting of which Scorsese himself would be proud, but the ’70s gangland aspects weren’t what drew the 74-year-old to the project.
Wheatley says: “Although we ran through the scripts with him, the particulars of the setting and the finer points were up to us. I think it’s more just that it’s up his street. He’s got quite a sick sense of humour that works well with what I do. He saw it after it was finished, which was terrifying, but he loved it.”
Scorsese became involved after seeing Wheatley’s 2011 effort, Kill List, which tells the tale of contract killer Jay, who has three hits to complete before he can hopefully call it a day. If that sounds like the scenario of dozens more movies don’t be fooled, the plot unravels into a psychological horror, akin to Get Carter ending up like The Wicker Man.
Like Wheatley’s other work (including the darkly comic Sightseers and the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise) you can tell he’s the man pulling the strings of Free Fire. Although, while some of his other movies have veered from genre to genre, this effort seems more straightforward – it starts as a shoot-out and ends as a shoot-out. The director, however, doesn’t necessarily agree.
“It’s a rip-roaring action adventure movie, in the crime genre,” Wheatley says. “It’s about what happens when the deal goes horribly wrong. Setting it all in one place was just something I wanted to see myself. There’s no filler at all. It’s also based on a real-life shoot-out in Miami, which became like a real-life chess game. We’ve reduced an action move right down but I’d liken it to a war film. There are two sides fighting against each other and it’s like a game of cat and mouse. The only difference is, this is set over the course of one night and in one location. All films are just a series of shots in different rooms, but here there aren’t any walls.”
He continues: “It’s a much bigger movie that gets derailed by some small characters. This really should be the first scene in a film that went on and on and on but it never gets past that first meeting. Some of the guys should really just be extras, they shouldn’t even have character names, but they end up dragging the bigger characters down.”
Wheatley seems keen to play down comparisons between this work and that of Quentin Tarantino, whose own violent shoot-out movie set in a warehouse, Reservoir Dogs, propelled him towards Hollywood royalty, with his next film, Pulp Fiction, winning Best Screenplay at the 1994 Academy Awards. But is comparing Free Fire to Reservoir Dogs lazy?
“I wouldn’t say that, but I’m excited by it because if it means my next one wins an Oscar I’ll take it,” Wheatley says.
The violence, although gory, is also less comic than in Tarantino’s work. Here you hear dull thuds when bullets hit, cracks of bones when people fall over and pained cries and yelps when anyone is injured. There are also a lot of shots fired that miss people and hit walls, crates and windows, gradually destroying the warehouse.
“There’s that thing – apparently it’s very hard to hit someone if you’re trained,” Wheatley adds. “Imagine if you’re trying not to get hit at the same time as being fired at, then there’s an extra dimension to it.
“I think stormtroopers in Star Wars always get a bad rap for not being a very good shot but they’re probably terrified as well and always running so it’s no surprise, really.”
During the course of the movie, it becomes apparent that Wheatley is delighted to mock the characters. These aren’t Mafioso mob leaders, they’re a faintly ridiculous bunch of wannabes that are way out of their depth, and that’s where a lot of the humour comes in, along with a lot of the violence.
“I didn’t want them to be stock criminals. None of them are really criminals, they’re just a bunch of guys that have this one job in common,” he says. “They’re not members of the Mafia or something as bland and one-dimensional as that. They’re all there for different reasons. It’s complicated why they’re there but I wanted them all to be people that have things going on in their lives, whether that’s political or personal, and to show how quickly you can be reduced to nothing, or reduced to having hardly any choice once you’re involved in violence. Once the guns come out, it’s very difficult to escape.”
Wheatley’s early career saw him work mainly on TV comedy shows. He was a writer on Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet and directed episodes of the Johnny Vegas sitcom Ideal and spoof documentary Steve Coogan: The Inside Story. His films reflect this comedic background, but often in a darker scenario.
“There are sliding scales within each film. Sometimes you push the comedy up a little bit more than the action, other times, the horror might be pushed up a little more.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humour, because if you’re too po-faced it would be hard to stomach. My favourite films all have something funny to a degree. Just like life itself, even in its worst moments there’s something funny.”
As with his previous movie, High-Rise, which starred Tom Hiddleston, Free Fire sees the director working with big Hollywood names. But alongside the star power of Larson, Hammer and Murphy there are roles for British actors Michael Smiley (who viewers will recognise from Luther), Enzo Cilenti (Game of Thrones) and Sam Riley (most recently seen as the lead in BBC miniseries SS-GB).
Wheatley, though, says it’s not a conscious decision to give roles to British actors or those he’s worked with previously. “It depends what the roles are. For example, no-one other than Michael Smiley could have played his role in Free Fire. I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some interesting people. But there’s always going to be a balance between those people I’d like to work with and those I’ve worked with before.”
His next movie, Freakshift (which will also star Hammer, alongside Alicia Vikander), is due to start shooting this year, but Wheatley says it will take longer to finish than High-Rise or Free Fire. “It’s got lots of special effects and is a big, old monster movie, so it might take a couple of years to get all that done,” he says. “I’ve just done these two back to back, so at least it’ll give people a break from me.”
With big hitters such as Scorsese in his corner and Free Fire already winning plenty of plaudits, we think Wheatley’s aim might be slightly off when it comes to that last comment.
Free Fire is released in cinemas across the UAE on April 27.