director ben wheatley on working with martin scorsese for his latest film, 'free fire'

As Ben Wheatley's action-packed, Scorsese-produced, 70s crime thriller hits cinemas, we discuss what it's like to work with the maker of 'Goodfellas,' the influence of video games on the film, and what’s coming next.

by Ben Murphy
04 April 2017, 1:52pm

A new film from British director Ben Wheatley is always a cause for celebration. The filmmaker from Billericay, Essex and Amy Jump, his co-writer and wife, have been subtly subverting movie genres with each picture they create. From the Brighton crime/family drama of Down Terrace to the supernatural contract killer horror of Kill List — the dark comedy of murderous vacationers Sightseers to A Field In England's English-Civil-War-on-mushrooms weirdness — each project has spilled with visual and conceptual ideas more imaginative than any number of tired blockbusters. Wheatley's films come at you from unexpected angles.

High Rise, a lavish adaptation of JG Ballard's apocalyptic novel starring Tom Hiddleston and Elisabeth Moss, upped the stakes production-wise from his previously low-budget movies. But his latest, Free Fire, sees Wheatley enter the big league in earnest. Executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, it's an action picture set in 1970s Boston, starring the Oscar-winning Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, District 9's Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, and Cillian Murphy. Free Fire is the story of a warehouse meeting between underworld figures and a gun deal that goes catastrophically wrong, leading to an extended shootout and fight for survival between the rival gangs. It's visceral, exciting, and also very funny. While Tarantino is an obvious influence, there are plenty of new twists going on here that show Wheatley is committed to a singular vision. We spoke with the director to learn more about it. 

What was Martin Scorsese like to work with?
He was great. Very supportive. It's a different thing working with someone who has made some of the greatest films of the 20th and 21st century. He knows everything inside and out, so it's hard to argue the toss with him about stuff. It made me feel really confident when he liked it.

You've said you wanted to make the gun battles more realistic in Free Fire. Was the sound design of the film — the extremely loud, ricocheting bullets for instance — part of making it more immersive?
It's still a film, not a documentary, but it has elements in it that I'd read about from actual transcripts of FBI shootouts. Those led me to think that the whole thing was a lot more messy, and a lot less slick, than you see in movies. The sound of a gun, metal hitting metal, is very loud. The style of movie sound design has stylized it to a degree; now people can happily talk while they're firing guns, whereas the sound of someone getting punched on the chin is as loud as a gunshot. It's patently not true. I wanted to get back to what they are, which is terrifying and loud — like holding a firework in your hand.

There's also a lot of inaccurate shooting, people getting hit in the leg or arm, which shows that many of these criminals are not trained marksmen. That accounts for a lot of humor in the film.
We've tried to make films that are more entertaining and less miserable than we had done in the past, and humor is a big part of it. I think it would have been unbearable if the film was super straight; it would have just been nine people bleeding to death for an hour! That wouldn't have been much fun.

The warehouse setting is partly inspired by video games. Was that sense of immersion you get while playing a first-person shooter key to the atmosphere of Free Fire?
The language of it is different to film. I've spent a lot of time in virtual spaces and a lot of time playing first-person games. I have memories now of that, that mingle in my mind with my real memories, as much as film memories. I think that's a shared experience for a lot of people. I want to project that experience back into cinema. Cinema is a mix of different languages, and sometimes film criticism gets a bit lost in film, and forgets that there are lots of other experiences that people have outside film.

Portishead contributed to the High Rise soundtrack, and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury made the Free Fire soundtrack. What was the idea behind their music for this film?
I loved the soundtrack they did for the Judge Dredd movie, Drokk. It wasn't used, but they put out through Geoff's label Invada. I was a Portishead fan anyway. Geoff and Ben had just done the Ex Machina soundtrack. I asked them about doing the soundtrack for Free Fire

They had the idea that I'd gone to a record shop and found some prog rock album that I liked, and let the needle drop on it, and it fitted the film. So their job was to go and write the album, which they did. It was very different to the soundtrack to High Rise that Clint Mansell did, which was a score and arrangement for orchestra. This was recorded as a band, so it's a lot of drums, saxophone. It was more like looking at David Shire, who did the Taking of Pelham 123 soundtrack or Lalo Schifrin — looking at how wild they were, and how they were basically jazz guys who ended up doing funk.

You worked with the actor Michael Smiley again on Free Fire. He's been in most of your previous films. What is it you like about him?
Michael's got this soulfulness, but the ability to go from zero to a hundred in a matter of seconds. He's got threat to him, but he's also gentle; it's a weird combination. I like the contradiction of him seeming innocent but also an old soul, that's why I got back to him. He's also a brilliant actor and really nice to have around.

All your films are written or co-written by your wife, Amy Jump. How do you work together?
Generally I would write a script and then Amy would rewrite it. The high concept is usually me, if I'm co-writing. Some of the films I haven't written at all. A Field in England she wrote on her own and [the screenplay of] High Rise she wrote on her own. 

On a very basic level, I like to think about movies I'd like to see. I see a gap and think, 'Why isn't there a film like that?' And then I'll go and write it as an exercise to see if there's anything there. If there is and I can get a whole script out of it, and I'm still enjoying it, then I'll think, 'Is it commercial, will I be able to get money for it?' Then I'll rewrite it. If people are interested in it, Amy comes on and rewrites it again. She just takes the script and does whatever she wants. It either breaks the script and it doesn't happen, or it's really good and we make it.

Was there any particular director that made you want to become one yourself?
Martin Scorsese, from seeing Taxi Driver as a kid, but also Alan Clarke from seeing Scum. The Scorsese stuff, I'd never seen anything like that. Re-watching Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, they're singular. That was the first time I realized there was one person making this stuff, it wasn't just stuff that came on the telly.

What's coming next after Free Fire?
Hopefully we're making Freak Shift next, which is a sci-fi thing. It's solidifying. These monsters dig their way up through the ground and maraud around at night smashing shit up, and there has to be a police force that rounds them up and kills them. They use them for meat and stuff. The Freak Shift is made up of mostly women, and it's a night in the life of this particular unit as they go out and fight monsters.

Free Fire is in cinemas now


Text Ben Murphy

ben wheatley
Free Fire