Director Ben Wheatley talks John Denver, video games and making ‘Free Fire’

Friday, April 21, 2017 - 2:48pm

There’s a perfect moment in “Free Fire” when Brie Larson’s character Justine lets out an, “Ugh, men,” before slumping over from exhaustion and bullet wounds. The latest film from British director Ben Wheatley places Larson in the middle of a warehouse full of guns and men. Hoping to broker a quick arms deal, Justine, two IRA members and two idiots meet fast-talking South African Vernon and his crew inside the warehouse. It doesn’t take long for one of the idiots, Stevo, to realize he has some beef with one of Vernon’s men. The scene quickly deteriorates into an every-man-for-himself shoot out.

Wheatley, whose previous film “High-rise” landed a spot on many “Best of” lists last year talked to The Michigan Daily about the creation of such an intricate, fast-paced film.  

So to start, you not only directed this film, but you also co-wrote and co-edited it, could you speak a little to what it’s like to stay with a project in such a hands-on way from start to finish?

Well, I was an editor originally, so you know, that’s my original skillset. And it's something I enjoy a lot. So that’s why I always try to get to do the editing, because I think it’s one of the best bits of the job, you know, the funnest bit. To a degree, because it’s all the excitement of filmmaking from your own home, and with slightly less of the pressure, although at the end it becomes quite pressurized, in the beginning it's sweet. And then the writing side of it…I write stuff because I sit down and think about what I want to see, what I want to see in the cinema. And I’ll just do that as an exercise and write a script and see if there’s something there or not. But hey, generally, they’re rewritten by Amy [Amy Jump, Wheatley's wife and co-writer] to make them a lot better. So I’ll kind of do the nuts and bolts writing of it and the high-concept stuff and the action, and then on “Free Fire” she’s rewritten every line of dialogue in that script.

You have an efficiency when you write and direct and edit that sort of makes the film go a lot more quickly. Because there’s no confusion between me as an editor talking to me as a writer talking to me as a director. You know, they all understand what they’re all saying. And that’s what you want, you want no gaps between those points.

There’s also some clear B-movie influences in the film, could you talk a bit about the specific films that influenced “Free Fire”?

Well, you have to do these treatment things or statements at the beginning, and I was like: it’s like all these crime movies from the ’40s like “The Asphalt Jungle” and then going through the ’60s and ’70s with like “Bonnie & Clyde” and Scorsese stuff and “The Outfit” and “Point Blank” and blah, blah, blah. Then it gets to the ’90s and it’s like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Heat” and all those kinds of movies and that was the initial kind of “this is going to be a crime film.” And all these movies reference themselves backwards and forwards, not one is a greater influence than the other. But, then when we made it, it became more I felt like “Evil Dead 2” or like “Raising Arizona” or “After Hours.” It was more of a thing about tension and fast camera movement, and it was kind of like animation. And, you know, it changed as we made it.

But, I’m not one for watching movies beforehand, like screening stuff and talking about it. Because in the end when you’re making it, the film itself is all-encompassing. You don’t really want to be looking at other people’s stuff as you’re doing it, then it just becomes confusing. There’s not enough space in my head to deal with that. But it’s more that you go, “I like these kinds of films. I want to see more of them. Why aren’t there more?”

And I’m not much of a video game expert, but that also seems like it was an influential medium.

Yeah, I think so. I mean I play video games and I’ve playing them since I was a little kid and I’m 45 now and I’m still playing them. You know, I also collect comics and read comics. So, there’s other mediums, there’s other stuff, other culture that I can draw into filmmaking. I also draw in music and reading and all sorts of stuff. I see that sometimes people use as kind of insult or pejorative that “Oh, that’s like a video game.” But, video games take up a large portion of people’s lives, you know. The idea that the audience itself only watches the thing that you’re a critic of is kind of weird. People don’t just watch movies and they don’t just watch art movies. They’ll watch a load of Marvel films and then they’ll go and watch “La La Land” and “Moonlight” and all that kind of stuff. It’s all a mix.

My cultural life is reasonably diverse across lots of different things. Really, I also play a lot of crappy iOS games as well. I won't bring the Puzzle Bobble influence into my filmmaking anytime soon. Definitely playing a lot of “Counter Strike” has influenced the way I think about what action is like. From having a kind of an experience, not an actual experience, but some kind of spatial experience of action from games.

In many ways the film feels like a sort of controlled experiment — all these people stuck in a warehouse with a lot of guns. How did the warehouse as a space come to be?

I’d been playing around with this idea and… I wanted to make a war film initially with people in trenches being close to each other. But, a symmetrical war film where see both sides perspective all the time and you don’t have a traditional war film where it’s like one platoon of people mowing down a line of faceless enemies to prove that they’re heroes. And I wanted it to see both sides of the story. The factory space was built so that, you know you walk into it and it doesn’t look like much, but as soon as you’re on the ground it becomes a series of channels and low walls and place to hide. And becomes much more complex.

Initially, that space itself was an empty, completely white cube type thing, and then we built all of the pillars into it. And they were all specified by the script, and so each of the sets of action sequences had to be fitting around this kind of arena. And then all the distances between things had to be exactly right or else, suddenly, you wouldn’t be able to see each other or to travel from A to B wouldn’t work. We treated the space like a series of zones that you would move in and out of.

I have to ask about the John Denver song that plays at end of the film. Where did that come from?

It was from the very beginning and from the first image I had for the film, which was of a Chevy van driving in a circle inside an abandoned space and there’s a guy in there and he’s been wounded somehow. He was dying and he was trying to steer the van, to try and get out. And at the same time, this John Denver track comes on the radio. It’s like, “what’s the most inappropriate track to play at that moment?” And that would be “Annie’s Song.” And he’s like, “Ah, I’ve only got a tiny bit of life left in me, what do I do? Do I stop this van and get out of this space or do I turn this music off?” And from that the whole film kind of sprung.

But I have a policy with music. I don’t ever use stuff that I wouldn’t listen to myself on a regular basis. So, “Annie’s Song” is on my playlist. I listen to it every couple of weeks when it pops up. And I enjoy it, and it’s a song that I knew from being kid. I loved it when I was a little kid, and it really reminds me of my parents. And it’s just a sad song. You know, it’s a beautiful song, but it’s a very sad song. The film’s kind of tragic as well. Not that it’s a sad film, it’s quite upbeat, but there’s a sadness to the fact that these people, these kind of likable people, are all going to destroy each other for no good reason. And that kind of encapsulates it at the end.   

“Free Fire” opens in theaters Friday, April 21. 

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