It’s safe to say that Ben Wheatley is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today. This, after all, is a man who managed to make a black-and-white psychedelic period piece set during the English Civil War into one of the most entrancing films of the past decade (A Field in England), and also managed last year to successfully adapt High Rise, a JG Ballard novel once believed to be entirely unadaptable.
His latest film, Free Fire, continues his hot streak, and we had the chance to sit down with Wheatley to talk about that film’s status as a Boston movie, the difficulty of shooting a pump-action shotgun, and some of his upcoming projects.
Nick Johnston: So, why Boston?
Ben Wheatley: Well, Boston’s never mentioned in the film for starters.
Oh, no [laughs].[laughs] But that’s on purpose, you know. I mean, it’s Boston because — well, it’s Massachusetts because of the history of the raising of money for weapons and weapons transportation back to Ireland during the troubles but we were really… um, we’ve done this a lot in the other movies we’ve made. We’re very careful, Amy [Jump] and I, about the specifics of it so as not to get, you know, in trouble with anybody so that’s why we don’t mention it. There’s no date stamp at the beginning of the movie either, and we knew that movies had been made in Boston with Boston actors in them, and still people complained about the accents [laughs], so we didn’t want to get into any of that shit. So we knew we were going to make someone upset by it, so we thought we’ll just make it… it’s there. But Massachusetts is mentioned in the film. I know Boston’s all over the fucking press release and stuff. But the reality of it is that it’s not overstated, because we knew also that there’s almost a subgenre of Boston Crime movies, and we didn’t want people turning up going “Oh, another one of those.”
Definitely. You don’t want this to be The Town.
I’m not saying nothing about nothing. [laughs]
So we got to hear your Q&A at SXSW…
And one thing that interested us was that you shot the movie chronologically. How much of a headache was it for your script supervisor?
It’s less of a headache to do it like that. It’s just a nightmare if you… yeah, you wouldn’t be able to do it. You can see it in the most simplest of films where there’s bullet holes in the wall and they’re all in the wrong order. There’s that famous one in Pulp Fiction, where it’s all just fucking dancing all over the walls from shot to shot, they’re in different places, and you’re going [sigh]. And also, the costume stuff would have been really hard but I think, more than anything, it would have been the actors having to go “Oh god, how injured am I today? Oh, alright. Ok.” They’re very good at that, I mean, that’s their job to keep to keep track of those emotional arcs and stuff around shooting because they’re all very used to it being staggered. It’s just a load of arse that gets in the way of them doing their jobs. So, yeah. That’s why it’s in chronological order.
How long was the shoot?
Six weeks, of six-day weeks.
Yeah. It’s quick — for an action movie, that’s pretty fucking quick.
How many rounds of ammunition did you use?
Which isn’t that much. I was talking to Jack Reynor about it, and he’d been in a war movie immediately afterwards, where they were firing machine guns. He said “Bah, I mean, we did six thousand rounds a day on that one.” [laughs] But yeah, because it’s pistols it takes longer to fire them.
Yeah, you don’t have the chance to jam a magazine in there and reload fast.
Yeah, there’s none of that. There’s only a few — there’s not that many bullets for the AR-70, because we knew that it’d be the end of the movie. But there was the thought of, like, a heavy machine gun or something and someone just going [he makes a machine gun noise] and then it just ending, but the cost of it was just… [laughs] “oh no, I can’t, that’s too much.”
Speaking of action, you went to some pretty great lengths to realistically show the damage that bullets inflict on the human body when they pass through it…
Within the bounds of entertainment, yeah.
You’ve got characters keeping track of their blood loss, and Sharlto Copley’s using cardboard to prevent himself from getting an infection.
Yeah, which is mostly bullshit. [laughs]
How important was it to you to present a different kind of gunfight to the audience?
Well, in my doing a bit of research for it, I read this FBI report about a shootout that happened in Miami in the ’80s, and it was just nothing like I’d ever seen in a film, you know? It was messy and chaotic and terrifying, and the guns weren’t like death rays and killing people instantly, and people firing at each other at point blank range and missing and that whole thing, and I thought, “I want to see that more.”
I just remember doing, when I was in Austin a few years ago I did some clay pigeon shooting with pump action shotguns. I had not any training or understanding of how pump-action shotguns worked; I played a lot of Doom, but the skill wasn’t transferrable, it seemed [laughs]. But just to get the fucking action right without making the cartridges drop out of the bottom ‘cause you’ve just done it not quite right right and you hadn’t pulled it back… See, this is not what my experience of a film is like. You know, in the zombie apocalypse, I’m not going to be able to suddenly pop up and be any good with this, without having a load of experience with it. And I wanted to see that world.
When you do movies with blank-firing guns, they jam all the time, and sometimes they just don’t work, and it’s like “that never happened…” You never see that in movies, just like you never see people using the bathroom or having their lunch. So there’s that kind of level of it, and in that kind of dusty environment, you see it. It’s in the film, as well. When Sharlto’s pistol jams and Armie Hammer takes it and strips it and takes the bullet out and gets the jam out of that one, that’s live, unscripted.
That was just something happening, and Armie’s just, like, really capable [laughs]. So I wanted to see that side of it that was a bit less… you know, people under pressure rather than being like The Terminator.
Speaking of Armie Hammer, he was probably our favorite character in the movie. What drew you to cast him in this role?
Oh, The Lone Ranger.
Yeah, I saw The Lone Ranger and really liked it, and I like him a lot. I mean, I’d seen him in The Social Network as well, but we just thought he was like a 1950s incredibly good-looking central casting kind of leading man, but very charming. Also, he reminds me of Redford a bit, certainly with that beard, like Redford in the ’60s, you know, I love that. But I like taking someone who should be the leading man in the film and just smash them into the dirt and make ‘em roll around [laughs]. Same with Brie Larson. There’s something perverse about that.
Really, the whole film should have been about her and him, and it should have been set in Boston, and they should have gone to discos and have shootouts in bars and all this kind of shit, but it never gets beyond this first scene, you know, because the guys who carry the boxes just want to live [laughs]. I mean, Sam Riley’s character should be an extra, almost, but then his part just gets bigger and bigger, and they’re like “oh no, this film’s gotten out of control.”
So you’re going to be working with him on Freakshift, right?
And is that up next for you?
Hopefully, yeah. August. It’s sci-fi, and kind of more action again, but kind of… monsters and you know, all sorts.
You’ve made a couple of references in the past that the 1970s, where you set this and High Rise, are the closest analogue era-wise to today.
Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s true anymore, which is even more worrying. I used to be able to go “You know, it’s like the ’70s, you can see, this period’s an economic rise and then a collapse, and the usual rise of extremist parties and duh-duh-duh-duh, and it gets all sorted out and there’s a recession, and the money goes back up again, and everyone’s fine again. But I can’t see any analogue to this current cycle, I don’t know what this is [laughs]. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s just not good, and it scares me more that things have become more chaotic. So, I don’t know. Previously, I would have hung on to that exciting thing of going “Oh, we’re in the ’70s, soon it’ll be okay again, maybe,” but now I don’t know. I’m adrift.
We’ve moved on to the early ’80s, it seems.
The 1930’s [laughs]. Mid-’30s, or something like that, which is not good. I mean, I’ve been away from home for a week and a half doing this, and already there’s a snap election in the UK. I didn’t see that coming. And it’s like “what’s going to happen?” I don’t know.
Didn’t May campaign saying she wouldn’t do that?
Yeah, of course, but it doesn’t matter, does it? They just say whatever they want now, just completely flip-flop random nonsense comes out their mouths, and the news cycle moves on, and no one can remember what anyone said or gets held up against. I don’t know. I think it’s going to be nasty in the UK for the next few months.
We’ve just got a few more questions. In your ideal double feature, what movie would you pair Free Fire with?
I would pair it with Straight Time or Who’ll Stop the Rain. [laughs] Evil Dead 2. That’d be better, wouldn’t it? It’s a bit more actiony, and Free Fire wouldn’t come off too well against two super cool films like that. [laughs] Who’ll Stop the Rain and Straight Time, that should be the double bill.
Recently, a bunch of news has been circulating around about your planned adaptation of Hard Boiled, and we just wanted to ask you about what the challenges adapting such a visually iconic work, especially with regards to Geof Darrow’s art, would be?
I mean, that’s it [laughs]. It’s a massive fucking challenge. My hope for the film is to bring that world to the screen as much as I can. You know, I want to see that crazy fucking super-detailed assault on the senses, and make it feel like how it felt for me when I read it the first time around, because I’ve never seen anything like that. Obviously the closest I’ve seen to it are bits from The Matrix that took his concept work and it’s like literally his drawings made into real things. I remember when I saw The Matrix for the first time, and I just couldn’t believe some of the stuff that was in there.
But yeah, I think that’s it, and it’s also about making sure that the budget is as efficiently transferred from dollars into screen as possible, because there’s no gap for fucking about, because the film’s so massive. And it’s quite extreme, so it won’t get the super huge budget to do it, so it has to be very sharp, the way that we make it. But that’s also a real LA movie, and it’s almost like it feels gold, just like the LA light, so we’d have to find somewhere to shoot, because it’d cost a billion dollars to shoot there. That’s the challenge of it, but the script’s coming along, and I’m very excited about it.
Finally, we’d just like to say how funny it was at SXSW this year that you and Edgar Wright brought your first US-set films to it, and that it was like that you’d each taken a big piece of Americana and made a movie around it: He took the cars, and you took the guns.
Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? I was surprised more people didn’t notice that and write about it, because that’s a weird one [laughs]. But also, being in the section we were in at SXSW, it was him and me and Terrence Malick [laughs]. I wonder how Malick felt being the cheese in that particular sandwich.