High-Rise, Kill List and A Field In England director, Ben Wheatley, speaks to Great Central about his new movie Free Fire, due to be screened at Phoenix in Leicester as part of a nationwide preview tour.
Starring Oscar Winner Brie Larson, Peaky Blinders’ Cillian Murphy and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, the celebrated writer-director has infused his new film with an experienced ensemble cast. Great Central asks him about the power of talented actors, the influence of genre films and using Minecraft to design a set.
How did you come to make Free Fire?
I met Cillian [Murphy] in passing and he requested to meet me through his agent. After getting together, Cillian said he was a huge fan of Kill List and we discussed working on a project together. The script had been around for a few years beforehand but we subsequently wrote Cillian’s character with him in mind.
The trailer suggests a gloriously shot action film with humour. Did you see this as a big departure from the literary origins of High-Rise?
Well I tell the story as it can be told. From the beginning of Hollywood there have been different genres and I enjoy all types of film. I don’t see that film fans or any audience can’t switch between their favourite genres. Cinema is a broad church and people can take pleasure in all types. I enjoy a Tarkovsky movie as much as I enjoy The Terminator. So why do the same thing when making movies? High brow films and genre movies each bring their respective styles but all stations are different and I reflect what I like to watch.
With Free Fire, is it safe to say that it’s more light-hearted than your last couple of films with the trailer suggesting a group cast of misfits?
Well, High-Rise also had a big cast but they were shot somewhat separately over time. With Free Fire, I brought in a group of exciting actors and we made changes to accommodate what they brought to their roles. This happens all of the time of course as actors infuse characters with their own traits but we did modify the character Sharto [Copley] plays. That changed the most. He has a fantastic South African accent which I love so we incorporated this but changing a character’s nationality had knock-on effects yet we managed to work those in.
How did you manage the talents of the ensemble cast with the complexities of shooting in one warehouse location?
The challenge as a director was creating an interesting movie based in a solitary setting so we planned everything out as much as we could. We knew that any small decision or change that we made would end up having huge knock-on effects. We had to ensure we rectified any mistakes as characters ended up in very specific locations in the warehouse. For example, characters sometimes needed to see each other whilst others were in hiding. We drew and designed all of this early on, before creating a virtual version in Minecraft. From there it was all about refining.
And what was it like on set once shooting was underway?
Amy (Jump, co-writer and Ben’s wife) was writing changes daily to the script to incorporate any of the actors’ improvised lines which we liked on the day. When the new dialogue is so good you ask yourself why wouldn’t you include it? Each actor has their own speech rhythms so we ultimately just wanted to put their best foot forward. Regarding shooting, there were intricate set-ups that involved actors in both the foreground and background but there was a great atmosphere on set to get what I needed. The actors became good friends with each other and still meet up.
Was your first foray into the all-out fighting of Free Fire an attempt to capture the feel of the genre?
I was flexing some different cinematic muscles by making the movie a straight-up, visual and dynamic film. The fight scenes were meticulously planned out.
So the film was more action based?
Well, yes and no. I loved the idea of a film where characters had lofty ideals and political motivations only to be reduced to making decisions about whether to go left or right. It was actually these reductions in needs that helped propel the Free Fire script and development.
With both High-Rise and now Free Fire set in one building, was that a conscious decision to tackle similar themes?
Not particularly. The film is set in Boston in America but was shot in Brighton which was great as it was near my home [laughs] but more seriously, I go to where landscapes and locations are needed and most interesting.
Shifting across the UK, you have filmed in the Midlands region before as well?
I filmed Kill List nearby in Sheffield whilst segments of Sightseers were filmed in and around Derbyshire, which stood in for parts of the Lake District. I don’t feel confined by locations and don’t consciously choose to go to a place; it’s just what the story requires. It’s not like say Woody Allen who films consistently in New York.
You’re coming to Leicester’s independent cinema in March as part of Free Fire’s preview screenings. Have you done a tour like this before?
Yes, I’ve been nearby for the Mayhem Festival which was at the Broadway cinema in Nottingham. I got to meet a wide range of people there and it really opened my eyes up to the up and coming filmmakers in the region. There are lots of these film communities around the UK and I was just recently in Truro experiencing the very same thing.
Is that something you get excited about?
Well, as someone who goes to a lot of cinemas to promote films, it’s well worth it when you can see an appreciative audience getting as excited about film as I am.
Free Fire will be previewed at Phoenix before the UK release at the end of the month with director Ben Wheatley joining for a post-film Q&A with De Montfort University’s Dr Jamie Sherry on Monday 6th March. It comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray from Monday 7th August.