For his latest film, co-writer/director Ben Wheatley is taking audiences back to 1978 where a gun deal goes awry, and the banter and bullets fly in Free Fire. While at the SXSW press day for the film, Daily Dead had the chance to speak with Wheatley, as well as two of the key players from his highly talented ensemble, Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer. The trio discussed the inspiration behind Free Fire, how the script continuously evolved throughout production, and the secret to creating a great one-liner.
Look for more on Free Fire soon, and be sure to check out the film once it arrives in theaters on April 21st courtesy of A24.
Ben, what was the impetus for this film, and where did the idea come from originally?
Ben Wheatley: I'd read transcripts about a shootout that had been in Miami between the FBI and some guys who robbed a bank. Part of the report is that the FBI agents had to write down shot by shot what happened, where the bullets were, and what the injuries were. When I read that, I was like, This is really messy and horrible, and it went on for a long time, and they're all highly trained, and no one could shoot straight, so it seemed like a crazy situation. People got shot a lot. This project isn’t a great epiphany or anything, but it felt like everything I'd seen in Hollywood wasn't like that. Everyone seems to be an expert straight away, where it’s all really clean and choreographed.
Sharlto Copley: They never have to reload [laughs].
Ben Wheatley: So that was the beginning point for me. I thought, Maybe there's something in this, there’s a procedural thing about people in a gun battle and in real time, and what actually what might happen. I’m not saying that Free Fire is a documentary or massively realistic, but it relies on some of that realism.
Setting the film in the ’70s, was that your way of wringing the film of the trappings of 21st century technology, so people couldn't pick up their cell phones? It seems like a perfect follow-up to High-Rise in that regard.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, it's a kind of coincidence it happened that way. But it was basically that the mobile phone thing is a f***er, and it’s a real problem for most thrillers because there’s no mystery anymore, is there? You get some teenagers in a movie, and they walk past a haunted-looking house, they look at their phone and go, "Oh God, about five people died in there. Let's not go inside." Or, "That's the woods where there was a witch in 1850. Let's not go there, either."
There's a real issue with modern cinema where we haven't really addressed the whole way of communicating by phone at all. When you see thrillers, they're not really phoning each other or texting each other about information still. The only place I’ve really seen it is on Ray Donovan. They’ve gotten it right there. But I think that while Amy [Jump] and I write contemporary thrillers, we're trying to work out the flow of information and how quickly it moves between characters, because people don't actually have to meet up anymore to exchange information.
Free Fire all takes place in one room. How did you work with the size constraints of that environment, and was it harder or easier for you as a director?
Ben Wheatley: It was easier in the respect that we didn't waste any time moving from place to place for location changes. But it was harder, too, because there's an issue where, if you screw up at the beginning, because we shot in chronological order, you might not know about that until about five weeks in, when you find that the two characters are really close to each other and you go, "Aw God, how did that happen?”
So there was a lot of planning that went into it. We built the whole thing in 3D in Minecraft, and walked around inside it just to make sure that it was going to work. Then, a lot of maps were drawn and when we found the actual location, we built it all, because it was a clean, empty box space before we got there.
For you guys, what was the appeal coming on to Free Fire? Was it the action part of it, or was it these characters and the great script? Because there's really great stuff on both sides here.
Armie Hammer: It was the creative people involved, it was the opportunity to work with Ben, and it was the chance to make a movie in Brighton [England] in the summer [laughs]. That was great. It was a movie that you read the script and you go, "I don't think there's been a movie like this in a long time.” It was really refreshing, and I was a huge fan of Ben's work before, so to get to be in one of his projects was great for me.
Sharlto Copley: I was excited to work with Ben, and from talking to him, it was a chance to invent a character with him and Amy, which was fun. They're very collaborative in how they work, and getting to play Vernon as a South African, there's not a lot of movies that we can do that. So I was really very grateful to be able to do that with them on this project.
Ben, you've worked with Amy a lot throughout your career. What was different this time around for you two, versus your previous collaborations?
Ben Wheatley: This one was different because she was rewriting the script on set, which we'd never done before, to accommodate the improvisation that was happening. Usually you get improvisation on set and you might be able to use it, but oftentimes you get to the edit suite and go, "Ah shit, it's good, but it doesn't fit the film anymore." And the edit suite's quite harsh, in that you strip down everything that's not needed and what was off-message from the movie.
With her being there, she could watch the rushes, because I was editing it as we shot it, so it was more like live TV. So then she would see that, and see what the guys were doing, and then we could incorporate how they were changing the characters as we went along. She'll never do it again like that, though, because she hated it [laughs]. But that was certainly a different experience.
Sharlto Copley: We loved it.
Armie Hammer: She blamed us, or she hated us through the whole entirety of production [laughs].
Ben Wheatley: But it wasn't just you, all of production were terrified by it, because the pages would come out each morning, and everyone would be like, "Aw, f***."
What's the art to delivering a good one-liner? Because there are a lot of really good one-liners in here.
Armie Hammer: Good writing and good directing. As Ben was saying, we had so much material, and also there was a really great collaborative spirit on set where we would do it, and then it's like, "Okay let's try one more." Just kind of have fun with it, and you'd do it. And if it was good, it was good. If it wasn't, he'd go, "That wasn't so good. Go back to the other way." Everybody had a watermark of what they thought was good and acceptable, and as long as we met that standard, then we just kept going. It was business as usual, it was great.
Ben Wheatley: We have a Darwinian editing style, so if the actors give us really good stuff, they get more shots. So that's kind of how it happened. The more good stuff you do, the more you get in the movie, and it's always been the way we've worked.
Sharlto Copley: For me, I don't think of it at all in terms of a line. It's just that I love improv, and it's like being completely in the head of a character. In the case of Vernon, you're lucky because he's just a big mouth, so you're just spewing out stuff all the time. And then the way they'll edit it, they'll choose a line here or there, just not necessarily everything that you do. So it's more like those moments get cut into a few pieces that feel more one-linery. But for me, I wouldn't be able to think of it in terms of, "Try to say something clever now." That would just kill me.
It's really being in the moment and that's what's great with being in this situation, almost being like a play and working off your fellow actors who are all really talented. It makes it easier, too. Ben just created this space where we were encouraged to play, and that’s what we did.
Stay tuned to Daily Dead for more reviews and interviews from SXSW, and in case you missed it, check out our other live coverage of the film festival.
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