Ben Wheatley, no doubt, has a twisted sense of humor. Just watch “High-Rise,” or, even, “Kill List” for further proof of his subtle dark comedy in the most twisted of situations. His latest film, “Free Fire,” is an ultra-violent action-comedy that features a barrage of bullets, zingy one-liners and, yes, even a little bit of slapstick added to the mix. It is a more lightly conceived and minimalist affair than his previous works, but no less thrilling in its unadorned love for chaos.
The plot is simple: it’s 1978 and two gangs set a meeting in an abandoned Boston warehouse for an arms deal. It doesn’t go at all as planned — in fact, it turns into the worst-case scenario for both parties as a full-on shootout between the two gangs happens. Bullets fly, head games ensue, tactical positioning is developed, gore and lots of foul language are also at the rendezvous.
Wheatley stages it all masterfully — from the editing to the sound-mixing to the shot composition, he achieves an enveloping atmosphere that recalls the very best moments in “Reservoir Dogs” (read our review of the film here) And yet, this is unlike anything we’ve seen before in an action movie, a minimalist depiction of chaos at its grisliest.
We spoke to Wheatley about his inspiration for the film, Martin Scorsese‘s involvement, and his next project, “Freakshift.”
I read about the fact that an FBI report influenced this movie, but there were only one or two sentences mentioning that. Can you possibly elaborate on what this mysterious FBI report was exactly?
It was a transcript I read in the 90’s. It was about a shootout that happened in Miami where, I think it’s quite a famous thing, the FBI switched from using .38s to using 9mm because the pieces they were using weren’t powerful enough to penetrate the body armor of some of the guys they were shooting at in this incident. So the story goes these guys were off to rob a bank with automatic weapons and body armor, then they ended up in the middle of a shootout with the cops and it went on for ages. This report I read was a blow by blow account, a sort of forensic thing of how many bullets they fired, what injuries everybody had and, yeah, I was reading that and saying “wait a second, these FBI agents were firing at people and missing at point blank range? How could highly trained people like that be missing such easy shots?” In movies anybody can get that “dead shot,” even people that have never used a gun before can pick up a gun from the floor and know how to use it.
Yeah, it just magically happens.
[Laughs] That’s right. The reality of it is much messier and then I started reading around it and the reports, all the first person accounts, the experiences and diaries of cops going, you know, how terrifying it all was and how they felt they were moving in slow motion. Actually, the reality of it was much weirder than the film, the people were seeing black and white and they would see tunnel vision because all the bullets would just shut down everything except what they needed to look at so it was just them and the end of the barrel of the gun of the other guy.
Yeah. There’s something about that kind of procedural, close quarter fighting that I haven’t really seen before and the chaos of it.
And I guess that started off as the blueprint for “Free Fire”?
Yeah, that was something that was always in the back of my mind. I also had the thought of a fight that would be in a room or in a small space and then I started thinking about action movies in general and thinking about what are the building blocks of an action movie, and could you reduce those down to their core? What would you get if you shrunk them down to hardly anything and would it still be as thrilling, you know, if you would reduce car chases to people crawling, what would result? When I see buildings and planets blowing up in current movies, why do I feel less affected by that? I also saw it in my own movies where you might have things where being shot in the head might induce more gasps because it isn’t very relatable, so I thought maybe if I made a movie about those unrelatable beats, it might end up being more intense.
That’s what I liked about the movie, it’s almost like a minimalist attempt at an action picture. I want to talk a little about the actors, I read it was Cillian Murphy that called you about the project
He’s just a smart guy. He was kind of looking around, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person he contacted, he was kind of looking around to see who was making what and he was following his own nose and he liked “Kill List.” So he asked, “What are you up to?” He told me to think about him for other stuff and I was like “shit, for other actors to be interested in what I do is amazing” so I just went back and wrote “Free Fire.”
Had you ever met him before?
No. So, I was like, if he’s interested in working then that’s good because he’s great and I wouldn’t have thought about him before, but you sometimes have the feeling that some people are too away from your circle to kind of want to work with you. But I said the same thing about Armie Hammer as well. I was like “He’s never going to do it.” I talked to his agent and asked “is he interested?” and then immediately he read it and it was on.
It’s actually going to be a pretty big year for Armie with “Call Me By Your Name.”
Yeah, I heard all sorts of stuff about that.