In the elevator of the Marriott Hotel in Rotterdam, Ben Wheatley grimaces at the noise of a drill nearby. It’s partly his hangover, but also partly deja vu: he was here, at this festival, in this hotel last year, he tells me, and the hotel was under renovation then too. But if it was oddly thematically appropriate to accommodate Wheatley on the upper floors of an unfinished skyscraper while he was touring his last film, the JG Ballard adaptation “High-Rise,” it feels wrong now: his new title, “Free Fire” which premiered in Toronto, is far more earthbound. In fact, being set almost exclusively in one warehouse in which everyone has been shot and is taking what cover they can, it’s one of the lowest films in recent memory, with the camera hovering a few inches off the ground for most of the running time. A ground floor meeting room, with sporadic bursts of gunfire, would have been a more fitting venue for our International Film Festival of Rotterdam chat, but if it must be a lofty meeting room overlooking the (awesome) train station, with the sounds of drilling conducting through the walls and straight into one’s back teeth, so be it.
“Free Fire” played in Rotterdam a few days prior, to a genially boozed-up midnight-ish crowd, who popped bottles of Grolsch along with the gunshots and in general had a great time with it — this is a film we described as a “joyous blast of B-movie mayhem,” after all. But it also feels like Wheatley cutting loose from divisive formalism of both “High-Rise” and “A Field In England,” returning to the more straightforward genre riffs of “Sightseers” and “Kill List,” and yielding possibly his most popcorny-entertaining film ever. We talked through that idea, as well as about his enticing upcoming projects and his feelings, as a longtime fan and erstwhile director of the show, on who should be the new “Doctor Who.” Here’s the interview in full — there is one mildly spoilery section which is clearly marked.
Am I right in considering “Free Fire” a looser film than your last two, and was making it a reaction against the more tightly-wound ‘Field In England’ and “High Rise”?
Weeeeellll, yeah. ‘Field’ was a film with no improvising in it, because you really can’t — unless you’re an academic — improvise those words [it’s set in the mid-17th century]. You can’t just riff on it. And also, Amy Jump, [Wheatley’s wife and frequent collaborator] had written it so well, we wouldn’t have gained anything from it.
And similarly with “High-Rise,” the structure of it was very difficult to break out of, it would have caused more problems than benefits. And this was more back to how “Kill List” was made, which was improvisation off a typed script, and then backwards and forwards. And we also rewrote as we shot so we could incorporate the improvisation in.
Was there any one section or character that benefited most from the improvised approach?
Sharlto Copley adds most of his lines, and… off the top of my head… I should be more on this, shouldn’t I? It’s just bits and bobs, it’s the looseness of the dialogue. Though Amy wrote most of the jokes I think, so there’s a very sharp script in there as well. And the improv had to fight against that script to get in, it wasn’t like we just let them go and say any old nonsense. The thing I’ve been doing since “Down Terrace” is shooting on the script then a little off the script, on, off. When you’ve got [Michael] Smiley and you’ve got Sharlto Copley who are both world-class improvisors it’s a waste of resource not to let them go off.
And did you find the rest of the cast upping their improv game in response?
Some did, some didn’t. And I don’t think there’s any shame in that, the script was really good. But when you improvise it puts everyone on their toes a bit because you don’t know what’s coming next. We just made sure there was space for them to go either way.
So there’s this looseness but it’s also very strictly laid out in terms of geography and sight lines throughout.
Yeah, I mean, the action wasn’t improvised at all, it would have been dangerous. Also the trick I had up my sleeve is that if you improvise in a normal drama and change the blocking all the time, it’s a bit of a nightmare but it can be dealt with. And that’s what “Kill List,” “Down Terrace” and “Sightseers” all had. But this one they’re all shot! They’re all down on the ground, and that helps. There’s not too much variation from take to take in terms of where they are because they’re too injured. But in terms of the action, every bullet hit had to be planned seven weeks in advance, so all of that was absolutely nailed down.
It’s about reactions, people looking at each other and back, and thats where you get the characterization. It’s all tied to the rhythm of those looks and that was something that we’d obviously planned in terms of where everyone was, and how the space was built. But actually, the secondary orientation, and the real geography, was found in the edit.
How much did having your regular talisman Michael Smiley in a central role help with that characterization?
Well, theres lots of reasons to work with people again and again, and one of them is that they’re just really good! Another one is that you like them personally, and they work well within the space, so that everyone is happier for them being there. And Smiley fits all that, but then he can also play charming and funny and frightening, and that combination is really useful for the kind of stuff I make. And that’s why he comes back again and again. Though he’s a more quieter Smiley in this one than in other films, more middle-aged. We were trying to work it out, what that back story is and the age that he’s living in, what would have brought him to where he is. But as to all of the films [we’ve done] its a difficult thing to draw continuity between them.
Exactly! I find it hard to answer questions across the movies, because there’s no plan. They get made if we can finance, them, we don’t choose that this one will follow that one and that’s how it all joins together. It isn’t an extended universe, though there is stuff that links all the films, like Neil Maskell turning up in “High Rise” — he’s playing the “Kill List” character’s father. Stuff like that. But it stretches it by the time we get to “Free Fire.”
The clarity of the action and the breeziness of the dialogue and the performances all contribute to this sense of “Free Fire” being a film that’s quite happy solely to entertain, but is there a deeper message you’d like audiences to find in it?
Oof, it’s dangerous for an artist to specify things like that. If people take stuff away from it, great and you know, everything is made within a context. But I’ve studiously avoided saying anything about the interpretation of any of the films I’ve made because it’s the fun of the film to unpack it. And if the person who made it says it means this, then the conversation moves over here and all this other stuff gets lost. If you can sum up your film in a haiku interview comment, why did you make it in the first place?
Wait, have all your answers so far been in haiku form? Amazing.
But ok, here’s me reframing that into an impossible question: if you weren’t the filmmaker, if you were just watching “Free Fire” as a punter, what then?
Well, on one level, it works within genre as a reaction to current trends. On a very simple level: no one comes out of it well, nothing is solved by what they do, and you could expand out from there if you felt the need to tie it to a larger political view…
**[SPOILER]** Yes, I do like that, like “High Rise” it has no redemption arc, there’s very little catharsis even, very little resolution.
Actually, Brie Larson had her own idea of what happens to her character, which is she escapes at the end and puts on a production of “Chicago” with the money!
Hah! Kind of like the school of thought that likes to believe that Steve Buscemi gets away at the end of “Reservoir Dogs”?
Yeah, a bit! But while I like that positive view that she has, it’s not, I mean they’re trapped really, aren’t they? Right from the beginning they’re doomed. And that’s the whole thing about tit-for-tat, violence when you start down that road it can never lead anywhere good. **[SPOILER ENDS]**