'Free Fire' Director Ben Wheatley On The Human Moments In Gun Battles [Interview]

The distinction between heroes and villains isn't as clear in Free Fire as most action movies. And it's partly because co-writer/director Ben Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump give all their characters lives outside of the shootout – lives you want to see them find a way to escape back to. Out of the ensemble, some eggs are more rotten than others, but for the most part, Free Fire is a movie in which we're rooting the characters to find a solution, not kill each other.

Over the span of 85 minutes – a glorious runtime in this day and age – not one of the characters rings as false in Free Fire. Their pain feels real because they feel real. Jump and Wheatley rarely give these characters any breaks, either. The writers bring a heavy dose of physical comedy to the film to go along with some brutal carnage.

We recently sat down with Wheatley, the director behind Kill List and High-Rise, for a brief conversation about his new movie.

85 minutes is the perfect runtime for this movie. I imagine if it was a few minutes longer or shorter, it might not work. How was it finding the pace and rhythm?

Yeah, it's just a lot of planning, you know, and thinking about... I knew that it needed to be a series of kind of cascading jokes and physical gags and missions. The film is almost as influenced by video games in a way as it is by movies. Just from experience of playing games and stuff going, "All right. Okay." That's how you keep interest going. Parallel stories running or multiple parallel stories that cross over backward and forwards. So you're kind of always upping the ante into something else. That was basically how we did it.

It reminded me of The Three Stooges at times.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Any other influences?

Well, The Three Stooges, too. The Evil Dead II. That was a big one. [Sam] Raimi is a big influence and also [Martin] Scorsese obviously. Yeah, Counter Strike, too.

Right after a big laugh, you can feel the gravity of a death. Is that a tricky tonal balance?

It's just taste. You just do it and see if it works. Those things are funny. The slapstick stuff brings out the meanness in the audience but they kind of know it's all right to laugh at that. Then when he gets shot in the face you go, "Is that funny?" It kind of is funny. He's been asking for it for the whole movie. What's funny about that for me is the film's going, "Yeah we went there. You didn't think we were gonna do it and now we've done it, and you just go, 'Wow this film. Damn.'"

While writing or in post, was there a scene you pulled back on, one that went too far?

No. I don't think so. I think there was some more kind of grim, wound stitching and general grubbing about that Amy took out in one of the drafts and just went,"Don't do this. It will just be too much to watch." Even the one of Brie [Larson] stitching her stitching her leg up. Amy was like, "Do we have to have this?" It works. It's the keeping the audience on edge with those kinds of physical things that they understand what the pain is from is really important. A syringe in the hand and all those kinds of things, you know what it is. You relate to it.

Free FireHow was the casting process?

This way some of them were written specifically for the actors, so Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, that was just that. For Armie, Amy and I, we were just big fan of The Lone Ranger. So we contacted his American agent, and we got through to them really quick. It was just like straight offered. Do you want to do it? And he did it. I think Sharlto had come in quite late because Luke Evans couldn't do it cause he was doing Beauty & the Beast. So that clashed. So he went out. Sharlto Copley's name came up on a list. I was like, "Gee, Sharlto, he's brilliant. God, I'd love to work with him." So we went straight to him.

How did you and Amy decide on twelve characters in total? Were there ever more or less?

No, 'cause they balance out. So each character crosses each other. They match across each time if you look at them, they're mirrored. The two sides.

Most of them you root to make it out of there.

Yeah, yeah. For sure. I think you like them a lot. That's what's so tragic about it. It's like they're just trapped in a cycle and they're never gonna escape from it.

Those relatable human moments really do work, like, "Oh, my allergies are acting up." 

Yeah well, I think it's just adding human moments into genre are really important because you have to be reminded that the characters have a life outside of the thing that they're doing.

The one I really love always is the first Austin Powers movie where Austin Powers kills one of the guys, one of the guards. Then they have they go and tell the family that the guy has died. It's just, that's so true. What happens to all these people in these movies? As for entertainment, they're just wiped out the whole time.

The one I also think about is in Skyfall. When that helicopter turns up in Skyfall, and they have that fight. But where did that helicopter come from? It's come from Glasgow airport. That's the nearest airport that they could hire a helicopter. So this guy has just been hired to fly this helicopter around there. James Bond burns him to death. And it's like, who tells his wife about this? This guy had nothing to do. And now he's dead. No one will talk about that.

So those are the questions that you want to explore?

Yeah totally, you know? So I certainly think that is part of the entertainment. That you don't ask these questions. And I love that Kevin Smith thing about who works on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. The Death Star is full of construction workers cause they're building it. They would just get blown to pieces. Thousands and thousands of people dying. That's quite interesting and all that.


Free Fire is now in theaters.