Interview with Ben Wheatley: On Free Fire’s Connections to Counter-Strike, John Denver, and South African Accents

Associate Editor Lior Phillips spends an afternoon with the English filmmaker

    “I’ve forgotten whose side I’m on!” shouts a voice from the crumbling darkness. Considering the short fuses, fragile egos, and rambling energy that fueled the surprise gunfighting at the heart of Free Fire, that line from one of the combatants could double for the audience’s reaction at any given moment. The film begins with an illegal weapons deal between two IRA members — an ex-Black Panther and a South African arms dealer — with an assortment of American no-goodniks along for the ride. Things go to bloody hell, as they are wont to do in this sort of situation, and the film rolls out like a study of how characters react as the mouse trap squashes in on them.

    In an instant, they’re quibbling over money and manners, darting through a swarm of “fuck!”s and “shit!”s. The next second, BANG, a torrential downpour of gunfire and rubble lurch and whirl around these wounded and desperate sweaty assholes slithering across a dilapidated warehouse floor, rummaging for safety behind broken pillars and shards of steel. It’s a comedically over-the-top action film powered by a script that oscillates between jaw-crunching fight sequences and snarky, hilarious insults. It’s a popcorn flick in the truest sense, but you’ll wind up losing half the bag when you can’t stop flailing your hands slapping your knee from laughing.

    The key there, though, is that the film works as a study of bullet-ridden characters rather than a mere celebration of hyper-violence — despite a few boxes of ammo rifled off. Each character feels real and fully fleshed out, so much more than the cartoonish criminals and stereotypical stand-ins that one might expect. Irish tough guy Chris (Cillian Murphy) shows a surprisingly soft side when it comes to American go-between Justine (Brie Larson), who shows a resilient (though decidedly not bulletproof) side. And, personal favorite and fellow South African Sharlto Copley’s arms dealer, Vernon, does amp up the accent a bit for comedic value, but delivers lines with pitch-perfect slang and becomes too charming to be despicable.


    Similar to how Woody Allen uses New York City in so many of his movies, the bloodied and broken warehouse eventually becomes its own essential character, too. Or, better yet, works like a desolate map for a particularly rough level of a third-person shooter, with an assortment of players spawned and not quite ready to shoot it out til’ only one remains. Though, that gaming parallel may have been intended, as we learned in our afternoon discussion with writer/director/editor Ben Wheatley. This week, the English filmmaker spoke to Consequence of Sound about his love for the video game medium, his oddly sympathetic cast of criminals, and, yes, how a John Denver song wound up playing a pivotal role in the film’s climax.

    I saw the screening of Free Fire last week, and I believe it’s out in the UK already. Does it usually roll out like that? I suppose it must be a relief to get a little bit of feedback in the meantime. I don’t know if this phase — pre-release — is daunting for you at all?

    Well there’s nothing you can do now! We wrapped up filming two years ago already. Rollout really depends, but it doesn’t usually happen like this, not for an [gestures quotation marks] “American” film. There was a hold back I think, because all of the European ones are going next week too. The delay is usually because of the whole backlog of festivals. We went to Toronto and it was all slightly staggered, so that loses you four months, and then it’s SXSW, and by the time you turn around, two years have passed you by.


    How long did the entire film take to shoot?

    Not long at all actually, only six weeks. In terms of “It’s coming out!” and “Do you worry about it?” No you can’t. [Laughs] There’s nothing you can do. It’s just a waste of time to worry about it.

    You not only co-wrote and directed the film, but you edited it as well. Considering how you’re dealing with one location, and an abnormal amount of contained action, was the editing considerably difficult at all?

    The continuity side of it is the big ‘ol costume department, and they did an amazing job. There were teams of them ruining the clothes. On the first week of shooting, there would be just a rack of Armie Hammer’s suit and then six versions of it slowly disintegrating down to the really destroyed version. They washed it with stones and acid to break it down more with every stage of the film. For that very reason, the film was mainly shot in chronological order. We knew we had to control our timing and our continuity by being in one space for the entire film. With the editing, I cut a lot of it while I shot it so I had an Edit Suite on set to make sure that was covered and I could handle that as the scenes came about. The actual edit itself was only about three to four months after shooting. It was all really very quick, because it is what it is … I found that action is a lot easier to cut than dialogue.


    In what way?

    Because there are only so many angles you can shoot from, three or four. There’s something blowing up or someone getting punched, and there’s no performance per se in that. In the same way that there are five lines that someone has delivered, there are all different types of tension within just one line. So, you have two other people in the scene, and they’ve all done five different readings of this one line, and then that stage in the process potentially becomes more complicated. Then you watch the scene and you go, “Oh I don’t know, there’s something missing because of x, y, and z.” When it comes to a punch, you think, “Did he punch him in the face? Yes he did!” or “No, he didn’t, and we fucked this scene all up!” So it’s much more straightforward.

    Then how important was it for you to make the action scenes as realistic and practical as possible, using very little CGI? Was it to pay homage to the era or your influences? Or do you feel strongly about the use of CGI during action movies?

    That’s a really good point. It’s really important that there’s not much CGI in this film. It puts the audience right in it, and it makes it feel like something is happening in real time. Even with CG, if you get a slight inkling that it’s not real, then it all starts to unravel. Brilliant CG, like creating a chair and you’d never notice it just because it is a chair and you never need to question it — that’s the stuff that’s useful in movie magic. And dinosaurs for some reason. You never question a dinosaur do you? You always think it’s real.


    You’re right, it can put you completely outside of something that’s meant to envelop your attention for a short amount of time. I suppose that’s why sci-fi and fantasy are so fascinating because you’re already primed to think, “I’m going to see a bunch of shit in space.”

    That’s a really good title for a film … “A Bunch Of Shit in Space.” I like it!”

    Like Vonnegut’s short story, “The Big Space Fuck”! You’re welcome to it. But something that you once said struck a chord with me: “A film should be about your experience, and your personal experiences are always informed by the world around you at the time.” What was happening in your world when you wrote this?


    You know, I think there’s that concept and working within genre — they’re both different things. I’ve obviously never been a gangster, and I’ve never murdered anybody. [Laughs] I have shot guns, yeah, but I’ve never been to the past. There’s that. I think that the crime films themselves are about work, they are in essence just much sexier versions of work movies. A duller version of this movie would be a plumber convention and they all came in and had a big argument over a pipe, and then were all cross, and then a load of people got fired. One by one until it was just Justine at the end of it having an argument with the last two guys and proved them wrong. They then got fired and the boss turned up. That’s not a film anyone wants to see.

    Absolutely. Philosophically, the narrative explores human beings at their most desperate, stripped down in survival mode, and what they will do to save themselves — whether that requires clear thought or not.

    I think that’s where it exists, fitting within the pattern of the other movies we’ve made, and it’s a general miserablist worldview.


    It seems as though you keep your social and work orbit pretty consistent. You work with your wife, Amy, and have worked with Laurie Rose and Geoff Barrow before. How important is it to trust your team of collaborators?

    Oh god, yeah, I’ve been with Laurie from the start. It’s very important. I like working with Laurie, and we’ve come up together. We share our own language. Each movie that we do together pushes both of our storytelling skills forward. We try a lot of experimental techniques. I don’t know what he gets up to outside of this all. Directors don’t want to know. He shouldn’t be working as far as I can say. [Laughs] He should just be waiting for me! But then he went to the BAFTAs … it’s all painful. I worked with Geoff on High Rise. I got on with him very well.

    So, it’s like you’ve got a shorthand of people, why would you change them up? Unless there was some other creative outlet you needed. In this business, half of the battle is whether you can get on with people or not. You don’t want to introduce people into the circle that you’re feeling like, “Oh fuck, I can’t stand him and how we gonna get rid of him somehow?” It’s all really grim. I must say that Rook Films, which produced this, is the company I own with Andy [Starke] and Amy [Jump]. So, whenever we’re doing a Rook film, it’s completely controlled in that way.


    Onto the vital part of the film … I don’t know if you can tell from my accent, but I’m South African.

    I obviously didn’t want to go, “Oh, you’re a South African!” and have you go, “No, I’m Dutch.” Oh, fuck no.

    In order to not lose my accent, I feel like I’m going to have to listen to South African podcasts and radio stations daily.


    To re-South African-ize yourself?

    Well, I’ve always watched South African accents in films and cringed, because they’re almost always overly dramatized and over the top. I understand it’s to elevate the stereotype and make it more commercial.

    Not a fan of Joss Ackland in… Wait, is it Joss Ackland or Steven Berkoff that’s in Beverly Hills Cop who is a South African?

    Steven Berkoff has a sort of British pomp! And it’s Joss Ackland with the obnoxious one in Lethal Weapon 2. But with regards to the brilliant Sharlto Copley, his accent in this film whilst being genuinely his, wasn’t cartoon-y. The slang and the lingo were perfect. He mentions Ricoffy for god’s sake!


    That was Amy who wrote that!

    How did she know Ricoffy?! You don’t know about Ricoffy if you aren’t South African. If he had said, “Wake up and smell the Rooibos,” I would’ve sighed and thought it was a fallback.

    Well, she did tons and tons of research. Obviously all the “boytjie” and all that, that came from him.

    “Nail him, Boytjie!” I loved that. And laaitie.

    That was all Sharlto, but the Ricoffy line was part of the ADR stuff. After we did the film, we wrote a new script that’s just 12 pages with all of that, and that became a part of it. And even Sharlto went nuts.


    I can only imagine how happy he was, it felt unbelievably like home, that’s what we all grew up with and continue to say/hear.

    Oh yeah, this is so great that you connected like that, he was really chuffed. Hopefully it will get a laugh in Cape Town when it plays there. There are these other gags like the Hollywood line from Michael Smyly, that got a massive laugh in Belfast. These little regional bits will all have their own day.

    Many of the characters seem to come from a place of conflict: two IRA guys, a South African, and an ex-Black Panther. Was this to validate their outsider-dom?


    Well, the Sharlto thing was just blind luck. He’d gone on the list, and I said, “Fuck, I love Sharlto Copley, why didn’t I think of him?” And I’m always a fan of not doing accents — even though there are a couple of accents in this film. Certainly with Smyly, I think he’s in the same realm as Sharlto, and I’d never make Michael change his accent, even though it can be a hard accent for the audience sometimes. It’s his accent, and it puts a barrier in front of his performance if he has to change it. I said to Sharlto, “I want you to be South African in it.” He has no problem being American, but he said, “Oh really?” As we talked, he said, “Oh jeez, that makes a lot of sense, really, more than an American character.”

    While they’re all criminals, you feel some sympathy towards them.

    Truly. There’s empathy you feel for all of them. None of them are evil or sadistic, and that’s what was really important for us.

    The characters are so beautifully rounded in the film. I read that you sculpted the script after wanting to work with Cillian. Did his character come first, or were there other ideas?


    Originally it was for him. I had a general meeting with him, and had a few beers, and he said, “Well, if you ever think of me for a part…” and I just went, “Don’t you worry about that!” [Laughs] So I wrote this for him and Smyly. That was the beginning of it, and it just expanded out from there. We really liked Armie Hammer as well, so we asked his agent if we could talk to him. That was a straight offer. Sharlto was in quite late after we had someone drop out. We were really lucky.

    So obviously Brie Larson, Justine, was the only female in the cast, who on the outset wasn’t a damsel in distress, but not the active protagonist either. We learn later on that she’s just as ruthless as all the men. Was this a comment or subversion on gender roles or merely a character exploration?

    Well, to a degree. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Look at something like the Martin character, Babou Ceesay’s character. If he gets shot early on it’s because he’s the black guy in the movie. It should never be a thing, but in this industry it will become a thing. With Justine, I always thought about how it’s kind of a slasher movie. She’s like a “last girl,” that old trope. But if she’s Ripley, she’s also the alien as well. She kills more people than anybody else, and she’s also the only one that can shoot straight for starters. She even shoots poor Patrick Bergin in the head from around the corner. That was important. She could never really be killed in the film, because it’s too grim for eleven men to kill one woman. And it’s no fun to do that. So, I always imagined it was her and Martin together, they got together and planned the thing … but it’s a terrible plan, whatever it was. It’s not Moriarty, is it? [Laughs]


    Ha! Speaking of ingenious plans, was it Geoff’s decision to use the John Denver song, “Annie’s Song”?

    No, it was all written in already because I just really loved it. I was just thinking about what would be the most appalling music to hear as you were bleeding to death. And because Harry doesn’t like John Denver, it made the suffering greater.

    “Let me drown in your laughter/ Let me die in your arms!” It’s one of the most over the top romantic, love-y-dove-y soft songs, that you’ve countered with violence. It works beautifully because it doesn’t compete with the humor, it juxtaposes it. It brings out the darkness.


    Yeah, it’s sad and sweet, that song. And by the ending, it’s Armie Hammer’s face, just giving up. You kind of go, “Oh man, they’re all dying, and it doesn’t matter who shoots who anymore because they’re all fucked. Why didn’t they just make up and be friends?” [Laughs] It’s depressing. And I liked that.

    A depressing study of how characters would react within a giant game of Mouse Trap closing in on them, validated by a shot of a mouse trying to escape through a hole, which they were all trying to do.

    I liked that Smyly takes time to notice it too. He goes, “Ooh, a mouse!”

    To have a cinematic icon like Martin Scorsese produce this film, how challenging was it to air your own creative ideas, or because of his stature did that almost push you to feel more confident?


    It helped at the start when it came to financing and casting, and it certainly made me feel confident once he’d seen it and having talked to him about it and how much he liked it. I was like, “Okay, I’m now critically bulletproof. I’m not worried about any of that anymore!” But also, just a meeting was enough. That was already the best thing that had happened to me in terms of filmmaking. It was just unbelievably cool.

    Are you a fan of video games?

    [Laughs] Good eye. Video games are something I do just as much as I watch films, unfortunately. Video games allow my brain into a meditative state. I’m terrible at them, though. I’ve never gotten any better. And yes. Well, Counter-Strike is something that I play and have played since the beginning. They had a level that’s called “Assault,” which is basically a warehouse which is pretty similar to this. It is literally the same as this movie. [Laughs.]

    Really? And even some of the cinematography, like when you strap the camera to the top of the barrel when Martin wakes up and goes berserk with half his brain hanging out, that felt very “Player One” video game-y.


    Oh yeah, good catch. Definitely. There’s lots of references. I read a lot of comics, I watch a lot of movies, I play a lot of video games. That all feeds into the process of making a film. It’s not just one monoculture, or just crime films of the ‘70s. It’s everything.

    Well it might be time to create a Free Fire video game. I would play it all day, and I haven’t even played a video game since Mortal Kombat.

    I think it would be quite a bit of crawling around, which I’m not sure a ton of people would want.