by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-Chief
I had the pleasure of speaking with High Rise director Ben Wheatley the morning after he brought his newest film, Free Fire, to Boston. We had a great chat and I even managed to pry some details about some of the other films he’s got in the works PAST his next film, Freakshift starring Armie Hammer and (maybe) Alicia Vikander and a possible Wages of Fear remake.
The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jay: I heard the screening went well last night?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, man.
JAY: Were you worried bringing the film to Boston since the film is set here?
BW: Abso-fucking-lutely. I can’t say I wasn’t nervous about it. As they rightly said, it was actually screening in Cambridge, so it’s not the same.
JAY: Good point.
BW: And also, the film never mentions Boston so that was always my get out. I was always very cautious.
JAY: I never even noticed.
BW: Yeah, it’s all over the press and all over the press releases and bullshit, but from the beginning we went, “You know what? Movies are made in Boston by people from Boston and the accents get complained about. What chance have we got?”
JAY: The one thing I have to say, is some of the worst Boston accents come from actors who are from Boston. The ones in your film were better than what we get from a lot of actors who are from Boston.
BW: Well that’s good, fuck. The way I always thought about it was if an American came to the UK and made a film in Manchester and they brought a lot of Americans in to do the accents, we’d all be like “Fuck me.” But it’s a weird one, isn’t it? I knew that there was a history of people making crime films about Boston and it’s just like- I bet everyone was tired of that. So that’s why we specifically never mentioned it.
JAY: How did Free Fire come about?
BW: It had been bubbling around for a long time for me. It started for me in the 90’s where I’d read this report, this FBI field report, of a shootout they’d had in Miami between FBI agents and potential bank robbers. They were on their way to rob a bank and these cars all screamed in and they were caught up in this thing. The report just goes on forever and it’s very forensic and very detailed because they have to account for every bullet they fired when they do the report and it’s just a mess and horrible and terrifying and not like the movies at all. It just reads like this really grim short story of death, you know? I was like, “Damn, there’s something in this somewhere.” And I wanted to make something and then over time I kept thinking about it and there’s something in it in a procedural kind of gun battle that we haven’t really seen.
You get a little bit of stuff like the shootout at the O.K. Corral gets looked at quite a lot, and there’s some interesting versions of that. When you actually read about the history of the shootout at the O.K Corral, which is basically a massacre, they just get in their corner and shoot at each other. (Laughing) It’s not pretty at all.
Then I started reading all sorts of other stuff, like that combat shooting is a perishable skill and if you don’t do it all day long you go back to not being able to do it at all. And if you’re not like a Navy Seal in combat situations it becomes very hard to shoot straight. That bad rap that Stormtroopers get in Star Wars is not necessarily too far from the truth. It’s only kind of keyboard warriors and people who only ever fire at paper targets who are the ones that tell you, “Why can’t people shoot straight in movies?” It’s because people are mortally terrified and want to hide.
JAY: Add to that the adrenaline pumping as you’re trying to aim. You can’t keep your hand straight, let alone with a gun in it.
BW: Exactly. Certainly with a pistol, which as soon as you move slightly it’s like going all over the place. Like the .38’s they use in the film are police weapons for firing in close quarters, not long range. So, in movies when they do all that crazy shit, it’s totally unrealistic. Not that this film is a documentary, to be fair.
Then I was doing a lot of research on the troubles in Northern Ireland and I’d read this story about the movement of guns from the states back to Belfast, which was really interesting. They’d smuggle them on the QE2 and then the QE2 would take them to Belfast and they’d smuggle them off again and I was like, “Fuck, there’s something there.” I was talking to Cillian Murphy and we got along pretty well and he was going, “If you ever think of a role for me, don’t hesitate to ask.” It all kind of came into focus and I went, “Fuck, I’ll do a thing about Irish guys going to America to buy guns.”
It kind of felt right, it was my first American film and it’s a genre film and I’m coming, metaphorically and mentally to do it and it’s important to have a load of Europeans and Africans turning up in this movie and negotiating with American characters. It feels like kind of a halfway house to start making American movies.
JAY: Did the film change tonally from writing the script to making the film? They say you make three different films when you make a movie: the one you write, the one you shoot and the one that comes out of the editing room.
BW: There’s four movies really. The one you write and the one your wife re-writes. (Laughs) Then the one that you shoot and the one that your wife re-edits. I’d written a very grim version that was much more rolling around on the ground screaming and being horrible to each other. Then Amy (Jump) read it and was like, “Fuck, nobody’s going to want to watch this. It’s too much.”
JAY: My reason for asking is because when the film was announced there was this promo/teaser post that looks like something for a really dark Paul Schrader film from the 70’s.
BW: Yeah, that’s a different movie. Having seen Sharlto playing Kruger in Elysium he probably could have done the dark version and it was on the table at the beginning. But Luke (Evans) went off to do some random art film about talking candlesticks. I don’t know what happened to that. I don’t think it was ever released. (Laughing)
JAY: It doesn’t sound like anything that anyone would pay to see.
BW: And Olivia Wilde went off to do Vinyl. So that was that. Nothing Machiavelli about it. That is the finance/teaser poster that got out. It’s a great poster, it’s a Jay Shaw poster. He did the current one with the finger in the gun. Jay Shaw is great.
So there was a darker version of it. Then Amy wrote this much funnier version of it. She put all the really filthy stuff in it, like the Stevo thing where he tells Harry that he came so hard in his cousin’s mouth. I’m reading it and I’m like, “Oh, Fuck.”
JAY: Do you ever just look at her and wonder where that all comes from?
BW: Yeah, (laughing) well everyone does.
With low budget films you don’t really get much time to rehearse, or any. We had one day’s rehearsal just to make sure the guns shot and the gunfight would work where we walked it through.
And with Sharlto it kind of changed a little bit as we were doing it. There was a point where he said, ” I can do the really hard, nasty South African character or I can be a bit shitter.” I was like, “Oh there’s something really funny about you not being able to shoot straight.” And he was like, “Ok.” It’s really down to when he fires and shoots the mirror off of the van, that was the beginning of the end for that character. And Amy was there every day as well, because we shot near our house, so we did a thing that we’ll never do again because it was too stressful, but she was re-writing on set. We’d have a day shoot and she’d be a day ahead. So she’d be writing the next day but we’d be looking at the rushes and incorporating stuff into it. It’s not like it was like Apocalypse Now where it was all over the place. It was enough where you could kind of tweak stuff. The problem with improv bits is as good as they are on set, they don’t usually fit within the film and they just get cut. Everyone’s sitting there like, “Oh this is amazing!” and then you get into the editing room and it ends up coming out.
JAY: Gunfights are logistically already tough to shoot and since your film is one huge gunfight does that make improvisation tougher than if it was in the course of a regular scene? Or is it possible for that spontaneity to work in that kind atmosphere?
BW: It’s a little of both. There’s all types of improvisation. You can’t just get up and walk around, making shit up and firing wherever you want. You can’t do any of that. But certainly just the asides can be done. At the beginning of the film it was much looser with how the blocking was and a bit more loosey goosey. Certainly around the van when they were all arguing, you can’t tell them precisely what to do anyway since there’s eleven of them and they’re all moving around really quick. But as soon as they’re all shot they can’t move around anyway, so that becomes more manageable.
JAY: Obviously with all the weapons the cast had to be prepared and trained with all the guns they’d be using?
BW: Barely. Because they’re not meant to be any good at it. You don’t want to send them off for any kind of special forces training.
JAY: It’s better if they don’t know how to hold it properly.
BW: Yeah. Brie was saying she’d never held a gun before the film. And I’d imagined that her character had probably done target shooting, but had obviously never been in a shootout. Why would she have been? That’s crazy unless she was Gloria or something. So that was fine. They all just got safety training, going over it for literally five minutes with the armorer. He was like, “Here’s the guns, this is how you load them, this is how you fire them. OK, good.” Armie already knew that stuff inside and out from doing all the action stuff and so did Sharlto, so that kind of made sense for their characters, as well. Even Cillian and Michael Smiley’s characters, it’s not like the IRA did much training, they did a bit and there was some Libyan training and stuff, but it wasn’t like they were trained soldiers. It’s a different thing, you know? It’s a different skill set.
JAY: Which one of them surprised you the most?
BW: Armie was surprising, I’d just had a completely different idea of who he’d be as a person. He was not that person. He was really fucking cool and lovely and funny. Sam Riley. Again it was like, I’d liked his films but he wasn’t in the front of my mind for that character. I talked to him for about three minutes on Skype and I was like, “Fuck this guy’s great.” He’s like a young John Hurt. He’s fantastic. And that character, taking that character and making him so… Because on the page I was so worried about that character, that there wasn’t enough there. but he’s just like, “BANG.” This is the power of a great performance.
JAY: Which character changed the most compared to what you’d envisioned based on the actor coming in? Obviously, you had a different idea for Sharlto’s character originally.
BW: Yeah, that was really written for him to be South African. That really helped. And also the Babou Ceesay character, we didn’t write any ethnic stuff in there, so when he came in it was like, “OK, that makes a certain type of dynamic now that we’re going to have to address and work out.” Yeah, I mean I think I’d learned a bit off of High Rise where I’d cast Sienna Guillory and her part in that. I was a bit embarrassed, she’s a great actress and she’s done loads of stuff, but she had like four lines in High Rise and I was like, “Fuck, really? She’s so good.” But when the film was finished she feels really massive because her performance is so intense.
I was really happy with all the characters and that there was a balance in the movie and you feel sad about when characters die. Even someone like Noah Taylor’s character, which… it should be an extra, that character, in the other version of this movie and yet he gets a full life, even down to his love of art.
JAY: Which one of them would you most want on your side if a gunfight was to break out?
BW: Armie Hammer, probably. If we’re talking about the characters, he’s the only one with any training. I like that he just hides straight away because he knows what’s about to go down. There’s no showboating or running around and Rambo’ing about. It’s you hide and you back away if you want to survive something like that.
JAY: A common complaint for directors indie directors is that they can’t get the funding to make the films they want to make, yet you’re making movies at a Woody Allen-like pace these last six years. What do you attribute that to?
JAY: Keeping it low?
BW: Totally. The seven-hundred grand to a million, that’s ok. It’s obvious that you’re gonna get the money back. This? This is like the alright area… I guess this is like a… because the British pound has become so weak it’s kind of hard to calculate … like eight million dollars or something like that. The seven or eight-million-dollar level is good because it makes sense in the indie world. But if you’re at the top end of it, my god I don’t know how anything gets made. I suppose the indie world tops out at twenty million and that’s really hard to get that financing together. That’s when it becomes start/stop, start/stop over years. Or you do studio stuff and the studio stuff again is an investment of time, two or three years for it about to go and they have ten projects and they decide which one is gonna go. I used to be like, “Oh, I’m making loads of films, why do people take seven years.” Now I know, so I don’t feel so clever about that anymore.
JAY: How tempting is getting involved in a big studio film? Do you take those meetings?
BW: I always have taken those meetings, but it’s more the investment of time that’s the thing. I’ve always got something I’m going on to, so it really means turning over that film to take a studio thing that may or may not happen. It’s such an amount of time, it’s a real gamble if you’re currently making stuff.
We haven’t made a film last year, so we’re slowing down, Amy and I, a little bit. Because Free Fire and High Rise were back to back and that was a bit much. So we just spent the last two years writing and prepping for the next couple of movies. So, I don’t know, I think it’s something I’d like to do but it’s not necessarily in my hands as much as you might imagine.
JAY: What would it take to get Ben Wheatley on the set of a hundred-million-dollar movie?
BW: (Deep exhale)
JAY: Is that even something you’d want?
BW: I’m writing the Hard Boiled adaptation for Warner Brothers so that’s what that would be. Well, I don’t think it would be a hundred, it would probably seventy to eighty or something like that. The money’s not important… The actual budget size is a different thing from how much money you make, so that doesn’t make any difference. And then it’s just grief. It doesn’t get easier, the more money there is. It just becomes more pressure. So the sweet spot is probably, I don’t know, three million or four million, where there’s less people worried about it. Then if it breaks out, people are like, “Wow!” If it doesn’t then it probably made the money back.
Jay: What would be your dream project if money wasn’t an issue and you could take anything you’ve ever wanted to make and just make it?
BW: I dunno. I mean… it’s tricky. Because that’s kind of… you mean like a property and turning that into a film?
Jay: Could be a property or a script that you’ve had sitting in a drawer somewhere that you’ve thought you’d never be able to get made.
BW: Alright, I do know. I wrote a Gauntlet adaptation for Warner’s that’s pretty good.
Jay: Gauntlet, like the game?
BW: Yeah, the video game. And I have some other fancy stuff which I wouldn’t mind doing. Which you can’t do… you’d have to do massive. Because I wanted to do something that was like… I really like those… the thing I really like about those movies is when they go on a mission and they go into tunnels and they have traps and they have to deal with traps and shit and they steal stuff. That’s the best bit of the movie and you have to deal with a whole load of fucking riding on horses over mountains or something and you know, some other bullshit at the end of it. But the bit in the middle where they’re doing that is the best bit. I wanted to make a movie like that. So yeah, there’s something there. I wrote another one called Upon a Time Once which is about a magical kingdom turned upside down. That would be… I don’t know… a few movies down the line.
Jay: Freakshift is next?
BW: Yeah. In August hopefully.
Jay: And you have Armie Hammer coming back?
BW: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jay: And Alicia-
BW: Vikander. According to the internet.
Jay: Not according to you though?
BW: You know…
Jay: Attached, but not signed?
BW: Yeah or something… I don’t want to say she’s definitely doing it and then get my fingers snapped by angry agents. Yeah, no, it all looks good. That will be action… it will be a similar vibe to Free Fire in a way, but more monster-y.
Jay: I like that. Then after that?
BW: I don’t know, it’s Wages of Fear, which is on the bricks or its Criminal Behavior which is another one. It’s about an FBI for criminals. So if you’re a drug dealer and you get a load of shit stolen, you can’t go to the police so you’d go to these guys who investigate and track down guys and punish them with extreme prejudice to get your money back. I basically wanted to do a Big Sleep-style detective thing but from a really harsh perspective.
Jay: That sounds great. We’re getting the signal to end.
BW: They’re pulling the plug.
Jay: Thank you for the time and best of luck with the film!
BW: Cheers. Thank you.
Unfortunately, that is it. I had a great time talking with Ben Wheatley, I feel like we could have continued that conversation for days. I think we were just getting to some really good stuff.
Make sure you get out and see Free Fire this weekend. It’s a blast.