Introducing Ben Wheatley’s new film Free Fire, the director and actor Michael Smiley are in a jovial mood. “I have just bought a new pair of jeans that have lycra in them” Smiley pronounces in his deep Irish accent, whilst stretching this legs to emphasis the joke. Almost acting as a warm up act to the film’s black comedy, Smiley knows how to work his audience. Focusing on the film, its cast is an international one with the likes of Armie Hammer, Oscar winner Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, alongside the British talent of Smiley, Cillian Murphy, and Sam Riley.
As a defined auteur who isn’t afraid of tackling any genre, Wheatley has established himself as a film workaholic who regularly creates a film every year. With producer credits on the absurdist The Greasy Strangler, Gareth Tunley’s upcoming The Ghoul, and Peter Strickland’s mesmeric The Duke of Burgundy he is more than just a director. As the post-screening Q&A would reveal, he is one of Britain’s best film-makers and a true cinephile.
After Wheatley’s homage to the action genre / 70’s B Movie, the director and Smiley once again reappear. Joined by HOME’s Artistic curator Jason Wood, the two men undergo the formalities of any Q&A — still both men’s passion for their medium shines through. Starting where he left off, Smiley inquisitively asks a member of the audience on the front row if he, like the actor “has any elastic in your gullet”. After another few minutes of comedic rambling, Woods interjects, “well that’s all we have time for’’. Hallelujah it wasn’t.
After interviewing the film-maker at the London Film Festival, Wood wastes no time in getting into the really meaty subjects of the outlandishly hilarious film. Free Fire is executive-produced by the godfather of contemporary American film, Martin Scorsese. Wheatley described that a meeting between himself and Scorsese was set up in New York when touring with Sightseers in the US.
The Italian-American had been made aware of British films such as Andre Arnold’s Red Road and Wheatley’s second feature film Kill List when shooting Hugo in London. “It’s a weird thing when you talk to someone who you have bought really expensive coffee table books about’’, which I myself can ditto. “As I looked at him as he was talking and thinking I’m not just one hand shake away from the history of cinema.”
After Wood’s conversation with Wheatley and Smiley expanded to the audience, I wasted no time in raising my hand. The promise of a free t-shirt was on the line for any audience member who asked a question. Yet, as I had seen on the director’s twitter account there was a secret second option: A funky orange Japanese Free Fire tour poster. Asking for said poster instead of the t-shirt, Smiley jokingly implied ‘F**k your t-shirt’. Greeted with a nervous laugh, I continued: “Obviously you are working with Laurie Rose (cinematographer) again who did such great work on High-Rise and your other films. As Jason suggested, it is quite a claustrophobic film. But he (Rose) adds a lot of depth to the scenes with Dolly shots and POV shots of canisters exploding. What was the experience of that?” Redeeming my request of a poster with a respectable question, as Woods himself pointed out, Wheatley explained that there was a lot of planning and story boarding involved in the cinematography.
Continually he and Rose “built the whole set initially in Minecraft because it is the only 3D programme I can use”. Further, 1700 drawings were created in an attempt to film the organised chaos found in the shootouts. Filming with sometimes up to six cameras in very long takes, Rose was enabled to run the action right through to capture every inch of the warehouse. With the continual use of Laurie Rose, writer Amy Jump, and actors such as Michael Smiley, Wheatley has furthered his winning formula.
What become most apparent in the Q&A was his urgency to just be working in the film industry and both men’s humility and humour. Free Fire manages to capture the comedy of previous works such as Sightseers whilst working as a step forward for the director in terms of scale and budget.
Free Fire is released on the 31st March by StudioCanal.