In Free Fire, Ben Wheatley puts an action film into a confined space – and gives everyone a gun. A disused warehouse becomes a pressure cooker environment when an arms deal goes wrong and egos start to clash.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer and the director’s long-term collaborator, Michael Smiley, the film forgoes car chases and big explosions in favour of throwing the viewer right into the heightened drama of a shoot-out. For the majority of its 90 minutes, blocks of concrete, crates, boxes and bits of junk are the only things that offer cover from the relentless gunfire.
The film has a frenetic, close-quarters feel with much of it shot at low level as characters crawl and scuffle around on the ground. There’s a lot of sweat and blood in the dust and dirt. “I wanted to make something that reduced down the scale to something more human,” says Wheatley. “I felt like the movies I’d been watching recently had become too big or too abstract – away from human experience.”
Set in Massachusetts in 1978, Free Fire has a rawness to it that harks back to the grit and grime of action films of that era. “I wanted to get back to a kind of scale that I knew from 1970s and 80s cinema that was more character-based but it was also kind of procedural and physical – about cause and effect and physics, stuff like that,” says the director. “But also, as much as it’s a crime film, it was looking at the kind of ‘kinetic’ cinema of the Evil Dead and Warner Bros’ Tom and Jerry cartoons.”
In a sense, Free Fire has similarities with the exaggerated violence – and comedy – of great cartoon chase sequences. “The pace of it is kind of like music,” says Wheatley. “It rises and falls and after each crescendo they all have to re-organise and work out what they’re doing next – and that’s more the rhythm of the movie than the traditional ‘thriller’ plot.”
Before getting started on the film, Wheatley says he studied transcripts of shoot-outs and ballistics reports. What stood out from these texts was the messiness and sheer chaos of these fraught environments.
“In movies everyone seems to be highly expert at doing things!” he explains. “But it doesn’t take into consideration the extreme terror that permeates these situations. It’s one thing to fire at targets, but it’s another thing when the targets are firing back.”
As with most of his films, Wheatley storyboarded Free Fire himself, completing some 2,000 drawings for the project (even more than the number he created for his previous film, High-Rise). This imagery suggested ideas for both the production design and the shooting schedule for the film.
“They highlight how much work we’re going to have to do [and show] the amount of shots we need to achieve, what the weight of that is,” he says of the drawings. “On set I don’t tend to have the boards there, but I can remember them. And then I don’t feel so attached to them that I can’t take on any other ideas that occur to me in the moment, or that the actors have.”
Storyboarding is a vital part of Wheatley’s process both as a practical aspect of the filmmaking and as a way of enabling him to ‘see’ a film in advance of the cameras rolling. And it’s this latter role that links most directly to his interest in a related storytelling medium: comic books.
“For me there are two kinds of storyboards,” he says. “There’s the hyper-specific storyboard which you get in advertising. Storyboarding in advertising is seen as a legal document – the client can hold it up and go ‘you haven’t shot this shot, we’ve got a problem’.
“But then the other side, which is more related to comics books, [is] where the storyboards are an aid to ‘hallucinating’ the film. In the same way I find [that] when I read comics I feel like I’ve watched a movie … it’s all in my head. It’s a hybrid version of reading a novel isn’t it? But with pictures.”
For example, the storyboarding for High-Rise worked in this way, Wheatley adds. “I could spread [the boards] all out and look at them and see the film a lot clearer – filling in the gaps between them.
“But it means that they’re not quite as technical for stunts as the advertising-style boards are, so that was [why] the Free Fire boards became more like that. They started to dictate how many explosions would be on the walls, or how much blood, or whatever.”
Wheatley created his rough drawings for Free Fire in the iPad app, Paper, which were then redrawn by storyboard artist Toby Harvard (“it was [a bit] like in the American comic book world: I was the penciller and someone else was the inker”).
For High-Rise, Wheatley created all of the drawings by hand, while for his current project, Freak Shift, his own artwork has been redrawn by 2000AD comic artist, Mick McMahon. (Wheatley has tweeted some of McMahon’s concept art via @freakshiftfilm.)
Designing the sets for Free Fire also involved a blend of traditional building and digital creation – the latter coming from a perhaps unlikely source: Minecraft.
“It’s a really useful tool,” says Wheatley of the video game. “It’s very easy to use, it’s intuitive – and you can build big spaces with it quite quickly.” Using the game, the director would ‘walk’ the warehouse space with DOP Laurie Rose to get an idea of where lighting could go and what vantage points individual characters would be able to see each other from.
“I haven’t used it yet but there’s an interesting kind of cinematic tool for Grand Theft Auto, so you can actually place stuff within that and you ‘act’ as a kind of ‘synthy-thespian’,” Wheatley adds. “But then you can re-camera it, so you have a 3D space you can put cameras around. I can see us using that for some of the more action stuff we’ve got coming up.”
Augmenting these kinds of digital tools to a specific filmic purpose hasn’t replaced making physical models, however. The two processes work together.
“We certainly built everything in Free Fire as models as well,” Wheatley says. “And then we worked out a lot of it with toy soldiers and model kits from Airfix.” From this, the space was then constructed in polyboard and subjected to lighting tests. “Anything that’s physical is good, it’s easier to explain to people and talk to them about … you’ve got a purer view of stuff.”
The numerous blocks and boxes on set also give the characters the requisite cover to hide behind and despite being repeatedly fired at – and occasionally struck by a bullet – their survival in the warehouse becomes something of a running joke.
“The original space was a clean warehouse – all the lower walls were all built in it,” says Wheatley. “And before we did that I built them all with cardboard packing cases and used loads and loads of those – in a way like Minecraft but in the real world. They were metre square cubes and we just dropped them into the space and moved those around and then from [those] measurements the set was built.”
Shooting the film in chronological order also presented a few challenges, the director explains. “It was pretty complicated – you could make a mistake very earlier on and not really know about it until quite a way into the shoot, shooting chronologically,” he says. “So you had to keep an eye on where everybody was in relation to each other and where they crossed over and moved around, who could see who.”
To aid in the choreography of the various sequences, the team created a series of maps of the action on set (shown above), with dotted lines showing the movements of each character as they went from place to place.
“We had a map every ten pages that showed the travel of the characters and where they fired to and from and then that helped to work out where all the bullet hits went into the walls,” says Wheatley. “Those walls had to be manufactured and put into place. So every gunshot has to be accounted for pretty much – and then built into the set, up to seven weeks before we shot.”
The result is an action film that pays homage to the 1970s in a number of ways, not least in how some of the classics of the genre were originally made. Coming just eight years after Wheatley’s claustrophobic debut feature Down Terrace – and four since the remarkable A Field in England – Free Fire is an explosive ride that shows the director and his team expertly turning their hands to yet another kind of filmmaking.
Free Fire opens in UK cinemas on March 31 via StudioCanal UK. See freefirefilm.co.uk