If you haven’t been paying attention to director Ben Wheatley’s career, you are missing out. From his terrifying folk horror KILL LIST, to the uncomfortable dark comedy SIGHTSEERS, Wheatley is a cinematic chameleon. Though he swings between genres with the greatest of ease his films maintain consistently high quality along with high concepts. His latest, due in theaters this Friday, is FREE FIRE. Wheatley’s take on a classic gun-running gone bad shoot-em-up is equal parts hilarious and bloody. The film unfolds close to real-time as you watch each and every bullet tear into the flesh of the opposing crews. Ahead of the film’s release, Wheatley visited Boston and sat down with me for a quick chat about his career, genre, and the pains of creature design.
How do you choose what your next project will be?
We write a lot of scripts. We don’t really get to choose- it is more about what can get financed. You’ll have all of these different things, all at various stages, but when there is some money for one, you do it. At the moment we’ve got a few scripts out there, some that are new and have just gone to the agent, and something might happen, or it might not. HIGH RISE was like that. We should have been going out of FIELD IN ENGLAND into FREAKSHIFT. But then I talked to my agent and found out who had the rights, and then suddenly everyone wanted to do it, which made everything else shuffle about. It was never the plan that FREE FIRE would come after HIGH RISE. There is no real plan to any of it. You just think, ”Oh it would be cool to do this.” And then, “Oh fuck, now we are doing it!”
As a working filmmaker you must just get the work when you can.
Unless you are doing a thing where there is a big gap between your movies, I don’t think there is anyone who has complete control over their filmography. If you look for meaning in one film to the next, or if the order of films tell a story, that’s a critical construct that comes later. It feels much more chaotic from this side.
The thing is, it is a miracle that anything gets made. It is such a lot of money to throw into the air. Like William Goldman says, “Nobody knows anything.” But someone down the line—the evil money man—has to write a check for millions to make it happen. The pressure of that must be insane.
Some filmmakers say that genre is a critical construct that does not enter into their creative process, but each of your films seems to be squarely in a different genre. How to you accept or reject the constructs of genre?
I swing both ways on that. I know I’ve done interview where I say, “Genre is made up by critics.” But I also like genre films and I watch a lot of them. Genres are there so that audiences do not get confronted by millions of random movies. They know which way the films are going, and they know what they are getting, to a degree. And whether you play within the genre or deconstruct the genre, or totally fuck the genre, those are the choices. As a genre fan, I ask, “What do I want to see in it?” or, “I like that kernel, but not the rest of it; why can’t I see just that bit?” This is kind of where FREE FIRE is a bit.
But also, a lot of the films I’ve made are looking at the genre films through a prism of realistic characters. What real people might do in those situations. More realistic emotional responses to stuff, is what I’ve tried to do. I think you can smuggle in the more trope-y bit of genre if it is on the back of more realistic emotional responses.
Look at KILL LIST. The first half of the film is a family drama and then more crazy stuff happens later on. But in the more traditional genre film it would have started with someone getting sacrificed in the pre-credit, and then they would move on to the house. That would have given the audience an “out.” They would know what sort of a movie it would be. But when you start with social-realism, then when the other elements come in, you are more shocked by it. That’s the theory anyway.
Some of my favorite horror films are ones that you do not know are horror until the very end.
That goes to the lack of exposition. The more you know, the less scary things become. And that works with genre as a whole. This is the problem with the rise of the vampire movie and the rise of the zombie film. Where they rehabilitated those characters and turned them into heroes. People like them, and I understand that, but it gets to the point where they are not scary anymore. The genre collapses in on itself, and it has to be rebuilt into something else.
In FREE FIRE so much of the dialogue and character development seems tailor made for the cast. Was it perfect casting, or did you write the parts for certain actors, or were there rewrites after casting?
We generally rewrite after we get the actors in. It helps. Everyone has a different way of speaking. Obviously actors will change the way they speak, but why make it hard for them when you can just rewrite to fit them a little more. The most obvious was Sharto Copley. That wasn’t a South African character originally. But when he came up on the list of people to talk to I thought “Fuck! That’s a great idea.”
With FREE FIRE we were trying to get away with trope-y characters. That’s why there aren’t mafia guys. Or any other random nebulous ideas of crime characters that have no substance in any kind of reality. It was great to look at that period in time and wonder what a South African would be doing in Massachusetts selling guns. A lot of the characters are parachuted into that environment, and they were all fishes out of water.
Do you write with actors in mind?
Cillian Murphy’s character was written for him, and so was Michael Smiley’s. That was the beginning of the casting. I had seen Armie [Hammer] in films and really liked him, so that was a straight offer. I had seen Brie Larson and Jack Reynor in stuff, but was less familiar.
What sort of research did you do into shootout films for yourself and your cast? Did you give them homework or a list of films to watch before production?
It was more reading up on real stuff. There was a shootout in Miami that the FBI had with bank robbers. If you are an FBI agent and you use your gun, you have to account for every bullet and write about it- quite rightly so. This was similar. Every bullet fired was tracked, and it came from that.
I put these characters in that situation, but with quite long takes—six or seven minutes—and in a 360 degree set. They were living it. And none of them were trained, which [laughs] was right. It worked out.
What is your next project?
FREAKSHIFT, which is the one we’ve been trying to make for a while now. It’s a scifi thing, set in a town, and at night these creatures come out and start smashing everything up. The “Freakshift” is a police force that goes out and cleans everything up. It’s like a ‘50s monster thing. It’s like HILLSTREET BLUES or MASH.
Are you having fun with the creature design?
No. It’s like a nightmare. The Giger monster from ALIEN casts a very long shadow over cinema, and no one has ever gotten out from under that. STARSHIP TROOPERS seems to be a bit more interesting, but everything is in that area. We are trying hard not to make it another one of those.
We are getting there with it, and I’ve got a cunning plan.
Well, I’m very excited to see what you do with paranormal and fantastical elements. Everything you have done so far is rooted in our version of reality.
We’ll see. I think I’ll definitely do another horror film in the next couple of movies, so that’s in the cards.