REVIEW: Film director Ben Wheatley QnA
Eden Court Cinema
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by Margaret Chrystall
DIRECTOR Ben Wheatley faced a barrage of questions from a packed cinema theatre at Eden Court after the screening of his latest film Free Fire on Monday.
But at least Ben wasn’t facing the 7,000 rounds of ammunition he revealed had been fired during the making of the all-action black comedy set in the 70s which features a shoot-out then a “Mexican stand-off” in a Massachusetts warehouse when an arms deal goes wrong.
And offering a coveted Free Fire T-shirt to all questioners probably helped encourage the many questions Ben found himself asked to answer, till the T-shirts and posters ran out and he was down to the film badges!
The characters in his sixth feautre film are portrayed by an all-star cast featuring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Michael Smiley and Noah Taylor.
But one of the earliest questions asked Ben how he had come to have legendary director Martin Scorsese as an executive director on the film.
A newspaper interview with the American had first revealed his admiration for Ben’s films Kill-List which he’d seen while over in Europe making Hugo.
“I get giddy about stuff like that – and I got giddy about this!” said Ben – who is a great Scorsese fan.
And when the possibility of Scorsese coming on board Free Fire was revealed in an email, Ben explained: “It’s slightly terrifying if you have someone like that involved – the world’s greatest film-maker – but you have to do it!”
Ben also explained that when casting availability changed some of the original actors, he and his regular writer/co-writer Amy Jump rewrote parts for the replacements.
Ben said: “Me and Amy have this idea that ‘bad’ acting comes from lines that couldn’t be said by an actor. So we restructured stuff to the metre the actor speaks in naturally.”
South African actor Sharlto Copley’s accent and lines as Vern are one of the highlights of the dialogue.
“Sharlto had offered to do an American accent but we thought he was so delicious as a South African that Amy was picking up South African phrases and jokes to put in there,” Ben revealed.
“So when he says ‘Wake up and smell Ricoffy’ – that’s a South African brand of coffee.
“Hopefully that will go down well in Johannesburg!
Ben was asked if he had ever doubted himself about whether Free Fire would work, but he said he knew it would work and that he would like it, ‘whether anyone else would’.
“But I wouldn’t try and change something to make it whatever you think other people would like.”
He also revealed that he edits the film as shooting goes along.
“I was cutting it to make sure it was all going to work.”
And when a questioner wondered how Ben had pitched the film – had it been as a ’70s-set Mexican stand-off and created his own mini-pitch – Ben simply laughed: “Like that!”
And with John Denver hit Annie’s Song prominently featured in the soundtrack, someone wondered when Ben had decided it should be in there.
“From the start,” he said, He revealed: “I am a big fan of John Denver and remember Annie’s Song from being a kid”.
But that wasn’t the reason the film is set in the ’70s – another question for him. It was more because there were no mobile phones then which would have trashed the idea that all the characters are caught in the warehouse with no mobile phones to instantly allow them to communicate for help as they could now.
One questioner pointed out the film has been likened to Reservoir Dogs though he also would suggest Hong Kong action films. Ben agreed it was, like Reservoir Dogs, in the tradition of ‘warehouse films’, though he saw more of Point Blank and Evil Dead in it than Tarantino’s film.
“But then Reservoir Dogs is City on Fire and The Killing, so everything rests on everything else!”
And with the extended back and forth of the shoot-out, Ben was asked how much planning there had needed to be to get that right.
“There was a lot of planning,” Ben agreed. “And it was a physical test for the actors crawling on the ground. we started in May and then built it in Minecraft 3D.”
Ben also told the audience he had decided to film in chronological order to make sure the sequence of gunshots and physical moves of the actors fitted together.
And though there are no out-takes as such, Ben did reveal that there is a lot of footage of actor Sharlto Copley improvising lines as Vern the arms dealer.
“He’s a naturally funny guy and we’d tend to film one take from the script, one improvised line. But you can’t do too many or you start to move too far away from the core of the script.”
Ben also confirmed he had been offered “bigger budget” film projects, but: “We are always working on a project.” He also said candidly that he felt if he had gone straight to directing a bigger film after first film Down Terrace, it would have been too soon.
“If I had gone out to America after Down Terrace to shoot Spider Man or something you would have had a very downbeat Spider Man! But with a bit of luck I might be out there in a few years. For the moment, I’d rather be making stuff.”
And Ben replied that he thought it “very weird” to go back and tweak a film after finishing it.
“As a person you change all the time and you see that in your films. I can go back and watch Kill List, Sightseers or A Field In England and see very different people in them. And if there are mistakes, they are my own mistakes and I don’t know if I would want to change them.”
Ben confirmed upcoming projects include his version of Wages of Fear – and that he would be interested in doing The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a book by science fiction writer Philip K Dick. But he did confirm he was going to work on American comic book writer and artist Frank Miller’s Hard Boiled.
And, though very frank in answering almost every question, there was one about a John Denver story that's referred to but not revealed in the film that Ben rejected, joking in Free Fire shoot-out style: “I can’t tell you or you would have to be shot in the face!”
Free Fire is on general release from March 31.