A Distinctive New Voice: Ben Wheatley on Free Fire
Ben Wheatley discusses genre, writing movies you can actually make, and how to avoid being given script notes
With six features in eight years, all cult and critical successes, Ben Wheatley has emerged as one of the most distinctive new voices in British cinema. Or, rather, joint voices. In interview, Wheatley uses “we” as often as “I”, referring to his co-writer, co-editor and wife Amy Jump, and their producing partner Andy Starke.
Wheatley takes the tropes of 1970s genre movies and puts his own particular spin on them. His latest film, Free Fire, courts comparisons with Reservoir Dogs, with its warehouse setup of quarrelling criminals and quotable dialogue. But the ensuing hour-long gun battle for survival harks back to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. And the blackly comic tone is all Wheatley’s own.
Creative Screenwriting talked to Wheatley about using realism in generic stories, writing movies you can actually make, and avoiding being given script notes.
What do you start with when you write a screenplay? A theme, a character, a situation?
It depends on the screenplay. Sometimes they lurch into existence through an image or a concept, or sometimes it’s something I want to see. Perhaps there’s something I enjoyed in a film but there hasn’t been that kind of movie for a while, and I’d like to see what the modern version might look like.
And where did Free Fire come from?
I’d written a crime script years ago with Rob Hill, who’s the co-writer on Down Terrace, and as part of that we did a bit of research and found this transcript of a shootout in Miami between FBI agents and prospective bank robbers. The FBI had written a forensic report of what happened – basically a blow-by-blow account of a gun battle between lots of different people in very close proximity – and when I read it, I thought that a) it was like a short story, and b) it was very different from anything I’d ever seen in cinema.
What came across in the report was the thing of people firing and missing. I started reading accounts of other police and special forces operations, and apparently firing guns is a perishable skill: unless you’re highly trained and do it all the time, you revert to being as bad as a civilian quite quickly.
You can shoot paper targets completely accurately all day long, but as soon as someone shoots back at you, you go to pieces. They’re moving and you’re moving and it’s so terrifying that it’s very hard to shoot straight. So that was the reality I wanted to try and represent.
How important is genre in your work?
I swing backwards and forwards on genre. On the one hand, it’s a critical construct: there used to just be films, and then they got categorised and stacked up. But equally, genre is why I like cinema: I’m a film fan first, and came from a position of watching a lot of movies before I was making them.
But all genre has to be dealt with through some kind of filter, and that filter for me is always my own experience and my own taste in movies.
So in the first three or four films we did, the filter was a socio-realist look at genre: a strategy of not using generic characters, but trying to put real people in genre situations.
Some genre situations are so hysterical that they can pop you out of the movie; they make people not take the movies seriously because they recognise the tropes from other films. But if you have realistic elements within that film, people tend to forgive the genre elements.
Free Fire has elements of several genres: action, comedy and crime.
Well, it fits in the broader genre of crime. It could be an Elmore Leonard story. At one point we almost wrote the pulp novel version of the film.
There was a version where the script had “Adapted from the novel Iron Sight” with a fake author name. We got quite a long way down the road with that, then Amy said, “Why would we do this? We’ve written this thing, why would we pretend we hadn’t made it up properly?”
But it was a nod to that “Based on a true story” stuff that the Coens do.
Exactly. It gives a legitimacy to the film. If it comes from a book, it always feels much smarter!
This is your first movie set in the US. Did that present any writing challenges, or as a genre fan did it come naturally?
Years ago when I was doing TV stuff, I went out to the States to pitch comedy shows for America, and I had a twinge of, “Do I understand the culture of the place enough to do it?”
But as I’ve got older and spent more time in the States and have more American friends, I’ve relaxed into it, so I didn’t feel as nervous. And because it’s period and it’s genre, that kind of sits outside of an actual experience which can be interrogated too closely.
I believe you were also writing with two of the actors in mind: Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, who are both Irish, like their characters?
Totally, yes. And the movie is also about characters moving from Europe and Africa to America, and that experience. So it’s not as cut and dried as all American characters talking about American stuff, it’s a mixture of people travelling to a place and existing in a place. And that appealed to me, because that’s what the film is for me, career-wise: a stretching of the legs into the American idiom.
You seem to like contained environments: a warehouse, a high-rise, a field. Do you find that those limits somehow give you more freedom?
The tighter environments are budgetary, really. We tend to think about what we can make, rather than writing a script and seeing if it can be financed. I don’t want to write stuff I can’t make, because it’s pointless.
A Field in England was a case in point. If you started it, “Scene 1: They walk through Norwich and it’s full of people and horses”, then that’s the whole budget and you’re never going to shoot that film. But if it’s four guys walking in a field, then immediately you can make that movie.
Looking across all our films, there’s obvious themes running through them that we’re not as aware of as we might think. We try to make the films different from each other, but then these things slip back in. In a genre sense they’re different, but tonally they’re quite similar.
If I was to step back from it, I’d say there’s two types of scripts we write. One is the woman having to deal with the man child, which is Down Terrace and Sightseers and Kill List to a degree. The other is the fractured soul, where there’s a character represented by many characters, so that’s A Field in England and High-Rise.
Which one is Free Fire?
I think that’s child men again, and the one woman going, “Oh, God!”
Amy Jump has written or co-written all but one of your previous features, and you share a credit on this one. How does your writing relationship work?
On this film I would have written the original draft, and probably drafted it two or three times, then she came on and did her draft, and that was the shooting script.
Then, because the actors were doing improvisation and we were changing the script as we shot it, she was on set and writing a day ahead of production. She would incorporate the improvisational bits and we would look at the rushes and have discussions about how it was going.
We really liked Noah Taylor in the rushes: his character and the way he was performing. Then we looked at the script and were like, “He’s not got enough stuff. He’s really good and we’re not using him enough.” So she would go, “OK, we’ll write a scene for him here,” and we’d add a bit in. We could only do that because it was shot in chronological order, so there weren’t horrific continuity problems of performance across the film.
The other important thing in all this, and the difference with most productions, is that the writer is also the editor, so the writing is integrated into the whole process.
How different was Amy’s draft from yours?
I would say she probably replaced every line of dialogue.
And then half of it was replaced with improvisation?
Not that much. It isn’t improvisation as you might imagine, of people just talking and scenes spilling out from that improvisation, because that never really works, I don’t think. I tend to shoot a take that’s the script, and then a take where they can paraphrase the script and throw in any other lines they’ve got. But it’s small changes, not massive character bits.
Do you write the script differently, knowing that you’re going to be directing and editing the film?
Because we’re writing to shoot and to edit, the scripts are quite splintered. They’re written “cut”, if you know what I mean. There’s a lot of short scenes, and the lines from one scene juxtapose against the lines in another scene. But because there’s a conduit between writer, director and editor, we can have that shorthand.
I want the script to be a representation of the feeling of what the film is going to be like, rather than a set of choices which then have to be made.
Were you given script notes at any point?
There weren’t really notes from anybody. We’ve been lucky like that. We tend to write spec scripts, so we don’t really do development. We say, “This is the script we’re going to do, who’s coming with us?” Not, “I really want to do a film about this, who wants to help me write it?”
That feels like the way it should be, really.
Well, wanting to get paid up front for services is the problem. I think you’ve really got to go, “Fuck it, I’m going to write stuff, tons of it.” And not just one script that you’re holding onto like it’s the only thing that’s going to save you. You’ve got to have 10 or 12. And then keep writing all the time.
Last year we wrote six. They’re not finished, they’re all in different states of polish. But to keep on top of it you have to be pouring it out as much as possible.
Featured image: Armie Hammer as Ord, Brie Larson as Justine, Cillian Murphy as Chris, Sam Riley as Stevo and Michael Smiley as Frank in Free Fire. Photo by Kerry Brown, courtesy of A24