Put a bunch of scumbags in the same room and give them each a gun and you have a recipe for disaster. Or you have the recipe for the latest piece of cinematic madness from director Ben Wheatley. That’s the idea behind Free Fire, a 90-minute shootout that breaks out between two groups of characters when a gun deal goes bad. Set in the ‘70s with colorful costumes and wild facial hair, Free Fire also boasts an all-star cast, including Oscar-winner Brie Larson and Armie Hammer as well as many other excellent actors.
“I don’t think that being part of action was my reason for doing this. It’s just whatever the story under the story is,” Brie Larson said of taking the role in a number of action movies following her Oscar win for Room, which also includes Kong: Skull Island and the upcoming Marvel film Captain Marvel.
One part of being an action star that Larson doesn’t care for it’s the guns. “I didn’t like it,” she said of wielding a firearm for her role as Justine. “But that’s part of the job, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations and I don’t think my character is supposed to be particularly good at holding a gun. I don’t think I realized how uncomfortable I was with it until I started shooting the film that it’s a piece of equipment I feel awful holding in my hands. It feels like I shouldn’t be near it.”
It wasn’t just holding the gun but the sound of the guns firing in the tinny warehouse where Free Fire was filmed. “We went through a lot of earplugs. The bottom of my bag in the movie was completely covered in wax. We were constantly putting them in and taking them out. There were earplugs everywhere – all over the floor, in my bag and in my pockets,” she said.
The characters of Free Fire have a unique style to them with their polyester retro clothing and exaggerated facial hair. “I called Ben and I was like, ‘Hey man, I just finished doing Birth of a Nation. I’ve got this beard and I’d love to great big muttonchops and a mustache.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I know. Of course you would because it’s the ‘70s. I also know that because every other actor has called me and said, ‘I’d really love muttonchops and a mustache.’ He’s like, ‘You have a beard, so just keep the beard.’ Everyone just showed up with as much facial hair as possible,” Armie Hammer said of the style employed by the cast.
“We made the movie and somebody sent me this,” Wheatley said enthusiastically. “This is great. It’s a shot of Dan O’Bannon during the making of Alien in exactly the same outfit.” He showed his phone around the table and the Alien scribe looked almost exactly like Hammer’s Ord.
“She doesn’t have money. She doesn’t come from money. So this piece of clothing is the nicest thing she owns that she probably stole for this one deal to make it seem like she’s really amazing. It’s just for show,” Larson said of her character’s costume. “The dudes are really the ones that are the peacocks. She’s actually playing it down. She wants them to feel like they are the most powerful and amazing because it puts them where she wants them.”
On set, Wheatley gave his actors plenty of room to find their characters by alternating between the script he co-wrote with Amy Jump and allowing the actors to improvise. “The way Ben would work is you do one that was on the script and then one that was improvised. It kind of blends into this thing that I don’t really remember what was improvised and what was in the script. I think a lot of it that was on the screen was in the script,” Larson said of the director’s approach. “Luckily, at least for the improv side, the dynamic was really fresh and really there. Certain things, like her distain for Vernon, like the little eye-rolls, those are things that I added to it.”
Ben Wheatley is quick to play down the level of improvisation in the movie. “Improvisation is a tricky one. Because true improvisation, like actors just being left off the hook to talk and make shit up, runs out of steam real quick. It could be really good in the room but when you get to the edit there’s very little you can do with it,” the director said.
None of the characters come out of Free Fire unscathed. As a matter of fact, each character is quickly injured in one way or another. “In a world where you’ve got action movies that can do anything, that can blow up anything. What is happening graphically in these things? What’s the reality in terms of your viewing experience? And does it matter if something massive gets blown up or something tiny gets blown up? It’s all about the kind of the experience of reading through the characters and that intensity. It was an exercise in reducing that all down,” the director said of his use of violence in the film.
“I like the crawling,” Wheatley continued on the hobbled nature of his characters. “I think the crawling for me is the car chases. That was one of the original thoughts I had when putting it together. What is a car chase? It’s a steering wheel shot and shot of a wheel squeeling and a tramp pushing a shopping trolly full of cans that gets hit in the end. There’s only about five shots in a car chase. They’re all the fucking same. What if you then take those shots and turn them into a guy going ‘Oh god, oh god,’ and then another person going [moans as if in pain]. And that’s your car chase.”
Brie Larson sees the violence of Free Fire as being remarkably unglamorized. “Movies are like this funhouse mirror reflecting back on society. Watching movies was how I learned about different parts of the world. It’s how I learned about different periods of time,” Larson said. “It’s not until I’ve gotten older where I was like, ‘It’s not history. Movies are not history.’ They can give us a flavor of it but it’s told through the eyes of an individual, of an idealized world. Ben’s response to that is, ‘How can we make this what it actual is, which is not glorifying this at all, showing how ridiculous the whole thing is.’”
Setting a film in America for the first time, Wheatley still retains a worldly view with characters from Ireland and South Africa giving the violent shootout and international flavor. “I was thinking about this idea of people coming to America. It’s not about American characters and their interaction with each. There’s a European aspect to it with the Irish and African as well,” Wheatley said. “I think that’s my experience to a degree, obviously not in the world of gun-running but coming here and that negotiation of trying to understand the cultural – what’s it called? – separated by the same language and all this kind of stuff of speaking English and trying to re-understand it from the perspective of the American culture.”
History informs aspects of Free Fire, with members of the IRA attempting to secure weapons to wage their war against the British. “One story I was reading about guns being run out of New York being put on the [Queen Elizabeth 2] and then the QE2 would go back to Belfast and they’d unload the guns off the QE2 and that just blew my mind,” Wheatley said of using the luxury liner to smuggle weapons to the IRA.
For Brie Larson, the future holds the upcoming Marvel film Captain Marvel, which mark the first time that a woman has led a Marvel film on her own. Just don’t expect the actress to divulge too much information about her upcoming turn as Carol Danvers. “Anything that’s the physical side, from past experience, you hire specialists to help you understand that and quantify it and pace you out and figure it all out. That’s part of the fun of making a movie. There’s a person who does the focus-pulling and they’re the specialist at understanding depth. They do something I don’t understand and I do something they don’t understand. My main focus is more on the human side of it. The costumes and all the stuff that’s on the surface, there are people you should talk to that are really interesting and they’re the ones in charge of that part. I’m just in charge of what’s going on in her head,” Larson said.
Though she plays it close to the vest, Larson is still doing her homework for Captain Marvel. “It’s always for me about the complexity,” the actress said. “The thing that I love about her is that there are these actual two sides to her – these two things that are at war with each other. I feel like that’s what I love about being a person is that we’re constantly trying to balance between these two sides of ourselves, or many sides of ourselves. It’s such an amazing opportunity to be able to put that metaphor on the outside and make that part of what her conflict is.”
Free Fire is now in theaters.