Ben Wheatley delights at ‘Free Fire’ screening hosted by IFFBoston and Brattle

“I knew this day was coming, when I’d have to stand in Boston and explain the accents and the mischief that we did to them.”

Brie Larson costars as Justine in Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’

“Musicals… I fucking hate them,” scoffed director Ben Wheatley, Britain’s genre-hopping potty-mouth who over six features has zig-zagged around subject matter from crime dramas to horror to the downright unquantifiable. Whether it’s the seventeenth-century psychedelia of A Field in England or High-Rise’s sci-fi dystopia, Wheatley’s down for almost anything. Just don’t expect to see his characters bursting into song. “Sorry. It’s not the musicals’ fault. It’s my fault, it’s all my problem. When people sing instead of fucking talk it makes me crazy.”

Wheatley was at the Brattle Theatre this past week for a special Independent Film Festival Boston screening of his latest, Free Fire — something of a reunion, as IFFBoston screened his debut feature Down Terrace all way back in 2009. Though shot in the U.K., the filmmaker’s latest boasts a familiar CGI skyline and more dropped “R”s than you’ll hear at a Dorchester Dunkin’ Donuts during the 8AM rush. Wheatley, however, played coy about the setting.

Wheatley at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Photo: Sean Burns

“It never says that it’s set in Boston. We never mention Boston by name in the whole thing,” he smirked defensively when grilled by the festival’s Executive Director Brian Tamm at a post-screening Q&A. “I knew this day was coming, when I’d have to stand in Boston and explain the accents and the mischief that we did to them. We were very specific about being non-specific about it.”

However non-specific its (Boston) locale, the 1978-set Free Fire stars Brie Larson and Armie Hammer as a couple of well-dressed fixers attempting to broker an arms deal between a sleazy gun runner (Sharlto Copley) and an IRA smoothie (Cillian Murphy) when all hell breaks loose thanks to an old beef between two henchmen. Wheatley admitted an unlikely inspiration. “The thing that always comes to mind for me is the Austin Powers film where the minion gets killed, and then they go and tell his wife and children. I love that. That’s what I wanted to do with this. These are all the minion characters, but they’re given lives.

Armie Hammer (l) and Wheatley on the set of ‘Free Fire’

“This film really should have been about Armie Hammer and Brie Larson in the seventies in Boston having a great time and being on a great big adventure and shit. But the minor characters — the fucking extras — ruin the whole film for them and fuck them and keep them stuck in the first scene and never let them escape. It’s the guys who drive the trucks! I mean, who are these fucking guys? The guys who carry the boxes, because they had a drink in some bar, now have to ruin the whole experience for what should be the clean-cut kinda hero and the sexy gal!”

For all intents and purposes a feature-length shootout confined to a single location, Free Fire presented logistical challenges the director wasn’t sure he’d be able to crack. “It was a very detailed script but scripts are sort of slippery documents. You write this stuff and it’s real easy to write and it’s really, really hard to do. The next step would be storyboarding, but again storyboarding can be full of bullshit as well. It lulls you into a false sense of security that it’s actually doable. So then we built models and stuff and started to plan it out, and I eventually used Minecraft.”

That’s right. The video game.

“I built it all in Minecraft because then I could walk around it and time the distances between stuff. When we eventually found a space we then rebuilt the Minecraft set using boxes that were the same dimensions as the cubes in Minecraft. Then we knew it was the right shape.”

L-R: Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Sharlto Copley, Hammer

Eight years after Down Terrace, Wheatley remains sanguine about his return to the crime picture, favoring his own particular brand of ultra-violent midnight movies to more outwardly respectable efforts. “The thing about genre is that it’s the sugar, isn’t it? It kind of helps us watch stuff. It’s a very malleable framework that you can put all sorts of other messages into in a way that a heartfelt, straight-up art film could be quite alienating to a lot of people, whereas a genre film stretches its legs and can get to a much larger audience.”

“With this film, and I think with genre in general, the thing with the violence is that we like it. We enjoy it. But why do we like it? This film dances the line backwards and forwards, going ‘You like this, do ya? Well now you fucking don’t. Now you do. Now you don’t.’ Why do you like it?”

For a lot of young filmmakers these days, independent films are more like studio auditions, with Sundance kids recruited fresh out of the gate for superhero epics and franchise tentpoles. But it doesn’t sound like Ben Wheatley is going Hollywood on us anytime soon.

“Lots of people have just done their first movie and then they’ve gone and done Spider-Man or fucking Jurassic World” he laughs. “This is my sixth fucking film and I haven’t been asked. So the option of me selling out is not really in my hands, thank you.”

FREE FIRE opens at theatres everywhere Friday, April 21st.
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