In Ben Wheatley’s high-tension ’70s-set crime-thriller Free Fire, stars like Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy face off in one of the most prolonged and impressive shootouts in cinema history. So it was only fitting that ahead of the film’s U.S. Premiere at SXSW, some of this charismatic crew got down and dirty during Free Fire‘s press day, taking to a field of battle for a wild showdown: film celebs versus film journalists.
After three days of film premieres and interviews in posh hotels, I journeyed to Austin’s Stunt Ranch for a paintball face-off against Copley and Wheatley. (Hammer was sidelined because of a recent surgery, that he assures us won’t hurt any potential superhero prospects). Upon arrival, I was welcomed to pick up some vintage ’70s gear that’d been screen-printed with the film’s title in bold block letters. I grabbed two t-shirts (one that read “I’m a Pepper,” and an old-school Devo concert tee), doubling up for warmth against the biting Austin breeze. It was my first time on a paintball field, and after I geared up, I gave the game a test-run that ended with me getting shot in the trigger finger, drawing blood. Despite this ominous sign, it was a wild rush, especially as Copley and Wheatley joined the fray.
You can see Copley in action in A24’s official video of the event. And if you look close – no. You can’t see me. I was resolutely firing behind cover after the trigger-finger hit.
After this Texas Standoff out of SXSW, Screen Rant sat down with Wheatley, Copley, and Hammer to discuss their stylish and intense thriller, which boasts an executive producing credit from living legend Martin Scorsese. We kicked things off by asking Wheatley, who directed and co-wrote Free Fire with Amy Jump, how the Goodfellas helmer contributed to this frenzied film’s creation. Wheatley shared that Scorsese was essentially a mentor in the process, helping the English auteur transition from the dramas and horror movies spiked with action (Kill List, Sightseers, High-Rise) to an outright action-film. Wheatley explained:
“(Scorsese) saw edits and he’d seen the script and stuff. And he’d chatted to me a bit about it. But mainly he gave me support. I went to see him in New York, and we just laughed a lot. We spent two hours with him laughing and him quoting the script back to me. Which, I can’t tell you how much of an honor that it. Just to meet him, I’m just such a terrible sycophant and desperate for attention whenever I’m anywhere near this guy. Just like, ‘Man! Tell me some stories!'”
But when it came to inspirations for Free Fire‘s unique action aesthetic, Wheatley sited a slew of other filmmakers, saying:
“I wanted to make something after High-Rise that was kind of visually layered as much as possible. And I wanted it to be procedural, and I wanted it to be about very small decisions that cause terrible outcomes, and slapstick jokes, and setting stuff up with shots. So it’s also point-of-view. And then these consequences are kind of like a Goldberg machine that would get worse and worse and worse as the movie went on. And I’m a big fan of that kind of nuts and bolts action filmmaking. As far as I can see there’s two strands of it. There’s the stuff that comes from (Akira) Kurosawa and Seven Samurai and (John) Ford, and you see the ultimate of that in James Cameron. But the other end is a bit more impressionistic, which comes from Tony Scott and Michael Bay. The things I was looking at was stuff more like the gag-based stuff that you see in Evil Dead in the (Sam) Raimi movies.”
The action onscreen looks positively brutal, with characters suffering shots to their legs that ground them–literally–for the rest of the film. Wheatley explained this was to create two layers to the action, “two sets effectively: the standing up set, and the on the ground set. A lot of effort was put into what that’d look like so there’d be a patina and design to it so it wouldn’t become boring.”
Hammer and Copley are no strangers to performing action scenes, yet both shrugged off the endurance required for the shoot. Turning the conversation instead to the ’70s aesthetic that gave one a magnificent beard, and the other a pristine leisure suit. Because the whole film takes place over the course of a few hours, each character has only one costume. And for Copley, he wanted to be sure his suave arms dealer, Vernon, was picture perfect. “I put a lot of time and effort and energy, designing the look for the character,” the South African actor detailed, “(Vernon) was always the sort of international playboy, wasn’t he? And he fancies himself…It was always his clothes were important. Funnily enough, it was the longest I’d ever spent looking at fabrics and stuff.” Then came hours and hours in hair and make-up transforming Copley’s naturally black hair to summery blonde locks that better suited Vernon’s initial breezy vibe.
Hammer’s look came together with greater ease. “I’d just finished making a movie called Birth of a Nation, and I had a beard in that movie.” he explained of his lumberjack gone metropolitan look that pairs his beard with a tailored blazer and black turtleneck, “I finished and I emailed Ben, and I was like, ‘Hey man, I just finished this movie and I’ve got this big beard. And it’s f***ing awful and it’s gross’–because it was intentionally supposed to be a gross beard in that movie–So I was like, ‘It’s really terrible. I’m thinking of shaving it into a mustache and some sideburns.’ And he’s like, ‘That’s what every single person wants in this movie, because we’re doing the ’70s. So, no, keep your beard.’ So I basically showed up with a beard because I had to.”
See both Copley and Hammer’s ’70s style in the Free Fire trailer:
But not everyone had it so easy with the action. All three laughed over one co-star’s poor luck in picking his blocking. “Poor Noah Taylor spent like a week and a half under a car,” Hammer laughed. Within the warehouse set each actor was posited in an area, and from there the staging was stepped out within a 10-meter perimeter. Early on, Taylor–who plays a cowardly henchman–chose to crawl for cover under a van, and it was a move that got him stuck there for much of the film, and much of the shooting.
“See that’s choices,” Wheatley chuckled as he recalled. “He made a choice. ‘Should I scuttle underneath this van?'” Hammer interjected with a smile, “‘Sure, Noah. If you want to.'” Copley threw his head back cackling at the memory, as Wheatley quipped, “See you in three weeks.” The whole trio then burst into giggles, hinting at the harmony found on set of this conflict-driven drama.
For Hammer, it was hard to say goodbye to this crew. Asked what the most difficult day on set was, he didn’t site a particular stunt or dramatic moment, but rather said:
“The last day. I mean just finishing, being done (was hard). It was such a fun experience. I mean obviously it was an arduous experience, but also one of the more rewarding experiences and one of the most fun filming experiences I’ve ever had. I mean, the cast, the crew, everybody. I still talk to someone from that movie almost every single day in some capacity. It was really a special experience of going to Brighton in the middle of the summer, when it was a glorious summer. Shooting a movie in the middle of a warehouse full of detritus and tetanus. And then finishing up every night at a pub!”
Sounds like a shootout scenario we could dig, man.
Following its U.S. Premiere at SXSW, Free Fire will hit theaters April 21st. In celebration, Mondo has created a special movie poster, which you can check out below:
And be sure to watch the full game of Copley versus movie bloggers.