Toronto: How Ben Wheatley Scored Martin Scorsese and Brie Larson for 'Free Fire' (Q&A)
The cult British director, who opened TIFF's Midnight Madness sidebar with his ultra-violent 1970s crime thriller, explains why his films don't make it to Cannes.
A year after he tackled J.G. Ballard’s toweringly complex High-Rise – in which he had Tom Hiddleston barbecuing, and eating, a dog on his balcony – Ben Wheatley returns to the Toronto Film Festival with a film threatening to elevate the U.K.’s most exciting cult director into the established mainstream.
Free Fire, which opened the festival’s Midnight Madness sidebar on Thursday, dives into the filmmaker’s love of hard-boiled 1970s crime dramas, throwing arguably his most impressive cast ensemble – including current it girl Brie Larson alongside Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and Sharlto Copley – into a warehouse for an arms deal gone horribly, and violently, wrong. A-list actors aside, even more impressive is the film’s executive producer: Martin Scorsese.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Wheatley discusses getting his agent to pop next door to request an audience with Marty, how he spotted Hammer via The Lone Ranger (which he loved, by the way), and what on Earth keeps happening at Cannes.
You made Free Fire back-to-back with High-Rise. Was it exhausting without a break in-between?
In a world where people dig holes for a living, it’s disingenuous of filmmakers to pretend they get tired. It’s fine. It’s great to be working all the time. I delivered the DCP of High-Rise and then we went into pre-production on this the next day.
Free Fire was billed as your first film in the U.S., but I understand it was mostly shot in a warehouse next to a shopping center in Brighton in the U.K.
Well, it’s set in the U.S. I should have [kept] quiet about that!
Was any shot in the U.S.?
Yeah, there was some. Aerial photography was shot out there, and there was some driving stuff.
How did you manage to score Scorsese as an exec producer?
I’d read an article saying that he’d seen Kill List. My agent in America is two doors down from his agent, so I said, "If you can do anything for me, you don’t have to get me a big film, but if you can get me in a room with Martin Scorsese, I’d love to meet him, as a fan." So they sorted that out and it kind of went from there.
And how involved was he?
He saw the script and was involved as it went through. We also showed him the edit and he talked about that.
Did he give any advice?
Yeah! But it’s very tricky, because if he tells you to do something, you have to do it. There’s no arguing or debating, is there? But it was fine – he really loved it. Of course, I’m going to say that. We were very nervous when we screened it. But as soon as we went in the room it was all smiles and we were like, ‘Thank god.’
You’ve got an amazing cast, including a newly Oscar-minted Brie Larson. How did that come about?
With Brie Larson, it was just luck [for us] that she won an Oscar. I hadn’t even seen Room when we cast her. She was just great, so why wouldn’t you? And Armie Hammer was a revelation as well. Amy Jump [Wheatley’s partner and scriptwriter] had said we should get Armie because we really liked him in Lone Ranger.
Yeah, love Lone Ranger! Big fan. I’ve got no qualms about that film. So we contacted his agent and he was like, ‘Really, you want to talk to Armie?’ A few days later I was on the phone with him. Cillian was similar, I’ve always liked Cillian. He contacted my agent and asked if I wanted to go out for a drink, this was three, four years ago. I had a couple of drinks with him and then went away and wrote the part to fit him.
Many of us were expecting Free Fire to be at Cannes this year. Was it submitted?
And it was the same last year with High-Rise…
Yeah, the films have always been finished, whatever they say in their press releases. And we put them in and they don’t want to take them.
Do you have a message for [Cannes director] Mr. Fremaux?
No, it’s his choice! It’s taste and I can’t say anything about it. You can’t complain, because it’s festivals, they make their choices and that’s it. It’s like moaning about winning in a popularity contest. Just stick your chin out.
High-Rise did well in the U.K., but failed to hit its potential in the U.S. Any idea why?
In retrospect, when it’s successful, many people step forward to take the credit, but when it doesn’t quite gel, ... I think the thing is, it’s the type of release. If you do a big wide release, you’ve got much more of a chance, but that’s a big gamble. Otherwise it’s like a collapsing window release where you put it out on a few screens and see how it goes, but there’s no real plan to expand, and then focus on VOD and DVD. That’s what it felt like.
Unlike High-Rise, which took a while to find a U.S. distributor, Free Fire was snapped up pretty quickly.
Yeah, with A24.
Are they planning to give it a big push?
Yeah, it’ll be big, or so they’re saying. They’re very canny and I really enjoy reading about how they structure the releases they do for different movies. They’re quite dynamic like that, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do. Certainly the way they did The Witch was really clever. They did a thing where they released it on 666 screens. They’re very clever guys, and they’re really behind the film.
And they recently had a big European hit with The Lobster.
Yeah, The Lobster and High-Rise were the same week, and it was interesting – two totally different release styles. Nothing to do with the films necessarily, although you could make a case for that, but the way that they were released were very different. The A24 style was expanding aggressively and High-Rise wasn’t. A lot of the other movies I’ve done have been that sort of medium art house release and then straight to VOD and DVD. I don't know. You get no control over it.
What else have you got lined up?
I don’t know. If this was last year, I’d have Free Fire. But I haven’t been filming. I have been filming, but it’s been adverts and stuff. I don’t know. I think something’s in the air, something is coming together, perhaps after Toronto, maybe not press releases but steps forward to something. Which is unhelpful. Put that in a headline!
Something in the U.K. or perhaps a step away?
Maybe. I don't know. Something away from home, maybe. There’s a lot of stuff that’s in the air and we’ll see what happens. I’ve learned now – six features in – not to talk about what’s coming up because it just leaves a trail of terrible quotes. There’s so many projects attributed to me!