"He's got fucking big balls, Ben."
It's the kind of statement many would chalk up as pure bluster, a standard sentiment any actor — in this case, Sam Riley — would say about a director while promoting a new movie at a film festival.
But Free Fire — a violent, visceral, heart-pounding shoot 'em up set in a single location about a weapons deal gone wrong — isn't your average action movie. Just minutes before, Free Fire director Ben Wheatley described how he had his head driven over by a van on set, just to prove a point.
It was a number of days into filming the British director's sixth feature and Riley — well, actually, mostly his wife — was worried about an upcoming stunt.
"She'd seen this rig out back that was going to run him over and she was like, 'No,'" Wheatley recalls.
"She said, 'Ask Ben to do it first,'" Riley adds. "Originally he said 'I'm not going to do that,' but then just as I was lying down, you came over and said, 'Get out of the way!'"
Wheatley proceeds to discuss the stunt in detail, outlining exactly how being run over by a massive truck wasn't actually that scary — training on exactly how to safely roll his head with the movement of the wheels; the fake front tires; the fact that the van was counterweighted — but the point has been made. Wheatley may have had some crazy ambitions on his wish list for Free Fire, but remained willing to put his head under the proverbial front wheels first.
That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's seen his movies, each one drastically different from the last.
Calm, cool and collected in person, Wheatley's previous films tell a different story. A TV director since the mid-2000s, he gained international attention with 2011's Kill List; the one-of-a-kind genre film told the story of two hitmen for hire and combined British kitchen-sink realism with surreal moments strikingly similar to The Wicker Man. His next film, 2012's Sightseers, was a black comedy about a couple who go on vacation in the English countryside and develop an insatiable bloodlust along the way. His last film, socially conscious sci-fi flick High-Rise, based on the J. G. Ballard novel, recreated the 40-floor fictional skyscraper using an abandoned sports centre in Bangor, Northern Ireland. ("There's a lot of old school camera tricks in the film," he told Exclaim! in 2015.)
His movies harken back to an old school style of filmmaking, a time when ingenuity and storytelling trumped special effects and star power. Free Fire borrows a bit from both worlds; the film stars Academy Award-winner Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer, as well as a cast of rising and established actors, but it's also set solely in an abandoned warehouse. Most of the action and gunplay was meticulously mapped out, first using toy soldiers and a model car kit and later, in person, using cardboard boxes and Nerf guns.
According to its cast, Free Fire almost defies categorization and is unique, even when it's borrowing elements from other kinds of films. Add a totally DIY mentality to the mix, and that confluence of factors led to Martin Scorsese coming on board as an executive producer.
"I think, in a way, this film has a certain appeal because there has been just such a plethora of a certain blockbuster, CGI movie," says actor Noah Taylor. "It's really brave, the idea of making a film entirely set in America, all American characters, and just doing it in England — no English filmmaker would think to do that."
Wheatley is quick to share credit when discussing the reasons for Free Fire's early success — especially at festivals like TIFF, where it premiered and started trending on Twitter the day after its debut (despite big-budget reboot The Magnificent Seven opening at a bigger theatre just down the road).
"I'm a firm believer that a lot of direction is casting," he says.
"A lot of American movies, it's all about individuals," says actor Michael Smiley. "It's like the 'galácticos' system of Real Madrid: If you buy enough superstars, surely you think it's going to be brilliant. Whereas if you get good quality players who work as a team, that team is going to win."
Almost every actor interviewed admitted to hanging out on days off, or after takes, on set — a real rarity compared to other shoots. But it was also because Wheatley and his crew were shooting anywhere between five to 12 pages a day; other movies might do two.
"You get called in the morning and you don't know whether you're going to be first out, last out, if you're going to be used at all," Larson says. "But then they would pull you and suddenly you were pulled into this warehouse and they're like, 'Here's your gun, you're crawling on the floor, crawling for your life. Go!'"
With most of the characters being immobilized by a round of bullets within the first few minutes of the film, a lot of scenes were shot on the ground. (One actor, Babou Ceesay, spent two to three weeks lying in the exact same position on the floor.)
"Other jobs, you go and you sit in your room waiting to be called," Smiley says.
"And you can't fucking wait to get off set," Enzo Cilenti adds, detailing the broken glass, gravel and explosives their characters, and the actors themselves, had to endure while shooting the film. "This one, it feels like you own part of it."
With that, all the assembled actors start sharing war stories from the set — a bruise here, a broken rib there — and each is better than the last. As they sip from bottles of Grolsch, their conversations grow louder. Soon, it's impossible to get a word in edge-wise.
"It doesn't matter that you're crawling around in the shit or being shot in the face," Riley says, before being interrupted by the group again. "I don't know an actor who wouldn't want to work with Ben Wheatley, because he's got something special, hasn't he?"