Martin Scorsese and Ben Wheatley on 'Free Fire,' Gunfights and Crime Flicks

Legendary filmmaker and young British director behind violent new thriller talk bullet ballets, classic showdowns and John Denver

'Free Fire' producer Martin Scorsese and director Ben Wheatley talk movie violence and why John Denver is perfect for a gunfight in revealing Q&A. Credit: Kerry Brown

Stop us if you've heard this one before: A group of criminals meet up for a gun deal. It goes bad – very bad. And the rest of the story, you ask? "Doesn't matter!" Martin Scorsese exclaims, laughing. "You don't need it. We're beyond that now." The burly, bearded man sitting next to him – British director Ben Wheatley – wholeheartedly agrees. "There's only, like, 12 characters in this movie anyway," he adds. "There are no twists, because it's either going to be that one or that one or that one. So what's the point?"

It's a cheeky way to describe Free Fire, Wheatley's gritty new crime movie that's virtually nothing but set-up and release: After that aforementioned exchange between belligerent 1970s Boston toughs, hair-trigger IRA representatives and Brie Larson's go-between goes sour in a desolate warehouse, the movie spends the remaining 70 minutes of screen time as one massively prolonged shoot-out. Then again, the 45-year-old filmmaker has been playing with plot conventions for the past decade, from his refreshingly earthy take on mob-family movies Down Terrace (2009) to his slick sci-fi riff on J. G. Ballard's dystopian novel High-Rise (2015).

He'd also attracted a fan in the legendary New York auteur, who signed on as executive producer to Free Fire and is graciously hosting a joint interview in his 1920 Upper East Side townhouse. And as the 74-year-old Scorsese keeps jumping up from his seat to punctuate his points, laughing generously, the two spend 45 minutes talking about their favorite aspects of this feature-length ballistics ballet, how a John Denver song helped shape a gruesome scene and the always cinematically potent raw power of idiots with guns.

You two got together because Ben had read that you liked Kill List. Is that correct?
Martin Scorsese: Well, I really was taken by it. I think in the interview I was talking about new filmmakers that I was fascinated by – and one was Ben, The other was Joanna Hogg, a film called Archipelago, which I liked a lot. They're opposite things, but what can I say?

The thing about Free Fire, when [Ben] sent me the script, I said, "Yeah, I'd like to be involved," because this has a step-by-step presentation of pretty much some of the most absurd, ill-conceived, little mini-plans – all followed through! If the money is there and they're shooting at us – somebody get that money. Now the only thing is, we might get shot. If I cover you, I mean, chances are you're not going to get killed. You'll get shot! [Laughs] So, in a way, it's a microcosm of the absurdity of human nature.

But the film is also an antidote to all these Hollywood films where everybody has perfect aim and takes down people, no problem. This is messy!
MS:
This is a mess. But you see, the more of a mess, the more they decide to continue! The thing about Free Fire, from the opening shot, you have these two guys in this truck...

Ben Wheatley: Harry and Stevo?

MS: ... right, and you know it's a disaster. They're nuts. They're not up to it, whatever it is. Get rid of Stevo! He shouldn't have been there in the first place. But Harry keeps going with him. It's like in Mean Streets with Charlie and Johnny Boy. It keeps going,

BW: Also, I was thinking about it in terms of, they're characters that should not be in the film. They're extras that pull the film down.

MS: Because you've got these idiots!

BW: They break the film. I've been thinking about that scene in Austin Powers, where the minion gets killed and they have to go and tell his family that he's not coming home.

MS: I didn't see it. I reference Renoir, and this kid here … [Laughs] It's all right. It's OK.


BW: But it's the death of the minions. It's all the guys that John Wick kills. Where are their families?

It's the revenge of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
BW: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

MS: It's like in Ben's movie Down Terrace. I grew up with a lot of people who had no choice but to be involved in nefarious goings-on, and may not have had the intelligence to pull it through. Or maybe just did not have!

You're touching on subjects of ethnicity and class and race in Free Fire: an IRA soldier, a South African arms dealer, a failed Black Panther. Is that essential for a crime story?

BW: For me, it was more that I was making my first American film. It's almost like immigration, you know, And these characters are like fish out of water, they don't know anything. I think that's how I felt.

For what is essentially a pure action film, movie has some choice dialogue.

BW: I co-wrote it with Amy Jump, who I'm married to. But on this one, I wrote the first two or three drafts, and then she picked it up after that and finished it. There's no line of dialogue that I wrote.

Even "Sympathy comes between shit and syphilis"?

BW: Oh, that's improvisation by [actor] Michael Smiley. Apparently that's something his mother used to say.

MS: Oh, that's awful! [smiles] Well, yeah, I got a lot from my mother, too. Not exactly that! But we put stuff from her into Taxi Driver. That scene with Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro where he says, "If you're a cop, it's entrapment already." My mother used to do that [hand-gestures, peeking through his fingers like they're prison bars]. "It's entrapment already, man!" I said, "Great, ma! Stick around!" [Laughs]

"Don't forget, in America that gun battle [from Michael Mann's Heat] was real. That was an extraordinary thing when it happened, where they had military gear! They might as well have brought in tanks."
–Martin Scorsese

What made you want to do an hour-long shoot-out? You had heard about a Miami gunfight that went sideways, right?
BW:
Yeah. I had been doing research for something else, and I found this FBI transcript that showed the blow-by-blow of what happened. And the FBI has to account for every bullet that's fired.

MS: That's fascinating. That's what it is: like a forensic report, only including the stupidity!

BW: That was the jumping-off point. So I went, "That's fucking weird," and I thought, I have never seen a film like that. So that sat unmade for, like, 10 to 15 years, and then I started to do research on a thing about the Troubles in Ireland. I had read this brilliant story about the IRA going to New York to buy guns and then putting them on the QE2, and then the ship going back and unloading them in Belfast. I was like, "Oh, my God!"

MS: But what would be interesting is for people to realize the very nature of ballistics, of utilizing firearms. Because it's not as simple as you see in ‘the movies.' It's not funny. You can put in the dark humor and watch us play out our inept human nature in Free Fire. But it has consequences. Every bullet fired has consequences. Even the glass shards on the ground. Or the syringe that pokes one character in the foot! Everybody we showed it to, my friends – kids, too – they would say, "No, not that!" I would say, "Yes." [Laughs]

BW: People would stay sad about that syringe. They'd go, "Aw. Even if he gets out of this, he might have hepatitis."

MS: But let us not forget the beautiful use of John Denver! "Annie's Song." [It scores a particularly nasty death scene.]

BW: It's a favorite of mine, you know. I like it. A lot.

Had you been wanting to use it in a film?
BW: The first image I had for this movie was a truck driving in a circle with a guy inside it who is kind of bleeding to death – something terrible has happened to him. And what would be the worst track to come on the radio at that point?

What are your favorite movie gun fights?
BW: Obviously The Wild Bunch. But I think, for me, from the [Sam] Peckinpah movies, the one at the end of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is kind of even more abstracted.

"Lots of crime films are about work. Free Fire could have been about a company of plumbers doing pipe-fixing and stuff. But the plumbing film is not so exciting."-Director Ben Wheatley

MS: That movie's hard to watch, though. It's so ugly.

BW: It's grisly, isn't it?

MS: It's an ugly film. But it's really good. And The Wild Bunch, of course, is the one. I just stopped watching it over the years, though. It's so mean-spirited. I met [screenwriter] Waylon Green once, and he told me that when they started working on The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah said, "Let's make these guys real mean sons of bitches the way they were." And they were! But over the years, I find that sometimes ... the beauty of the film is extraordinary. But yeah.

BW: For this one, it was Attack (1956) as well. The Robert Aldrich war film.

MS: It's amazing. Amazing.

BW: And that's a film, they move to a barn and they hide there for a bit, then they move back ... and that's the whole film. It's all over Saving Private Ryan, isn't it?

Taxi Driver has that indelible shoot-out at the end that's messy and painful.
MS:
In Taxi Driver, it was just written that way, the way Paul Schrader wrote it. He shoots the Keitel character out in the street, goes in the hall, shoots off the other man's fingers and then he continues. He could stop at any moment, but you watch him continue. And then he goes up into the room and starts killing people. De Niro added that business with his finger [at his head]. We just didn't know any other way to do it. It was just laid out that way – including, in the script, the overhead shot. It was the playing out of this fantasy, where it crosses the line. It was meant to be beat by beat. Unrelenting, in a way. But I don't think I've ever done anything else like that.

The Departed has a lot of gunplay. But not to this extent of Free Fire, certainly.
MS: No, not at all. I guess the most of it is at the end, when the police come into that warehouse or whatever. At that point, I didn't even know how to shoot it, I said, you know, the main thing was the Matt Damon character shooting Jack Nicholson.

BW: I love the Ray Winstone character going, "I'm not in this film anymore." Boom! [Mimes shooting his head, laughs]

MS: He said, "I'm gonna do it." And I said, "OK!" We had another idea, we had shot something else. He goes, "Oh, I don't like that." "I know, I know, but let's shoot it. You never know." I was fooling around with some ideas, and he goes, "Look, I'm just going to have to …" "All right. Let's just do it." [Laughs] And we just stumbled around in it. But I found that there was a paucity of ideas in terms of what a shoot-out would be like in a place like that. I wasn't interested in the actual shoot-out. I was interested in how the characters ended up, so to speak.

So you've never felt a need creatively to stage a big shoot-out?
MS:
Wouldn't know how to do it. What I mean is that, it has to be clear. And I'm not sure. That would be interesting to try. I don't know if I can now. But I mean, one has to see the cause and the reaction. The only other way for me would be to do it in the same frame.

BW: Like Joe Pesci getting killed in GoodFellas.

MS: Joe Pesci in GoodFellas, all in the same frame. There are a number of scenes where, like when Stacks gets killed, Samuel L. Jackson, it's right in the same frame. And in The Departed. Billy? It's in the same frame.

I don't know, you have it in Free Fire, but mostly ... with editing, you can play with cause and effect, so to speak. You could suggest more than you can show. I would go another way.

BW: Don't they do it a bit in Heat? There's some really odd stuff in that.

MS: Oh, Heat has got ... yeah, definitely.

BW: It super-pushes in on the firing, it becomes kind of expressionistic.

MS: Yeah. I mean, don't forget, in America that gun battle was real. That was an extraordinary thing that time when it happened, where they had military gear! They might as well have brought in tanks. It was extraordinary, and Heat is remarkable that way. But it's a different thing. Don't forget, for me, the biggest influence was William Wellman's Public Enemy. And it's always pointed out that the act of violence is off-screen. It's tricky. I didn't realize that for a few years, because I saw it when I was 12, and there's a big gun battle at the end, But you never see it – Jimmy Cagney goes into this saloon, it's raining outside, and you just see guns flashes. You hear screams, he comes back out and he's shot, goes into a giant close-up, and he goes, "I ain't so tough." [Laughs] It's like, you never needed to see!

Why is movie gunplay so enduring?
MS: It's drama, but it's also like a direct line of emotion and anger. If you didn't have that, you'd have to think twice. You know? And once that starts, it's not easy to end.

BW: Maybe because it's a compression of drama. Lots of crime films are effectively about work. Now, Free Fire could have been about a company of plumbers doing pipe-fixing and stuff. But the plumbing film is not so exciting. [Laughs]

It's just a bad day at work, is what you're saying.
MS:
It's work. He's right. You're gonna have to do this. But bad decisions!

BW: That's what it is. The tension of your job, you've got people you don't like. You talk in these terms all the time, you know. "So-and-so is plotting against me, I'm going to get rid of him." But instead of, like, people getting fired, they're getting shot. [Laughs]

MS: The first great gun battle in underworld history in America was at the turn of the 20th century, the West Side docks. There were two gangs, one of them was led by a guy named Paul Kelly, who was Italian, who changed his name to an Irish name. It went on for hours. It was the first time. It was like Gangs of New York, only with guns.

So is this a political film, considering the state of America and guns?
BW: I think all genre films are political films. They should be. It should be about the society that you're in at the moment. Not just a building on top of other movies. That's not ... I'm not interested in that. I look back at the world of Dawn of the Dead, which is a great genre movie but it's also a great political movie. But will I sit here and tell you what the "meaning" of Free Fire is? No. [Laughs] I don't want to get pinned down to that.

[to Scorsese] I think we should definitely do another one in Boston ... but around the time of muskets. [Laughs] Just remake it! But it'd be a long one – a three-and-a-half hour movie. And I'm hoping to make another one in 2060, but with laser guns.