How Counter-Strike, Rust and Minecraft Inspired Free Fire Director Ben Wheatley - Rolling Stone
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How Counter-Strike, Rust and Minecraft Inspired Free Fire Director Ben Wheatley

The cult director used ‘Minecraft’ to build sets, hates playing with a controller, and watches games more than he plays them

Watch the trailer for 'Free Fire,' starring Brie Larson.

Ben Wheatley with 'Free Fire' actors Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley

Free Fire, out in theatres now, is the latest movie from director Ben Wheatley, who you’ll know from cult hits like Down Terrace, Kill List, and the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise. Wheatley is a huge fan of Counter-Strike, and the legendary tactical shooter’s fingerprints are all over Free Fire – at the film’s core is high-tension gun battle that could very well double as a Counter-Strike map. Minecraft with his son led to him using the sandbox game to design the set for the movie.

We spoke to Wheatley on the phone in Boston as he was promoting the new movie and got his thoughts on growing up with an Atari, getting murdered in survival game Rust and how playing Minecraft with his son helped him design the sets for Free Fire.

So they say you’re a gamer.
I’m really terrible at games, though. I’ve been playing them since I was five and I’ve never got any better. So it’s my curse and my burden to be forever slaughtered in Counter-Strike by 12 year-olds. That’s my sadness.

What are the first games you remember playing?
I think the first one I had was a game that came with the ZX Spectrum – a version of Breakout. There would have been lots of arcade game machines, too. Whenever I saw an arcade game, I wanted to play it. Berzerk and Pac-Man and Galaxian and Space Invaders – I started at the beginning. I remember us having a console which had Pong and Ducks and hockey, so I’ve been playing since then, really.

Did you grow up in a house where you always had the latest console?
I never had an Atari. That was unbelievable, the Atari console when it came out. I had a Spectrum, so we would go to other people’s houses for [Atari] or the Commodore 64 and BBC Micro Model B – the richest of all rich children would have that. But I think we did pretty well, me and my sister, having the Spectrum, because it was a pretty good machine and it was reasonably expensive at the time. We were lucky.

I played that until I was a teenager, and then I wasn’t really around for the console stuff after that. So I didn’t really play again properly until the Mega Drive, and then I got that given to me because someone owed me money. So I played through Sonic and all that, but I never had the first PlayStation. I missed out on all that.

You’ve spoken about Counter-Strike; is it safe to assume you primarily play on PC? Do you have any consoles at home?
I lamely play on the Mac, much to the delight of other Counter-Strike players, who think I’m an idiot. All my gear is all Mac-based because of doing editing and stuff, but my son’s got a PlayStation 4. I just can’t get on the controllers, I hate them so much. I’m WASD and mouse only. So the games on his PlayStation are so amazing looking but so frustrating to play for me. I just can’t do it at all.

So I’m playing Insurgency and Day Of Infamy and Rust. That’s the game I play the most, I think.

What is it about Rust?
I like it because it’s a story machine. You go on it and it’s like reading a good book or something, there’s so many little adventures you can have – as long as people are talking to you and not just killing on the spot, but even that is pretty exciting stuff. It’s high tension and dynamic in a way that the story-based games aren’t. I don’t like games where I feel like I’m trapped inside a very narrow corridor and just being pushed along it.

Just to contradict that, one of my favorite gaming experiences was the original Half-Life. I played that all the way through. But that never felt as constricted as [other] games. There was something about it that felt much bigger. It was the same with Half-Life 2.

But yeah, there’s something incredible about Rust, where you’re just in an environment and then people are making up the rules around you. There are alliances, you can meet kindly people who will help you, but then [also] horrible people that will murder you. It seems like a civilization simulator in the way that most games aren’t because the morality of it is so complicated and horrible and brutal. I think that’s why I like it.

It’s stressful to play for those very reasons.
Extremely stressful. I play it with my son sometimes, and there was a moment that was just like The Road, where the two of us were escaping, running over this hill, and these people were chasing us and I was was being killed and I was shouting “No, keep going!” as he was running away. And then he got killed with a spear and I was like, “No!” It was almost like a real memory. It was horrible.

I guess you’re passing on valuable life lessons about the world, there.
[Laughs] Don’t trust strangers with spears. I think the lesson we learned was don’t fire rockets down onto strangers who are taking stuff from a parachuted box, and then think you’re going to get away with it. I think that was the lesson we both learned. And that they would relentlessly chase us until we were both dead.

So I saw your tweet about using Minecraft to visualize sets for Free Fire. Was that something you’ve done before?
No. The [director of photography] and I had played a lot of Minecraft when we were doing High Rise because we were away from home and it was a way of playing with our kids. Which is slightly depressing. We’d build stuff together and chat with them and all that kind of stuff. I really love Minecraft because of that.

I just learned how to use it and it was a much easier tool for me to visualize stuff with than, say, a CAD design thing or a proper visualization thing. It was like building stuff out of Lego, so I could do it quite quick. Those images that are online have got the texture pack from Blade Runner on, which is why it looks cooler than the usual Minecraft style.

But I’m a massive fan of Minecraft. I really enjoy it, it’s so clever, and you really feel like you’re exploring even when you’re on a map on your own. I don’t know how they’ve managed it but there’s a pace to it – and the way the music works – that you feel quite peaceful when you play it. Most games don’t capture that feeling.

The multitude of things that people do with it is consistently astounding.
It’s the sandbox stuff, isn’t it? Rust is just a crosser version of that. It’s like a mixture of Minecraft and Day-Z.

There’s that podcast with the guy that just walks in a straight line and all he’s trying to do is walk to the edge of the map, and he just does these podcasts about it and you’re like, that’s nuts, but it also kind of makes sense. He’s having all these adventures on his way across this random virtual world.

But I find Minecraft pretty stressful, too. The whole creepers thing underground is really harsh, and hearing them all moaning and roaming around is really scary. What I love about it also is that your project your experience on top of it so that it’s not just… when I first saw it, I thought it was crap, it was just these blocks – why do people like it? But you project the landscape onto it, and it suddenly feels really real in a way that the “uncanny valley”-type, photoreal games don’t.

It has just enough to feel like there’s a point to it. Some sandbox games can almost feel too empty.
We were really excited about No Man’s Sky – we bought that early on and it was a real gutter. You got half an hour into it and just went, “There’s nothing here.” It’s totally empty and pointless, even though it looks amazing. That was a real shame because I would have thought the idea is just Minecraft in space. It’s not that hard of a concept to grasp. But they didn’t grasp it much.

Everyone seemed to have this idea of what the game was and then it came out and was something totally different.
I was totally guilty of that. I projected onto it that I could live in the covers of 1970’s science fiction books, and that’s what I was hoping for. I think what I probably wanted was Elite and I should’ve just bought that, but then Elite I find really, really hard. I just die all the time, I’ve got no purchase on it, and I couldn’t play it when I was a kid. I was rubbish it when I was nine, so I don’t know why I thought it would get any better. Flying spaceships is not for me. I like the idea of it, but the reality is I’m too cack-handed.

I liked a thing I saw where a guy had walked around one of the No Man’s Sky planetoids and did a report about that. Watching that on YouTube was more interesting than playing the game. I find I’m watching more stuff now. I watch a lot more Rust stuff than I play, which is weird – I never thought I’d fall into that trap, but I find it quite comforting. I watch Counter-Strike as well, people who are really good at it. There are loads of comedy sketch things, too, playing and berating it and I find it really funny in a way that’s much funnier than TV is now. I’m not sure what that means ye. It’s very niche.

Does playing and watching shooters help when it comes to planning action shoot-out scenes for movies like Free Fire?
I think it’s a tonal thing, but also, each of the mediums in very enclosed. Games rob from movies all the time, the top-level experience, but then the interaction is what makes them unique. Films try and make games into movies but they miss the whole points of what a game is, really.

When you’re making a film, I think you pull from all different experiences. A big part of [what takes up] my time are games and comics and films. I kind of mix them all together. So, something like Free Fire has come from that experience of being involved in first-person shooters and playing them a lot, but also from reading, and transcripts of actual gunfights and cinema. It’s a big mix.

If you’ve ever played the Assault map in Counter-Strike, you can’t watch Free Fire ˆand not see that it’s similar.

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