Sharlto Copley and Ben Wheatley on Free Fire
Ben Wheatley's Free Fire assembles big names for smaller scale action, with a film devoted to an extended shootout between all kinds of shady people. Alongside one of his stars, Sharlto Copley, we discuss single-location thrills and spirited scumbags
“WAS IT LOUD?! If the volume’s up it can be a little intense.” South African actor Sharlto Copley is responding to the news that The Skinny has come to interview him pretty much straight from a press screening of his new film Free Fire, a 1970s Boston-set action movie from British director Ben Wheatley, the other interviewee present. “After one screening,” Copley continues, “I was, like, OK, I lived through it once. I could have sat a little further away from the speaker.”
In Free Fire, Copley is but one member of an impressive ensemble (including Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley and Wheatley favourite Michael Smiley) trapped in a deserted warehouse, who are left to fight off everyone else after an arms deal goes wrong. And while many directors would make that just one scene of many, Free Fire’s calling card is that the ensuing shootout takes up the entire rest of the film.
About a year ago, when The Skinny chatted to Wheatley about his prior film, High-Rise, we got a sneak peek of his intentions for Free Fire, which was in post-production. Among the influences Wheatley cited during our full conversation at the time was John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, but the director is now keen to establish key differences between that classic siege thriller and his new film. “It was all those kind of spare 70s movies,” Wheatley clarifies. “I suppose Assault is one. But this is a bit fiddlier than Assault is, because ultimately it’s a bit more austere, and a modernist thing.”
Wheatley explains that it's more the intent that's austere than it is the look of the film. “It’s shot with all the modern tools, so it’s a lot of technocrane stuff and all the slow motion stuff, and odds and sods like that,“ he says. “And it’s shot digitally as well, so there’s no concession to oldie world-y style, particularly. But I just like the way that the Carpenter stuff concentrates people into a space and he’s happy with that. And that makes the drama work.”
Ben Wheatley on the set of Free Fire with Armie Hammer
In that earlier interview, Wheatley also revealed that dissatisfaction with contemporary action filmmaking was a motivator for the project. Specifically his beef was with huge blockbusters, where the human scale of the conflict tends to be overshadowed by an overwhelming focus on computer-generated mass destruction. His fellow interviewee is no stranger to those sorts of CG effects-heavy films, with the likes of Maleficent and The A-Team on his resume, alongside a trio of Neill Blomkamp collaborations (District 9, Elysium, Chappie). On the topic of differences between the two modes of action filmmaking, Copley is effusive.
“It was definitely one of the highlights of my career,” the 43-year-old actor says of working with Wheatley. “The process of making the film was just so, so actor-friendly, and I’d heard this from my agent about Ben being somebody actors just truly rave about.” Their first meeting was via Skype. “I was like, ‘wow, this feels like it would be fun working with someone who’s very sensitive to what actors like or what actors need,’” he recalls. “You couldn’t ask for a better situation: everyone’s in one place, you’re kind of almost doing it as a play; Ben shoots very fast; it’s shot in order; everything’s real, practical.”
This latter point, explains Copley, was particularly congenial to the acting process. If you think the film is loud while watching it, you can imagine the process of making it. “For two thirds of the film you’re just sitting with earplugs in and you’re just having this bombardment of gunfire,” he says. “So it really makes your job easy. It’s a lot harder to go in and do green screen stuff and deliver a good performance. It’s much harder.”
Free Fire's ensemble: Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley
Though Copley's career since 2009's District 9, the actor's feature film debut, has been rife with those aforementioned CG spectacles, there are also smaller, feistier genre movies peppered throughout his filmography. These include Spike Lee’s stylish take on Oldboy and the divisive Hardcore Henry, an action film shot entirely from the first-person POV of its eponymous character. We ask what draws him to these smaller films, like Free Fire. “For me it’s just [that] I like people that are pushing the envelope in some way, I guess. I’m a pretty extreme person, so I just love the fact that people have the balls; that Ben would make a movie like this. A lot of directors would be like, well, I need more narrative things, I need more happening. It’s really a confidence thing.”
Whether in the studio pictures or the indie films, there's a particular characteristic that regularly recurs in Copley's roles: that of playing figures that enter a narrative and disrupt the bearings of everyone around them. Indeed, that’s an element of his arms dealer character, Vernon, in Free Fire, who inspires the film's other characters to openly take the piss out of him, even before they want to kill him. The film’s production notes suggest that Wheatley rewrote the part for Copley once he signed on, so in a move that could perhaps have been thought through with more care, we essentially ask Copley if he feels he often plays annoying characters.
“I mean... wow, thanks,” he says, which provokes cackling from Wheatley on the sidelines. “Thank you! Well, I’m an actor, so you need to be able to be mocked by everyone in order to do the job. So it’s useful! You need a certain degree of thick skin to be able to attempt the job in the first place.”
We acknowledge that the question could have been phrased better. “No no no, I love how you phrased the question, because it’s absolutely true. District 9, the first character that I did, essentially has that element too, where people are like, ‘Is this guy ridiculous? Do I like him? Do I not like him? He’s annoying me, but, oh, he’s got some heart.’
“There’s something Dustin Hoffman said once in an interview which really resonates with me,” Copley continues, “which might not be totally obvious in my work because a lot of my work is quite caricatured – I like to do more caricatured performances if an opportunity presents itself. But Hoffman said, ‘I play what we are and I leave what we want to be to other actors and movie stars.’ And so I think that to be mocked or to be laughed at, or to not be cool is, in some ways, the opposite of movie stardom. But it really does require you to be able to put your flaws or your insecurity out there, and try to find a strength in that, because you try to be as honest as you can.”
Wheatley chips in to defend these misfits too: “And there’s spirit in those characters, isn’t there? In the same way, there’s Sam Riley’s character. He has a similar issue, doesn’t he? He’s absolutely despicable [and] he disrupts the whole film. He causes all the trouble in it, right up until the end. And I think the spirit of those two characters is really exciting because they’re just tearing the film up, smashing the film, breaking the film as it’s happening in front of you. And it should really be a film about Armie Hammer.
"In a normal movie the main character would be him and then everything else would be moving around him. But it’s not. It’s all these smaller roles coming to the front and fucking everything up for everybody else.” And with that, the freewheeling nature of Free Fire is succinctly summarised.
Free Fire is released 31 Mar by StudioCanal, with special Q&A screenings planned throughout Feb and Mar, including screenings at Inverness' Eden Court, 27 Feb; Edinburgh's Cameo, 28 Feb; and Leeds' Hyde Park Picture House, 1 Mar. For full tour details, go to freefirefilm.co.uk/tour
Follow Josh Slater-Williams on Twitter at @jslaterwilliams