Typically, when you take part in a press day to promote a movie, it’s held somewhere like a hotel or convention center. Prior to the event, you get assigned a 10 or 15-minute window for an interview, then on the day of you show up early, check in, wait for your time slot, conduct your interview, transcribe the audio, and call it a day.
Every so often, a press day can become an event unto itself, such was the case for Free Fire, a shoot-em-up action/comedy set during the 1970s, which takes place almost entirely inside the confines of a single warehouse. For Free Fire’s press day, which was held during SXSW and put together by Fons PR, we were bussed out to the Stunt Ranch a 22-acre outdoor event space about 17 miles west of downtown Austin. What awaited us was a full-on ’70s-themed event, complete with wigs, fake mustaches, and several era-appropriate shirts and jackets, each branded with a Free Fire logo above the left shirt pocket.
The best part: This was all going to culminate into a full-scale paintball match. Anyone opting to play paintball had to sign a liability waiver (uncommon for most press days), while we passed the time zip-lining, jumping off a 30-foot tower, and having our photo taken in front of the rusted out van that would belch fireballs into the sky.
Once it was time for the paintball match, 14 journalists were split up into two teams of seven, while actor Sharlto Copley — who plays the melee-mouthed arms dealer Vern in the film — would choose one team to join, then work his way through the paintball course. He picked our side, and after seeing that we’d successfully taken out our opponents 7-0, he triumphantly proclaimed that he’d chosen the right team.
Our winning team of seven players was then split into two teams of four and three, respectively, and after a few minutes of shooting I took two paintballs in my right arm. Then I took a third right in the stomach, just as I was getting up to raise my hand, indicating I’d been hit, which would’ve allowed me the chance to safely walk off the course. In theory, anyway.
After removing all the protective gear, (gloves, helmet, coveralls, and the torso armor that did me no good in stopping the pellet-sized welt that was forming on my stomach) I decided to keep sporting the powder-blue Free Fire jacket, now covered in bursts of blue and white paint. Shortly afterwards, I got the chance to sit down with co-writer/director Ben Wheatley, Shartlo Copley, and co-star Armie Hammer to talk about how they brought their unique spin on an action movie to life.
Were all of you having as much fun making this movie as it seemed?
Armie Hammer: Infinitely more.
Ben Wheatley: It’s always the danger with these things that you all have a good laugh making them, and then everyone goes away going, “Oh, I had a really good time,” and you wait for the cast and crew screening. It’s like trepidation that the film has turned out all right. On this one it was fine, wasn’t it?
Hammer: Well, that sort of echoes the Michael Caine quote of, “As an actor, if the crew enjoys what you’re doing, then you’re doing entirely way too much.”
Wheatley: [As Michael Caine] Or who would they blame, Houston, Burns, me or the bees?
Hammer: That’s a pretty good Michael Caine!
Wheatley: That’s good, isn’t it? That’s The Swarm. I’m a big fan of The Swarm.
How did the cast for this come together?
Wheatley: In lots of different ways. I mean, the script itself was something I’ve been working on good ten years or so, on and off. That sounds grander than it is. Scripts often start off as like, single lines of ideas and then kind of, in a quiet moment “Gee, huh, oh, I wonder if we can make this any more of this, do a bit more work on it”. But how the production happened was after Sightseers, I’d written the Free Fire script, and we started putting about seeing if anyone was interested in it. And [we] got traction pretty quickly, and ended up being the movie made directly after High-Rise.
It was a kind of mixture of all sorts of stuff, [starting] with Cillian Murphy. He kind of contacted my agency like, “Do you want to go out for drinks?” So I had a drink with him. And then he said, “Oh can you imagine anything that I might be in?” And I kind of thought about the Free Fire script and kind of changed it to fit him. And then Michael Smiley came into it. And then looking at different characters and me and Amy are big fans of Lone Ranger, so we talked to our agent and said “Can we talk to Armie Hammer, is that possible,” never thinking we would ever get in contact with him. And then suddenly we were, I was on the phone. Which is always awkward talking to L.A. cause it’s like —
Wheatley: Skyping yeah. So it’s like, was it nine in the morning for you.
Hammer: I’m having coffee, you’re having wine.
Wheatley: Yeah yeah, I was already drunk as a monkey. I was shooting High-Rise and I was like, I went to the pub and had… one drink, “I’ve got to talk to Armie Hammer in a minute.” And then I had 4 drinks. It’s like, “Oh my God! I’ve got to [talk to] Armie Hammer.” So I thought, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t notice I’m completely screwed.” And we did the Skype.
Hammer: By the way, I was drunk too.
Wheatley: Excellent. You just carried on from the night before, yeah.
Hammer: No, I haven’t stopped in 3 years.
An Irish coffee morning, then?
Hammer: For sure.
Wheatley: Without the coffee. So, yeah that was sweet. And then, you know, the Brie Larson of it was quite funny. I met Brie in L.A., and had a coffee with her, just sat around, had a laugh, we liked her, so we cast her. And now It looks like it’s the first film she did after winning the Oscar. It’s just blind luck.
Hammer: It is the first film she did after winning the Oscar.
Wheatley: Well, kind of. Room wasn’t even finished by the time we started shooting Free Fire.
Hammer: That’s right, we were making this movie, we were like, “So what did you just work on?” And she explained the movie Room to us, and maybe this is my sort of short-sightedness, but I was like, “That is the craziest idea for a movie I’ve ever heard. That’s ridiculous.”
Wheatley: A film set in one space.
Hammer: Wait, that’s what we’re doing!
We get thrown into the story pretty abruptly, but you can tell there’s a dynamic between Ord (Armie Hammer) and Vern.
Hammer: We fell in love while making it.
Sharlto Copley: We just basically side-barred and said look, what, there’s like what eight characters. And we just like, “Dude whatever we do, we just have to be the best two characters.” It was mute. Like whatever it takes. You and I just have to dominate the fuck out of it, no.
Wheatley: But everyone thought that didn’t they? I mean you’re going, you’re having a drink, really early on. And Sam Riley going, to all the actors going, “You know I’ve got the best character.” I was like, “Oh no don’t do that.”
Copley: No, but jokes aside, I mean, I think what was really cool, was that you had a bunch of, very experienced actors, sort of really bringing their A-game. And seeing you have to make good characters here. Everybody has to up their game. But it wasn’t the kind of weird, snarky, competitive thing that can sometimes happen with actors. It was really just, I think we all had a genuine respect for what everyone else was doing, and trying to do different stuff. Just sort of compliment the other.
‘Cause that can go wrong, I find, when I’ve worked with less experienced people. It gets a little bit [egocentric], and people are feeling threatened, because you do something, or you’re improving, and then they feel like they have to catch up with you. [Here, it was] “Oh yeah, how can I make my characters interesting as possible?” Because that’s what you come see the film for. The characters.
Hammer: There’s also really like a intricate level of symbioses, while we were making this, because we were all there, all day, everyday. First thing in the morning we got picked up as an entirety, and then we went home, at the end of the day as an entirety — or to the pub. We were there all day, everyday, together, and it sort of lead to feeling like theater to it.
There was a huge feeling of collaboration, through making this. It was really everybody kind of in it together, cause we were all dirty and bloody, and stinky, and rolling around in the dirt all day, and getting shot at all day. It was really intense and I think we made it through with such good spirits because we had each other to go through it with.
How was getting back into character every day, considering how much worse off everyone gets as the film goes on?
Hammer: It’s not easy to slip into the clothes, because your clothes would be bloody and dirty. So you’d take it off of the hanger, and put it down on the ground, and it would stand up.
Wheatley: What do you think in the beginning of each day, with actors are coming in and coming out, okay, okay, and lay on the ground, and they’d all roll, backwards and forwards in the dirt?
Copley: It’s much faster, to just get on the ground and get the dirt on you, then like trying to recruit-
Wheatley: Wardrobe people would come in and try to like, dress you, and you’re like, “Guy’s this is going to take too long.” And you just like, just get on the ground and just make it happen.
I’ve heard they call that ‘sexy dirt’ on The Walking Dead.
Copley: I had sort of the feathery stuff at one point, I don’t know where that came from, it was like what was that? It looked like it was some sort of fluffy stuff. It was very funny on the pants.
Hammer: By the way, I probably found — because a lot of the rubble was bought from construction companies right?
Wheatley: No, it was crafted by craftspeople.
Hammer: Yeah, right. So they basically bought demolition refuse from construction companies, [and were] like, “Let’s just dump this right on the ground.” So you’d occasionally be doing —
Wheatley: 45 tons worth.
Hammer: 45 tons worth of demolition refuse? [So,] you’d be doing the scene, and all of a sudden you’d pull up out of the ground like a roofing nail. So then it was ten inches long, and you go, “Ah, is this okay? I was about to jump here.” It was crazy.
The telling keeps getting interrupted in the movie, but was there really a John Denver story?
Hammer: There was definitely a John Denver story.
Wheatley: It was filthy.
Hammer: Oh yeah. It would have shaken John Denver fans to the core.