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37 Things We Learned from Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’ Commentary

“I love that thing when actors turn up with their fullest amount of hair.”
Commentary Free Fire Ben Wheatley
By  · Published on September 6th, 2017

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Free Fire is a fun film. It’s not shy about acknowledging as much and never pretends to be anything more than an action and laugh-filled shootout with familiar faces attached to funny people. The movie hit home video a few weeks back, and we decided to give its commentary a listen as writer/director Ben Wheatley is historically every bit as entertaining as his films.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…

Free Fire (2016)

Commentator: Ben Wheatley (director, co-writer), Cillian Murphy (actor), Jack Reynor (actor)

1. They recorded this track in Dublin the day after its premiere at the Dublin Film Festival.

2. The opening overhead shot is actually Vancouver, “not Boston in the past. This was the glamorous result of shooting a film supposedly in America.” CG was used to date the cars a bit and paint out some lights “because the 70s were a bit grimmer.”

3. The RV camper seen from overhead is a different one from all of the close-ups. That one broke down when they tried to drive it off the shooting lot so they just bought a different one — a shorter one — for the overhead.

4. The car that Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson are sitting in was borrowed from a guy who claimed it was cursed after two past owners died. Murphy is not pleased to just be hearing this news now. “I didn’t want to put you off,” says Wheatley.

5. The first face-off between Frank (Michael Smiley) and Stevo (Sam Riley) originally featured the older man grabbing the younger by the gonads. They did several takes, but Wheatley ultimately cut it aside from a long-shot.

6. Ord’s (Armie Hammer) entrance originally featured him surrounded by a lot of smoke rising from the ground.

7. Wheatley’s original script was darker, grimmer, and less funny, “and then my wife came in, Amy Jump, screenwriter extraordinaire, and re-wrote it. Everyone just assumes that I’m the one with the revolting potty mouth, but it is my wife.”

8. The idea behind the opening walking scenes as the various folks move through halls, stairwells, and rooms was to set the geography for later in the film when Justine (Larson) is trying to escape. “But I balled it all up when I edited it and put them in the wrong order.”

9. The German dub of the film apparently changes the answer to the question, “What is that accent?” from “It’s Austrian” to “It’s mafioso.”

10. Wheatley says Sharlto Copley was really getting into his character’s digs against the Irish, and as he watched from the monitors “I was like, I wouldn’t write that into a script, but I didn’t stop it on the day.”

11. They used sewing machine noises in some of the gun sound design.

12. Wheatley says Twitter is something of a “give and take,” but says one of its strengths is its ability to introduce people. He was able to reach composer Geoff Barrow by simply tweeting at him.

13. Reynor’s charactor, Harry, is essentially a mirror image of Wheatley’s own appearance back when he attended art school.

14. It’s never concretely explained, but the shot of Chris (Murphy) looking down at 18:28 and seeing bullet marks in the concrete is meant to signify practice shots taken by the snipers as they confirmed their range.

15. When the fight breaks out between Stevo and Harry there’s a line said by Justine — “We got the money. Deal’s done. No use.” — that confused Wheatley. They were watching the rushes thinking “What’s she saying? ‘No use.’ What does that even mean? I don’t know. But it felt really random and odd so it made it into the cut.” They had to bring Larson in to ADR this bit, and even she was confused about what she had said.

16. The big scene around the 23:50 sees several characters arguing, and after filming for the day was complete Noah Taylor approached Wheatley to ask if the dailies looked okay. The director said yes and asked why to which the actor replied “because I was really hurt.” You can see that he’s holding on to people through the scene “just to stay up.”

17.  Wheatley didn’t realize it at the time and only discovered it while on the press tour as the actors gave interviews, but apparently the cast found it extremely difficult to hear during many of the scenes between the gun shots and their ear plugs.

18. It was Jump’s idea to write and ADR in multiple background insults and verbal jabs from characters not immediately onscreen.

19. Wheatley suggests that Justine and Martin (Babou Ceesay) are probably lovers until she decides to abandon him. “Also she meets me,” adds Murphy.

20. Wheatley first met Patrick Bergin when he was thirteen years old as he was a friend of the family, and later they lived in the same neighborhood. He recalls leaving a script in the actor’s mailbox when he was still a young man (with no experience yet) with a note saying it was written just for him, and when Bergin said okay they took his letter of intent to Cannes to try and raise investors. They did not succeed.

21. He wanted the gun play to be done as practical as possible — ie guns firing blanks and squibs placed around the set — because he’s no fan of the current model of films using fake guns and cg muzzle flashes/hits. “It just doesn’t look right.”

22. The perfume from The Duke of Burgundy can be seen in Justine’s purse. Producer Andrew Starke apparently likes to carry things over from film to film. Wheatley has his own form of that, but he does it with actors — here it’s Enzo Clienti who appears in both Free Fire and Wheatley’s previous film, High-Rise.

23. No, “the gold hour and a half” rule regarding how long it takes to bleed to death is not true.

24. One of the reasons the film is set in the 70s is for the absence of cell phones. “Mobile phones tend to ruin thrillers,” says Wheatley.

25. The tickle bit was pulled from Wheatley’s own life as he was once in a fight and resorted to tickling his opponent. “It was completely disarming.”

26. Ord’s reply to Chris (Murphy) saying he smells like perfume — “It’s beard oil.” — was an improvised line from Hammer.

27. Wheatley was very resistant to the bit with the gas tank flying through the air because he doesn’t like wire work, “or thought I didn’t.” The stunt coordinator talked him into it though, and now Wheatley loves it.

28. Taylor was hurt again at 1:07:12, and while Wheatley thought his high-pitched scream was an interesting choice it was actually a scream of pain.

29. Copley had to be talked into being set on fire by the stunt coordinator. “In the end we shot it on the last day in case he did get hurt.”

30. The shot to Vern’s (Copley) face was done with a prosthetic head, a “World War II mine,” and minor cg fix-up.

31. Leary’s (Tom Davis) appearance is something of a nod to The Shining as he arrives as if to help only to die fairly quickly. He’s a large man, but they used an intentionally small matchbook to make his hands look even bigger.

32. The bit where Harry drives over Stevo’s head was done practically using Penn & Teller’s truck trick, and Wheatley demonstrated it himself first to show it could be done.

33. The line about going Dutch “got a massive laugh at the Rotterdam Film Festival.”

34. Larson’s character kills more people in the film than anyone else. “I think Chris still thinks he has a chance here,” says Murphy about his character’s final moments.

35. Wheatley asks Murphy what his ratio is regarding characters living to dying in movies, and the actor says it’s not good. “He’s not Sean Bean, but he dies a lot,” adds Reynor.

36. Larson said as part of her character prep that she likes to imagine Justine gets away with the money and goes on to fund a successful stage production of Chicago. Wheatley says if he ever does a contemporary crime film he could see having an older Justine appear “probably played by Cybill Shepherd with a limp.”

37. Wheatley says High-Rise is a “much better film” mainly because its longer running time — two hours compared to this film’s eighty minutes (w/o credits) — allowed him time to grab a real meal during festival screenings.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“This is a great entrance.”

“I love that thing when actors turn up with their fullest amount of hair.”

“This is the ‘oh no’ shot isn’t it. Oh. Oh dear.”

“Apparently Sharlto Copley broke his record for hair preparation in this movie.”

“Noah crawls underneath the van, and he never comes out.”

“I really wanted this light to be coming through the wall, but it makes no sense in terms of the physics of light.”

“That’s my Jackie Chan moment.”

Buy Free Fire on Blu-ray from Amazon.

Final Thoughts

The Blu-ray sleeve doesn’t mention that Wheatley is joined by the two actors, but it should as they add even more personality and wit to the track. The trio keep it filled with laughs, anecdotes, and production details that hold your interest every bit as well as the film itself. It’s a great listen and highly recommended.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.