A story told in real time, entirely confined to a warehouse, with the actors essentially engaged in a prolonged high-stakes gun battle — Free Fire might sound simple.
If the action thriller looks simple, that’s probably a credit to British filmmaker Ben Wheatley (High-Rise). But the reality was otherwise.
Production took place in a warehouse near Wheatley’s hometown of Brighton, England. Every scene except one was filmed in sequence — a large fire was shot on the final day “for insurance purposes,” he said — and by the end, 7,000 rounds were fired.
The single location made such a shooting schedule possible, and it was helpful in ways that might not be immediately evident.
“The costume people would never keep up otherwise,” Wheatley said during the recent South by Southwest Film Festival. “It would be riddled with continuity errors.”
The story’s setting is a nondescript warehouse in 1970s Boston, where representatives of two rival gangs are meeting to complete a weapons deal. There’s tension from the beginning, with the broker (Brie Larson) struggling to maintain control amid a testosterone festival that includes a slick negotiator (Armie Hammer), the wisecracking South African seller (Sharlto Copley), a level-headed buyer (Cillian Murphy), and various henchmen who can’t keep their mouths shut.
Before long, everybody is settling disputes by firing at one another and the encounter devolves into anarchic chaos, although nobody wants to get the cops involved.
As for those costumes, Wheatley said they were chosen not only to inform the specific characters, but with enough visual distinction so the characters could be told apart from a distance amid the muddy mayhem.
Of course, because the film took place in real time, there would be no costume changes. Plus, the vintage 1970s suits and jackets couldn’t be washed between shooting days, in order to preserve the accumulation of dirt, blood, and whatever else had already been captured on camera.
“Everybody had to force their way into their pants,” Hammer said. “We were just rolling around in the dirt all day.”
Hammer said that while the film might look chaotic on screen, it was carefully constructed behind the scenes, with great attention paid to character movements. He said the ensemble cast enjoyed such a challenge.
“It was a really ambitious idea to shoot it all in one space,” Hammer said. “You’d think that would be easier, but the devil’s in the details. You lose the geography of it really quickly if you’re not careful. It was so meticulously planned out, from where people would hide to where they would run. Everything had to be mapped out in a really intricate way.”
The actors were given freedom with their actions and words to an extent, although Wheatley joked about keeping them in check.
“The first third of the film was more improvisational. But by the time we got to the pyrotechnics, that had to be decided before the shoot,” Wheatley said. “I managed to stop the actors from roving around by having them all shot.”