Director Ben Wheatley rounded up a motley crew for his latest film “Free Fire,” which has its stars crawling and laying wounded on the ground of a dirty warehouse for the majority of the picture.
“We were shooting in Brighton [England] behind a supermarket. It’s kind of surreal,” says British actor Sam Riley in his gravely voice. “We kept daring each other to go into the supermarket during the lunch break, because obviously all of us were covered in blood. There was a huge sign out in front of the supermarket telling people not to worry if they heard a huge amount of gunfire,” he continues. “Police would’ve been there all the time otherwise, because it really was a racket from start to finish.”
Riley was in good company on set. The Seventies-era ensemble film set in Boston stars Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, along with Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor and Michael Smiley. As the name suggests, it’s a shoot-out film, magnified to a comical level — gunfire is sustained for petty reasons and shots rarely hit their target, as the characters exchange ego-driven comedic banter. A briefcase of money sits in the center of the floor after an arms-deal goes awry, becoming both a central concern and besides-the-point as the characters each try to get in the last word — and shot.
The film has picked up favorable reviews since its Toronto International Film Festival debut. “Free Fire” could become another win for distributor A24, which has gained considerable steam since its 2012 inception by throwing its weight behind well-received yet unconventional films, such as “The Lobster” and this year’s Oscar best picture winner “Moonlight.”
“I think everyone knew that what we were doing was a kind of unique story, or a unique tale in the action genre,” Riley says. “And everyone was really super keen to be working with Ben [Wheatley], and everyone was on their best behavior. Everyone left their egos at the hotel.”
Riley’s character, a lowlife junkie, is the catalyst for the growing tension to escalate from words to gunfire. “You kind of have to find empathy, even with the monsters, you know, in order to try to inhabit them. But he doesn’t have many redeeming features, I will say that,” Riley says of his character. “He’s just hugely self-obsessed and thinks he can do no wrong really. Anything that’s in his interest is what drives him.”
The role involved a fair amount of preparation. “I had to grow a mustache, which took me forever. I’d never grown one before, I need like a year’s notice,” Riley deadpans. “We did a very small amount of weapons training. I asked Ben what sort of characters from other films he had in mind, and he said it’s somewhere between Jack Nicholson and [Robert] De Niro in ‘Mean Streets’, so I rewatched a few of those old flicks.”
Riley’s brooding looks earned him a Burberry campaign in 2008, following his breakout role in Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic “Control.” He has since meandered through a smattering of projects — “Maleficent,” Kerouacian flick “On the Road,” a turn as Mr. Darcy in kooky 2016 box office flop “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and he most recently appeared in the starring role for BBC alt-historical drama “SS-GB.” What’s next?
“I’m doing a German comedy — which sounds like an oxymoron, I know — and there’s a couple of other things, but they’re really early in the works,” he says. “I probably shouldn’t jinx them by talking about them.”
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