Filmmaker claims violent action film 'Free Fire' is 'a study in empathy'

Posted4/27/2017 6:00 AM
  • Director Ben Wheatley says his action shoot'em up "Free Fire" with Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley is actually a study in empathy.

    Director Ben Wheatley says his action shoot'em up "Free Fire" with Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley is actually a study in empathy.

I caught up with British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, director/co-writer of the new action black comedy "Free Fire," by phone as he was being driven to an airport. His movie, released April 21, centers around a 1-hour gunbattle inside an old warehouse in 1978. Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley star.

Q. Thanks for doing this interview, especially since it's such a personal and intimate experience on a cellphone.

A. It's actually better than face-to-face because it's more like a Vulcan mind-meld.

Q. During a recent appearance at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, you claimed your shoot-'em-up movie was a study in empathy. How so?

A. My characters act more humanly than the usual action movie stock generic characters. They all have their own lives instead of being a horde of faceless villains who get dispatched with clinical precision. It's messier and more human. When you feel bad about characters dying in a film, that sparks empathic feelings inside you.

Q. You've got people being shot, stabbed and beaten, yet the audience winces most when one of the gunmen accidentally rams a dirty hypodermic needle into his hand. Why is that so effective?

A. It's something you can relate to. Everyone has dinged themselves, or stuck a pin in a finger. You feel for him and that's important. There's a certain element of sadness, too. Even if he survives this ordeal, he might contract some terrible disease from that needle.

Q. Editing an action movie appears to be a greater undertaking than editing drama. Is that correct?

A. It's counterintuitive. Action isn't as hard to cut as drama. Action is pretty binary in that it works or it doesn't. With dialogue scenes, you have so many other variables. Some of the hardest things are the simplest, such as two people talking. Action has more cutting, but isn't as intricate.

Q. How did you meet your wife, Amy Jump, your editor and co-writer on "Free Fire?"

A. We just started dating and stuck with it. We're like an old 1940s couple. Teenage sweethearts and all that. We've been together a disgustingly long time.

Q. Every few years, the news media go through a superficial ritual of agonizing over how movie violence impacts real-life violence. What's your take?

A. Jazz had a bad rap for ages. Then rock 'n' roll. Then rap. Then video games. If only it were that simple. If only there were a direct correlation between cinema and violence, then we could fix it.

But it's not that. The entertainment culture reflects the society that it sits on top of. It's the arrogance of the entertainment industry to think that it has such power.

My job is to entertain people and present something that reflects society. I'm not trying to change people with what I'm doing.

Midwest film fest gets animated

The Midwest Independent Film Festival presents its first Animation Showcase at 6 p.m., Tuesday, May 2, at the Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark St., Chicago. On the schedule: 14 animated films, including the world premiere of Joel Benjamin's "When It Floods" and the Chicago premiere of the 2016 Student Academy Award winner "Die Flucht" from downstate Champaign filmmaker Carter Boyce. The filmmakers will be there for post-screening discussions.

"Ghost" is one of the many movies to be screened at the Chicago Critics Film Festival May 12-18.
"Ghost" is one of the many movies to be screened at the Chicago Critics Film Festival May 12-18. -
Chicago Critics film fest turns 5 in May

The fifth annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, founded by Elk Grove Village critic Erik Childress, has announced its full roster of movies and guests (among them "Donnie Darko" director Richard Kelly). You can check them out at Or listen to what Bobcat Goldthwait has to say about it at The fest runs May 12-18 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport St., Chicago.

Epic season finale for Dann & Raymond Club

The Dann & Raymond Movie Club winds up its 10th season at the Schaumburg Township District Library with "Epics: Panoramic Vistas, Casts of Thousands!" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4, at 130 S. Roselle Road, Schaumburg. Clips from "Spartacus," "The Right Stuff," "Gone With the Wind" and "The Godfather," plus 11 others. Free admission, too!

• Dann Gire's column runs Friday in Time out!

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.