With new Ben Wheatley movie Free Fire on release this week, Sean Wilson chats to one of the director’s closest collaborators Dan Martin about the art of great practical effects…
Blasting onto screens in a hail of gunfire, mismatched accents and some choice 1970s costumes, Free Fire is the riotously entertaining new black comedy from Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List, Sightseers and High-Rise. Ahead of the movie’s release we caught up with veteran effects designer Dan Martin, a regular partner of Wheatley’s who has also worked on the likes of The Human Centipede, to talk about the nature of their collaboration and the secrets to a great, gory, crowd-pleasing practical effect.
So Dan, make-up artists and special effects technicians are some of the most important, albeit unseen, magicians at work in our favourite movies. As one yourself, how do you help pull an audience even further into the movie they’re watching?
I guess it ultimately comes down to the fact that we’re a tool for the director to use. So with a few exceptions based on genre, for the most part we have to come up with something that’s big enough to be impactful but in the right way, so it doesn’t become the spectacle or the point. So it’s about finding that balance, especially with an event effect. You can get subtle things like old age makeup, but when you’re doing event stuff like people getting hurt or blown apart, you can take things too far. You can wander into the comedically grotesque, which obviously sometimes works but it’s about finding that right balance for the right scene in the right project. That’s the skill of it.
How did you get into the business to begin with?
I’m very lucky to be doing what I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I was a child. It felt like an extension of the magic that I was so keen on at a very young age. You know, an audience lays themselves out there for you and they want to be tricked. You get to fool them. And that was it. My path into the industry was a complicated mixture of actually being able to do it and pure luck, being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right person. Exploiting every opportunity that you come across to further your own career. The big steps in my career have all been luck.
Were they any classic, visceral prosthetic or special effects sequences in films that had an impact on you as a child?
Yeah, well we didn’t have a TV in the house – my mum was against it. However my maternal grandmother annoyed her by buying my father a television. And then after that VHS came along. So we would have tapes and they would get watched to death. I had a Tintin movie and an Asterix movie but my parents had The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which I first watched at about the age of 8 or 9.
Indeed! And around the same time I also watched The Company of Wolves, The Serpent and the Rainbow and Pet Sematary, which was a baptism of fire as a child. It all started an obsession. By that point, I knew that I wanted to do it already but I hadn’t really seen much; it had all been photographs in books. And then I was lucky enough to meet someone at the British Theatre Museum when I was visiting with my parents; they were doing effects as a demonstration. So my parents took their number and that was my in, insofar as how you could get hold of the materials, at least as far as the entry-level stuff of sculpting and molding was concerned. Building stuff directly onto the face, using waxes and so on. Old-school style: latex and cotton wool.
Looking back at your list of credits, I was fascinated to learn that you served uncredited as a miniatures trainee on Batman Begins. How did working on a blockbuster of that scale inform your later career and experiences?
It’s interesting, when you’re starting out, there are two different paths. You can be one of the many smaller cogs within the machinery of these massive movies, because they have such a major turnover of staff, and they are often very generous towards you. So I was a junior on many big films at the beginning of my career. Then the other option is to do the much smaller projects on which you can have much more of an input. I think doing both is very valuable.
I don’t remember exactly how I contacted the Batman guys but I got in touch along with a friend of mine and both of us started on the same day, making bits of Ra’s Al Ghul’s mansion and Arkham Tramway, the monorail. It was very exciting to be surrounded by such an impressive thing. Miniatures aren’t something I’ve really stuck with, I’ve been more into the figurative and anatomical side of things. But it was an amazing insight into how the bigger industry works. You don’t necessarily get to see everything through on a project such as that, because you’re working on many different things rather than seeing a specific project through to completion, and then of course you’re tasked with making multiple versions of the same thing. I love doing many different variations and now that I get to be in charge, I can cherry pick.
Not only have you worked on projects from the likes of Christopher Nolan but also Danny Boyle, Harmony Korine and Joe Johnston. How do you think interpretations of practical effects differ between different filmmakers?
I think some filmmakers have an emotional connection to them, particularly some of the directors coming up now who had their childhoods during the heyday of practical effects. So they’re part of that gentle kickback against all the digital stuff. Some directors don’t really mind how it’s done, as long as it happens! That’s when you can potentially end up with physical effects being scrubbed over with digital, or even just cut altogether and done digitally, instead. Of course, some of the audience cares when that happens and others don’t!
You’ve also worked as a director, camera operator and editor on your own projects, many of them short films. Does your experience in those fields help build communication when you’re working on somebody else’s movie?
Yes, I think so. It’s all important for all department heads to have an understanding of what it is that everyone else is doing, because everyone then has an understanding of the various professions.
You know, I love film, and before I was doing this, I was doing anything I could to get me to this stage. I did a couple of miserable weeks in an office in my youth but other than that, it was working in cinemas prior to working on set. So the camera operation stuff and editing were initially self-taught when I was younger. Then there were opportunities to climb a few rungs on the ladder. So it’s not necessarily vital for every member of crew to know the ins and outs of every bit of kit but if I want to go and have a conversation with the costume department because it’s going to affect what I’m doing, then it’s only fair that I don’t have misconceptions about them. Similarly with action vehicles, stunts and so on. So I think it’s the responsibility of various collaborators to know what the other is doing, and having dipped my toes into the water gave me a little bit of a head start.
Well you used the word collaborator there and that brings us nicely to Ben Wheatley with whom you’ve collaborated on High-Rise, A Field in England and his new movie, Free Fire. What is it about that collaboration that is so rewarding?
Well, I really like Ben as a person and I really like Ben’s art. There’s no better combination. We are similarly enthused about film in general and this allows for an efficient shorthand of references when talking something through.
My wife is a producer and had been out in Texas at Fantastic Fest when he was taking Kill List around. She’d met him and his producer, Andy Stark, out there. And later she was doing a series of short films for Fright Fest in London, having a series of directors do short films based on the movies of John Carpenter who at the time had been intended as a special guest, although that didn’t happen. Ben made a short film that was an homage to Assault on Precinct 13 but re-imagined as a zombie movie, so I came on board and did the effects as a favour to her, and in doing so I met Ben and Andy. I got on very well with them and before you know it, we were doing Sightseers together. Then after that there were a number of things: a couple of TV pilots and Ben’s episode of The ABC’s of Death, but then his company, Rook, produced a number of other episodes of ABC’s of Death, so I think I ended up doing five or six of them, through Rook.
It’s been very rewarding. I always know, when a script comes through, whether it’s one from Ben and [Amy Jump] or from another artist, that it’s going to be great.
Wheatley’s films are famous for straddling the divide between the blackly comic and the grotesque. How does that influence your approach to the practical effects?
When I’m working with Ben… I’m trying to choose my words very carefully, here! I’ll take it as far as he’ll let me. Because I know that in the greater scheme of things, he will have a tone in mind. That he will take from what I’m bringing him, exactly what he needs. So aesthetically I will go as far as I can go and obviously we’ll talk things through but I always want to give him more than he needs so he’s never left short.
Free Fire, then. This is a movie in which all of the characters end up riddled with bullet holes yet it’s vital the wounds don’t hamper the brilliantly physical performances of the actors. What sort of challenges does that present?
Well the script arrives pretty fully formed, as is always the case with Ben. The first draft I received, he’d already worked out where everyone was going to get shot and what type of gun everyone has, so we know how big all the different wounds were going to be. He’s an excellent collaborator and will listen to everyone he’s working with, especially when it will affect the reality or drama of a given scene. I’m lucky that my father in law is a pathologist [laughs] and I can run a lot of stuff by him. I just needed to take what Ben wanted to happen and make it happen.
Were there any classic shootout movies that you studied to make the injuries look more convincing and wince-inducing?
The important thing to remember is that when someone is being shot, as in actually being impacted, that’s floor effects, the pyrotechnics. A different department. The part that falls to me is if they’re shot on bare skin, where you can’t do explosives, either I’ll be making a make-up that can bleed or I’ll be making a puppet of that person that we can destroy, as happens to a couple of people in the movie!
Yeah, I’ve got one particular scene in my head!
Yes, no spoilers, obviously! So I tend to be a little more up close and personal than the standard bullet hits. But what we did make for this film was an array of generic bullet wounds sculpted in a flat disc of rubber, painted to look like skin. Emma Fryer, our costume designer, then went and took photographs of the cast in their costumes, so I had those photos and then, going back through the script, we applied x’s to each of the photos, indicating where each character was going to get shot. So number one was a shoulder, number two was a thigh, number three is a shin and so on.
We were shooting largely in sequence – that’s not always possible given actor availability and so on – and I then gave a series of these wounds to Emma and the costume department that were fabric-backed and got stitched into the costumes. So when the actors were dressed we knew where they were going to get hit in certain places. Often it’s about streamlining the process and ensuring you’re not taking up time on set, buggering about with stuff when there’s an easier solution.
A final question, and this might be something of a melancholy one. With CGI becoming more and more prevalent in the modern age, do you think that the era of the classic animatronic and effects designer like, for example, Stan Winston or Rob Bottin, is dying out? Because the practical stuff in something like RoboCop is art in itself, whereas now it seems that visual effects are used to overcome problems quickly.
Well, the short answer is no. It may come to a point where what we do isn’t necessary, and indeed it may come to a point where actors aren’t necessary. And actually, unless the economy of scale is huge, it isn’t a whole lot cheaper. The upshot for big Hollywood productions, who of course lot to do a lot of audience testing, is that with VFX you don’t have to make your mind up until the last-minute. You can change your mind late in the day and go, you know what, that orc needs to be taller, that guy needs to be green. You can make huge changes literally days before cinema release.
With makeup and creature effects on the other hand, you’re locked in months before you even get on set because you’ve sculpted it and molded it. We’ve cast it, seamed it, painted it, put every hair in one at a time and you’re committed. That’s fine for some directors and producers, and it’s a problem for others. The thing is, I really like visual effects and let’s not forget, Ben’s background is in visual effects. One of his first jobs was working at Molinare, the post-production house. And if you watch his TV show, The Wrong Door, it’s essentially a series of VFX gags. Each sketch has a punchline that is a visual effect. He knows how to do that stuff but also what the limitations are. So when we’re talking together it very often involves stitching together physical elements digitally. So there’s a lot of VFX involved in my physical effects work. That’s one of the many great things about working with Ben.
Fantastic – thanks Dan, I’ll be sure to watch the film again and pay closer attention to your work. Particularly in the infamous scene that shall not be named, which went down a storm at the preview screening I attended.
It’s funny, every time I work with Ben, he has this almost prescient ability to tap into a particular kind of effect I’ve always wanted to make. [laughs] And that sequence you’re alluding to was the one in Free-Fire. The National Trust rambler was another, from Sightseers. I don’t know how he does it. He brings me the script and I always think, I’ve waited ages to have that in a script!
Sean Wilson is a journalist, movie geek and soundtrack fan and can be found on Twitter here.