Light My Fire: Free Fire’s DP on How Comprehensive Lighting Let Ben Wheatley’s Shoot-Out Flick Go Full Throttle

Free Fire marks the sixth project I’ve shot with writer-director Ben Wheatley.

Our story is set in 1978 Boston, so we went straight to American films of the ’70s: The French Connection, The Outfit, The Getaway, Straight Time, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; and then Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs. Straight-talking, goodies and baddies (or baddies and baddies)—basically, cowboy films. That kind of movie is buried in our psyches. I’m still beguiled by that cinematic U.S.A.—exotic, muscular. Looking back to those films, the colors, the lighting, the camera movement—that’s what I hope is the blood heritage of Free Fire.

Lighting was the real challenge on Free Fire. The story happens almost entirely within one large space, in real time. Ben wanted to use multiple cameras to cover the action as comprehensively as possible, so there was a sense that everywhere had to be lit from the moment the characters walk into the space, and from any angle. This could’ve meant us compromising shape and form.

Director Ben Wheatley and DP Laurie Rose, who has shot much of Wheatley’s work, from 2009’s Down Terrace to 2015’s High-Rise

My gaffer, Barry Conroy, and I developed a plan to have wireless control over every light fitting in our “arena” and to always have a motivation for lighting. We threw up a ring of backlights into the metalwork of the warehouse roof, so whatever direction a camera pointed, there was a backlight or a cross-kick available—and with luck, a practical key! We established “zones” with production design throughout the space, so it had variation and interest: the brighter “gun-deal” area, the sodium windows, the darker “red” zone, the offices upstairs. The idea was to maintain some geography, so in the chaos you always had at least some idea where you were in relation to everyone else.

Actors Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley in the thick of the “arena” in Free Fire

A bold, noir style means lighting simply but specifically. It requires characters to hit their marks. But when you have three cameras looking in different (often opposing) directions, an ensemble of 12 characters all shooting at each other, explosions, blood, squibs, pyro—plus I’m operating one of those cameras—you can’t always get eyes on everything being shot at once. So there’s a need to light a little broadly at times, to trust your operators and trust the director that he’s getting everything he wants. (In fact, Ben was editing the multiple cameras on set for this very reason.) Our challenge was that the lighting had to enable the storytelling in a way that was as quick and bold as possible. It wasn’t always easy, but it was lots of fun. MM

Tech Box

Shooting Days: 33 days

Camera: Arri Alexa XT, 2.39:1

Lenses: Zeiss Super Speeds

Lighting: Tungsten on lots of dimmers, plus a lot of smoke

Picture Post/DI: Rob Pizzey at Goldcrest London

Free Fire opens in theaters April 21, 2017, courtesy of A24. Photographs by Kerry Brown.

 

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