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Free Fire: Interview with Costume Designer Emma Fryer


Director Ben Wheatley’s latest, Free Fire, is set in Boston, 1978, but was actually shot in Brighton in 2015. Being as the plot revolves around ten characters involved in a one hour plus shoot-out inside a disused factory, from a sartorial point of view things get rather grubby. The film’s BAFTA nominated costume designer Emma Fryer has already worked with Wheatley on The ABCs of Death (2012) and A Field in England (2013) so is used to the way his stories tend to go bananas in the final reel. Free Fire unfolds practically in real time, which amps up the tension but allows for no mistake with costume. Stains and bullet holes, all need to remain in exactly the same place, no matter how many takes are required.

We caught up with Emma Fryer to discuss her work on Free Fire, and specifically where she found so many vintage multiples to ruin:

Director Ben Wheatley on set with Armie Hammer. Wheatley provided costume designer Emma Fryer with reference images of clothing he liked from the 1970s.

Clothes on Film: How did you go about finding your look for Free Fire?

Emma Fryer: In the beginning I went out on my own doing a lot of research, throwing myself in a lot of different directions. There is still the option of finding vintage seventies and also seventies shapes, but there is less actual vintage out there from this time. Back when I arrived in London in 1992 there used to be more what I call ‘little old men’s shops’. You could go there and they’d open up their brown drawers and pull out loads of original 1970s clothing. I had only one costume for everyone in the film, no changes at all, which throws out lots of challenges immediately. That one costume has to be so correct. And then, aside from the styling we had the logistics of what was happening to everyone in the story. We had two cover duplicates and repeats for every single person. So, like six jackets or six pairs of the same trousers for each character.

I went scouring on a big hunt in all different directions. Someone I know has run a vintage stall in Shoreditch for a long time and he brings a lot of stock in from America. I wanted to get a sense of that American styling for seventies.

CoF: Was it important that you accurately represent that setting and era?

EF: If you look there is a slight difference in styles for characters. Cillian’s (Murphy) character is an IRA terrorist and you can see he stands apart a little. I looked at references from Ireland during the late seventies and the era feels different. Then you’ve Sharlto Copley’s character who strolls in from California. It’s a complete contrast. Sharlto was interesting because I was never going to get to him for a fitting until just before he arrived on set for shooting. We organised for him to visit a costume house in America and then we had lots of talks on the phone and Skype, just trying to figure out what would work. He took photos and sent them to me and then we had more calls back and forth. However when we finally found a suit fabric that we liked, we potentially could not find enough of it to make multiples. Because of what happens to his character we needed several copies of his suit.

CoF: Did you mainly make then?

EF: Well, Sharlto’s was all made. Brie Larson was a mixture – her slim, high waisted jeans were not vintage but definitely vintage cut. Her boots were by Frye and sent over from America. Her blouse was bought and the blue jacket made. I used original jackets from the era to try on Brie and then made one based on those. She was another who did not arrive until right before shooting. I had a lot of conversations with her on the phone. We had chosen the look before she came over, but just needed to try and finish the jacket. She was really happy with that jacket.

Again, Levi’s Vintage were great because they still do lots of seventies cuts and I could find multiples. Jackets especially. Cillian’s jacket came from RRL (Ralph Lauren). It’s almost 1940s style actually. RRL is very retro; all from original cuts and fabrics. Cillian fell in love with that jacket really quickly – he wanted to take it home! To me it felt really correct in terms of him being from Ireland, with the shirt undone and the vest underneath.

Several costume repeats were needed because of the extensive breakdown process required. By the end of the story all the clothes are ripped, soiled and covered in blood.

CoF: You had so many characters to differentiate though, with just one costume each.

EF: The script obviously told me a lot. With Sam Riley’s character we know he had been out the night before and not been home. He’d been out partying so that red jacket just seemed to fit. The Hawaiian shirt too. You might think ‘Hawaiian shirt in the seventies?’ but actually they were very popular. When you look at certain pieces of clothing from the period and then you go back to the script, you can think to yourself ‘who exactly would wear that? Who could it work for?’ In an ideal world you have proper fittings for everyone but obviously it did not work that way for Sharlto and Brie. For people that we were able to access like Sam and Cillian the process was more straightforward. When I first visited Cillian I took four or five different shaped jackets and trousers, some shirts, and it’s just from trying on different shapes and combinations that we started pulling the character together. You know when it’s right, from the actor’s input as well. I’m there to help them find their character; they are not supposed to look like costumes but like real clothes on real people. I didn’t want anyone to look as though they had just walked out of a shop.

CoF: Armie Hammer’s character arrived looking immaculate though.

EF: He was a bit more slick, wasn’t he? Armie’s was all made, apart from his knitwear. If I can tailor clothing on anyone I will and it just seemed to make sense with him. We had lots of fun finding his shoes. Actually we had lots of fun finding everyones shoes! There still are crazy styles around on new shoes. You can find them with a cuban heel and in seventies colours, slip-ons and loafers in a mock croc finish. A few of the cast are wearing original but most are new from wonderful shops I found in Shepherd’s Bush and Petticoat Lane.

Ben Wheatley would bring references. He had a book of looks that he liked from the era. He would show them to me and I’d try to figure out which character they would work on best. He was really into it. Even if just one thing came out of this process, we knew it would end up on a character somewhere. The detail was so important because of there being only one costume. The belts for example we found at Elliot Rhodes. They came in two pieces, so belt and buckle. They are a modern belt company but still have great 70s styles. Levi’s Vintage were really fantastic though. Some of the jeans we found were even earlier than the seventies. The jackets too – I found some that were great, but then it was a matter of finding who it could work on. We bought them first! I said “Let’s get them now! Six of them”. I’d be thinking ‘I know Noah (Taylor) loves his outfit, but I really like this jacket’. Also I need back-ups in case something just didn’t work. This was the process.

CoF: Guessing you didn’t have a lot of money to spend?

EF: Not a huge budget, no. I can’t remember exactly what it was but it worked. Fabric was important and that’s expensive. Actually I wanted polyester for Sharlto’s suit but in the end that would have been a bit of a disaster! (he gets set on fire). Babou’s (Ceesay) safari suit we actually built from scratch too. I had a great reference image of a black guy in the seventies, just an old Getty image, so we recreated that. His paisley shirt was made as well. I did a fitting with him at Academy Costumes. I tried Angel’s costume house immediately, but that was more to get a feel for shapes in their American section.

The needlecord safari suit worn by Babou Ceesay was made entirely from scratch. His shirt, too.

CoF: Who responded most enthusiastically to the costume process?

EF: For every actor the costume process is important because it informs their identity. Some members of a cast are quieter about that, some are more involved. I had lots of phone calls with Sharlto though. I got a feeling for how important the costume was to him. There was pressure. We had to start making it before he arrived,so it had to go well. We went round and round with the colour of his shirt, but I feel the pink looks brilliant. It just works so well with his character. There are little things too though; the watch, the cufflinks, the necklace – for Sharlto those details were really important. The suit we initially tried on him was not entirely finished, it definitely needed altering, taking-in, etc. I wanted to make it more fitted, but we had to be careful on that front with all the actors because they needed to wear padding underneath.

CoF: Padding?

EF: Well, with everyone on the floor scrambling around they needed protection. Knee padding and elbow padding, all of which had to fit under seventies clothes – skinny trousers and slim fit jeans. I was always very conscious that it could be seen or someone might notice. Sharlto’s was hardest because of the suit but Cillian was fine in that leather jacket, which was like elephant hide anyway. Little things kept happening here and there because so much was going on. Cillian had a St. Christopher necklace that just flew off and disappeared one day in the madness. It was a really nice St. Christopher! Such a shame. But it’s little things like that you can never predict. As well as the padding, all the cast needed these really thin wet suits under their costumes at the end when the sprinklers come on. They are just standing for hours in wet clothes otherwise.

CoF: Was following the progression of the ‘broken down’ costumes difficult?

EF: Once the bullets started going off we had keep track of where each one hit. So you might have six repeat jackets to use that have three bullet holes in them. I became really conscious of where everything was going. I mean, Ben is great because it was practically shot in sequence so we thankfully weren’t working backwards. It depends too how many times a particular shot is taken because we need to start afresh. Also how many squibs were used and what type. We were constantly talking to the FX guys about how big a bullet hole would be from a specific gun and how much blood would feel right. It helped that were was so much dust everywhere because they kind of ‘plugged’ the bullet holes, otherwise there would have been blood absolutely everywhere. Of course Sharlto is burning at the end so had to match the black of his arms into the suit. This meant another fresh costume. This is why we had to build – we needed so many. Actually though, the breaking down side of costumes is quite good fun to do. I had a team working on them throughout. It’s a creative job and of course it just makes such a difference to the overall look and to show what is happening to the character.

A lot of the costumes on Free Fire were made as new, though Emma Fryer had a few period names she wanted to include. ‘Gotta have some Gabicci’ she laughed.

CoF: What are you working on now?

EF: Well I did The Tunnel (season 2) for Sky Atlantic and then went straight to Free Fire. Then after that I went straight onto SS-GB (currently screening on BBC 1), which also features the lovely Sam Riley. I have just finished another show for Sky called Riveria starring Julia Stiles all about the corrupt world of The Rivera. I’ve done some mad things!

CoF: Do you generally prefer contemporary or period costume?

EF: I don’t prefer one or another. The great thing about period that you tend to make the clothing from scratch which is a real joy. The Riveria though was so different because it’s all high end contemporary clothing. I went in Hermes and Oscar de la Renta and shops that – well if you saw The Tunnel you would have seen there was not a lot of high end in there! Plus I got to shop in Cannes.

CoF: Very jealous.

EF: My job can be fabulous! Ultimately though it is all about the character. A great script is so important because it enables you to do a great job. Those characters I create are already there. Free Fire was wonderful because we had such an amazing team. We all came together wanting to make the film as fantastic as possible. The cast were brilliant; they all really loved it. It was crazy, but crazy in the best possible way.

With thanks to Emma Fryer.

Free Fire is released in the UK on 31st March.

© 2017 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.