Managing Rubble and the Degradation of the Building: Ben Wheatley on High-Rise
Perhaps the most divisive film at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival was in the inaugural Platform competition section. High-Rise was originally published by author J.G. Ballard in 1975; now, English filmmaker Ben Wheatley (Sightseers) has brought to the big screen the tale of Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a new resident in a luxury apartment building who becomes entangled in a civil war between the building’s different social classes. The media interest kicked into overdrive for the social satire when Soda Pictures purchased the Canadian distribution rights. During the craziness, Filmmaker was able to sit down with Wheatley to talk about the project.
Filmmaker: Was it always the plan to start with a mid-point scene and then do a flashback?
Wheatley: The book starts with Dr. Robert Laing cooking a dog and you wonder how he got to that position. We didn’t have that because usually it means there is some problem in the script. However, we realized an author like J. G. Ballard doesn’t generally make mistakes. He had done it like that for a specific reason. It takes the scrutiny of the audience out of the collapse of the building and adds an extra layer of irony for every scene past that. If you take that away you just get a guy who moves into a place that goes wrong and gets worse and worse.
Filmmaker: How long did it take to develop the building, which is like another character in the story?
Wheatley: The design of it was a hard nut to crack but [production designer] Mark Tildesley was fantastic with that. We built a lot of models and he did a lot of drawings. We talked a lot and looked at Brutalist architecture, as well as [discussing] the idea that the building was impinging upon the people; that’s why we had these big concrete ribs going into the rooms. We wanted to make them feel not like living spaces but hutches.
Filmmaker: Was it mostly set builds rather than location shooting?
Wheatley: We looked around for period buildings. In England it was impossible to find because most of them had been knocked down. We ended up going to Northern Ireland, [where] we found this closed down sports center that had been built in the same period. It was next to a police station so it never had been vandalized. It was perfect. We built sets inside the sports hall area and then we used the amenities such as the swimming pool and squash courts for real. They were [in their] original 1970s proportions. That was important, to have some [of] it grounded with the real material.
Filmmaker: Can you explain the choices made with the cameras and shooting style?
Wheatley: We shot with ALEXA. We had big conversations about whether things should be shot in a period fashion. We ended up with the decision that it is a bit of a pose. We are now. It isn’t a film from the past. It’s something that is happening in this moment. I like digital and it allows me to shoot a lot more.
Filmmaker: How did you go about devising the color palette and were there many changes during the DI process?
Wheatley: A lot of it was in camera. A lot of the grading that we had done on the film was mainly sweetening, like taking Chroma out. We were excited about doing a film where we could control the colors of the room and general palettes, which we haven’t been able to do before because we never had sets. Also, coming off of A Field in England, which was black and white, it was a joy to shoot color again.
Filmmaker: How did you approach the sound design and music?
Wheatley: Sound is as important as the other elements. We spent a lot of time on sound. The process we have now is that we will edit and do the sound mix at the same time so we can make sure that every cut, sound, foley and music cue had its day in court. I wrote to ABBA and begged them for the rights to use the track [editor’s note: Portishead contributed a cover of “S.O.S.”] and they agreed, which is quite rare for them.
Filmmaker: Did you use a lot of storyboarding?
Wheatley: It was massively storyboarded. I have a two-prong attack with storyboards where I draw everything out, to force me to think about it, and attempt to be loose on the day with the shots, because you don’t want to be restrictive with the actors as it will ruin their flow. Sometimes there is only one way to shoot it. If it is a wide and moves, then they can do whatever in the shot.
Filmmaker: Was there much in the way of shifting scenes around in the edit suite?
Wheatley: Not massively. It was written so tightly [that] there was no other way it would work, and also because of the costumes and the way the building degrades you can’t really move things too far. You can move it within its act a bit but not really any further than that because it doesn’t look right anymore, which is a nightmare.
Filmmaker: How extensive was the casting process?
Wheatley: Tom Hiddleston was the first person that we cast and then we looked at books of people to make sure they were at the right level. We were lucky that everyone was keen to work on the film.
Filmmaker: What was your biggest challenge?
Wheatley: On a dull level it was the management of the degradation of the building and making sure of the continuity of the rubble, which was complicated. We had lots of sleepless nights about that. Everything else was fine. It’s a tightly made film.
Filmmaker: How difficult was it to get the right tone?
Wheatley: Normally I judge it by my own sense of humor and as soon as you start trying to imagine what people will like you’re done.
Filmmaker: How extensive were the visual effects, such as with the kaleidoscope scene?
Wheatley: That was in camera. It’s a triangle of mirrors in a tube that rotates and it looked amazing. You would be hard pressed to do that in 3D or CG. I don’t know how you would do it and it would never look as good as that. The optical weirdness of mirrors, you wouldn’t even begin to imagine what the thing would look like so you would have to build these things in order to test it. If you did it with reflective planes in 3D and somehow projected the image it wouldn’t do the same thing. It’s not physics — the computer, it’s a mimic.
Two things made me smile about the film in terms of the effects. The mirrored lift was all practical as well. They built a glass box that had silver foil mirror stuff that is used in interrogation rooms. The other was when they were throwing chairs down the stairwells, which was all done using miniatures.
Whenever you see the building it’s CG, which was giving me heart attacks the whole time but Milk VFX — which did all of the visual effects — did a great job of it. When they’re outside on the balconies, those skies are painted backdrops with birds and moving jets, and that’s all CG.
Filmmaker: How difficult was it to decide when to insert the exterior shots of the high-rise?
Wheatley: The dark shadow that hangs over that kind of editing is Cheers and Friends. We tried not to make it feel like that was the only place to go outside. You had to keep reminding the audience where they were and the building became more or less ominous depending on the mood of the scenes going intro and outro.
Filmmaker: Were there any happy accidents?
Wheatley: We did some playful stuff where we would extend scenes. Tom was talking in the press conference [about] where we did the airhostesses walking up and down, which was scripted. I said to him, “We have 10 minutes. Do you want to dance with the girls?” He went, “Yeah.” You have to be open all of the time.
Filmmaker: How did you go about deciding upon the visual language for High-Rise?
Wheatley: It’s intuitive. It’s art. I don’t ever want to get called out, so I plan as much as I can. Because I’m an editor as well, I know when I see a scene that is going to cut, so that’s not a worry that I don’t have to have. I know if I have coverage how it will work. The more cameras I can have the more likely I can finesse it into something. You’re sitting there watching the monitor and if you feel it then it goes in. If you don’t feel it, you’ve got a problem. That’s when I panic. Usually, it is the master shot that has gone wrong at the beginning of the day and I’ve got myself into a corner. That doesn’t happen very often but when it does it’s bad. Then you have to go back and reassess it. The editor deals with a lot of storytelling problems in the suite and reverse engineering.
Filmmaker: Were you ever concerned about the audience being disconnected from characters who do despicable things?
Wheatley: I don’t ever think like that. When you get criticized for writing despicable characters I think, “What world do you think we live in? What are these films that don’t have despicable characters?” Drama only comes from conflict and is usually caused by both parties. It’s tonal more than anything. It’s not about whether they are good or bad. That’s a misnomer and it has come out of how to do script books. This has got to happen and when these things don’t happen people get cross.
Filmmaker: What sorts of visual references did you use?
Wheatley: We looked at Ridley Scott period adverts. I resist looking at other films to make a film. I don’t think it ever helps me, because the reality of dealing with the space versus the actors versus the camera versus the schedule usually forces you into a rhythm and aesthetic that is particular to that film.
Filmmaker: Did you keep your independent mindset in tack despite having the bigger budget?
Wheatley: I’m always thinking about the budget, what we’re spending the money on and where those resources are going. It’s important to me. You can get this divorce between direction and production. It’s crazy. You as a director have to know the costs and what are the consequences of what you’re doing. If you say, “Relight the whole thing and we’ll go again,” you might be able to do that that day but it will cost you half a day somewhere down the line. What are you going to cut for this decision and is it worth it? If you’re assuming that the money will always come from somewhere you’re not doing it right.
Filmmaker: Is there a particular scene that you’re looking forward for audiences to see on the big screen?
Wheatley: I read in an Stanley Kubrick interview that he designed his movies around non-submersible units so there would be strong imagery that grabs the audience’s attention and carries all of the themes and meanings of the movie, and then bits between that. All of the films have been like that: every five to ten minutes, something happens.
Filmmaker: The movie is set in the 1970s, which is when the book was published.
Wheatley: The 1970s is an interesting point in time. There were lots of reasons to do it. One was it was when the book was written. Also I was a kid in the 1970s so I have an understanding of it. I was born in 1972, so I would have been one of the little children, and Laing is slightly the age of my dad at that point. That interested me, to look at that generation. You don’t often have a chance to look at that lot and see what they got up to. The modern version of this is much harder because of the power of social media. As soon as something went wrong someone would film it and put it on the Internet and they would all be having a discussion about it. That’s not what the book is. We had to ratchet that side of it down. There’s secrecy in the book where they enjoy going crazy. That would be a harder sell today.
Filmmaker: How has the Toronto International Film Festival been treating you?
Wheatley: It has been good. It is always a weird experience showing it for the first time. It’s something that is so close to you and then you’re sharing it with a room full of strangers. Then people write nice things about it and people don’t write nice things about it; that side of it is tough.