In Every Dream Home a Heartache: High Rise Director Ben Wheatley on Adapting Ballard, Practical Special Effects and ’70s Parenting
I first met and spoke with Ben Wheatley in Brighton, where he lives with his wife and collaborator, Amy Jump. I was there for the inaugural Dark and Stormy Crime Festival, where Wheatley was screening his existential hit man thriller, Kill List. That film, along with Sightseers, Down Terrace and A Field in England, comprise a body of work that has rightly cemented Wheatley’s status as a raucous, disruptive, independent voice within the sometimes staid confines of the British specialty film industry.
Wheatley’s new film High-Rise — an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian sci-fi novel and his highest-budgeted to date — is set in, not surprisingly, an ultra-modern high-rise building on the outskirts of London. There, the incremental breakdown of the building’s functions lead to man’s descent into lawless debauchery: grown men reverting back to childlike tantrums, violence and neediness. A class war develops between the residents at the top of the building and those at the bottom, with gradations of participation from those in between.
Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing, a doctor and the building’s newest member. Luke Evans is Wilder, a documentary filmmaker crisscrossing the floors to document the building’s decay. Ensconced at the top is Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s architect, looking down both literally and metaphorically on the tenants. For Royal, the high-rise is a utopian dream, but it’s one that quickly leads to anarchy as High-Rise tells a story of atavistic group behavior that is all too applicable to current life.
Ballard’s novel has long been one of those cult items seemingly destined for the screen. Indeed, producer Jeremy Thomas — who previously produced David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s Crash — has pursued this project for years, entertaining interest and pitches from directors including, decades ago, Nicholas Roeg. Wheatley’s fresh concept was to set his High-Rise in a kind of pre-Thatcher, 1975-future corresponding to the book’s original publication, allowing us to look back in time to see how the future of the past was imagined.
High-Rise opens in the United States Friday, May 13 from A24.
I’m a child of the ’70s. Something that appealed to me about your film is how it feels very much of the ’70s while simultaneously feeling current, future, alternate and, of course, dystopian. Well, the ’70s were dystopian. I also grew up in the ’70s. It’s been interesting talking to people who were kids in the ’70s versus people who were adults in the ’70s. I think that generation of adults has kind of brushed their parenting skills under the carpet. As a kid I remember being left outside pubs in the car while the adults were all getting drunk. My father would be drunk, and he’d let me steer the steering wheel. No one ever talks about any of that stuff [today].
There is this great Tumblr of images of ’70s parenting — things that no one could get away with today. Kids driving cars, two-year-olds sipping from beer cans, kids standing up in the back of pick-up trucks, kids buying cigarettes for parents. I look at all of that and think, “Check, check, check, we did all of those things.” Yeah, it’s bizarre isn’t it? [Those parents] don’t want to talk about that any more. I think there is a marked difference in the reaction to the movie from people who are seeing a time that they remember as being the best time of their lives represented in a slightly dark perspective than from [those] who lived then as children. [Parents] of that generation have been crosser. But, then again, there’s another reaction from younger people who see that [period] as heritage, you know? It’s like the ’70s to them are like the ’50s [were] to us, I guess, as children — a kind of unattainable decade that is quite glamorous and interesting-looking but that we have no real connection to. I feel that that’s what the ’70s is slowly disappearing into, as is the ’80s. It’s interesting seeing the decades just being scrubbed away. I had a thought the other day: Indiana Jones, the time difference between the ’80s, when one saw it, and the late ’30s [is 50 years]. If you made that film today you’d have to set it in 1967. Which is really weird isn’t it, when you start to think like that, that there’s a kind of curtain of memory that comes up behind the generations? Things that were on TV when I was a child — Harold Lloyd, Flash Gordon and all that kind of stuff — now seem like ancient history, don’t they?
They do, completely. Another wonderful thing about this film being set in the ’70s is that there were no cellphones or Internet, so these residents were really closed into this building. For me the ’ 70s was almost like the last point in time when there was futurism, or an idea of what the future was going to be. Basically you’ve got post-modernism just about to appear on the scene, and there was punk [coming up] as well — Johnny Rotten going, “There is no future.” It’s literally from ’77, ’78 [on] that the future is totally fucked, you know? The future becomes, first, a Mad Max-style dystopian future of fighting over oil, but then it reduces almost down to no concept of the future anymore at all. There’s no looking forward to anything particularly. It’s just this moment. So I feel the ’70s was the last moment when there was a future.
The book feels arguably like one of the more cinematic Ballard books — more conducive to adaptation. I think so, and Crash, of course, which Cronenberg adapted. The story itself is pretty strong. I like it in the way that I like stuff by Philip K. Dick, or even Kubrick’s The Shining, where there’s a pulpy B-movie story that fits on the top of a complex meditation on futuristic ideas. Essentially in High-Rise, the story from the three different perspectives of the three men, and Wilder’s journey up and down the building, give just enough fuel to push the narrative through, but that’s not what’s important about the book or the film, you know?
Yes. And you first read it when you were a teenager? Yes, as a teenager. I enjoyed it a lot, but it was more to do with the fact that it was futuristic at the time. I would have read it in like ’86 or ’87. It had not long been written, and when I came back to it, it felt less of a prediction of the future and more talking about what was happening in the moment, right now. It’s a good thing about writing predictive fiction because your work takes longer to date.
When did you come back to it? When did you decide you wanted to make it into a film? It wasn’t that long ago. We haven’t until recently had an opportunity or been in a position where we could license books. As somebody who’s made a lot of low-budget movies, I’d have never thought of looking for a big sci-fi book about a high-rise, because [I’d never be able to] afford to clear it or do it justice. But in the last years I started looking for new projects and looking at books — just looking in my front room at books we had on the shelves and thinking, “Which of these things do I like and what hasn’t been made? And why not?” Through that process I looked at a few books but the rights had all been tangled up. And then High-Rise was done kind of on a whim, because you’ve got to have a lot of projects going at one time — and then one comes off. It was very quick — from looking, re-reading it, to finding out who had the rights took about three or four days. Then I was meeting with Jeremy Thomas, the producer, and it wasn’t that much longer after that that people were coming forward saying that they wanted to finance it.
The building serves as a metaphor for the body, with mentions of elevator lifts as being like corridors of the heart. Yes. The building itself is a metaphor for the human condition, or it can be a town or a city or a country or the world. It’s not necessarily a critique of post-war housing in the UK. Some critics have gotten that wrong. I think people have gotten tied up in that because of the aesthetic of [the film], but it is broader than that. The three male characters seem to be almost split parts of a single personality. The female characters do as well. It’s almost like Royal, Laing and [the child] Toby are all part of the same person, split into different ages. But then there is a relationship between Laing and Wilder and Laing and Royal as well. It’s complicated in that respect.
Could you talk about the process of designing it? When I talked to my designer [Mark Tildesley], we imagined that there was an arrogance to the building that has to do with Royal himself — the idea that he thinks he is building a crucible for change, and that he is making a lot of assumptions about how human beings interact with each other. Within that he’s cut a lot of corners. The building itself is kind of uncaring toward the people that live in it, which is an extension of Royal’s arrogance. It’s kind of why it all goes horribly wrong.
There is the invasive buttress that crosses the room. The buttresses that Mark Tildesley designed — we used this idea of weight, that the whole building was kind of pressing on the people inside. That [idea] had come from this thing I had experienced in a hotel, where they had a pillar in the middle of the room. The hotel didn’t care about the people in the spaces necessarily, they just cared about the structural shape of the building. They didn’t mind people being uncomfortable, and I think that’s basically what Royal does in the building. He doesn’t mind it impinging on the spaces where the humans live. The building had been brought together from looking at three or four different buildings: the Barbican Centre in London, the Southbank where the Festival Hall is, with the textured concrete that they have, and the Corbusier Marseille building for the corridors. A mish-mash of architectural styles.
Then there is also this contrast when you go outdoors and actually see the sky and the surroundings. I like the fact that it’s in a kind of a wilderness. I remember there being a lot of construction when I was a kid in the ’70s. London was a weird space because there were still areas of it that were bombed out from the Blitz. A lot of London had these brick-filled sites where things had been knocked down and then never regenerated. It wasn’t until the mid ’80s that they started to cover over these areas. Certainly where Amy used to live, there was quite a large area of knocked-down buildings from bomb damage. So when Laing exits the building, he’s in a wilderness — [the area] is the wrong scale for humans almost. You need a car to get out of it. It’s just flat concrete. I grew up in Essex when I was a kid, and Essex is a very flat county, no hills. That I like a lot.
You mentioned Amy Jump. Amy wrote the script, edits with you and also is your wife. You’ve managed to collaborate personally and professionally very well. What is that work process like? I think that there are a lot of issues with how directors are perceived, and also how married couples are perceived. There are a certain amount of assumptions that people make — certainly about auteur theory, about the director as someone who forces their will onto the script. That can happen obviously — the Reville/Hitchcock model, where they picked the writers and then gave them stories and then they got them to write scripts. How I work with Amy — I don’t tell her what to do. I don’t even give her notes. She writes the script, and it just comes back, and it’s done. Personally, I hate getting notes, and she can’t stand it either, so you just have to trust the person and go with it. If you want stuff to be a certain way you have to write it yourself, that’s just the way it is. I’m not a director who walks around ripping pages out of the book, saying, “This is what we need! Do this! Do that!” It’s not like that. When I direct, I direct on my own without her there, so as a writer, she’s absent. But then when we come to edit, I take the role as the technical operator of the edit suite, and she has the director point of view, so she sits and tells me what to do. Then we negotiate through the cut. We try to work through this idea of what our credits mean. High-Rise has got “A film by Ben Wheatley” at the front, but that was more a contractual thing. We won’t be doing that again. At the end, the directing and writing credits are shared. It’s trying to find a balance where we can talk about what our collaboration is, and whether or not the director is actually the main creative force on the film, because on our films it’s a shared position. It’s more like the Coen brothers, the way they seem to work, certainly, on this film. On other films it’s different. It’s not co-directing, it’s very difficult — I think directing gets so much more, almost, credit as a creative force in the process. When you have a writer who is also an editor, that is almost as strong a position as the director.
There are a couple of specific scenes and shots in the film that I want to ask you about. One is the costume party. In the book that scene is quite a simple scene. I don’t think they dressed up particularly; they’re just having a cocktail party. I wanted to make Laing as alienated as possible. I remember I went to a Christmas party once where everyone was wearing white clothes and they didn’t tell me about it. I turned up in the wrong color clothes; I just felt like such a fool. You get that divide of people. That was part of it, and then I wanted — it’s an obvious thing I guess, the Louis XIV stuff — to separate out [the richer residents of the upper floors]. They thought of themselves as so much better than everybody else, and so, [with their Louis XIV costumes], you would see that visually very quickly. Also the power that they had was an old power, maybe a doomed power as well. [The party is shot] all in one quite long shot, which shows Laing’s anxiety building as well as the effortlessness of the people. There’s a grace to it that the other parties don’t have. Everything else is much more messy and difficult. I wanted [the costume party] to feel as slick as possible, but then it has this orchestral version of ABBA’s “SOS” during it, and that’s a little bit like the orchestra playing on the decks of the Titanic. It’s also a mixture of something that’s meant to be incredibly sophisticated — classical music — and pop. So it’s kitsch at the same time as being classy. It’s all those things really rolled into one.
It’s actually quite the kind of costume party, I think, that that type of person — Royal’s wife — would have. Yes, she already does that dressing-up thing. She’s interested in being out of time. That’s what the garden at the top of the building is. Royal’s thing is modernism, but his wife’s isn’t, and he has to do what she says to have an easy life. You can try to make a modern way of living, a new way of living, but at the same time people come in and they bring their class [background] and their furniture and their bad habits into the space.
Another scene that interests me is the dancing sequence. I wanted to see dancing. In general, across the movie, I wanted the film to be sexier than the other films I’ve made. I wanted to make it desirable, so seeing people have a good time is part of that. It’s also something that I like from ’40s and ’50s movies. You’d watch a Bogart movie, and it could be quite a tough kind of detective thing, but then there’d be a song in the middle of it. Even in cowboy movies, you know, you’d have a pop song of the day being sung in the middle of it. Seeing those two men dancing against each other, almost like a dance-off thing, it was something I wanted to see: men enjoying themselves dancing.
The body falling from the upper floors and hitting the car — tell me about the challenge of shooting that. You know when you film miniatures, if you have a boat model there’s an equation for working out what speed you have to shoot the boat at in order to make the water look like it’s in scale? So you shoot it at a certain speed and then the small splashes of water look like waves? I figured that you could do the same thing with steel. So if a bonnet was made of tinfoil, and if you shot it slow enough, then you could drop the real actor onto this tinfoil bonnet and it would deform in a way that would look like metal would.
And that’s what you did? It’s really silly if you see it. All it is is an actor on a piece of rope being lowered onto a load of tinfoil. It didn’t look like much on camera but when you have the footage shot at 500 frames [per second] or something like that, and then you put the sound of the metal going “rerrrr,” then it suddenly looks very realistic. I wanted to see the actual actor hitting the bonnet. You always get this thing of people dropping and crashing into stuff, but it’s always a cutaway to a stunt person or CG, and I think the power of it is to see the real actor hit the metal and not to cut away from it. There’s stuff like that all over the movie — old-school camera tricks. There’s another one at the end where Toby has to climb up the side of the building. There was all sorts of trouble — people going, “Oh, God, you can’t put a child up on a ladder, it’s too dangerous!”
’70s parents could have! Ha! Yes. So, we just put the ladder on the ground. Flat on the ground like they used to do with Batman in the ’60s, and then flopped it back the other way. It was fine, totally safe. There was another scene where they’re throwing furniture down the stairwell. We built a miniature stairwell, and then we got dollhouse furniture and dropped that down it. I really like that kind of thing. Obviously there is a lot of CG in the film as well, but as long as you can mix up the effects work with that, your eye finds it much harder to unpick.
What are you working on next? The next project, Free Fire, is as different as Field in England is to High-Rise. It’s a late-’70s crime thriller set in America. It’s a reaction to big-budget action movies in that it reduces action to a human level. It’s basically a gun battle at close quarters — messy, funny, violent.