Behind the Scenes of High-Rise
An ambitious new film adaptation starring Tom Hiddleston brings JG Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise to unsettling, darkly humorous life. David Gritten goes behind the scenes.
DAVID GRITTEN – THE TELEGRAPH – 22nd March 2016
Suave and pencil-slim in a silvery-grey suit, Tom Hiddleston strolls languidly across the lawn of a picturesque garden, navigating between flower beds until he reaches a thatched barn at its very edge and pushes open the door. On this sunny August day, it is a glorious setting.
For the cameras tracking his progress, Hiddleston walks the walk four more times. It feels like a lovely, low-key, rather traditional scene – but in the completed High-Rise, a big-screen adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel, this location will be seen in an utterly different context.
Bangor Castle Walled Garden, 12 miles from Belfast and dating from the 1840s, is at ground level. But in High-Rise, thanks to digital effects, it appears 40 storeys up: an amazing rooftop garden crowning the cool, stylish London apartment block of the film’s title. In Ballard’s novel, set ‘five minutes in the future’, the high-rise is more than just a block of flats. Ben Wheatley, the film’s British director, notes, ‘It’s a metaphor. It’s a building; it’s also a man or a woman. It’s a country; it’s the world. It works on all those different levels.’
On the uppermost floor lives Royal (played by Jeremy Irons), the architect of the high-rise. He owns the rooftop garden, a grand folly populated by a sheep and a horse, and occasionally by his bored wife (Keeley Hawes), usually dressed in a Bo Peep costume.
Together they live in the sumptuous penthouse. ‘I think it’s no coincidence that he’s called Royal,’ Irons says. ‘He’s interested in how best we can organise society. He hoped the building would be “a crucible for change” in people’s lives – and it certainly is that, but not as he expected.’
The story tracks the building’s rapid decline as its technology and services falter – lifts cease to work, fires break out, the in-house supermarket runs out of produce. The residents (played by the likes of Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and James Purefoy), defined by the level they occupy, turn feral, indulging in wild parties and rampant sex (not all of it consensual) while rioting to force their way up from lower floors and overthrow the established order. The high-rise, it appears, has that effect on people.
Into this cauldron steps Hiddleston’s sleek bachelor hero, Robert Laing, a successful physiologist. Hiddleston’s Laing, who takes an apartment on the 25th floor, is elegant, sophisticated and self-contained, a neutral observer. But as he comes to accept the startling shift in the residents’ behaviour, his own begins to change. ‘The impact of the building on his mind creates a volatility in him that’s very visible and dark,’ Hiddleston says.
The producer Jeremy Thomas, a veteran of some 70 films (including the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor), knew Ballard well and owned the film rights to High-Rise. He had wanted to adapt it for two decades, but ‘never managed to find a satisfactory combination of material and realistic budget size’.
Thomas had also produced the film adaptation of Ballard’s controversial novel Crash, about a group of people sexually aroused by car crashes, which, on its UK release in 1997, was banned by Westminster Council after a media outcry against it.
‘It’s been a long time coming,’ Thomas says. ‘I thought [High-Rise] was an amazing book when it was published – and it’s an amazing book today. Ballard was really prescient in his futurology.’
Wheatley approached Thomas and suggested it as a period piece – kept in the 1970s rather than treated as science fiction. It helped that in the past few years Wheatley’s reputation as a director has soared, thanks to low-budget films such as Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012) – all peppered with grisly murders and very dark humour.
A five-minute stroll from the walled garden is the old Bangor Castle Leisure Centre, built in 1973, a forbidding brutalist slab closed down a year before filming began. ‘We walked in here and found most of the film inside,’ Thomas says. ‘It has a swimming pool, a squash court and lots of corridors, all of which featured in scenes that had been written. So suddenly, we’re making the film in Northern Ireland.’
That meant a tax break for the £6.5 million production, with its 60-strong crew. It sounds a modest budget, but this is by far the biggest film Wheatley, 44, has directed; he completed Down Terrace, his debut, for just £6,000 in eight days.
Inside the leisure centre, the production team has gone to town: the swimming pool alone evokes the degradation and breakdown of order that occurs as the story progresses. Its water is a noxious yellow-tinged shade, and piles of debris – a lilo, a book, underwear, a discarded swimming costume, tissues – are floating. Bricks and boards are missing from its surrounds. It looks a complete dump.
A feeling of claustrophobia affects all the characters, whichever level of the high-rise they live on. There is the self-regarding Royal, who distances himself from the increasing chaos. Luke Evans plays Wilder, a documentary filmmaker and sexual predator; his career is on the skids, and he is determined to overturn the building’s existing order. James Purefoy is Pangbourne, a malevolent gynaecologist. Brutish staffers in tuxedos patrol Royal’s upper floors.
Sienna Miller plays Charlotte, a single mother who lives directly above Laing’s flat; she is vaguely amoral, but at least agreeable. Ann, Royal’s haughty, aristocratic and disenchanted trophy wife, throws extravagant costume parties, which give brief respite from her ennui.
The most sympathetic of the women is Wilder’s wife, Helen, played by American actress Elisabeth Moss, memorable as Peggy Olson in Mad Men. Helen is an earth-mother type and an innocent of sorts. She has two children and is pregnant with a third. Wilder, busy with his schemes, largely abandons her, and she shuts herself in her room, locking the door against the anarchy outside.
Moss tells me she chased the part after reading the script. ‘Ben’s a singular filmmaker. I wanted to play Helen. She’s almost the only one who doesn’t get corrupted. And this has been quite an experience. Sometimes it feels like we’re shooting a war film, with people walking around all bloody and dirty and bruised. Every scene, they pat you down with dirt. It’s a very post-apocalyptic world.’