Ben Wheatley talks to RogerEbert.com about High-Rise
GLENN KENNY – ROGEREBERT.COM – 15th August 2016
British director Ben Wheatley’s first feature, 2009’s “Down Terrace,” escaped the notice of all but a handful of astute movie lovers in the States, but those happy few made enough noise that more cinephiles jacked in to 2011’s dauntingly uncompromising hitman nightmare “Kill List.” Working steadily with Amy Jump, the screenwriter and producer to whom Wheatley also happens to be married (Jump recently was a producer on Peter Strickland’s trippy erotic dream-film “The Duke of Burgundy”), Wheatley’s created a series of films that disorientingly keep one foot in the realistic while roaming the realms of the fantastic. His 2013 “A Field In England,” for instance, depicts a few deserting soldiers in 17th century England dealing with, among other things, the effects of organic hallucinogens they’re not even aware of having ingested.
The latest work from Wheatley and Jump is “High-Rise,” a visionary adaptation of a 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard, depicts the descent of an ultra-modern London apartment house into feral anarchy. In my 3 1/2-star review of the film, I wrote that “between the richness of incident—semi-riots in the high-rise’s grocery market, Laing’s completely arbitrary humiliation at a top-floor party, the intrigues of Charlotte’s sexual life—and the ripeness of the imagery, in which the formerly pristine surfaces of the building become defaced by blood and other substances, the filmmakers really do manage to visualize a distinctly Ballardian nightmare-scape.” On the occasion of the film’s U.S. release on DVD and Blu-ray, I had an opportunity to ask Wheatley some questions about the film; a transcript of their conversation follows.
I know you worked very closely with [adapting writer] Amy Jump, and you’ve said in previous interviews that she’s kind of handled the literary aspect of the picture. But I was wondering how you made the decision to set the movie within what one recognizes as the timeframe of the novel, in other words, a dystopia of the past, as opposed to setting it in today’s present or the future.
That was something that we decided very early on, obviously. When you adapt a book, it’s completely filleted and taken out, and the title remains. The form of the book and the film are very different. There are multiple acts in a book which wouldn’t exist in a film, or things that don’t cost as much as they do in a book, say a million people on a hill dressed in armor would be quite expensive. But also the basic attitudes of today change quite a lot, so you’d have to really start to bend the book to make it feel right now. And then the other main issue that we had, and ones that filmmakers are having in general with the modern world, is social media and mobile phones, which break a lot of plots and stories. The horror film is in good health at the moment, but it does suffer from the fact that you could just phone someone or phone the police or take a photograph.
But the idea that you could have a tower on the edge of the city that’s going quietly mad couldn’t really happen anymore. Now you could just take the elements of them fighting between different floors and spin some new story out of it, but it just wouldn’t be the book. We kind of really wanted to say it was as close to the book as we could.
I wondered about—and this is the last question I’ll ask about a specific book plot point—the business in Ballard’s book pertaining to the protagonist and the sister and the incest, which was jettisoned here in favor of different types of sexual intrigue, particularly between Sienna Miller and Jeremy Irons’ characters. Was that Amy’s idea? Or yours? How did that come about?
Well, that was Amy’s idea, yeah. The kind of official story is that there is only so much you can put in the film. The book, even though it’s quite slim ... the script was getting bigger and bigger, so some of the plots had to go. But that wasn’t the real reason we kicked it out, it was that we just didn’t want to deal with it. The incest side of it was just too complicated, and within the book it just feels like one more flavor of taboo-breaking. But within a film it would be about incest, it would be too strong. We didn’t want to go there, so she just wrote it out.
Your films all have a very distinct visual approach, and you’re clearly a director who has a really thorough appreciation to deploy visual language. And I wanted to ask you what your process was, beyond what the budget would allow you, in terms of ascertaining the visual language which kind of toggles between realism and dream throughout? What that process was like for you?
Increasingly, I draw a lot, and I never used to. There’s a kind of macho form of filmmaking where people don’t prep and they just turn up and feel it on the day, they’re the sort of people who call those who storyboard “cowards.” I could understand why someone would say that, but I plan extensively, it’s the cheapest way of watching the film and the only time it costs is mine. So I sit down, and I don’t storyboard in the traditional sense, in that when you storyboard complicated bits of cars crashing, you have to visualize that stuff and explain to all of the stunt people. But what I do is include everything, including all of the dialogue, the camera and the whole thing. I don’t necessarily stick to the boards, but the act of drawing them makes me think of things I would never think about. Doing collages and all the flashy stuff and all the strong images is all well and good, but the hard part of filmmaking is the ins and outs it seems, or the connective tissue of the story, which is much harder to get right than the main bulk of it in the middle. That’s just grunt work and imagination. But on set, I don’t look at them and I just put them away, but I already have gone through the muscle memory of the movie thoroughly and that helps.
Once you’re in the editing process, did you find that you had pretty much gotten what you conceived?
I think it depends on how you approach filmmaking. I’m quite process-driven, so when I get the film at the end, the film is the film, it’s not a massive compromise. I don’t come from that Hitchcock sort of filmmaking where it’s all planned out and if it’s not like the plan then it’s a mistake. Or he’s said that he’s already made the film once, properly, and now he’s going to record it on the film. It’s not a criticism or comment on that way of working, but I’ve always enjoyed the process with the actors and technical crew, everyone brings something. So if you’re deciding what they’re bringing then you’ve kind of shut yourself off. So you plan as much as you can, for your end of it. But I don’t know what Tom Hiddleston is going to bring. He’s going to do his thing, and he’s thinking really hard about it as well and he has all sorts of things going on in his head. He’s a great actor, and I’m not. I don’t want to tell him how to perform, I want to capture whatever is coming out. That’s the essential thing. It’s in the name, “director.” It’s guiding, not telling or ordering. And I think that’s a different style of filmmaking.
Speaking of the process of casting particularly, like with Tom Hiddleston or Jeremy Irons, I enjoyed Irons’ performance’s almost having a Boris Karloff-like quality to it ...
He does, yeah [laughs].
... I was wondering the extent to which those sort of things come naturally through the process.
From my end, 90% of the performance is in casting. I don’t stand there and tell them what to do, or even give them too much detail of what I want. I’m more trying to trick it out of them, but the more wily ones won’t go for the trick. If you’re having to tell people specifically what you want, then it’s kind of whatever they give you back. They’re not like photocopies, they’re not machines. They’re humans, and they have to be enjoying what they’re doing. You just have to have the space for them to play and feel like they can’t fail, and I think that’s really important. When everything is really stressed it doesn’t really work, I don’t think. So with Tom, he’d come to the house and there would be conversations between him and Amy and I, and we’d go over the character. But I think on the day, it’s an electrical, chemical thing of creating a mood for them to exist in, rather than too much of an intervention experience.
You worked with producer Jeremy Thomas on this film, and Jeremy has a really long track record of championing some challenging films. I wondered how you came to work with him and what you found the experience to be like?
It started with me trying to find out who had the rights to “High-Rise.” There’s not much available anymore, it’s all been bought up, and sits in vaults at Warner Bros. and Universal. But some books are available you know? And that was the case in point, I just called him and asked, “Who’s got ‘High-Rise?’” And he said, “It looks like Jeremy Thomas has got it." I talked to my agent and in three days I was talking to Jeremy Thomas in his office in London. And I think they had been developing the film for a long time and had gotten to the side of development where it hadn’t gotten anywhere—that’s not fair, it’s not that it hadn’t gotten anywhere, it’s that it wasn’t about to go into production. And then there was a really lucky moment, because Jeremy had seen “Sightseers” like that week, and if I had come to him the week before he wouldn’t have known who I was from Adam. He kind of went, “I really like ‘Sightseers,’ and I like who you are and your take on this,” and I had a kind of spiel prepared. But the other things that was kind of interesting working with him was that Amy decided that she didn’t want to be one of the people who turned up and asked for money to scripts for films that have been in development, that they’ve been wanting to make for 40 years. She said, “I’ll write his next script, and if Jeremy doesn’t like it we’ll just chalk it up to experience. and if he likes it, he can pay for it.” And that’s what she did, she disappeared and came back and at an appointment he decided to make the film.
Have you been gratified by the reception of the film from audiences? What has been the most interesting reaction you’ve gotten from viewers or audience members?
I’ve always made five-star, kind of one-star films [laughs]. There’s always people who really hate them and some who really love them. Geoff Barrows from Portishead said, “In music, that’s what you want. People love you and people hate you.” I feel that’s a slightly silver-lining approach to things. Really, you want everyone to like it, but with material like that it’s complicated and not something that’s going to happen. So yeah, I was prepared for it. But I think the thing that’s different is that we had film star actors in it who had followings of people, who had fans, and that was really interesting, I’ve never experienced that. The film itself becomes a bigger cultural pebble and ripples larger when being dropped in the pond. In the UK, I went on quite the press tour of preview screenings, and I did about 27 or 28 in the end. And the audiences were really good and really positive, and it made me kind of think that there’s a space for movies that are complicated. They don’t all have to be blockbusters, not to say that they aren’t enjoyable. But people are still hungry for films that intelligent and even difficult, and I think that was very encouraging. And the box office in the UK brought that out, that people came to see it, and by and large they really enjoyed it. That’s good, because that’s a worrying thing. The industry changes all of the time, it’s been up and down like a roller coaster since the beginning of the industry, and specifically the invention of sound. The film industry has been doomed since then. “It’s a disaster, there’s no more cinema.” But we’re always in that nightmare, and everyone has always been saying that with a certain type of movie being more popular than others, therefore the rest of cinema is destroyed and television has taken over. They’ve been saying that since the 60s. I think it’s like a shot in the arm to see that there is a kind of hope.