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There is No "Heavy-Handed" Anymore: Ben Wheatley on "High-Rise"

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 steadilly 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. 

In the States and to a certain extent in Great Britain, you find these cases where someone will make one genre film that acquires a cult, and that director will automatically get catapulted, almost to the state of being co-opted, and put into a franchise movie, a “Star Wars,” a “Star Trek,” something like that. And you’ve been making films your own way pretty consistently since the start of your career and hewing to that. Is there any career scenario you see as possible in which you’d get involved with something on a larger scale, or are there conditions attached to that, or is that something you are not even interested in? 

I am interested in it. I don’t know, usually I’m very frustrating to my American agents because I’m always busy. They’re like, “We’ve got this thing,” and I can’t do it because I’m full. It’s the investment and time that goes into Hollywood and to take the meetings, and that can be years of investment and time to get that to happen, you’ve got to be serious about it, it’s not something that just happens. All of those guys making those big movies, they didn’t get it by chance, they wanted it and they took the meetings and I think that side of it is not something that just will happen for me. But having said that, yeah I am kind of looking at ... I’m a fan of cinema and I think that the big movie is part of that type of cinema. It’s not the endgame, it’s not like getting to a plateau where it’d be like, “Okay, from now on everything’s a 100-million film or 150-million and I don’t want to do anything else.” In my career already I’ve jumped back and forth with budgets and didn’t have any choice, but I’ve always been reasonably perverse with my choices of stuff, I do what I like and what I enjoy. Like they say, “Always tell the truth, it’s easy to remember,” and I think that’s how I’ve kind of always looked at my career. If I’m doing something that’s fun for me, hopefully that will come through in the work and people will enjoy it. But I never say never to anything, I don’t really get a say in it. Will they come to me is the question, and that’s kind of happening a bit. 

If you’re too busy making movies to take a meeting, what are you working on now? 

There’s a lot of stuff going on, [I am] writing a lot and doing a lot of drawing which is really pleasurable. I’ve been drawing and drawing storyboards and coloring stuff in, and feel very much like a kid at the moment, which is great. But we’re working on “Wages of Fear,” a remake of the original French movie which was famously remade as “Sorcerer,” as well. Which is a crazy thing to do, frankly. It’s been remade quite officially really well, and remade a number of  times unofficially as well. But it’s a great story, and I think it’s a story that film fans might know about it, but I don’t think the general audiences do. And they’ll enjoy as much now as when it came out in the 50s. And also the potential of having another version of “Wages of Fear” and have it open the week before another version of “Star Wars” tickles me quite a lot. But then there’s that, and I’m working on a script that Amy and I are writing which is something that we really like to do, which is another American-set thing, and then there’s some big sci-fi stuff we’re working on as well. There’s quite a lot on the runway, but we’ll just see what’s going to happen. I think it’s all really interesting to see what happens after “Free Fire” comes out. 

I wanted to maybe ask you about the Margaret Thatcher sound bite at the end of “High-Rise." When did that come into play? Was that scripted?

That was a massive thing to me when I read the script. Amy had written it in and I remember reading it and having my breath taken away. I think that depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, it kind of irritates you or not. And it also depends on what age you are. For us, for Amy and I, we’re in our mid-40s now, the kind of figure of Thatcher is divisive, and we’re not big fans [laughs]. But for some people, she’s been rehabilitated as a kindly old lady of Britain. So you get these weird reactions to the sequence at the end. And also the other thing that amuses me critically is when people go on and say, “It’s too heavy-handed, banging the nail on the head.” But you look at the news and there is no "heavy-handed" anymore. It’s impossible to be heavy-handed compared to what’s going on in the news, politically both in America and the UK. So, that side of it made me laugh and laugh. If you don’t get it, if you don’t understand it, what we’re saying in “High-Rise” is subtle and calm compared to the reality of what is happening now. 

And I also remember when Elvis Costello debuted the song “Tramp the Dirt Down” which was his Thatcher song, and people didn’t sing along with that, and it’s kind of interesting that she’s been remade as a feminist icon in some respects, which she herself would disdain. But when I re-watched the film I was looking through some of my own Ballard materials, A User’s Guide to the Millennium and RE/Search and so on, and he was pretty cagey about his specific politics, to the extent of not really discussing them at all, which I always found kind of interesting. 

Yeah, well I think as an artist you should be. I’ve been invited to go down to Downing Street or get involved with shaking hands with the Queen and all this kind of carry-on, and I’ve always said, “No, you’ve got to be apart from it.” If you officially lean one way or the other, you’re suddenly hobbled by it, you can’t suddenly criticize it. I’m not a fan of politicians full-stop. In my own experience of it, which is sitting through the Thatcher years and finding that really uncomfortable and horrible, and then being really excited about the Labour Party coming in, and for Tony Blair to be as far as I’m concerned much worse than Thatcher, it’s like “That’s it, I’m done.” It’s a two-party system and there’s no party to choose from. You have to look through both sides to get there and once you’re at the other end of it after 20 years, you’re like “What was that?” That’s really bad, and I’m not going to ever have a short memory about that, and go, “Oh well, the Labour will be alright.” I just won’t. 

I read that when you were researching “High-Rise” that you had spoken to people who knew Ballard and tried to get opinions from people who were in his circle. And I guess you watched the only handful of films made from Ballard novels. But if you feel comfortable, tell me how you rated the ones that you did watch? I used to know Jonathan Weiss, who directed a very interesting version of the “The Atrocity Exhibition” which sank into obscurity pretty quickly after showing at Slamdance in 1999. But I know Ballard was pretty high on that film. 

He was very generous about all of the film adaptations, but I think he was fascinated by cinema. And he knew the difference between films and books. You know, that’s the uniqueness of the literary form. It’s not something you can just copy and paste into a script, it doesn’t work. I’ve been thinking about it—the novelist is in the room with the torch, looking at stuff in the room and describing it. But the film is this big ol’ camera in the room and captures everything you can see. It’s a whole lot at once. And that’s the difference in the form. A lot of stuff that works in the book will not work on the screen. But I think that’s the strength the novel, that you can keep introducing strange things and it all fits within the context and you can control that flow of information, and you just can’t with a film. You’ve got time to think about it in a book, you’ve got time to go back and re-read, it’s essentially a non-linear experience, but the film there’s no going back really, not in the cinema. If you were home you could, but that’s not how you experience a film, normally. A comic book you flip backwards and forwards on the pages as well, you know? On a film you don’t. [Ballard] knew they were tough things to get his ideas from his novels onto the screen, and fully supported the filmmakers and that’s great. And having gone through the experience and feeling the weight of expectations and the responsibility that you feel one way or another about the fans, I understand the pressures that the other filmmakers go through as well.

"High Rise" is now out on Blu-ray and DVD. Click here for more information.

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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