Ben Wheatley has been one of British cinema’s critical darlings ever since his 2009 feature debut Down Terrace, and he’s continued to experiment with form and genre since with the likes of Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. Working closely with his regular screenwriter (and wife) Amy Jump, he’s fashioned a distinct Wheatley style, even across a filmography that includes a thriller, a road trip comedy, and a psychedelic period war movie.
He’s back now with High-Rise, his big(ish) budget, star-studded adaptation of JG Ballard’s seminal sci-fi novel of the same name, documenting society’s collapse in the confines of a high-rise apartment block. The director sat down with Candid recently to discuss science fiction, ‘70s fashion, and getting Tom Hiddleston naked.
High-Rise is your first adaptation of a novel. What drew you to adapting this in particular?
We’d been a process of looking at adapting books around the time after we made A Field in England. High-Rise is a book that I’d read when I was a kid and really liked, and it’s one of the kind of keystones of British sci-fi. It’s weird, when I re-read it when I was 40, it felt like I’d been reading Ballard without reading Ballard for a long time, it had seeped into a lot of stuff that I liked – I read a lot of comics and stuff like that.
But the things that I liked about it when I was a kid, which were more the violence and the sex, all the good stuff, it was a different appreciation to when I read it as a married man with a kid. What I really started to enjoy about it, and interested me in making it into a movie, was that when I read it the first time it was too close to its publication, so you couldn’t really see the wood for the trees in terms of the predictive stuff. But now when you read it, you really start to appreciate how much he got right – or start to worry about how much he got right. That whole division of rich and poor, and the idea of people being subsumed by technology – High-Rise looks like a playbook for the modern world, pretty much. It’s quite chilling how much of it he gets right.
Did it change your process much to work from pre-existing material?
No, it was very similar to how I worked with A Field in England. That was a script that had already been written, and then I had to work with that script. It was already a step away from the other ways I’d worked before, which was using improvisation, workshopping kind of on camera.
My interaction with the novel is kind of minimal – my master is the script, not the book. So I didn’t go back to the book once I had the script, because where it’s been changed it’s not gonna help. So it didn’t massively change how I was working, but I think the thing that becomes an issue is more the worrying of how you’re gonna face the fans of the book. But then that didn’t really come into it, for me, until after we’d finished the project. Once we’d finished editing we were looking out into the world to present it to people, and then I started to worry. But I think if you try to double-guess people while you’re making it, you can compromise it quite badly.
Do you hope that High-Rise the film will drive some new people to track down the book?
I think it already has. But that’s not necessarily to do with the film per se, it’s also to do with Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans. It’s kind of galvanising their fans into spaces that they might not normally go.
On that note, you get Tom Hiddleston naked in the film. Was that just a blatant attempt to lure in Loki fans?
You know, totally cynical. I did want to make something that was sexy. It’s kind of a negotiation that you have with the audience, and humour is part of this as well. You give them something, and then you take it, and you give it, and you take it. The sensual side of the film is part of the deal with the audience, that you’re then gonna take them to places that they’re not that happy about, but you’ll take them to places that they are happy about as well. The film is relaxed, and it can have a dance, and have a drink, and have sex, but it can also be brutal, and brutish, and disconcerting.
What were you thinking about from a design perspective, in terms of making High-Rise look both futuristic and period at the same time?
What we had was a story that was written in the ‘70s but was projecting into a near future, ten years or five years ahead. Now we see it far in the future, and we look back at it and we kind of know what happens, and that’s the timeline from ‘75, the publishing of the book, to now. But the book exists in an alternate timeline, because obviously what happens in the book didn’t happen. So we wanted to make a ‘70s that was both recognisable but also not strictly the actual ‘70s.
But then also I wanted that feeling of ‘70s-ness that I remember as a kid, which is that I think we did have one of those football televisions in our house, but we also had a load of crap furniture from the ‘40s and ‘50s as well. The style and the look of these places is built up as a detritus and amalgamation of this stuff, rather than that come December 31 1969 they threw out all their stuff and brought in ‘70s stuff, that’s not how it works.
That level of building up dates was in the design, and also in the costumes. Hiddleston’s suit is a kind of ‘60s suit, not a ‘70s suit at all, and I was working from the theory that people give up on fashion at a certain point. Then they wear the same clothes for the rest of their lives. They’re interested in it until they’re 22 or 23, and then they just stop. In that period, when you have to get your first suit you’d get it cut in a certain way, and then you wouldn’t change it.
High-Rise is no exception to your oeuvre in that they’re all quite dark. Even Sightseers, which is probably your lightest one, is all about a killing spree. Could you ever see yourself making a film that didn’t have that darkness to it?
Yeah, maybe. I dunno. We did talk about writing a rom-com, or something that’s a bit more gentle. But it doesn’t feel very gentle at the moment, and hasn’t done for a long time. We have a joke between Amy and I that we always try and make the films different each time but then they always end up the same. That, to a degree, is true – they’re all at 90 degrees to each other, and yet they all hold the same themes and the same rhythms inside them. I think that’s probably to do with us as much as anything. Unless we’re gonna change I don’t think the films will change. We’ll try.
And your next film, Free Fire, looks to be similarly dark.
Yeah, it’s a thriller. It’s more action-y and genre-y. I don’t think it’s as challenging as High-Rise is formally.
You’ve got Martin Scorsese aboard as an executive producer. How did that happen?
When he was here doing Hugo, apparently he’d asked to see a load of British films, and apparently he saw Archipelago, and Fish Tank, and Kill List, amongst others. Then there was an article where he was asked, and he said, ‘Kill List is really good,’ so I was like, ‘Wow.’
My American agent is like three doors down from Scorsese’s agent, so I asked if I could meet him. That got sorted, and when I was doing American press for Sightseers I met him in New York, and went to his house and chatted to him. And he’d seen all the films that I’d made – he’d seen Down Terrace, and he’d watched all the extras, it was insane. We chatted for a good few hours, and for me, he’s the greatest living filmmaker. It was like visiting God.
We kept in touch, and he’s got his production company, Sikelia. We sent the script over for Free Fire and it went from there. It’s been amazing.
Are his films a touchstone for you then?
For me, the Scorsese stuff is a mixture of neo-realism and nouvelle vague. It’s a mixture of his love of Italian cinema and French cinema, but also his love of westerns and the big Hollywood projects. The liquidising of those two styles is my favourite kind of cinema, so that is a massive influence on what I’ve done.
Words by Dominic Preston