With its titular monolithic housing block and alt-’70s setting, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a bit of a design dream – even if the film itself hews closer to nightmares. Brutalist architecture and modernist opulence abound, so we grabbed the chance to ask production designer Mark Tildesley about working on the film. With a track record that includes 28 Days Later, Sunshine and 24 Hour Party People, Tildesley’s no stranger to ambitious design work, but High-Rise would put anyone through their paces.
One of the most interesting things about High-Rise from a design perspective is that the setting is both slightly futuristic and sci-fi, but also very period and ‘70s. How did you approach that?
We tried to avoid the classic, clichéd ‘70s palette. If you take today and you look around you, you’ll see things from the past and some things that feel like they’re from the future. So we didn’t just do the classic thing of taking a ‘70s book and following through with classic furniture and paintings and things like that. We tried to mix it up a bit with things from the past, so the world’s not just the commercial cliché ‘70s.
And then, rather than trying to be futuristic, it sort of floats in a world that’s slightly strange. So we tried to make it mildly theatrical, and that comes across in both the design and even the CG stuff is more painterly than plastic. So in a way it’s not necessarily sci-fi, it’s just a sort of altered, or slightly strange, world. It is obviously a premonition of the future and what’s going to happen, before it’s time, from the ‘70s.
We spoke to Ben Wheatley recently, and he said a similar thing about bringing in ‘50s and ‘60s design elements to avoid that clichéd ‘70s palette–
We started with Le Corbusier, looking at the Unité d’habitation project in Marseille – a beautiful piece of architecture, all ‘50s. And the Barbican, which started in the ‘60s but feels like it’s from the ‘70s.
Was there any specific bit of the design work for High-Rise that proved particularly challenging?
Ben had this idea that the five megalithic blocks of flats make up a hand. When you view them as a group, they’re actually designed around the idea of a hand that’s sunk into the ground. So the tops of the blocks bend in a very, very strange way. Nowadays, the engineers would just deal with that – that’s going on all over the world. But from that period, that’s quite tricky. So it was actually very tricky from a design perspective to make that real. For the CG, we had to give them a template of all the flats, how they looked together, all that stuff. So I had a young architect work with me, trying to draw that up, and it’s actually only just plausible, the way that leans. It would probably fall over.
So that was quite tricky to form. We just drew some hands and worked backwards into the design. I’m sure some of the great architects do that – big fat scribble and then pass it to the engineers. “Work this out!”
It was also tricky to be inventive about the levels of each of the flats. You have this strata, this spectrum, of people who live on the upper floors, the middle floors, and the lower floors. We decided to make it three distinct levels, within which there are different people, but three main levels, all coded in colours. But it was quite hard, because we had about nine different flats, and it was difficult making each level a slightly different size and scale.
You don’t have a thousand different types of flat in a block – they have about four different types in the Barbican. So those designs of the flats are like building bricks, like Lego. They pull apart and go into a different shape – the same objects, just moved around. In fact we flipped a lot of the angular pillars up the other way, and stuff like that.
The thing that was interesting was that at the end we’d run out of ideas, and we had to turn the last flat around. Ben said, “Let’s flip it in the camera.” So we switched all the graphics and everything – same flat, obviously redecorated a bit, but we flipped it around so it was a left-hander rather than a right-hander. It was great, a nice quick, tricky way.
Words by Dominic Preston