“There’s something about the ’70s I find frightening” – Ben Wheatley on High Rise

We talk to Ben Wheatley about Tom Hiddleston, JG Ballard and ABBA

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Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise has proven to be somewhat divisive. His star-studded adaptation of JG Ballard’s classic novel, written by his partner Amy Jump, of an increasingly savage class war played out within the confines of an apartment block has found as many admirers as detractors at the various festivals it’s played at. With such a starry cast (Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller…) and such a well-known, well-loved source, everyone will have turned up with their own idea of what’s coming.

“Yeah, but you can’t help that, there’s nothing you can do,” the Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England director shrugs when we sit down with him. “It’s great that they do come at all! Expectations or no.”

The result may be divisive but you will have an opinion. We thought it was great; a witty, dark, stylish and biting satire with superb performances (our review is here), and we were very excited about talking to Wheatley about ’70s nostalgia, Tom Hiddleston, controlled chaos and the importance of ABBA’s SOS.

Is the book something you’ve been interested in for a while?

I’d read it when I was a teenager and it had always been kicking around in my head. After A Field In England, Amy and I were thinking about what were we going to do next and we were looking at licensing books and that was one that we had. We were just thinking “Why hasn’t it been made?”

I contacted my agent and he said that Jeremy Thomas had it, and then within three days I was chatting to him about it. We went straight back to the book, we didn’t look at any of the other scripts.

What is it about the book that makes it so resonant?

It’s so prescient. Ballard’s stuff is weird because, even though some of it is very specifically period, it still feels like it’s happening now. That’s possibly the way that we seem to go in and out of recession, it’s like a permanent ’70s then ’80s all the time. Slightly different pop music, but the reality of everybody’s houses are all fucked and they’re being turfed out, and after, oh no, everyone’s drinking champagne, you’re alright again. It’s just by a quirk of when you’re born and when your career hits its stride whether you get screwed by that or not.

It felt like there were many things happening now that were similar to the ’70s. You just change the names of the terrorist groups and the same kind of paranoia and government control seemed to be happening again. So it wasn’t a massive problem, it wasn’t like a story that was set in aspic in the past; it was something that was happening now.

But I think that’s a general thing about science fiction and about period dramas, they’re not necessarily about the future or about the past, they’re usually about now, they’re just dressed in a slightly different way so that you don’t feel like you’re being talked down to or talked at. You could do it now, right now, about what’s happening in London and people just wouldn’t want to know. They’d be tired of it. “Oh right, are you criticising me personally, directly about this?” It would be hard.

Tom Hiddleston contemplates power failure in High-Rise
Tom Hiddleston contemplates power failure in High-Rise

Is that why you decided to keep it set in the ’70s?

That was part of it. I was born in ’72 and Amy was born in ’72, so we know that period and we wanted to make something that was a little bit of our parents, and looking at it from that perspective. I’d also been thinking about things that made me feel uneasy and afraid, and the ’70s was one of them. There’s something about the ’70s that I find quite frightening.

But also there are bits of the novel that get really broken by the modern world. Mobile phones and Tweeting and Facebook and all this stuff really fucks up lots of types of films! High-Rise would be very different film with social media in it. Even though in the book they do have their own form of it, they’re filming stuff all the time and projecting stuff on the walls. That recording and self-regarding thing is another bit of Ballard seeing the future quite clearly. But yeah, that felt like it would break it.

It always feels like there’s a lot of nostalgia for the ’70s in movies.

There are different types of ’70s. For me, one of the things I liked about the ’70s was that it’s the last point in history I think that there’s an understanding of what the future will be. Towards the end of the ’70s, the future is Mad Max and post apocalyptic stuff and I guess Blade Runner is the end of it. Before that it was jet packs, and travelling to planets, and exciting stuff. And after that it isn’t. When you see modern science fiction, everything looks like iPads, doesn’t it? That doesn’t feel like the future, it just feels like now, only a bit better.

The future was a mystery in the ’70s and it doesn’t feel like a mystery anymore. That’s probably partly to do with the fact that postmodernism has kind of fucked it up, there’s no dreams of that stuff anymore because it feels a bit naff, but then you could have those big thrusting dreams and thoughts and it would feel right.

Was it intimidating to take on such a well-known book? Was it important to put that to one side?

Any film is intimidating, any time you step up to the bat you’ve taken a load of people’s money and you’ve got to make something, and then it’d better be good otherwise you don’t get to do it again! [laughs] That’s fucking absolutely harrowing every time, and also this film was complicated because it was a lot of characters and big set builds and all that kind of stuff, so that stuff was [intimidating].

But in terms of the dealing with the legacy of Ballard and stuff, you can’t really think like that otherwise it’s too scary, and you don’t want to double-guess it. The film is ours, Amy wrote the script and I filmed the script, and that’s the only way I can protect myself from Ballard and the book.

Luke Evans as the irascible Wilder
Luke Evans as the irascible Wilder

The cast is amazing, did you have specific actors in mind when you were writing it?

Definitely Hiddleston, we wanted him for Laing from the start. You look at who’s out there and Tom’s so perfect for that control, and he’s erotic but he’s kind of like…neurotic! And he’s kind of a threat but he’s super intelligent as well. That was perfect for us. We wanted to work with James Purefoy since seeing Rome. And working with Luke was great, I didn’t really know his stuff that well before but I remember seeing him in The Hobbit and thinking “Fuck, who’s that guy?” Then I saw him in The Great Train Robbery and he was fucking fantastic in that, so I met up with him and I just could see that apart from being a really nice bloke he has that seething angry kind of quality to him, yeah that was good!

I wanted to ask about Dan Skinner as well, he’s so perfect as Jeremy Irons’ threatening right hand man!

We didn’t tell him till the wrap party but we didn’t open cast, we just saw Dan and that was it. Amy was like “Come on; let’s get Dan Skinner to do something because he’s brilliant!” So we got him in and he just nailed it straight away. It’s an energy that’s very different from the other actors because of his comedy stuff, and as a person Dan’s own energy is interesting. And he’s big as well. You never realise how fucking tall he is, he’s a menace! And that’s great; I was really chuffed with all that.

Laing is tricky in a way because he doesn’t really come down on either side. Was he a tough character to get right?

Yeah, it’s scary and it’s in the heart of the book that he doesn’t. I remember when I re-read it I made a lot of assumptions about what was going to happen, “He’s going to be the alpha male and oh, he’s not, OK, and then Wilder is, and he’s not either, shit, and Royal…shit, he’s not either,” and that was really interesting for me.

It’s slightly nervy when you make a film where basically your matinee idol main character just doesn’t get involved and steps back, but I think that’s good because it’s the cowardice of it is the centre of the modern problem, isn’t it? It’s not doing anything and just letting it all slide and I think that felt more human.

Jeremy Irons as the tower's architect Anthony Royal
Jeremy Irons as the tower’s architect Anthony Royal

There are some brilliant sequences of chaos, were they carefully constructed?

The more chaotic things seem, probably the more controlled they are to make. It’s just dangerous! I think the scene where Luke and Tom dance in the party was the last day of the shoot, so it was a great day and they really let rip. It’s the tough thing of making sure those sequences feel alive. The kid’s party was good, basically we just had a kid’s party, just got them and riled them right up and up and they just went for it.

I really hate that in movies where you see there’s no energy in those parties. The hard thing is smoke, I was trying to get them to make it as smokey as things were then and it’s really difficult! I remember it as being just like a fucking fog! Not being able to see anything! We didn’t quite get there but it was nice to see so many people smoking in the film, it actually looked like it used to look. It’s going to a party when you’re sober, isn’t it, when everyone else is drunk is a terrifying experience!

There are some quite dramatic shifts in tone between quite manic dark comedy, violence and calm. Were they difficult to manage?

It’s structured in the script and we’ve done a lot of movies now that have those moments in it. On a very simple level, to maintain chaos, you need calm. If it’s all chaos it just becomes overwhelming. You need to pace stuff. When you look back at a Bogart movie from the ’40s there’ll be a song in the middle of it. They’ll always break for a song and that’s not by mistake. They’re like cabaret things. There’s a bit of action, a bit of romance, a bit of music and a family scene, and it’s part of that general package of entertainment. Without that it just becomes samey.

Laing connects with Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss)
Laing connects with Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss)

How have you found watching it with an audience?

I always love watching stuff with an audience, and US and UK audiences are very different. It’s a difficult one because the film is funny and there’s lots of jokes in it, and the laughs are all in different places every time. It’s not consistent! You go “and the laugh…oh, ok?” and then they laugh at something else. So I think it’s interesting.

It’s had quite a mixed critical reaction…

Yeah, positive and negative, but that’s fine as well you know? [laughs] It’s interesting reading that stuff and seeing which way people go with it, and if they go with it. I think it’s a movie that grows as you watch it again and again.

Did you had any adverse reactions to the opening dog scene?

No, it’s really weird! No one said anything about that. But we’ve slaughtered so many fake animals in our films! People always mention it in the reviews. There’s a special website now you can check if any dogs have been killed before you see a film if that’s important to you.

Finally, was ABBA’s ‘SOS’ always going to be in there? The Portishead cover is amazing, and the string quartet playing it is brilliant!

Yeah, it’s written in the script. And it’s something that we’d been working with; Sightseers had the use of double cover versions, before and after. I like that idea of taking pop and turning it into classical music so it was like a high and low culture moment vibrating, and then taking the brilliant lyrics of ‘SOS’ and refeeding them back in a more downbeat way.

High-Rise hits UK cinemas on 18 March 2016. Read our review of the film here. Get all the latest horror news with every issue of SciFiNow.