With his latest movie, Ben Wheatley takes on JG Ballard science-fiction classic High-Rise. Ahead of the film's screening at Glasgow Film Festival, the genre renegade discusses the craft of filmmaking and explains why blowing up buildings isn't his bag
The Skinny’s chatting to director Ben Wheatley on the phone on the evening of the Glasgow Film Festival programme launch, with the Scottish premiere of his new film being among the screenings publicly announced as we speak. High-Rise, his fifth feature, is an adaptation of JG Ballard’s beloved 1975 novel. It's a dystopic tale of alienation, corruption and societal breakdown within the confines of a lavish apartment complex that starts off sleek and appealing, only to gradually transform into the kind of tower block that wouldn’t seem out of place in the world of Judge Dredd. Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons, as grand architect Royal, topline an impressive cast for the British director’s first foray into bigger budget filmmaking.
“What it gives you as a filmmaker is much more control,” Wheatley says of the scale change. “You can have much more control on very basic stuff like the colours of the rooms, how costumes relate to spaces, and how spaces relate to the overall design of the whole film. I think it’s a big difference.”
Over in the States, a lot of debut filmmakers (or at least white male ones) are getting plucked from indie breakout hits to helm massive blockbusters for their second turn at the bat. Fellow Brit director Gareth Edwards has been a recipient of this fortune (Monsters to Godzilla, and now an upcoming Star Wars spin-off), but Wheatley is one of this past decade’s emerging talents who’s been quite comfortable just making steady progress through a string of ‘smaller’ features, from Down Terrace and Kill List to Sightseers and A Field in England.
For Wheatley, this productivity is how he's honing his filmmaking. “When you look at the people who are any good at it,” he says, “over time they’ve done a lot, they’ve directed a lot of things. Ridley Scott did thousands of adverts in the 60s/70s. John Ford had done a hundred [short] movies before he did his first feature. And the making of stuff, it helps with learning the craft of it. I think if I’d gone from a short or low-budget feature to a massive movie, then I’d have been learning on the job, which would have been a bit terrifying. I shot my first film when I was [nearly] 40, so I’m not young, particularly, but I’ve spent time learning. Learning about how all the different departments work and how storyboarding works. I’ve done a lot of writing, I’ve worked a lot in television, and it’s always been slightly like baby steps just to make sure I knew what I was doing.”
The Style of High-Rise
High-Rise is Wheatley's most stylish film yet and the production design is key, with the film's modernist architecture shaping a lot of its action and thematic concerns. “We wanted to create a space that reflected the script, in the respect that the apartments themselves are by Royal, and they impinge on the lives of the people inside,” Wheatley explains “They’re not blank, clinical boxes. When you see the flats with these weird concrete shapes inside them, you feel like the building itself is stopping, somehow, the people inside the rooms making their own homes, and that was important. But then we also dealt with the period stuff – we wanted to make and create a kind of alternate 70s.
“We didn’t want to get into the world of things being too nostalgic or too obviously art design from the 70s. You see it in TV stuff sometimes where people have just gone for the greatest hits of what the 70s looked like. And that kind of collective memory isn’t really true, I don’t think, as someone who lived through it. If you look at design magazines now and go through them, you realise they don’t really reflect the period we’re living in at all. And yet in 30 years time, those magazines will be used by films to recreate this period. And I think that that’s the problem. A lot of the eclectic memory of the 70s is now being formed from an idea of a 70s that never existed.”
After watching High-Rise, this writer was reminded of the late Ken Russell when it came to the film’s disorientating foray into darkness. When we bring the comparison up, Wheatley expresses admiration: “I’ve certainly been appreciating the Ken Russell stuff a lot over the last few years, rewatching it. I’m a massive fan of The Devils. It’s a spectacular movie and one of the best British films made, if not one of the best films made. And it’s weird that... for me, it’s kind of the holy trinity of him and [Nicolas] Roeg and [John] Boorman, but they seem to be quite underappreciated for some reason. I don’t know why. I mean, when you see something like Point Blank... incredible film, and from someone who was very young at the time. I’ve been rewatching that quite a lot and it’s very modern, it doesn’t really date. And it’s interesting if you watch Point Blank and then watch The Revenant – basically the same movie – and see how Boorman handled that material in the 60s, in a much more incredibly clear way, and a more modern way, a sophisticated understanding of revenge and where it leads you to.”
“If Crash came out tomorrow, no one would bat an eyelid”
Wheatley’s holy trinity of Brit filmmakers certainly came under fire from censors at the time, as did the last major Ballard adaptation, David Cronenberg’s 1996 take on Crash. “If Crash came out tomorrow,” Wheatley says, “no one would bat an eyelid. It’s part of the general reclassification of cinema. I bought a copy of The Terminator the other day and it’s a 15 now. And I think most movies that were 18 from the 80s would be 15s now. I always wonder about it. I remember talking to people who lived through the first wave of horror films. In that period when they watched them as kids, those movies were the height of horror and the most terrifying thing ever. And now you watch them and they’re not scary at all. And I wonder if that’s happening to my films, the ones I thought were scary when I was a kid, which is a bit depressing. I pretty much thought the gig was up when I saw you could buy Cannibal Holocaust in WHSmith. They go from corrupting a nation to being just another re-issued DVD that doesn’t mean anything to anybody anymore.”
As we wrap up, we’re given a little insight into how films of the past have inspired Wheatley’s next film, Free Fire, a 70s Boston-set action thriller starring Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer: “I'd seen a lot of big Hollywood stuff and a lot of buildings blowing up. Incredible action sequences that should have been blowing me away, and I was watching them thinking, I just don’t care. I don’t understand why I don’t care about any of this stuff. It’s technically incredible, but it’s really boring and I don’t know why. And I kinda figured that maybe there’s something about the human scale of it. And I thought, what did I used to like in action films? I wanted to get back to that, really. To stuff where it was people fighting each other in a very intimate, close space. I think when the body count gets too high, it just gets silly, doesn’t it?” And with that, you can probably dash any hopes you might have of a Wheatley-helmed Marvel movie.
High-Rise has its Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival on 18 Feb followed by a Q&A with Wheatley
High-Rise is released across the UK 18 Mar by StudioCanal