High-Rise Director Ben Wheatley Talks Hiddleston, Kubrick, And Doctor Who
If British director Ben Wheatley isn’t on your radar yet, you haven’t been paying close enough attention. After making a splash with a series of micro-budget shorts, he moved into television and advertising, before graduating to feature films with a string of striking, divisive, and occasionally shocking indies: Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England. While these films failed to cross over into the mainstream, Wheatley emerged as a critics’ darling, earning acclaim at festivals all over the world. Having also earned the respect of prominent actors and producers, he managed to attract a bigger budget and some major stars (Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss) for High-Rise, a challenging and unconventional adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel about the escalating tensions in a British apartment building. A devoted cinephile, Wheatley spoke to us about his many cinematic role models, his impressions of Hiddleston, and the value of Doctor Who boot camp.
Space: You directed two episodes of Doctor Who right before shooting High-Rise? How did that prepare you for the experience?
Ben Wheatley: I’d taken the Doctor Who thing on for two reasons. One, I was a massive fan of the show and my son was 10 at the time and I wanted to do something that he could see. The other reason was that I kind of wanted to get up to speed. I treated it a bit like boot camp. I knew that the production was going to be fast and furious—I think it was like an eight-week shoot for two episodes—but at the same time quite high budget, so building big sets, lots of expensive kind of Louma Crane stuff, and lots of costumes and things, so I wanted to basically just sharpen myself after doing something that was a little bit more low key like A Field in England, which was a twelve-day shoot all in one location with no lighting. It sharpened up my ability to block actors on the spot, make decisions fast, that kind of thing.
How did you know Tom Hiddleston was the right actor to play Lang?
I’d watched his stuff. The first time I saw him was in The Avengers—I didn’t even see the first Thor film to be honest—and I just thought he was so brilliant. It immediately made me seek out all his other movies. I was joking with Tom that I think The Avengers is titled wrong. It should be called Loki because it really is the story of Loki. Everyone else is just bit parts and then there’s his particularly venal, pathetic attempt to kind of get back in with his dad. So he’s great. And then I’d seen the Joanna Hogg movies (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition) that he’d made and they were brilliant and I started to look at his career and I thought, ‘God, he does all these massive big Marvel movies, but he’s also doing a lot of interesting indie work and there’s no contradiction there.’ He can happily bounce backwards and forwards between making these very subtle films and then making these big bombastic Hollywood movies. You can see he’s smart, you feel that onscreen, but also there’s a kind of edge to him, a kind of neurosis almost. But that mixed with a kind of film star pose, poise, and good looks—that all just made me think he would be the perfect choice for Lang.
Like the novel, your film is set in the ’70s, but its social critique also applies to the present. What’s your general sense of the period we’re living in now and how did that inform your take on High-Rise?
There are many things that are similar, in terms of the political situation, terrorism, and the kind of ecological worries of the two periods except, oddly, in the ‘70s everyone was more worried about an oncoming ice age—which seemed to be a real threat at the time—and the problems with acid rain. The terrorism is obviously ideologically completely different, but at the same time, the net effect is the same. Just small amounts of people making everyone else feel terrified. So yeah, I think it’s very similar and then you’ve got the financial collapse and those kinds of issues. Sadly, I find that it’s a kind of binary thing: we’re either living through a ’70s or we’re living through an ’80s and it’s taken me this amount of time to have seen several—or at least two—go-rounds of the political system in the UK to see that the left and the right aren’t particularly different from each other and that the whole thing is very cyclical, so something that was set in the ‘70s, sadly, doesn’t seem any different from now.
Your producer Jeremy Thomas was friends with JG Ballard. Was he able to shed any light on Ballard or his intentions with the novel?
What Jeremy was saying and what you can see in interviews with Ballard is that he’s very generous toward the adaptations of his stuff and he knows that there’s a difference between the literary world and the film world. It’s really difficult to say whether he would be happy with the adaptation, but Jeremy seems to think he would have been and certainly Bea Ballard, his daughter, has said the same—and other people that were close to Ballard, but it’s not for me to say really.
Nicolas Roeg was planning an adaptation of High-Rise with Jeremy Thomas back in the ’70s. Do you have any sense of how that might have compared to the film you ended up making?
From what Jeremy was saying about it, there isn’t any paperwork or any sense of what it would have been. They went on to make Bad Timing, so I guess it would have been in the same vein. That was where Roeg and Jeremy Thomas’ heads were at that point, so I guess that’s the closest clues we’ve got to what the film might have been. It’s a film I would have desperately loved to have seen. It’s a really sad thing that it didn’t happen. It’s a great lost movie, up there with Jodorowsky’s Dune, the Kubrick Napoleon, and things like that. But I don’t know what it would have been like and I can’t draw comparisons because they would not be flattering to me I don’t think.
You’ve referred to Roeg, Ken Russell, and John Boorman as your “holy trinity.” Now that you have some distance from High-Rise, can you see their influence on the film?
Yeah, I think so. It’s really difficult because I don’t specifically make references in films. I try not to. Maybe there are little bits here and there, but it’s not a general scheme. It’s not how I work. And yet when I look back on the movies, I can see them much more clearly over time. I think the style of filmmaking I have is influenced by every film I’ve ever seen, but certainly there’s a conversation that they were having in terms of how you deal with time and how you edit, which I guess kind of started with the French New Wave. It’s a conversation that you see in the Scorsese stuff and in Spielberg’s early movies as well, but that also goes back to Eisenstein. You can trace these things back and back. Also, there’s that kind of kitchen sink realism thing that people see in my work, but that also goes back to Italian neorealism, so these things don’t ever really come from one spot.
High-Rise has many parallels to the work of Stanley Kubrick: the ‘70s futurism of A Clockwork Orange, the confined location of The Shining, there are some Wendy Carlos flourishes in Clint Mansell’s score.
The Kubrick stuff’s more surface because I think that Kubrick himself, you can do shots that look a bit like Kubrick, but his outlook and his politics and his story construction are unique to him and you can’t really get anywhere near it. Using wide angle lenses and occasionally tracking down corridors may look a bit like Kubrick, but it’s not a direct thing. To be properly influenced by him is a much more complicated thing. And I don’t even know that you could do it because he’s not just a filmmaker, he’s almost a genre of his own.
But there are a few moments in the film that seem to derive their meaning from a reference. I’m thinking specifically of the moment after one of the characters falls from the building. The way sound is used and the building is framed gets the viewer thinking about the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I think you could say that. I don’t know if we thought about it at the time, but there’s something about the way he looks up and the shape of that building. It also performs the same function in the film that it does in 2001, which is that it’s a moment of epiphany and it’s a moment of change within the movie. It’s the moment that they all join together and decide that there’s going to be a change in their behaviour, but it’s also a kind of unsaid human thing, which I quite like because as soon as you become literal about this plot, it becomes ordinary and easy to pick apart.
High-Rise also has several connections to the films of David Cronenberg: J.G. Ballard, Jeremy Thomas, Jeremy Irons, all kinds of Shivers parallels. How has Cronenberg influenced your approach?
I’ve always loved Cronenberg’s work and I think that, as a filmmaker who came from both the avant-garde and genre at the same time, watching his career path is incredible. That he was able to make mainstream movies that were so incredibly weird at the same time and not really compromise that vision is really very inspiring. He casts a massive shadow.
Martin Scorsese came out as an outspoken fan of A Field in England and he’s now an executive producer on your next film, Free Fire. What kind of interaction have you had with him?
I’ve met him quite a few times and talked through the project. It’s quite the thing to meet Scorsese for me and for anyone I guess who loves film. For me, it’s as close as you get to meeting a film god.
High-Rise opens today in Toronto, Guelph, and Vancouver. For a list of additional Canadian cities, go here—and be sure to watch the trailer below.