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‘Working for the building’: An Interview with Ben Wheatley

Author: • May 30th, 2016 •

Category: alternate worlds, architecture, Ben Wheatley, brutalism, features, film, gated communities, urban decay, urban revolt, urban ruins, William Burroughs

Ben and Amy

Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise opened earlier this year, garnering praise, bemusement and opprobrium in roughly equal measure. Some critics perceive a lack of fidelity to the novel, while others attack the film for misogyny. Still others hail it as a thoroughly Ballardian triumph.

In this exclusive interview, Jamie Sherry speaks to Wheatley about the process of adapting the film, Wheatley’s attraction to Ballard, and his working relationship with scriptwriter and editor Amy Jump.

Welcome to the High-Rise.


What first drew you to Ballard?

Initially, I really enjoyed the cult appeal of his work, or more specifically the counter-cultural aspect. His books, particularly Crash and High-Rise, were like rites of passage for anyone trying to read subversive and counter-cultural literature. Alongside Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, they were books you had to read. But I was especially struck by Ballard’s use of language and turns of phrase, which didn’t feel like any other writer I had come across.

Although I enjoy SF, and that was also part of the charm of his novels, I also think it was books like The Atrocity Exhibition and then his 70s books that really hooked me in. When I was a teenager, there were two writers that really appealed to me: Burroughs and Ballard. They weren’t just authors and novelists in the traditional sense, they seemed much more dangerous and enigmatic than other writers. Burroughs naturally has a mystique because he shot his wife in the head and was a junkie, and therefore the extremity of his fiction was partially mirrored in his real life.

But the thing is, there was something about Ballard that was even stranger and perhaps more insidious, in the sense that he didn’t do those extreme things and was living a quiet, suburban life as a father to three children while also pouring out these amazingly perverse books. That had a big effect on me, but I was also aware of him through music, comics and other media. I wasn’t a particularly voracious reader of novels, so in some ways I experienced Ballard through a kind of cultural response to his work.

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High-Rise producer Jeremy Thomas and Ben Wheatley on set. Photo via.

Ballard’s normalcy is brought up a lot. People assumed he was like a character in his novels. Have you experienced this type of projection yourself?

Yeah, I think people do assume I’m a mixture of various elements in my films. It’s one of the many misunderstandings about people who create difficult material. There is a presumption that I’m much crazier and darker than I am, but also angrier and confrontational. Actually, I think I’m quite affable. For me, it’s easier to sit in front of 200 people at a screening and be jolly and crack jokes, which I suppose is a bit of a defence mechanism. People seem surprised by that.

What attracted you to High-Rise?

When I first read it as a teenager, it fitted in very neatly with themes I was interested in anyway, like society collapsing and people’s responses to that. I also really liked Mad Max and was reading a lot of SF comics like 2000 AD. The first edition of 2000 AD I read was ‘Block Mania’ from 1981, which has so many themes relevant to High-Rise. For me, it was the perfect primer for reading Ballard. It would be easy to see it as a High-Rise for kids, but actually for what it is, 2000 AD is extremely sophisticated. There are many similar themes in the comic, which thinking back now, would have come out only about six years after the novel, so that for me was very interesting.

High-Rise: the French trailer.

Why did you retain the novel’s 70s setting?

I think if we had set it during any other time, too many elements would have to be removed, or it could simply have become too disconnected from the novel. There would’ve been the danger that the bare bones of the plot are retained but you end up with something that is essentially just an action movie. For me, to get to that point means you may as well just make another film entirely, as it would become just so fundamentally different.

Amy and I went into this with the idea that if we are going to adapt a book, which I have never done before, then we should fully mine the book for every element you can take from it, and whatever you can make work. It’s not like the book is this inconvenience or an obstacle to the making of the film. You can’t just take the title, and then suddenly you have something that is vaguely famous that you can latch your own story onto. Even though Amy changed sections and certain elements of the novel, and there were specific parts that we did not want to include for various reasons, in the front of our minds was always this concept that we were adapting the book. Adapting Ballard’s novel. That was crucial. It wasn’t about how we could meet the demands of the book, but rather how the book meets us.

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Jeremy Irons as Royal in High-Rise.

It’s a conflation, presumably, of a number of things.

The book is probably talking about a near future, perhaps 1979, or even into the 1980s. So it’s more like an alternative reality that sits underneath the main narrative timeline. What happens in the book does not happen in real life, naturally. From our vantage point, now we can see the 70s in its totality, even though those truths are different for different people. The film is an alternative, notional idea of the 70s, as explored in the book. High-Rise is a SF film but it’s also a period film – so it’s about the 70s, and now, and into the future. The 70s was the last time there was social optimism about the future. We don’t have that now; in fact, society’s view of the future has become bleak and dystopian.

The Margaret Thatcher quotation at the end of the film is quite surprising; it seems to anchor the film in the real world. You’re emphasising that the film is a threshold onto a new period, alluding to the damaging effects of free-market capitalism.

Firstly, you have to get over the shock of hearing Thatcher’s voice. What I really loved about that when I read Amy’s script was that it was really chilling. I find Thatcher really scary. But we also wanted to place the film in a loop. Typical dystopian narratives seem to revolve around a resolution, of trying to start again, to resurrect civilisation through farming or whatever. But High-Rise ends with the idea that we are moving into the 1980s.

‘Industrial Estate’ (1979) by The Fall, heard over the end credits.

The winter of discontent is over and a new optimism is forming, based around wealth and aspiration.

Yes, and a new bunch of Royals, Laings, Wilders and Charlottes will come to the fore. Nothing changes, really. It is a cycle, and that pattern will repeat itself, as we are seeing now. So for me, the voice of Thatcher is almost like this monster stalking the land and coming for them, but they don’t realise what it means yet. Toby doesn’t know what will happen, but we do. Thatcher exists around the high-rise like an airborne virus. Toby has lost his parents, and then he finds this new, political parent – Thatcher’s voice on the airwaves – through his homemade transistor device. It’s beaming right into his head.

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Louis Suc as Toby in High-Rise.

The easy way of talking about High-Rise would be to categorise it and explain it as one single entity, but I don’t feel it is any one thing. For me, the novel moves very rapidly through a number of different types of narrative, one after the other. High-Rise gets categorised as Class War; it kind of is for a split second and then it isn’t again. That’s what I felt when I re-read the book, that Ballard is compressing a lot of stories very quickly into one novel. A lot of that for me was confounding your expectation of the story, or assumptions about theme and genre.

When I read the novel I made a lot of those assumptions, and so my irritation with how others choose to interpret my film from quite a narrow position is informed by my own misinterpretation of the novel, and my need to backtrack and unpack each element as I was reading it. When I came back to it, I thought the novel was like Metropolis with the working classes on the bottom and the upper classes on top, but it plainly is not.

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Ben Wheatley: High-Rise storyboard.

The building in your film is a real achievement of design. Was it important to get that right?

Many people feel like they want to live in the building, and they quite like it until all the weird shit happens, which I think is surprising, but enjoyable. Mark Tildesley, our production designer, and myself spent a lot of time making sure the building looked and felt real, but we also didn’t want it to be a parody of Brutalist architecture. It was important that it wasn’t filled with elements of the 70s that have become clichés, like circular televisions and 70s crockery, and the men wearing ridiculous flares and kipper ties. We wanted to be of the time but also out of time. One of the things we wanted was this idea that the 70s never existed in isolation. All houses have furniture that dates back to previous decades, so we didn’t want the contents to be only of that time. We wanted it to avoid it looking quintessentially 70s. But there are cultural echoes in the building, with references to cinema and television of that period.

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Still from High-Rise.

Then we had practical considerations, such as the fact that in the script there are conversations from balcony to balcony. I think we made assumptions about how that would function visually. I stayed in a very Brutalist hotel in Slovakia, but when I went out onto the balcony I realised that it wouldn’t work at all because you would see heads popping out. It was an awful wake-up call. So, we did storyboards and we started to see the building like a hand, with the towers like the fingers, and the swimming pool wrapping around it like a pond or a palm of the hand. We realised that having the towers slightly bent made it look like a hand coming out of the ground. So the fingers created these sloping balconies, and characters could actually interact between them. For us it was initially a technical necessity, but quickly it starts to affect the aesthetics of the building as well.

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Tom Hiddleston as Laing in High-Rise.

Laing’s apartment is completely bare, and the concrete is very apparent. It’s sparse, with just the photograph of his dead sister on the wall and some squares where he has tested paint. But you get a strong sense of the building by observing his room.

The building is literally in the room. Mark and I wanted the structure of the building to come into people’s space, to infiltrate their normal lives. That came about because I stayed in a hotel in Sweden and there was this large pillar in the middle of the room. So the building was impinging on the room, which they were making available at the cheapest rate. It was like they didn’t give a fuck about the people staying there, no thought of comfort.

But it’s important that the film isn’t seen as a critique of Brutalist architecture. The building itself is a metaphor, and although it has a presence, it is more about the characters and how they react to it, and the choices they make.

Ben Wheatley’s Innocent Smoothies TV ad (2011).

You’ve directed commercials. Has that affected your filmmaking?

Firstly, it’s massively helpful, and allows directors to work and live and pursue projects in that early planning phase when there is no actual money around. I’ve directed commercials for many years, which has not only been financially helpful but has also given me a really good grounding for something like High-Rise. People have asked how this bloke who makes small films for little money, a lot of it with handheld cameras, could cope with something of the size of High-Rise, in terms of camerawork and money management. My answer is that I have been doing that sort of thing for years.

Jeremy Thomas said you watched Ridley Scott’s commercials as research for High-Rise.

Yes. Scott talks about that work on commercials as being the basis for much of the work he eventually did on Blade Runner and Alien; he said he filmed over a thousand ads during the 70s. I had seen a lot of the key ads but not all of them, and I wanted to see what he was producing prior to those films. I find that really fascinating, and not just because I shoot adverts. He was obviously projecting a future 1970s himself – a kind of glamorous 70s that never really existed. It tapped into that nostalgia for a 70s, which resulted in optimistic, nostalgic messages about Britain, exemplified by Scott’s famous Hovis ad.

Ridley Scott’s Hovis commercial (1973).

That advert is made in 1973, just out of the 60s, and just a couple of years before Ballard’s High-Rise. It was a time of great optimism, the vast majority of which was misplaced.

It was a past that never existed and did not reflect a future Britain, either. I found that very relevant to what we were doing with High-Rise. The thing about Scott is that those advertisements were so incredibly expensive that if you had the same pro-rata budget for a feature film, it would take you about a year to shoot it, whereas Scott is spent two to three days to shoot 30 seconds, and it cost a fortune. Those 70s ads are the budget equivalent of Star Wars or more – so you can’t really replicate the look of it as it is produced within an advertising bubble.

Why did you decide to film High-Rise in Bangor, in Northern Ireland?

There has been a cull of Brutalist buildings, and some of the best ones are constantly used, such as the Barbican and various universities. We tried to use Birmingham Library, but they knocked it down. Amy looked around the Docklands but couldn’t find anything suitable. So going to Bangor was partially out of necessity. We were lucky to find locations like an abandoned leisure centre, which was across from a police station so it wasn’t vandalised. It had a swimming pool, squash courts, a gym and five-a-side football pitch. It also had two basketball courts with high ceilings that we could use to build sets. We also found an empty supermarket that wasn’t being used.

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Still from High-Rise.

Royal’s roof garden was actually shot in a garden in Bangor, which Mark found almost by accident when he was wandering around the city. That made a huge difference to the film, and when we first saw it we were struck by how much it was like the garden in Last Year in Marienbad – it was incredible. At that point, our budget would not allow us to create a space like that so it was a massively helpful find, and works very well.

Tell us about the process of adapting Ballard’s novel. How did this project differ from your previous films?

On the one hand, it gives you something unambiguous and centred – there is this story and structure that is already mapped out. That element, which is always such a struggle in the early stages of making a film, is gone. It also gives you an audience, which is a brilliant starting point, and a comfortable place to be for an independent filmmaker. But conversely, it also gives you some aggravation because the normal processes of changing and amending are constrained by the book. So, there is an extra level of anxiety. What you don’t want to happen is the erosion of the book, or for it to disappear, or to anger people. In our films, normally if something doesn’t work we just get rid of it either at script stage, during filming or in the edit. But you can’t with an adaptation so much, because every moment you have taken from the novel is there for a reason.

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Ben Wheatley:High-Rise storyboard.

What I liked about adapting the novel is that it forces you into a rhythm and a structure that I wouldn’t normally think of. So, in traditional film storytelling terms, you have the three-act structure, where the character realises something in the second act, and then survives and learns something by the end. But in High-Rise, that is not really possible, as the novel is not structured like that at all. Laing simply does not act like a traditional Hollywood hero. In fact, neither does Wilder, Royal, Charlotte or any of them, really. Being in that alien territory is really exciting and new for me and is simply not something I would conjure out of thin air. That element of character might be frustrating for audiences but it’s there in the novel and I wanted to retain it.

What were some of other aspects of the novel you were keen to retain?

I think we sweated over the intangible Ballardian quality of the novel. To keep Laing as a Ballardian hero was really important, as well as trying to attain that tone, which is difficult to describe, but you know it when you read it or see it. Not only that, but it’s a slippery concept in itself. Laing’s detachment, and the way he observes without really getting involved, is troublesome for film. The temptation was to make him more proactive and to get him more involved in the main plot points, but we didn’t want to do that.

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Tom Hiddleston and Ben Wheatley on the set of High-Rise. Photo: Aidan Monaghan.

We always wanted Laing to be someone observing events rather than initiating anything. He’s a bystander and although he does take part, he does not actively attempt to force an escalation of violence. The narrative really seems to offer up disappointment – we learn about these characters and then their actions and reactions disappoint us. When I think about what I would do in that situation, it wouldn’t be anything other than something completely cowardly and venal.

You retain the Ballardian theme of reconstruction and artifice. We see Royal’s recreated, quintessential Britishness on the top floor, perhaps a reference to the Britain recreated in Shanghai during Ballard’s childhood. And I like the use of Wilder’s filming and the projections.

We knew we were going to use Wilder making his documentary about the building, but then with the multiple projections, the High-Rise starts actually becoming like YouTube, with rooms for viewing what is happening around them. That needed to be confined to the building. This was why both Amy and I felt that the story had to happen in the 70s because if it were set now, we would have people sharing images and video on social media.

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Luke Evans as Wilder in High-Rise.

You seem to have arrived at a very mutual and productive working relationship with Amy.

Our working process is unusual, maybe. It’s not me flicking through the book and then giving notes to her. Amy had the book, and went and wrote the script, and then she then presented it to me. She’s a much better writer than me, so even if I’m not sure about something she’s written, I’ll always come around to it. The first time I read the script, when I was allowed to read it, it took my breath away. It is brilliant writing.

Amy is also the film’s editor, which is unusual for a screenwriter.

There’s the saying that ‘the edit is the last draft of the script’, but usually the screenwriter is not present for that. So for me, there is something really powerful about what Amy does. It’s an interesting process, I think, where in the editing room I become like a technician operating the machinery and she tells me what to do, like a director. The hierarchy works differently and auteur theory goes out the window. A writer who is also an editor has almost the same power as the director.

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Ben Wheatley: High-Rise storyboard.

You’ve spoken about how Amy wanted to access the hidden stories in High-Rise, specifically those of the women and children characters. That’s one of the aspects of the film I most enjoy.

I suppose every book has this potential, to a degree. But High-Rise definitely feels like a book that has deliberately bracketed off one story, controlled by the narrator, yet there are these other stories under the surface that are alluded to in quite subtle terms. The way the book ends, with the women arriving and killing Wilder, feels like it comes out of nowhere, but then if you re-read it, you realise it’s happening all the way through – women and children are present and active. It’s almost as if the arrogance of the male characters, and the high-rise itself – and the book – won’t allow us to fully see these characters that are so important to the story. I like that a lot, and it’s one of the strengths of Amy’s script.

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Tom Hiddleston as Laing in High-Rise.

It becomes quite personal, I suppose, in as much as Amy and I were born in the early 70s. We were the same age as the children in the building, which I think affected how Amy wrote those characters, and the boy, Toby, in particular. Extending that, the adults are more like our parents so we were dealing with what that generation means to us, rather than what that generation is.

It adds so many extra elements, especially Helen Wilder and Toby, but it feels organic. It’s like the stories are there but the narrator has bypassed them.

It gives extra weight to the story and allows for a big ensemble cast, which I think shows them punching much higher as characters than the lines they’ve been given. They seem much more important. So, someone like Helen Wilder is really fascinating. Amy had written into the script that there are secret routes of communication through the building, which is notable when you read it. I really love the way that, for instance, Laing talks to Helen and he tells her that he plays squash. And then shortly afterwards, Royal says to Laing, “So you play squash?’ It’s quite throwaway if you don’t think about it, but how would he know? Helen talks to Charlotte, we know that, and so we can deduce that Charlotte talks to Royal, which is our first clue of a connection between them. But for me, rather than just tracking lines of communication, I think of it more like a synapse that has fired up the building. If you think of it on a larger scale, there are these conversations happening all the time, which fly around the brain of the building like synaptic pulses.

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Ben Wheatley: High-Rise storyboard.

Sound really helps. There was this kind of echoing effect in the building through trash chutes and air ducts. The building starts to feel somewhat sentient, like HAL 9000 minus the voice. The building is organic, nobody is spying on anyone, but the psychogeographical layout of the building allows for, or even encourages, these connections.

In that respect there is a life beyond the scenes we are showing you. I particularly like the journey of Digby the dog, who has his own story.

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Tom Hiddleston, Ben Wheatley, Luke Evans and James Purefoy on location in Belfast. Photo: Aidan Monaghan.

Poor Digby!

Yes. But I like that scene when he is watching the cleaner scrubbing his own shit out of the carpet, and then later you see him at the party, when he goes into the lift. He’s present in so many of the scenes and spends so much of the film looking around the building. He has quite a detailed character arc. He’s also a survivor like Helen Wilder – he is abused, mistreated, and then he manages to latch onto Laing, who murders him. His trust is broken, and ultimately he has a tragic story.

Dogs become a symbol for the descent of the characters; they eat dogs not just out of necessity but also because their moral barometers are so transformed.

To a British audience, it is shocking to see how dogs are treated. For me, it became important when we were researching the film to get that anatomically correct. Not just for the dog scenes, but also the scenes with Laing in his workplace. We spoke to a pathologist and Tom visited a real autopsy. The pathologist said that the problem of representing bodies and corpses on screen is that in one moment they look like humans, and then they can look like a bad special effect. It is confusing for the brain to process this. We are programmed to read faces and gain emotion from that, and as soon as that is broken, they emotionally and psychologically become an object of sorts. That is a crisis for the mind to process. I find it’s the same shift with the dogs, so that they are either your friend or they’re lunch. Once you cross that line, it feels like it’s a threshold that you won’t come back from.

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Elisabeth Moss as Helen Wilder in High-Rise.

The early scene with the corpse’s head is shocking because the peeling away of the face so easily is also difficult for the mind to process, especially the connective tissues. It looks very realistic.

It’s an amazing bit of prosthetics. Dan Martin built that. I’ve been working with him since Sightseers and he really is excellent. To make a realistic looking head is one thing, but to make something that could have the face peeled off to reveal a realistic skull is another. And then to make something where the face could be reapplied and then removed for different takes, with the sinew and muscle still there – well, that was remarkable.

‘The World Beyond the High-Rise’ (2016), from the soundtrack by Clint Mansell.

Sound design is particularly evident in all your films, but it’s especially noticeable in High-Rise. Clint Mansell’s score really seems to explore the psychology of the building. For me, it is subliminal on first viewing, and then on repeat viewings it starts to have this extra life.

Absolutely! For me, sound is half of filmmaking. Clint’s score is fantastic. I just contacted him on Twitter and I never thought he would be up for it, but he was and the work he produced is marvellous. With Clint, what I love about his music is that he has a real mastery of melody, but underneath that is a strong sense of tension and discordant sounds; it’s hard to discuss this without sounding like a music journalist from the 90s talking about the Cathedral of Sound. I don’t think of myself in the same orbit as someone like him, but as it turned out, he’s a really approachable and lovely guy.

‘Outside My Door’ (1969) by Can, heard during the party scene.

There are interesting song choices in the film: Can, Tangerine Dream, Abba, Portishead, The Fall. Naturally Abba are of the era, and Portishead covering ‘S.O.S.’ gives a suitably retro-futurist tone. But the use of krautrock is really interesting, especially at Charlotte’s party. It reminded me of Chris Petit’s Ballardian film Radio On, and its use of 70s music like Kraftwerk and Bowie’s German version of ‘Heroes’.

I’m a big krautrock fan. In Sightseers, I used it quite a lot – Neu!, Amon Düül, Harmonia. I love it, and the meaning of it for me is very particular. It really confronts this fallacy that British post-punk was somehow completely original and that electronica was invented in England. It’s another classic example of our merry island believing we innovated something, and that we are the centre of the universe, when in fact some of the most interesting stuff in the UK was actually produced ten years before in Germany.

I do think that a lot of the hipster cats in High-Rise would be playing Can at parties. The 70s are tricky in this respect, and you have to be careful. If I put Slade or Elton John under some of the scenes then it would just be too clichéd and naff and prevent you from immersing yourself in the scene and the period. It’s great music, but it’s been done to death.

‘S.O.S.’ (1975) by Abba.

Your use of Abba’s ‘S.O.S.’ is very unusual in that we never actually hear the original song in any form.

Amy wrote Abba into the script and we wanted it to be prominent. I suppose that started with Sightseers and the use of specific songs that have a particular function. Actually, this came about because of something Amy has been looking into: how fake memories are formed in cinema. The film partly plays like a trick that makes you think you have had memories that are not real. The reoccurring use of music has an effect on the brain, which processes sound differently to speech or visual stimulus. So you slowly realise that the orchestral arrangement at the party is Abba’s ‘S.O.S.’ but there are no vocals. And then later on, the Portishead cover gives you the lyrics of the song but the tune is very different, and the brain processes that, creating a memory of hearing Abba.

First trailer for High-Rise.

The first trailer for High-Rise played out like an advertisement for the building to prospective buyers, and also evoked the opening section of David Cronenberg’s Shivers.

Maybe you can tell me about this, because I’ve never managed to get to the bottom of it. Shivers was released in 1975 and High-Rise was published in the same year, and there does appear to be a grey area regarding which came first and whether there was any influence either way. People say they came out at the same time, but Shivers is so very close to High-Rise in so many ways, it feels to me like there must have been some kind of crossover, or that one of them was aware of the other.

Opening sequence For David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975).

My understanding is that they were produced in isolation to each other. This is a subject that interests me, where culture operates like ‘convergent evolution’ – two species developing in similar ways despite being independent of each other. It’s unlikely that Cronenberg heard about the novel – the amount of time it took to develop and make the film suggests it was hatched prior to 1975. But Ballard was also working on his novel for some time, as well.

I rewatched Shivers recently, having seen it as a kid. The only difference I can really see between them is that Cronenberg uses a kind of B-movie conceit – the sex parasites are an excuse for the increasing breakdown of the characters. We had the same issue when adapting High-Rise early on – we realised there isn’t anything explicit in the book that explains the breakdown, so you have to take a leap of faith with the narrative. The lack of motivation really doesn’t seem to be much of a problem in the novel, but with the film you’re asking something more of the audience.

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Ben Wheatley: High-Rise storyboard.

Your films often have a set piece – a slow-motion montage scene. In High-Rise, you include this on a number of occasions in High-Rise, including the killing of Wilder.

I like that kind of thing a lot. It’s exhilarating as an audience member to experience that. I like to use a large variety of shots in those moments, and for audiences that can be alarming and difficult. I don’t tend to use traditional montages, which are designed to compress time or to show people becoming good at something, like lifting weights, and then dissolving into little vignettes and stories before we return to the developed story. I use the techniques of what people call montage to provoke the audience to think about disparate, seemingly unconnected moments or shots.

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Sienna Miller on the set of High-Rise. Photo: Aidan Monaghan.

Ballard’s casual third-person reporting often features something that in literary terms is quite close to montage, with sentences that carry vast amounts of plotting and allusions to numerous characters and events. I was aware of that when reading High-Rise, but a lot of this comes from Alan J. Pakula’s film The Parallax View, particularly the moment when Frady goes to the Parallax Corporation and watches that insane indoctrination film, where it cuts between images and words like ‘mother’, ‘country’, ‘god’, ‘enemy.’ It’s so brilliant, and that’s where I’m coming from with some of those montages. For me, it is where image and film becomes most close to music with the repetition of refrains and use of repeated patterns in a rhythmic way. People actually get quite cross about montage and consider it a dirty word; there’s a received wisdom that montages are bad filmmaking, as if the filmmakers are giving up on the story or lazily compressing time. It’s just another issue of taste.

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Ben Wheatley: High-Rise storyboard.

The symbolism of Laing’s tie had extra resonance when I rewatched the film and saw him happily removing it and flinging it over the side of the building. It felt like he was reborn, and was happy to move on from everything, including his sister’s suicide.

He becomes his own person. The tracking of the character’s clothes is really important to the film. Laing visually becomes younger as he goes through the film, almost like he’s regressing. He starts to have his trousers pulled up like shorts and his shirt gets smaller like he’s in prep school. The tie becomes really important, and the tightening of it is his protection; the clothes become like armour. Once he gets rid of his tie he can move on and start to be someone else, which is where the film ends.

There’s an Orson Welles quote that goes: ‘If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’ Laing is free, but only for so long. The women have taken over, but they have only dealt with Pangbourne’s group, so who do they focus on next? It’s very telling, and you realise that Steele’s group has to be next and that the story will just keep continuing and returning.

It’s a moment of comfort for Laing, a moment of freedom, but there is something around the corner that is just as problematic – or worse. I’m not sure I would describe that as a positive worldview. I don’t think of it as a dystopian story, though, but rather a new society that forms and collapses, and that will continue, repeated in cycles.

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Ben Wheatley:High-Rise storyboard.

I’ve noticed you’re not always comfortable with discussing the subtexts of your films. Where does that come from?

I try not to talk about meaning or to philosophise my films as much as I can for lots of reasons. Firstly, it throws out little tendrils of criticism that people can latch onto and then use to tear the film apart. But the thing I most dread happening is for an interviewer to say ‘In this other interview you said this’, because then I have to deal with the Ben Wheatley that uttered something off the cuff. A lot of what I say makes sense in the moment, in context, but I’m not writing essays. I’m making films. Also, what I say and think shifts over time, like it would for anyone. I have a different relationship with the work as it goes on and develops, and then into its afterlife. I’m still coming to terms with High-Rise!

free fire

So, now you’re working on Free Fire, which overlaps with High-Rise. Is that hard?

I’m used to that overlap – I just have to manage the extreme tension that comes with filmmaking. There are moments of incredible pressure and then thankfully they dissipate. Dealing with a film like High-Rise and its first screenings – well, that can completely change your life. You could potentially burn every single project you have coming up or it could make them all happen. And that can occur in less than two hours by just screening the film. That feels intense, and then I’m dealing with reviews and screenings while trying to lock the next film at the same time.

The constant talking is hard work, and I don’t censor myself very well because I’m not PR trained, like politicians are. So I feel like eventually I will dig a hole for myself, or say something very wrong. Psychoanalysis is described as the ‘talking cure’, and if someone talks for long enough they’ll eventually come across the problem and it can be dealt with. For me, it’s like that, except they write everything down and then put it on the internet! That’s terrifying pressure for someone who doesn’t have media training, and I feel like eventually I will say something really stupid.

Hopefully, I haven’t done that today.

High-Rise-storyboard-007

Ben Wheatley: High-Rise storyboard.

…:: Elsewhere on Ballardian:

+ Towards Year Zero: A Review of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise
+ High-Rise: Wheatley vs Cronenberg
+ Death is in the Air: Startling New Images from High-Rise
+ High-Rise: All the Posters So Far
+ High-Rise: All the Trailers and Clips So Far

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6 Responses »

  1. […] a long and fascinating interview with the Ballardian, Ben Wheatley talks about J.G. Ballard and his adaptation of […]

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  5. Just watched the DVD (the film was not shown anywhere near me so I had to wait for that) and what a superb film. Thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. The DVD was pretty good as well though it is a pity it didn’t include the entire storyboard – which looks pretty amazing. It is one of those films that will take a few repeat viewings to notice all the little touches that are included.

  6. But the thing is, there was something about Ballard that was even stranger and perhaps more insidious, in the sense that he didn’t do those extreme things and was living a quiet, suburban life as a father to three children while also pouring out these amazingly perverse books. That had a big effect on me, but I was also aware of him through music, comics and other media. I wasn’t a particularly voracious reader of novels, so in some ways I experienced Ballard through a kind of cultural response to his work.

    Yes, there’s something creepy about people who create insane art while living apparently normal lives. What are they hiding?

    There’s a story about the rock band KISS. Paul Stanley (it seems) liked to draw pictures of penises while backstage. These drawings were nearly photorealistic, with pulsing veins and straggly pubic hairs and everything.

    Guitarist Ace Frehley said something like “I’m not saying Paul’s gay, but you gotta suck cock to draw cock that well.”

    Tho in Ballard’s case he had a tumultuous early life (incarcerated, surviving off weevils and maggots, etc) and a normal later life. Burroughs was the reverse: a fairly normal upbringing to a life that went off the rails in adulthood. Maybe it’s related that I like Ballard’s early books more than his latter, and vice versa for Burroughs.

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