J.G. Ballard’s seminal British sci-fi novel High-Rise was first published in 1975, but some four decades later the book is finally getting its due on the big screen—and its dystopian vision of modern urban living feels even more prescient in 2016, according to director Ben Wheatley.
The story almost made it to film twice before, first with Nicolas Roeg in the late ’70s and more recently with Vincenzo Natali. Those false starts, coupled with the book’s unnerving depiction of a luxury high-rise apartment building devolving into utter chaos, saddled High-Rise with the “unfilmable” tag. And that was that, until Wheatley and screenwriter (also wife) Amy Jump chased after the rights.
Starring Tom Hiddleston as the tower’s newest resident Dr. Robert Laing, Jeremy Irons as the architect behind the brutalist apartment complex, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss and Luke Evans, High-Rise features Wheatley’s biggest cast, and biggest budget, to date. But the British filmmaker behind cult hits Sightseers and Kill List (and most recently, A Field in England) proves to be a perfect fit for the material, deftly mixing dark comedy and unsettling imagery as a few power outages and clogged garbage chutes plunge the building into rioting, literal class warfare. Household pets will be eaten.
With High-Rise coming to theaters May 13th (and available on demand as of April 28th), Paste spoke to Wheatley about making a ’70s sci-fi dystopia film with a comic book movie cast, the challenges of adapting a supposedly unfilmable novel and his even more impressive feat: getting Portishead to record a song for the film’s soundtrack, the band’s first new music in years.
Paste Magazine: It’s been over 40 years since this book was published, but its themes really do seem more relevant than ever. That’s good for you, but it seems like it’s not too great for the rest of society…
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, well, it doesn’t look good when you look at [Ballard’s] other books as well. I mean, if they’re going to come true too, it’s bad news all around.
Paste: Why do you think the time was right to tell this story now?
Wheatley: I’d read the book when I was a kid, and liked it. It tied in really well with my love of Mad Max and reading 2000 AD and all those kinds of things. It felt like a kind of potential future. But when I re-read it when I was older, it felt like it was being taken from the pages of a newspaper. It wasn’t a warning about a future that might happen, it was just reporting on now. And that made me think that maybe it was time. But also, it’s a big British sci-fi novel and I just couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been made. So I started poking about to see who had the rights to it.
Paste: I know a lot of people have called the novel unfilmable. But a lot of people have called a lot of novels unfilmable, and that certainly hasn’t stopped anyone in the past. Was that unfilmable tag almost like a challenge for you?
Wheatley: Well, it depends why they call it unfilmable. Do they call it unfilmable because people have been trying to film it and they haven’t? Or is it that, formally, the book is structured in a way that’s not simpatico to the traditional three-act structure of cinema? When you look at something like Naked Lunch, which is a very difficult book to adapt, it’s all over the place. It’s lots of vignettes, it doesn’t make necessarily any kind of narrative sense. But you look at the High-Rise novel and it’s pretty linear in its storytelling. It’s from the perspective of three characters, which isn’t unusual for cinema. And it’s very vividly written. So I think the unfilmable tag comes from more of a production point of view. I think that probably the main issue with it that’s made it difficult to film is that [Ballard’s] general attitude is maybe something that isn’t mainstream enough. If you were to make it into a big Hollywood movie. Because the characters, their outlook doesn’t always necessarily fit within the traditional narrative structure. Laing, for instance, being an observer, as the kind of audience avatar or hero, he doesn’t do anything particularly heroic. Or savory. And the whole story puts the audience in the crosshairs of responsibility, which is an uncomfortable place to be. So I think that’s probably more the reason it’s not been attempted up until now.
Paste: And yet you ended up working with your biggest, most Hollywood cast yet.
Wheatley: Yeah, that was a great treat.
Paste: Did that make the experience of filming this feel different at all? Or is it still just making a movie in the end?
Wheatley: Weirdly, on this film, it literally comes down to something as simple as this: often, the schedule is organized around lunch. So you can have “a hot in the hand,” or a continuous lunch, which means that you don’t stop. Everyone eats as they film; they don’t have a sit-down for an hour and all stop. And on High-Rise, it was done like that so we could keep the energy up. But what it meant was that I never left set. I was always there by the camera or by the monitors, so I never saw anyone. So this whole massive production was going on, and the only people I interacted with were [cinematographer] Laurie Rose, Bobby Entwistle who was sound, the script continuity [person] and the actors.
So you just don’t see that huge machine around you, so it didn’t really feel any different from doing A Field in England in that respect, which had a tiny, tiny crew. Sometimes I was hearing there were like 300 people on the unit list there that day, but I would’ve seen about 10. [Laughs.] So it did feel quite small to me, even though it was massive.
Paste: Still, I was just looking at it, and other than Elisabeth Moss, I’m pretty sure that everyone else in your main cast has done a comic book movie or giant franchise at some point. These are some pretty big names you’re working with.
Wheatley: Yeah. I mean, that’s odd. But then, most of them have all done loads of theater as well. So I think that the comic book thing is just that there’s so many of those films, and they’re ensembles, that they’ve sucked up every actor on the planet, haven’t they? [Laughs.] But good people get used in good stuff. You can see why Jeremy Irons is Alfred. That makes total sense.
Paste: Although I do love the idea of some Marvel fan wandering into this movie just because they’re a big Tom Hiddleston fan, and not knowing quite what they’re in for…
Wheatley: [Laughs] But you know, I think Hiddleston fans in general are pretty hardened. I met a lot of them when I was doing the Q&A tour up and down the UK for the launch of High-Rise, and his fan base are all ages, all shapes and sizes. But the thing that binds them is that they’re just adventurous and clever. I think they’re used to it. If they’re proper fans of Hiddleston, they’re used to a bit of weirdness.
Paste: He’s also not quite your traditional leading man. He’s got a bit of an edge to him. Why do you think he was a good choice to play Laing?
Wheatley: It’s just that. He’s a kind of matinee idol, but also, as a person, he’s very intelligent, and that comes across in his performances. But also, there’s something going on where he’s behind a mask. There’s someone trying to be good, trying to be a good person, but there’s also a madness and a broiling kind of neurosis under there as well. So it’s all these different things that are going on in Tom that make him so interesting, I think.
Paste: I’ve heard people compare this to A Clockwork Orange, which has to be a pretty high compliment when you’re making a movie about a dystopian society. How’s it feel for you to hear that? Do you agree with those comparisons?
Wheatley: Well, I could hardly agree with them, could I? [Laughs.] I’d look like a completely conceited git if I did that. You know, it’s great that people see those things in it, that’s terrific. I would not argue against it. But I don’t know… the Kubrick thing is difficult, because I don’t think anybody can be like Kubrick, because Kubrick is Kubrick. There is a certain amount of wide lenses or lateral tracking, which are a little bit like some of his shots, but I don’t think just using those shots makes you anywhere near what Kubrick is.
I’m a big fan, so I can imagine that’s definitely rubbed off in there. But it’s not like I’m sitting there rubbing my hands going, “And now to do the bit from Clockwork Orange!” It’s not like that. But that’s a ’70s movie, it’s shot in the ’70s as the future, there’s a lot of things that cross over between that and High-Rise. It’s not unsurprising. It’s dealing with the same kinds of things, isn’t it? So there’s going to be a crossover to a degree.
Paste: Was there ever any pressure to set this in the present? I can’t imagine it not set in the 1970s, but did you ever have that conversation?
Wheatley: No. There was never a conversation. The problem that we had was there’s too many things now that break the book. Primarily: social media. It’s a massive problem for the book. The idea of the book on a basic level is that they can have a society outside of society. And the current behavior of recording everything and broadcasting everything wouldn’t support that. If you’re in this tower on the edge of London and if you’re using Instagram or Twitter or any of these things and broadcasting what you’re up to, then all but immediately, people would come to the tower to find out what’s going on. It would become globally famous, and that just didn’t work anymore. What was weird is that within the book, [Ballard’s] predicting these behaviors. Because in the book, they’re filming each other all the time and projecting the films onto the walls of the building like YouTube, but when you literally translate it to now, it doesn’t quite work anymore.
Paste: How’d you end up getting Portishead to cover ABBA’s “SOS” on the soundtrack, when they haven’t put out any new music in years? How’d that come together?
Wheatley: It was through Twitter, weirdly. I was watching Glastonbury on TV with Amy and Portishead were appearing on Glastonbury. And we were just sitting there going, God, I love Portishead, they’re brilliant. And I’ve loved them for years. Then I looked on my Twitter feed and I could see that Geoff Barrow had been talking about A Field in England for some reason, and I realized he’d followed me on Twitter, so I followed him back and emailed him. And it kind of went from there. I went to visit him in Bristol and met Adrian [Utley] and Beth [Gibbons]. And then when Amy came to do the script, she wrote in this idea of using “SOS” and we thought about getting them to cover it… I mean, when you say it out loud, it sounds like it’s a pretty unbelievable and unlikely thing to have happened. Because I also had to write to ABBA and ask them for permission, and they notoriously don’t let people do covers of their music or use them in films. And they just said yeah, and it all just came together. I think it’s the first thing that Portishead has recorded in six years. But what was really sweet about it, I thought, was that they’d said that they would not ever release that track. So you can’t hear that music unless you see the film.
Only something as perverse as that could come from those guys. Because everyone’s shouting at them going, “This would be #1!” And they’re like, “Oh, no, no, but we don’t care. This is our decision and we’re going to stick to it.” And they have. No amount of pressure will change that. The other thing is that they only ever recorded enough to fit the film. So there isn’t any more of it. That’s it. But that’s why they’re so great, I think.
Paste: Did having them come on board help inform the rest of the soundtrack or score?
Wheatley: Well, that was the first piece of music that was written. Because Clint Mansell came on a little bit later. It might have. I think there is a musical conversation between Clint and that track a bit. But I couldn’t speak for him on that. I vaguely remember him saying that, but it’s above my pay grade, that. [Laughs]