Ben Wheatley’s career to date has contained multitudes. From the low-key black social realist comedy of 2009’s Down Terrace to the genre-bending horror of Kill List that made his name both critically and as a cult figure of sorts, all the way through the outrageous tourist-murder comedy of Sightseers and the pastoral, black-and-white psychedelia of A Field In England – all made in the space of six years – he is certainly a difficult man to pin down.
His latest film is an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise, a novel in which the inhabitants of a modernist high-rise apartment block descend into a violent chaos, chock-full of class signifiers, ’70s sexual politics and a unique dystopian fever all its own. We meet in the altogether less brutalist but no less dystopian surrounds of the Residence Lounge, in which huge, quasi-psychedelic, bloated portraits of notable Irish authors overhang rococo furnishings in a manner that sets one on edge. I remark that the Samuel Beckett resembles less its intended subject and more a one Vince McMahon. “It looks like he’s been run over and they’re trying to identify the body.” says Wheatley.
I guess we’ll try just jump into it, and talk about your own adaptation in High-Rise. What was it like not just adapting something, but adapting something so beloved by many people? Is it something you would do again?
Ben Wheatley: I think Amy [Jump, screenwriter] and I are a bit gun-shy of doing another, I think. It was interesting doing it, cos it gives and it takes away. What it gives you is a built-in audience and a story to start with, and what it takes away is that every time you change it, everyone gets cross. You feel that other voice in the room, which is the prospect of pissing off all the fans, which you don’t want to do. But having said that, when we actually made it, we tried to put all that out of our heads, so it didn’t feel like this big weight. Most of that came afterwards, once it was too late, hoping that we’d done it justice and caught the tone of it.
A lot of people just pretend to have read books nowadays anyway…
BW: Well this is it. The thing about Ballard is — and I was equally guilty of this when I re-read it — I was going alright, class war, it’s the working class at the bottom and the upper class on top, but it’s not that at all, it’s completely different. But then you see the reviews and you go, oh alright, well they haven’t read the fucking book either [laughs].
That’s the strange thing about it, that it’s full of these signifiers that seem to point towards a conventional, say, class reading, but in actuality it’s not that coherent…
BW: There are a lot of rug-pulls, narrative rug-pulls. When I read it, I feel for each one. He sets up all these stories that suddenly don’t pay off. The book itself has got lots of almost ghost narratives, like the women’s stories and other sets of characters moving around the building who may not even have names, and you’re only getting the edge of the story, just a bit of it. And that’s how Amy approached it, as more fractal, like the book is written. But then she pushed forward more to give a voice to the women and children more, because they seemed to get given sort of short shrift in the book.
Was it difficult to get that fevered sort of ’70s, dystopian look to the film shooting on digital?
BW: We considered shooting it on film early on but decided against it. I’ve never shot on film. I’ve shot some adverts on film, and some student stuff, but everything myself and Laurie Rose [Director of Photography] have done has been digital, and we are now in this moment, so why fight it? This is the language of now. So even though the film’s set in the past, let’s not pretend we’re ’70s filmmakers. We wanted to shoot on location ‘in the past’, is basically the way we looked at it. So all the sets had ceilings on them, and they were shot with available light, as we’d shot all the other movies, but this time the available light had to be piped in from outside the sets, you know, because we’d no windows. So there weren’t lights on set, or flag-stands, all that kind of stuff, it was just how we found it. Or rather it was engineered to feel real.
And the ’70s-ness of the design, then, which really gives it that feeling, was trying to find a ’70s that was more a memory of my childhood and Amy’s childhood, working closely with Mark Tildesley [production designer], to make sure that it wasn’t just a pose. It wasn’t just art directors looking in magazines and going “Ooh, I like them round tellies!” and stuff like that. But also, we were thinking that it’s an alternate reality: it’s not the ’70s, the book isn’t set in any time, it’s a projection forwards from the point of its publication, and it never happened, so some of the stuff isn’t ’70s stuff, it’s made from scratch. Like all the stuff in the supermarket aren’t real products, they were designed particularly to work in that building.
And the kaleidoscope shots are real too, in that it’s not effects…
BW: Yeah! It’s basically like a Toblerone of mirrors, in a tube with a little handle that makes it go around. The grip department built it as we went along and we tested it a few times. Laurie and I had been messing around with different mirror set-ups and reflections and stuff, and it just worked. The only thing it did do was it caught some of the crew in it, but I think that was the only bit of digital editing done, to remove some people from the shot.
Your films often have narratives or genre conventions or, in this case, architecture, impinge upon ordinary people, with sometimes horrible consequences. Are you concerned with reclaiming human subjectivity from environments or philosophies that work against it, or are perhaps more machine-like in focus?
BW: I don’t know, I felt the building was more just a metaphor, for the body and for the characters. So it was a wrapper that could be a building or a country or a person, and it worked on those different levels. You get into particularly difficult architectural territory if you start thinking, “Oh, it’s a comment on post-war building,” because it just isn’t in the book either particularly. You can see the jumping-off point that Ballard has from news reports of the period, but I’m not sure how absolutely [the book] was about that. But also, I tend to shy away from being too literal in explaining what the stuff is, so not to get (a) pinned down, and (b), make a pointless exercise of making a film for two years if you can just dash it off in a one sentence explanation! [laughs]
I believe your next film is about the IRA, is that correct?
BW: Yeah! Well it’s not about the IRA so much, but it’s called Free Fire and it’s about buying guns in America and bringing them over in the ’70s. That sort of suggests it’s an over-arching thriller, which it’s not. What actually happens is a set of characters go to Boston to buy weapons to take back to Belfast and they buy them off these two gun dealers, but the two gun dealers bring these two local guys from Boston to load them off the boxes, and the two IRA guys bring their two Boston guys, but the two sets of Boston guys have had a bar fight the night before, and they really don’t like each other, and then it just kicks off. So they’re basically going, “This really needs to calm down,” because it’s a very dangerous situation, got a lot of machine guns and guns and shit, but it doesn’t, and this massive shootout takes place. And it’s a look at… I read an FBI document that was about a shootout, a ballistics report, and it was really interesting: it had this thing with these two cars, they’d pulled in in front of this car that had bank robbers in it before they’d gone to do the robbery, and they all had body armour and machine guns, and they went [handbrake noise] and then a shootout took place with all these cars really close to each other, and it went on for like 20 minutes, and they were all shooting each other and no-one died. And then, some people did die.
But it was really interesting, I was like, “Wow, that’s really strange, because that’s not what happens in Hollywood movies”. There was something in this about the reality, some kind of a reality of these things. What happens when you boil a gunfight, a battle down into one thing, into one space. So they all get injured, everyone gets injured, and the rest of the film, the next hour of the film is “How do they survive in this space?”. They can’t escape and they’ve got to make their allegiances and get their shit together to get out.
TD: And, for the fans: is Michael Smiley gonna be in it?
BW: [laughs] He is indeed! Him and Cillian Murphy and Jack Reynor as well.
High-Rise, directed by Ben Wheatley, is on general release from Friday 18th March.
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall