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Since leaping from viral videos, TV sketches and ads to cinema with 2009’s gritty gangland drama Down Terrace (shot in eight days on a $30,000 budget), Ben Wheatley has become one of the U.K.’s most exciting filmmakers in recent years.
Together with his screenwriting wife Amy Jump he’s turned his hand to unpredictable hitman horror in Kill List, caravaning comedy horror in Sightseers and a monochrome historical headtrip with A Field in England, not forgetting a quick TV diversion with the opening two episodes of the last season of Doctor Who (he was a childhood fan).
His latest feature, High-Rise, looks likely to propel Wheatley into the big league. Taking on J.G. Ballard’s cult 1975 dystopian thriller about an ultra-modern luxury tower block gone horribly wrong, it’s his most ambitious film to date, boasting an A-list cast in Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons and Elisabeth Moss, and with Jeremy Thomas — who helped bring the only other Ballard fiction to screen in 1996 with Crash — as producer.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of High-Rise‘s world premiere in Toronto, Wheatley explains why the future looked better in the ‘70s than it does now, how the film could easily have turned into Die Hard and what happened in Cannes.
Jeremy Thomas has been trying to make High-Rise since the late 1970s. How did you get involved?
Amy and I had been looking at developing some books. I saw High-Rise on my shelf and thought: ‘Christ, that hasn’t been made, that’s a bit weird’. So I found out who had the rights, and met Jeremy. I didn’t realize at that point that they’d been trying to make it and that there’d been all sorts of other people attached.
Until now there’s only been one film adaptation of Ballard’s fictional works, Crash, which was also produced by Thomas. Is he a particularly difficult author to bring to screen?
There’s a challenging theme in his work. There’s not a lot of dialog in High-Rise, and he plays all these games with the novel form. Although the books are very cinematic, it’s not necessarily easy to adapt. It takes a brave producer to put these movies out and not everyone has the metal that Jeremy has. Crash was one of the great unfilmable books, and they did a pretty damn good job of it.
Ballard’s work is often very male-centric, which isn’t so reflected in cinema these days. High-Rise itself is mainly told from the perspective of the three central male characters. Did you and Amy look to give it a broader appeal?
Yeah, certainly. From Amy’s perspective, she looked at a lot of the female characters and tried to bring them out a bit more. The women aren’t really defined in the book but they come out on top, so we kind of looked at that side of it and tried to give them more of a voice.
The book is set in a dystopian 1970s, which is where you set the film. Given that we’ve lived through the times Ballard was describing, were you not tempted to update it?
I think there are a few different points of view looking at this. One is that historical drama helps you make points about the current situation that are harder to make if you make them contemporary, because they’re too obvious and too in your face. There’s also the thing that in the book itself, some of the issues that it deals with make less sense now, literally. They’re very hard to update and don’t quite work. And then there’s the general sense of the book that all his predictions came through reasonably quickly. It’s a tricky situation, because we’re here looking back at Ballard in the past. So we kind of made a ‘70s that was a little science fiction, a slightly sci-fi alternative. But there’s also something very interesting about the ‘70s, something quite terrifying about it. It was a point of time when there was the last bit of thinking about the future. Now it’s either terrible dystopia or everything is slightly white like an Apple Mac. That’s all we can muster. But the people in the ‘70s were predicting and imagining all sorts of things.
Are you a big Ballard nerd yourself?
Yeah, I’ve read a lot of the books. He made up part of my esoteric reading as a teenager, together with Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing and those kinds of books. But then that coupled with 2000 AD.
This was your first time working from a novel. How was the experience?
It was different. There are rhythms that the novel has that force you into positions you wouldn’t necessarily get into, or causes issues within the film that are counterintuitive. The novel form isn’t necessarily that sympathetic to the film form, but then at the same time it’s kind of nice to be forced into those situations. When you’ve got a character like Robert Laing, he’s not really a doer, he’s an observer and is a very complicated character. If it had been written in development speak, he’d be rushing up and down the building and it’d just end up as Die Hard, shuffling down lift shafts.
And from High-Rise you went straight into filming Free Fire, with another high-profile cast and Scorsese on board as exec producer. Are your films getting bigger and bolder in scope?
It’s actually about the same size and budget. But we were lucky to do two films so close to one another. You can’t ask for more than that, as a filmmaker. But we’ve always had that leapfrog thing of having stuff ready to go. It’s been a bit exhausting, but nothing that I could begin to complain about. It is amazing having such as cast, and so flattering that people want to work with me. We’ve done the groundwork, we’ve done movies that people like and went down well with actors, which is half the battle.
Has there been a lure to Hollywood and bigger budget studio projects?
I’m open to all sorts. But the problem I’ve had with American stuff is that I’ve been busy and there’s been no time. Two years ago, I couldn’t do anything for two years. But yeah, we’re working with studios on scripts at the moment. It’s not outside my world of ambition to do that stuff. I think to work within the studio system is as interesting as doing indie stuff. It’s not necessarily the end game – there’s not a career trajectory that ends up with you doing tentpole films. But it’s almost as interesting as making smaller stuff, where you have more control. That’s why I did Doctor Who. The biggest audience I’ve ever had for my work is Doctor Who. You can’t really knock that.
You lined up British trip-hop icons Portishead to record a track (a cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.”) for High-Rise. How did that come about?
Through the wonders of the Internet. A year or so ago I was watching Glastonbury and they were doing their live set on the telly. Amy and I were just chatting and saying, ‘Oh god, we love Portishead so much,’ and I was looking on Twitter and someone had asked [Portishead instrumentalist] Geoff Barrow if he’d seen A Field in England, and he said he’d loved it or something similar. I think he was actually following me on Twitter, so I did this Twitter email thing, said hello and we went from there. That’s the modern world. Five or 10 years ago, I don’t know how you’d have even started in getting through to Portishead.
Many assumed High-Rise was destined for Cannes. Was it simply not ready, or was it something else?
Ha, no. You know what my answer will be. I’m not cross!
High-Rise has its world premiere in Toronto on Sunday, Sept. 13.
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