It’s purely a coincidence, according to the publicist, that British director Ben Wheatley wanted to meet up at the massive, towering Trump Hotel while in town for the Toronto Film Festival; given the subject of the new movie he’s just unveiled here, however, that claim is highly suspect. The 43-year-old filmmaker had just premiered his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 cult novel High-Rise at the fest a few nights prior, and those lucky enough to get tickets were treated to a vicious, surreal satire about residents at a multi-story luxury apartment building descending into class warfare and chaos. It’s the kind of film that casts an A-list star like Tom Hiddleston as the book’s hero, a dapper doctor named Robert Laing, and then introduces him covered in blood and roasting a dog on his balcony.
And now Wheatley is excitedly suggesting we head up to the bar on the 31st floor, in a building named after a man who’s never met a haves-vs-have-nots argument he hasn’t willingly exploited, so we can get a better look at the neighboring skyscrapers.
People have been trying to bring Ballard’s apocalyptic vision of sex, death, and social rot to the screen for decades, and it’s taken someone cracked enough to do, say, a hit man thriller-turned-WTF-horror-nightmare (2011’s Kill List) or a serial-killer love story (2012’s Sightseers) to do justice to a book that’s become a must-read on many folk’s transgressive-lit reading list. Just because stars like Hiddleston, Elizabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, and Jeremy Irons had signed on hasn’t stopped the the director or his screenwriter/wife/partner-in-crime Amy Jump, who penned the script, from diving headfirst into the book’s warped look at the fine line between civilization and savagery. If anything, Wheatley and his collaborators have doubled down on the weirdness; there’s a hallucinatory quality to the movie’s scenes of penthouse orgies, oppressive Brutalist architecture as a metaphor for a brutal status-quo, and sheer anarchy loosened upon the world that hints his previous history-lesson-on-acid work, A Field in England (2013), was not just a bad-trip one-off.
While the movie is not for everyone — something its creator would be the first to admit — High-Rise does confirm that Wheatley is one of the most interesting filmmakers to come out of the United Kingdom in ages, part of a generation of genre fanatics raised on Sixties and Seventies Hell-Brittania cult flicks who’s dedicated to keeping that particular freak flag flying. Tucking into a beer and admiring the breathtaking view, he chatted about why Ballard’s work is more relevant than ever, why Hiddleston was perfect for playing a corruptible cad and why making fucked-up movies just seems to be part of his creative make-up.
You read this book as a teen, right?
Yeah, it’s one of those countercultural books that you have to read as rite of passage. I was just thinking about this the other day, how hard it was to get a hold of stuff before the Internet. You really had to hunt down stuff or have someone who knew what was up to say, “You gotta read Naked Lunch, mate. You gotta read Crash.” Now you wouldn’t even have to read them; you could just Wikipedia them and say, “Oh, right, it’s all that shit, cheers.” [Laughs] They were secretive things you had to ferret out, those books. It was the same with music and certain movies. And drugs.
With Ballard, it was like he was writing science fiction about right now. He had a knack for writing about modern living that was both totally alien and completely recognizable. He could turn something as simple as a glass of beer into some sort of portent of the shape of things to come! I’d never read sentences like the ones in his novels. Plus he was British. You guys had Burroughs and Philip K. Dick. We got Ballard.
There seems to be a particularly intense cult-lit vibe around High-Rise.
I re-read it recently, and other than the sexual politics, it hasn’t dated at all. The idea of people being like machines and being defined by their jobs, of putting massive loads of protection of around themselves and refusing to form personal connections to anything except things and technology — it was relevant in 1975, and it’s beyond relevant now. It keeps attracting readers who say, Oh, I know this. I see this.
I bet if you charted the periods when this book sold really well, it would be during times when we were on the downward slope of a social curve. When people are doing ok and things seem stable, it’s: “That Ballard, he sure does seem a little weird, doesn’t he?” Then you hit those dips, and it’s: “Oh, shit. Yeah. He’s spot-fucking-on.” [Laughs]
Nicolas Roeg was once slated to make this, right?
Yeah, he was supposed to do it at one point…the only other filmmaker I know who was definitely attached to it was Vincenzo Natali, who did Cube (1998) and Splice (2009). Bruce Robinson, who made Withnail & I (1987), had written a screenplay, though I’m not sure if he was going to direct it or not. There were a lot of drafts. I read the last one before we started working on it; Amy [Jump] didn’t read any of them before she started writing. She wanted to go in clean and start from scratch.
“The idea of people being like machines and being defined by their jobs — it was relevant in 1975, and it’s beyond relevant now.”
It was always the intention to keep it in the 1970s?
That was always a given. People had previously tried to set in some sort of imagine future, and it never really worked. And if you tried to set it in the present, or the very near future, the social-media aspects we have would kind of put a stake through it. If someone was roasting a dog on their balcony, there would be a million people filming it on their phones. It’d be a Vine: “Eating my dog, LOL.” [Laughs] “Wow, this orgy that represents society rotting at its very core is so cool, LOLZ!” It wouldn’t work. And also, I wanted to do something set in the Seventies. I grew up during that decade, and to look back on how the postwar generation — the adults in the movie, basically — impacted what happened to my generation, it just fascinated me.
Was Tom Hiddleston someone you wanted for Laing from the beginning?
He was there from the start. I know this sounds like terrible P.R. puffery, but we looked at a few different people and it was always, he’s the only guy who can pull this off. I love the fact that you can watch him in a Marvel film and then you turn around and he’s in some small British independent film that cost $100 to make. Also, Tom is a Ballardian kind of guy; so is Loki, for that matter. And he’s so fucking handsome.
When you look at his character…he doesn’t really fit any sort of traditional heroic model. I mean, [screenwriting guru] Robert McKee would have a fucking fit if he read the script! Laing is a witness to a lot of depravity, and he eventually becomes genuinely quite despicable, but there needs to be a certain amount of charm in how he’s played while still not letting this guy off the hook. Tom got that right away. He did his research: Read the books, watched the movies, listened to the music mentioned in the script…
…cut open the corpses.
Yeah, he mentioned that in the press conference. He did in fact work with a forensic team to get a sense of how that would work. He saw corpses being cut open. I wouldn’t do it in a million years. He did it in a second.
“If someone was roasting a dog on their balcony, there would be a million people filming it on their phones. It’d be a Vine: ‘Eating my dog, LOL.'”
Did you feel an extra sense of pressure knowing that you were adapting a book that’s so important to so many people?
The thought occurred to me once, then I seized up and it was, “Okay, I’m not doing that anymore.” Look, in the Internet age, every conversation that anyone has ever had will end up online. Your conversation with your mate about how that guy fucked up High-Rise that you would have had in a pub — that will eventually become tweeted out. I started reading the reviews this morning from critics at the festival, and one said, “It’s not nearly as faithful to the book ass it needs to be.” Literally five seconds later, I clicked on another review that said, “This is way too faithful to the book!” There will be hardcore fans who have those exact same opinions, and you just have to know you’re not going to please everybody. You have to go in knowing the book and the movie are two separate entities, while still trying to get at the spirit of things.
Would it be safe to say that your films are getting increasingly weirder?
I think it is safe to say that, yes [laughs] … though not by design. It certainly seems to be a massive yawning chasm between my first movie [2009’s Down Terrace] and High-Rise, in terms of style and storytelling — but I think the essential operations system remains the same. It’s still all coming from the same place. I’m still interested in genre movies and seeing what can be done with the characters that exist in those types of movies. Stuff like A Field in England and High-Rise are a bit more kaleidoscopic in nature, where there’s meaning hidden in the cuts and things are not as straightforward as what most people are used to. There are tiny bits of that kind of stuff in my first movies, but it just started growing and growing like a fungus, so now … well, you’ve seen High-Rise. It’s sort of the pinnacle of that. It has a lot of well-known actors in it, but it’s fucked up. [Laughs] It goes back to a lot of fucked-up cult movies I grew up watching, probably.
There a few other filmmakers like you out there — Jonathan Glazer, Peter Strickland — that seem to be keeping the art of 1970s cult filmmaking alive. You guys are carrying on the warped tradition that Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg started back then.
It’s a subliminal thing rather than an intentional thing, I think. This movie probably owes more to Barry Lyndon to anything else, really. But I see what you’re saying. In terms of making more commercial movies as opposed to more out-there movies, it’s not like I don’t want to find the biggest audience possible. But how I think about the world seems to come out in a way that’s a bit different, and that sensibility makes its way into the films. The next movie we’re making is a lot straighter, actually; I don’t think there’s anywhere for us to go after High-Rise for us in terms of oddness.
What is the next movie?
It’s called Free Fire, it’s set in Boston in the late Seventies, and it’s about some Irish guys who are buying a load of guns for the IRA. Things go wrong, there’s something a massive 20-minute shoot-out and the rest of the movie is people crawling around trying to figure out what they’re going to do.
That sounds intense.
Yeah, but no one roasts a dog in the first five minutes, though, so it’s not that intense, right? [Laughs]