In anticipation of the release of his fifth feature High Rise, I had a brief chat with director Ben Wheatley. We talked about adapting J.G. Ballard, brutalist architecture, and working with Tom Hiddleston. Here’s a bit of our conversation:
We designed everything. All the books, album covers, cigarettes — down to every fine detail.
Ballard is famously fascinated by architecture and by how our external surroundings effect psychology. How did you want to approach that for High Rise, in terms of the production design?
There’s a lot of different stuff going on with that. There were a lot of conversations between me and Mark Tildesley (the production designer), me and Amy Jump (the screenwriter) and Laurie Rose (the DP) as well. Because the whole design is in conjunction with Laurie’s stuff.
I talked to Mark about the idea that it was a kind of alternate-reality ‘70s - like a time bubble, side pocket universe thing that’d happened […] So it kind of branches off in time. So it was to look like the seventies, but not be exactly like the seventies. So in that respect, we designed everything - the supermarket stuff is all bespoke to the building. So the brands aren’t nostalgic from the ‘70s. All the books, album covers, cigarettes — down to every fine detail.
We also liked the idea that the ‘70s was the last point where design was futuristic, where they were looking towards an optimistic future up until about 1977, when the Pistols came out and said ‘there’s no future’. […] It’s the last time where people believed there were going to be jetpacks and missions to Mars. But when we think what the future is going to be like now, we think of a pretty dull future. What we mostly can see is an ecological collapse, and that’s about it and us all being really poor. So it’s a bit dull.
It was also about how to make the building a character in and of itself, and how it was going to impinge on the characters. It had to create shapes around them that were kind of compressing them. And the weight of the building is always in the rooms. Mark came up with this buttress idea, with these ribbed concrete triangular shapes, which really felt heavy and uncomfortable in the space.
A film is like a big flood-lit room. There are no secrets, it’s literal.
I wanted to ask you about Tom Hiddleston as well - I know you said you had him in mind for the role from the very beginning. What drew you to casting him?
With Tom, it’s a mixture of stuff. On the really banal level, it’s because he’s a matinee idol and so good-looking. That ties him in a continuity going back to Dirk Bogarde and all these British screen actors. To have that in this kind of movie — to push that image into difficult and perverse situations — is kind of fun. Tom himself is a really intelligent guy, but also guarded, so he has that thing of being sharp but also pulling back all the time. I really like that. And I liked him since seeing him in Avengers, really. It’s that thing when you watch something and go ‘who the fuck’s that? I’ve never seen him before and he’s really good and he’s stealing the whole film!’
The ‘70s was the last point where design was futuristic, where they were looking towards an optimistic future.
At a certain point in the film, you use montage to show the sort of deterioration and social breakdown in the building over a three month period. I wondered how you made the decision about which parts of that timeline to speed up or slow down?
I love editing — I was an editor originally and that’s always my favourite part of movies. Images become like music, you have to run with the associations and follow them. The montage style has been something that’s been growing in the films we’ve been doing for a while. It happens in Sightseers and A Field in England has it as well. It’s partially to do with how the book works. I’d made a lot of assumptions and when I came to re-read it. […] Ballard cuts to the chase - there is no moment where the descent into madness happens. In a film there needs to be a gear change into it, but the book suddenly plunges into it.
So you’re butting up against the problem of the two forms. How the book works - I feel - is like the author is in a room with a torch and showing you tiny specific details while you fill in the rest of the room. But a film is like a big flood-lit room. There are no secrets, it’s literal. So that’s when it becomes about what will work in a book and won’t work in a film - we had to kind of find ways through that.
And the process is pretty collaborative for you?
Yeah - there’s me, and Amy Jump is a very strong, almost equal flavour in this. She’s writing the script and helping to edit the film - she worked really closely on the costumes and I worked a lot on the design. So it’s almost a shared authorship. But there’s no room for that in talking about film - it’s always auteur stuff, focused on the director. It doesn’t help that she won’t talk about anything, and doesn’t care. She only wants to work and isn’t interested in any of this side of it. So it’s not that I’m seeking it out, it’d be much easier for me not to talk to anybody and just get on with working!
High Rise is released in the UK on 18th March.