On the eve of the UK release of Ben Wheatley’s eagerly anticipated filmed adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, HIGH-RISE, I am exclusively posting the entire transcripts of a series of interviews that I conducted with the cast and crew of the film for the British Film Institute film magazine, Sight and Sound. The magazine’s editor, Nick James, has kindly given me permission to post these in full, extracts of which can be found in the April edition of the magazine. The content of all these interviews remains the copyright of Sight & Sound.
Thanks: Nick James at Sight & Sound, Ben Wheatley, Zoe Flower, Alaineé Kent at RPC, James Rocarols (co-interviewer), Justine McGlone (for transcribing everything!)
Interview #1 – Ben Wheatley
Stats: Recorded 12th November 2014 – Audio recording 1:16:28 – Ben’s house, Brighton – This was to be the first ever interview Ben gave about the film.
Ben Wheatley: It’s a bit of a weird day today. We had a screening yesterday. Which is the first screening for BFI and Film 4, so it’s a bit of hiatus slightly. I’ve been up in town doing some effects work stuff just tinkering a bit. Taken today off and then we’ll get back to it tomorrow.
S&S: Just a rough cut for them to look at?
BW: No. No, you see the whole film. I reckon we’re two weeks off finishing.
S&S: And how did that go then? How was the reaction?
BW: It was good. You never know how it’s gonna go. It was weird. I chatted to one of the producers just before the screening and he goes “are you nervous” and I was like “oh yeah I am now”. I hadn’t really thought about it up until this point. They were really sweet. It was good. I’m just getting used to the length of it at the moment. The other films were much easier to make in that respect. They’re easy to digest. You just cut and did them and they were done. Because there are so many characters in it, it’s much broader in its scope. It’s richer, so it takes a lot longer to get into your head.
S&S: Has it ended up longer in duration then?
BW: Two hours. I like the films to be 90 if I can, but the script was 120 or something. Amy writes pretty much minute to minute, so it was always going to be that.
S&S: You’ve got to balance out those three main characters?
BW: Yeah and there’s the movement, what story there is in it, which isn’t much, but kind of the movement through the building, where you don’t lose one or the other. It’s just more stuff to get in. The other films were more straightforward.
BW: I’ve managed to avoid all the “making of” stuff and talking about the film. I just said no I’m not doing it.
S&S: What, like the EPK?
BW: Yeah. I’m not talking about it until I’m done at least. So this is the first time I’ve talked about it. But I’m going to be reasonably vague I think!
S&S: Your biggest budget film to date?
BW: Yes. By quite a margin.
S&S: And biggest cast as well. Did you feel any added pressure because of both of those things?
BW: I don’t know. It’s always pressure. It’s all relative isn’t it. It’s like once you’re dealing with money that’s more than your house is worth. It all seems like quite a lot of money. And also whether it’s doing an ad or doing a TV programme or doing a theme. Anything that’s more money that you could afford yourself. So something like Down Terrace (2009) isn’t a pressure. But Kill List (2011) was because it was £600,000. I don’t think the money becomes exponentially a pressure. But it’s always in the back of your head. The pressure of the cast is a different set of problems. It’s more about making sure the performances all fit together. That people aren’t making choices that won’t gel. Which maybe in themselves may be really brilliant performances. You got more chances of that being a problem, but then when you’re doing a thing that’s much tighter, say like Sightseers (2012) or Kill List, you’re with them every day so you know what it is. Whereas something like this, it’s more disparate. People are coming in and coming out and you don’t get to play with them for as long. It didn’t feel like a massive pressure to be honest.
S&S: The other thing that sort of came out of the interviews, is that it was clearly a very enjoyable experience for them. They all liked the way you worked, in as much as you worked until you got the shot and then just moved on. And clearly for the three that we spoke to, that wasn’t something they were particularly used to. But they really liked that approach.
BW: I can’t speak for other directors or how that works. But the thing was we had a big film to shoot on not big film money.
S&S: And quite a small shoot?
BW: Yeah kind of.
S&S: Six weeks.
BW: It was still quite a long time. It was longer than I’ve ever had and when I looked at the schedule, as page count per day and that’s how you gauge it. It was an average of three pages per day. And I’d just come off Doctor Who which was like between 7 and 11. That felt like a luxury, but it certainly didn’t feel like a luxury when we started shooting to achieve it. I think there’s something to be said for keeping energy going if you can. And that working fast thing is good. It’s a weird thing when you find that people really enjoyed the shoot and you don’t always enjoy stuff. I’ve always enjoyed shooting.
S&S: The feedback was great from all of them.
BW: Everyone was really into it. They were excited about it, which was great. I don’t know what it would be like doing a project with people who were fucked off with it.
S&S: And the other thing they mentioned as well, which clearly was a first for them, was being given the opportunity to watch back their performances.
BW: I’ve never done that before.
S&S: Oh, you hadn’t either?
BW: No. I’d edited as I went along on other projects. A Field in England (2013) was the first one I cut myself as I went along. The others Rob Hill had cut. And I’d looked at them, but never the actors. I remember on Kill List, Neil Maskell said “No I’m not looking at it, I don’t want to see it.” Which I was fine with. On this, Tom wanted to see it. I didn’t have a problem with it and it didn’t seem to affect him in a negative way. I could see how it could work where it could send some people into a tailspin. It’s a gamble I think. It seemed to pay off with people going, “Alright, I can see that it’s all coming together and it’s all okay.” But now once I’ve cut it I feel a bit like I can’t believe I showed people this because I wouldn’t be showing them now, but it’s just the way it is. We had a laugh because I lived in a house with Laurie (Rose) and Bobby (Entwhistle), and I edited every night. You’re in a situation where the work never ends but it felt like we were all focused on it.
S&S: Was there a process for sharing that footage with the cast then? Would you deliver it?
BW: No, they would just come to the house and I would show them bits. Tom would come once a week and I think I did a big showing to Luke in a big chunk because he didn’t turn up until two weeks in or something like that. Whoever fancied coming along came along and we watched it. I think Jeremy Irons came and saw his bits cut together before he went away. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea or not, but everyone seemed to like it.
S&S: It depends on the individual, doesn’t it? As you say, they could look at it and it could end up affecting them later on or they might get something from it and it helps. Some of those characters go through a real degeneration, don’t they, throughout the film so perhaps they just wanted to check that they’re hitting the right notes.
BW: Yeah, totally. And that’s the thing I really appreciated with Tom’s performance. When you look at it, the rushes, because we’d shot with Jeremy Irons first, the schedule was really shredded. It was in tiny bits. And his performance is so controlled across the whole thing, it’s amazing. You really take it for granted when you put it in the right order, but when you step back and think about what he’d done it was pretty amazing.
S&S: Do you normally shoot more in sequence than this one or not?
BW: Well the ideal is always to do that. Why wouldn’t you? It makes total sense. I know (Ken) Loach always does that, even if he’s got flashbacks to shoot, he’ll shoot the flashbacks first so that the actors have the memory of what they’ve done. Why wouldn’t you do that? It’s a prefect way of working. But when you’re dealing with schedules and people are kind of doing you a favour, which is kind of what happened with this, they’re taking a risk and they’ve got to fit it into their schedule. Most movies, to be honest, are shot like that. You’re not going to keep someone on hold for a part where they’re in the beginning and then at the end, where they’re going to give you 8 weeks not working just so they can do it. And then pay them a fortune.
S&S: So did that prove to be a little bit of a headache? Obviously, you had to film the end of the film first with Irons coming in.
BW: Yeah but a lot of TV is all like that. When I shot Ideal (2009) it was just like confetti in the air. You’re shooting 8 episodes all at the same time. But it took until the last week to get the full edits. I remember going into Ideal worrying about that and then when we were a week into shooting, it was fine. Unless there is some heinous continuity cock up where people have the wrong clothes on or something, but the actors generally because it’s their absolute skill and trade, they know what they’re doing.
S&S: Is it quite good that you’ve still got your toe in the television world because it makes you appreciate perhaps the relative luxuries that film is in comparison?
BW: I think everything is hard. I think the TV stuff is it’s own entity. They all have sets of skills, in advertising as well. It’s a different set of skills. I did an interview for the Royal Television Society yesterday and they were saying what did you take from working on Doctor Who. What I took from it was kind of what happened when I did Ideal, and I didn’t know it at the time, but when I did the second series of Ideal, TV is like boot camp and it sharpens you up and you have to do quality work but fast. You only have one go at it, so doing 7 weeks of Doctor Who at the beginning of the year made me sharper, I was sort of surprised at how fast I worked, well that’s why.
S&S: You were primed for it, kind of.
BW: Yeah, I’d been working hard at it.
S&S: How did you come to be involved in directing the film? Jeremy Thomas gave us his version and I’m interested in hearing your version!
BW: What did he say?
S&S: He said that his son is an agent for a film company and that your agent contacted him and said “Ben’s read the book and is interested in filming it and understands you’ve got the rights.”
BW: Yes, pretty much. What happened was I was at home and we’d been developing all sorts of stuff over the last couple of years and we’ve kind of now got into the position where we can start to look at books, which we couldn’t do before. We didn’t have enough money to do it but the ambition kind of extended to looking at properties and going I wonder who’s got that. It’s kind of what happened with Doctor Who. I said I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of Doctor Who and I wonder if I can. I asked the agent and he goes, “You can!”. Well, brilliant, I’ll go and do that! So the same thing happened with High Rise. I was sitting at home and I was looking on the bookshelf and I saw it. I read it when I was a student and really liked it. It was one of the cornerstone books for me with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Naked Lunch and On the Road. I’d been involved in a film called You’re Dead (1999), which was kind of quite influenced by High Rise as well. We’d all been talking about it. You’re Dead is like a bank heist that goes wrong and they all cannibalise each other and stay in the building. Ballard was definitely front of the mind for that. I thought no one’s done it. Why haven’t they done it? It’s weird. The only Ballard stuff that had been done in the mainstream had been Crash (1996) and Empire of the Sun (1987). I thought okay who’s got it then. It was a couple of bits of the stars aligning where basically Jeremy’s son works at Independent so, Hugo Young, my agent could just go over there and find out. I think I talked to my American agent as well and he knew that Jeremy Thomas had it as well. It was well known because (Vincenzo) Natali was going to direct it. That had been announced a few years before. It had been in Cannes and there had been posters for it. They uncovered this whole history of it going back years and years ago. Going back to Roeg and all this stuff.
S&S: I asked him about Roeg and he reckoned that wasn’t at the time he was still involved.
BW: No that was early, early days.
S&S: Apparently, from what Jeremy said, he’s had it for almost 30 years.
BW: I’m not sure what the actual dates are. Whatever he said is right.
S&S: There was then Richard Stanley?
BW: That was the last known script that he’d had.
S&S: But that was more of a modern version, wasn’t it?
BW: I don’t know. I’m not going to talk about it particularly because we didn’t really look at it. We went back to the book. I know there’d been lots and lots of scripts and they sent me all the scripts and we kind of went I don’t think we should look at them so we didn’t. We probably kind of forensically should have looked at them at some point. It happened really quick. I was over at Jeremy’s within four days. He’d actually seen Sightseers (2012) a week before. If I’d have done this a month before he’d have gone “who the fuck’s this?” so that all kind of came together quite neatly and he just went, “Oh yeah, OK”. And that was that.
S&S: In the past your films have tended to be Amy and you writing them, whereas this is an original story and it’s the first time that you have adapted something. I just wondered how different it felt doing that rather than something original?
BW: They’ve all been different though. Kill List was something that I’d written initially and then Amy re-wrote while we were in production. So that’s that one. Sightseers is kind of more like an adaptation because it was an original Alice (Lowe) and Steve (Oram) script and Amy re-wrote. Then A Field in England is a script I wrote and then Amy utterly re-wrote to the point where it was so different from what I’d written. It was her script. By this point the difference in this one is I had nothing to do with any of the writing of this. But then she had to struggle with the book. That’s her end. I can’t really speak for her.
S&S: But there are a few things where you’ve diverted from the book and amended characters etc. I understand the character of Alice doesn’t actually feature in terms of being an actor but does feature in the film. And then there’s Elisabeth Moss’ character who’s pregnant but isn’t in the book but that adds another layer really. She says the fact that she’s pregnant kind of represents the future of the building and like the new generation of hope, perhaps. Is that how you see it?
BW: Yeah there’s the ghost of Alice in the film. There were changes to it because we really tried to be as close in the spirit as it is. It’s not an easy book. So there had to be some give and take with that. And also I think it’s from a perspective of there’s a few weird things going on with it being a sci-fi film that’s set in the past. That’s weird in itself.
S&S: Mark (Tildesley) mentioned sci-fi actually as well. That to me is the most interesting thing that I would want to ask about it, really. I think that’s the key decision. I’m interested to know if you ever had any doubts about setting it in the past?
BW: No that was the first thing that we wanted to do with it.
S&S: That’s interesting because Jeremy Thomas said that of all the scripts he’s read this one felt so different because it was set in the past. Did you never worry about that because it is kind of sci-fi, that it might lose that sense of being a cautionary tale?
BW: No, but I think the book is so seventies that it suffers from once you start to adapt it into the future it doesn’t make any sense anymore. And all the politics of it just all start to dissolve away. And then if you start worrying about mobile phones and the internet and all that it’s just like. It’s something else. It’s another thing entirely. I remember reading people saying it about Doctor Who and Paradise Towers (1987) and all that. It’s not and it’s not The Raid and it’s not Dredd either. Or Block Mania the 2000AD story. They’re distillations of the kind of idea of it. Ballard’s influence is on the top line but what High Rise is is not just about people bashing each other’s heads in a tower block. And that seemed to be something that people were just picking out of that book. Set in a similar kind of way that Blade Runner (1982) is a filet version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. You can take that because it’s legitimate but it’s not.
S&S: You just said the politics of it are very much rooted in the time. In a way it’s come round to be more relevant now in that in the seventies the class war was more about the working classes against the middle classes where this is more about middle classes versus the super rich.
BW: Well, that’s in the book. There’s not much working class actually in the book. I think it’s also, for us, it was that idea that the children of the tower become us, or me anyway, as a forty-odd year old man. I’m the kids that run around in the tower. They’re my parents that are in the tower in their thirties. We were having a perspective on that behaviour and on that generation and on that point in time from having seen what happened. We all know what happens after that whereas Ballard could only project into the future. Hope for the worst or hope for the best. I think that’s what was interesting to us. Again it’s looking at it in the same way that A Field in England was a point in England’s history that kind of was on a pivot. I think that kind of ‘75 point is a definite pivot into modern Britain basically from post war Britain.
S&S: You do get that sense in the production, when walking around the set. The little bits we looked at it did look like Abigail’s Party on ketamine or something like that.
BW: Well, that’s the thing. We didn’t want it to look like the greatest hits of the 70’s, but we wanted it to feel alien. Another thing I was thinking is the 70’s is the last time there was a chance of modernity, like of a future. As far as I’m concerned history kind of stops in 1990 and there are no more eras. It’s tricky isn’t it because you kind of, I don’t know whether this is an age thing but I used to perceive it that there was very definite capsule decades and when I was in the 70’s, the 60’s was a definite (noise) then the 50’s, (noise) the 40’s, and then the 80’s kind of, they repackaged the 80’s as a thing, but the 90’s is not getting that thing. It’s not being packaged into. So already you’ve got that kind of youth culture rotating through the modifiable and all this kind of stuff. It just kind of flatlined.
S&S: I don’t know about the noughties, what that looks like.
BW: No, exactly, but it might be an age thing. I think as soon as we got watches that were phones and you could watch T.V. and do the DICK TRACY thing and the people were in the future. This is the future but these were so basic then that they could still invent stuff and be excited about it. And the kind of stuff they had there’s a futurism to it. I wanted to take those bits of the future seventies and the kitsch stuff and make a kind of alternate version of it. That was the dream.
S&S: Did you face any specific challenges in making this film due to its claustrophobic nature? Were there any issues you discovered that you had to overcome during the shooting at all?
BW: I don’t know. There’s always boring technical stuff or not having enough money to build enough sets. It’s the first time I ever worked with lots of sets. That was really exciting and after you’ve been working with them for a couple of weeks it can be irritating. I think that Mark (Tildesley) did an amazing job with that. We had a kind of erect-a-set version of the tower block where we kept re-using bits.
S&S: Yeah, he mentioned that. He said he liked the recycling element of that. I think it’s really clever because you had those columns that appear in all the different rooms. They just filled the room around it and it kind of works because it makes you realise how uniform all of the rooms are.
BW: At the end when we did the last room when we shot in there, we flopped it so it was all altered, the costumes were on backwards, so watches were on the other side and all their hair was done the other way. And then we flopped it in the camera and you get a completely brand new set. All the boxes on the set had all the labels stuck on the wrong way round. Stuff like that you just have to do. I think that was tricky, but I don’t think there was anything else. It was fine. I think because it was shot, it’s kind of shot in a half. You can see the progression in my films from DOWN TERRACE onwards that we start in a very handheld documentary style and we slowly have been introducing more formal elements. And this is kind of like a half way house movie that’s half formal and half hand held. It’s obviously on purpose because it’s to show the building’s collapse. It’s the safeguard of being able to get out of any trouble if you can shoot hand held. It’s somewhere where we’re safe and comfortable so we can get a lot of footage done.
S&S: We met Nick Gillespie who was doing lots of second unit type stuff. He was doing macro shots and suggesting it might be the kind of thing you put together in montage sequences. Did you end up using any of that?
BW: Yeah, tons of it. Nick shot lots of stuff on FIELD as well. Nick has been with us since KILL LIST. It’s just good to have an extra set of eyes just observing the stuff because there’s so much detail that goes into those sets that main unit can’t get to because he’s just trying to get the drama. That stuff really helps in the end. What happened on FIELD was we cut the whole thing and then went back and trawled all of Nick’s footage and found stuff and then cranked that into the edit and that’s all the stuff like…
S&S: The tricky bits?
BW: The insect stuff. I mean there’s that shot with a spider and (Michael) Smiley going through the web and all that is Nick’s stuff. It’s brilliant. If I make the main unit shoot something like that everyone would be rolling their eyes and it would be a real problem to get that kind of footage. I talk to him and give him shot lists and talk to him in the edit. He comes in the edit and watches and I show how I’ve used his footage. You get hours of it but then it only has to work a couple of times and it’s worth it.
S&S: It’s useful for showing the inner perspective of what might be going on with the people behind you.
BW: We use all the rushes. We really comb all the rushes for stuff. I’m a big fan of before and after the clapper and after cut’s been called we roll a lot and we roll also when in the setting up of the stuff. So just looking for moments all the time.
S&S: Tom was talking about looking directly into the camera.
BW: Just to make them feel that they have to always be on, it’s important.
S&S: Did you watch any specific films prior to watching this with a view to try and get anything from them?
BW: I don’t know. I can’t think. I think Laurie and I watched all our own films, just to remind us of what we’d done!
S&S: There was the Shepitko film that Tom mentioned (You and Me 1971).
BW: Yeah, he loved that. It’s such a great film. I mean I’m such a big Shepitko fan though. I think she’s incredible. She’s not just the world’s greatest woman filmmaker. She’s one of the best filmmakers full stop.
S&S: That’s a very strange film that one.
BW: Yeah, I watched the first five, ten minutes going “Oh Christ” because I’d seen some of the early Klimov stuff and that’s a bit hard to get through. And then it just finds it’s feet and it’s like bam. Fantastic!
BW: These days it’s kind of…I love that idea of filmmakers watching movies, screening stuff for their cast, crew and all that. And then I never do it. It never really works.
S&S: Scorsese always does that, from what I understand.
BW: Yeah. I saw that really long making of MAGNOLIA (1999) the other day and he’s like screening a lot and yeah it’s gonna be like this. But, I don’t know because I’ve done it in the past, or tried to, and Laurie and I have sat down and watched movies together and our films are so not like the films, because the films themselves are a beast and you have to do battle with the film itself and you can’t think about how other people make films. It’s not useful. The one I always say that we watch is GREY GARDENS (1975). I’ve said that for about four films in a row now.
S&S: I guess it fits in a way that DOWN TERRACE and HIGH RISE are both set in sort of those miniature microcosmic worlds.
BW: Yeah, but it’s more about camera for Laurie and I. It’s that conversation about the camera as observer. Laurie’s camera work is pretty unique like that. That you feel that it’s not too forced and too formal and you feel like you’re there with them. And you’re suddenly, oh is this a problem fuck that’s happening but it’s not like fuck. I like that and I like the fact when you watch GREY GARDENS you realise there are no rules to anything. You can have characters screaming from downstairs for ten minutes. You don’t care. Or people talk and the camera just wanders off up the wall somewhere. I mean that is always a style guide thing for us and COME AND SEE (1985) is the other one that I always watch. But that’s been amazing, it’s been a big thing for me recently. You’d be hard pressed to pick stuff out of COME AND SEE that was in this! I think the thing about COME AND SEE is that it’s an avant-garde movie that feels socio-realistic even though it has incredibly strong symbolism in it. He’s not embarrassed about that. It felt like there was a realism in that, that you don’t get in documentary almost.
S&S: Location. You used the Stena building and the Leisure Centre. But I understand you were looking around for quite some time before you stumbled across them?
BW: No, not really. We looked up and down the UK for period stuff. And most of it has been knocked down or it’s in use, or it’s been adapted. Even in Belfast when we went to one of the universities and it has a really brilliant, brutalist building there but they got it clad in the eighties with marble or something. Brutalist buildings aren’t well served. Most of them all got knocked down. We even tried to get into Birmingham Library, which looked amazing but they wouldn’t let us and then they knocked it down. So that was that. I also think a lot of them have got problems in terms of asbestos.
S&S: It’s nice to not have any health or safety concerns.
BW: Well, they have to check it for insurance anyway. Every building that’s not built in the last twenty years has an asbestos issue with it. They checked it out and they went through it all and it’s fine as long as you don’t grind down the inner walls and snort them, you should be alright! That was pretty amazing when we found the Leisure Centre because it had just been closed. They opened up that new one down the road. Its next to a police station so it never got damaged, but had it been in central London it would have been vandalised to fuck and back! It’s like 24 hour security. No one is ever going to do anything stupid.
S&S: You had the squash court and the swimming pool already there.
BW: Yeah and it’s like a studio basically because you can build into the thing. I remember reading about the making of TRAINSPOTTING (1996), which they did in a factory, I always liked that idea that you can take an industrial space and just build into it. The building itself was period. Exactly the right period so everything was there.
S&S: We went into Laing’s apartment and we wandered around there and out on his balcony. It looks just like a real balcony! It’s so incredibly good. I know it’s polystyrene or whatever those things are but it just looks so bloody real.
BW: Yeah and like that psyche. We were sweating about that a lot and people were oh we’re going to do green screen but I thought that would be a nightmare. It looks fine. It looks great.
S&S: It did look good. It looked incredibly good.
BW: Then we found down the road that there was a supermarket which, in the boring world of technical filmmaking of finding empty supermarkets can be a bit of a pain in the ass. So we had something so I was like oh my god. And the wall garden was down the road as well. All of the sudden it was all smiling on us. Then Stena itself was a big empty ferry terminal so it gave us two massive spaces. I just found the scale of it fantastic to work in.
S&S: When we were on set you were working with a swimming pool full of water, dogs and children!
BW: Couldn’t be more complicated.
S&S: I think there was a problem with the camera as well.
BW: Oh the underwater camera? Oh God. Yeah, the special team that had come in to do it and I was just like oh no you can’t because I had five people on it and it doesn’t work. The animals thing was a nightmare, kids are a nightmare. They all have to have their special breaks and stuff. But it’s all part of it, isn’t it. It’s all fun. It just makes you appreciate other stuff more. I saw Tom Jones (1963) the Richardson film recently and look at that, it’s full of kids and dogs and horses and you think fucking hell how does it all look so natural. It must have been a nightmare doing that.
S&S: The character of Laing is kind of dispassionate and takes a back seat whereas Wilder is completely the opposite, completely impulsive.
BW: They’re like a personality split but they are also like Laing and Royal and Toby are a set as well. They split in time. Toby and Royal are related in terms of being father and son, but then Laing’s like Royal’s son. He has a father-son relationship with him, as well. So there are those ideas of people being stuck in a time slice almost. Laing, Royal and Wilder being a fractured version of one man.
S&S: Did a lot of that reverberate in the edit? Did you find yourself matching things?
BW: Yeah, it’s shot like that. They are the inner rhythms of it. It can be read on the top level, but they’re the same as the other movies that we’ve done. FIELD works in a similar way. A lot of movies do, really. And they’re really all just the person who’s made it through a fractal kind of look at themselves. You can’t escape it. You never can really escape yourself within your own work. I think eventually it comes back to that. Look at me and Amy and our relationship or what relationship the makers have with the film or the relationship the makers have with the actors and the film and the story. I think that’s definitely across it. But you want to be mysterious about it because if you lay it all out too early then. It’s not like you don’t want to kind of set out your stall and say this is what we’ve done because then if people watch it through that prism then they’re looking for the holes in it. Whereas if they discover it, then it’s much more interesting.
S&S: I would imagine writing the screenplay that there’s an issue of what character you want people to empathise with because Laing in some ways is kind of complicit in everything but goes under. Whereas Wilder’s a maniac, but at least he’s sort of doing something.
BW: Then he does heinous things.
S&S: Who do you want the audience to identify with?
BW: I don’t really think like that. You’ve seen the movies we made. Who do you empathise with in KILL LIST? Maskell is an absolute bastard in that film. Often, if you spend enough time with a character you like them despite yourself. I think most film culture is like that. As long as they’re charismatic in themselves and have the truth it’s fine and you shouldn’t really worry about that. Ballard is doing a very particular thing. The way that Laing works isn’t necessarily how you’d approach a story like that if you’re writing it from scratch. But we haven’t, so we have to accommodate that central inaction. As a character he is kind of contrary to what (Robert) McKee would probably tell you to do. But that’s the challenge of it and that’s where you come to it if you like that kind of fiction. It’s not called Laing versus the building or something. It’s not some kind of sci-fi thing where he tools up and becomes Ash or fights his way to the top. It’s just not that story.
S&S: One of the most memorable things about the book is that it starts with him sitting on his balcony eating a dog. Did you feel the need to open in a similar way?
BW: Well, you’ll see won’t you? The thing is this article will come out after you’ve seen the film, won’t it. So you’ll then re-look at it. We have opened with that, yeah. I didn’t want to do it necessarily because of the book ending of a movie, there’s been a lot of book ending. And you know why it happens is because you get that technical thing of it takes the strain off the rest of the story to book end it. You can then always refer back to it. I think it’s to do with, not in this one, but in other things you get this arc and people get nervous about a character who is being an absolute shit all the way through so they put the end where the pathos back at the front so that then you go oh no he’s going to be sad about it later.
S&S: Or he’s going to be alive or something like that.
BW: Yeah, I think that that was kind of interesting. We kind of wanted to avoid that but then in the book it he does it. He’s not a master storyteller for no reason. He has done it because it takes the pressure off the rest of the story. And it works. You just want to get in hard and fast otherwise you’re really in trouble. You have the risk of having to set up the building and it’s boring. It’s like this is where they live and this is how it works, blah blah blah, you know.
S&S: Did you feel it necessary to show the outside of the building early on?
BW: Yeah, you want to see the building as quick as possible and feel the scope of it. And get it out of the way. You feel the thrusting modernness of it. It’s like these people are fucking and they come out and they go to work and they drive off in their Triumph Stags and they stomp about. They’re kind of proto-yuppies. They’re the middle management of the eighties. They’re the guys that hire the new guys who come in and change everything.
S&S: Tom indicated to us that he felt he got the role because of Archipelago (2010), because you and Amy were fans of the film?
BW: I don’t want to be quoted in Sight & Sound as saying its because of The Avengers (2012) ! No it’s not. We liked him before. I think I was often seeing him as Loki but I don’t want that to be the thing. As we got closer to him, I watched all these films and dug out as much as I could. I did love Archipelago.
S&S: In some ways there are echoes of Exhibition (2013) in High Rise because it’s about property and building.
BW; Of course, and environments and stuff and London. It’s not that HIGH RISE is echoed in EXHIBITION, she’s working out of a Ballardian space basically. I thought the sound design in it was incredible. It’s the only film I’ve heard that sounds like London. There’s that clanking of scaffold poles and shouting on the street.
S&S: The thing about it is we are a really property obsessed nation, aren’t we?
BW: Well, they haven’t grown up have they? If they haven’t got kids and they’ve dedicated their lives to themselves.
S&S: It means their life to them, this building.
BW: Yeah, it’s a bit pathetic.
S&S: I guess what I was getting at was Tom really the guy you had in mind for Laing from the start?
BW: Yes. Without it being EPK-style self serving bullshit it was true. We had a list of people. We’d started putting people on the board and thinking who we would like. He was definitely Laing all along.
S&S: It did seem that almost as soon as the film was announced, Tom was announced too as being the lead and then there was a long period before anybody else was linked with it.
BW: I can’t remember how it happened now. I don’t even want to think about it because it’s a nightmarish pressure, all that stuff. He made sense to me totally because he is very Laingian. He’s very controlled and intelligent and attractive and strong but can play distant.
S&S: Archetypal British.
BW: Yeah, he’s what you want. And that he was super smart really helps. I went to see Coriolanus, which was terrifying because I met him immediately after. So I was watching going I’m going to have to talk about this in a minute. It’s going to be like an a-level test! So you come out of it like I’ve just done it. And it was great because here’s my salient points about it. It was great and then we had a lunch and he’s so sharp.
S&S: Then he said “We want you to read as much Ballard as you like but we want you for the role. And there was an extraordinary permission like bring Laing to yourself but bring yourself to Laing. Let Laing exist in you and let yourself exist in Laing.”
BW: Yeah, I don’t think we ever said that but I think that’s very nice. That’s true. It’s a tricky role and he’s got literally balls out emotionally. He has to go there physically. We needed a partner that would do it with us. It’s a big responsibility and it’s a lot to study and understand in the context of what the role was. It’s not just something you rock up to and can do. I think he’s like a precision tool. When he’s focused he’s on it. It’s like a laserbeam. It’s an absolute challenge and it’s all he thinks about. It wasn’t like a punishing thing. It wasn’t like oh every moment we’ve gotta talk about it and sit down and pow wow about it. He knew what he was doing. It’s more about giving people space, but having an opinion. I think what actors hate is when you just go whatever, yeah great. That’s about confidence. He doesn’t know what he’s doing and it’s going to be a disaster. Because they’re giving you everything and also they give you different shades of it because they’re trying to help you for the edit they know that if they’re aware as performers. If they lose confidence in you that you’re not going to edit it well then you can make them look really terrible really easily because they’ll give you the whole range. And if it’s inappropriate how you cut it then they’re the ones that everyone looks at and goes Jesus that’s terrible. And they blame them. I think a lot of bad acting, so called bad acting, is bad editing and bad writing. It’s not necessarily their fault.
S&S: Tom also said of his time on the film, “It has been like falling in love again. And that sounds very extreme but I have had more fun on this film than I think I’ve ever had.”
BW: He was saying that a lot and I’m glad. I’m really happy that he had a good time. There is quite a lot of range in Laing, so you get to exercise lots of different muscles.
S&S: He said he liked that Laing is often on the fringes and looking, almost like a voyeur and the connection of us as an audience watching him, watching whats happening. Very European filmmaking, like Antonioni. He did also mention THE CONFORMIST (1970).
BW: Yeah, actually we did watch THE CONFORMIST before we did this. I watched that. I got Laurie to watch CONFORMIST and LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972). LAST TANGO IN PARIS is really interesting, I think. There is something that aligns it with HIGH RISE quite a lot because it is about sexual obsession, being in buildings, and trapped in rooms and stuff. There is a kind of proto-Wilder character in it, as well.
S&S: There was that period of films in the seventies, European films, that are kind of about excess and bourgeois excess like DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972) , LA GRANDE BOUFFE (1973), and DILINGER IS DEAD (1969) and things like that. HIGH RISE feels in a way similar to those.
BW: It would have been a bit and it would have also been Ballard existing in that culture and kind of thinking about, but then there’s SHIVERS (1975) as well which is the other end. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962) is another one.
S&S: That’s the one I mentioned with not being able to leave that table. It’s similar in HIGH RISE where you’ve got the freedom to get up and walk out of the building.
BW: It really is like EXTERMINATING ANGEL. The problem you have between books and film, film is literal. You see it. You’re much more likely not to believe it then when you read it for some reason. I was having a look at CONCRETE ISLAND and the problems of adapting CONCRETE ISLAND are that you can’t, in the book you don’t know where you are. In the film you just look around and you know as soon as the camera went like that you go why don’t you just go over there. I think that was one of the pressures of film is that how believable the degradation of the building is and the feeling of keeping this feeling or tone alive that they wouldn’t leave. As soon as you start to question it, because it is a kind of big surrealist abstract idea that they don’t go. That’s a bit of a gambit. If you suddenly look at it in a totally realistic way it doesn’t make any sense. But then the Buñuel movies do work like that and it’s fine. And they go well this is just bullshit, why don’t they just leave. Or any of the sketches in PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974) or something like that you’re going why do they, why does he abort the (???????).
S&S: It’s good that you have those there to give you the confidence that it would work.
BW: Kind of. It’s interesting that those kinds of movies just don’t really happen anymore.
S&S: Did you read more Ballard in preparation?
BW: No is the terrible answer. I read HIGH RISE quite a lot. I’ve done my Ballard reading. I’ve read quite a chunk of it. I don’t know. I just think it’s a different thing now. It’s like that’s an academic thing. I get asked a lot about much more academic questions and review style questions about movies and it’s not my job. I have to deal with the film and the story. It’s not how it absolutely fits within what is written.
S&S: Luke mentioned Oliver Reed a lot as being an influence for his character, Wilder.
BW: Yes, we talked about Reed.
S&S: He said he researched him quite a bit for his character. Watching a lot of his interviews and his mannerisms and how he was that completely unpredictable kind of guy. Where one minute you didn’t know whether he was going to hug you or punch you. He spoke a fair bit about Reed, but he made quite a nice comment about you. He said that he felt like meeting you was like meeting a young Peter Jackson.
BW: Jackson and Sam Rami are big heroes because they’re guys who have invented their own cinema and come from nothing and didn’t need any permission to do what they did. And then created a world around them. But that’s also (Peter) Strickland and Joanna Hogg as well. I identify with that as you just go out there and make a movie and you don’t stop until you’ve got it done and you keep going.
S&S: That’s what he meant, I think, is that Peter Jackson and Sam Rami, their movies have grown in size kind of exponentially, but they’ve done it all on their own terms.
BW: Yeah it’s that first thing of going from nothing to something, isn’t it? Where you haven’t kind of come up by doing a really great ad in a pop promo and then someone takes a chance on you in Hollywood and then suddenly you got a career out of that. For Jackson, what was inspiring about him is his mastery of the craft. Was it the monsters heads in BAD TASTE (1987) were a certain size because that was the size of his mom’s oven? He couldn’t make them any bigger because they couldn’t bake them big enough! Stuff like that is brilliant. I think that’s always been an important part of it for me. Understanding technically how it all works.
S&S: Do you see yourself making Jackson-sized films eventually?
BW: Yeah, hopefully. I also always want to make films that are small scale as well. The ambition is always that kind of golden Hollywood career from the forties and fifties. Where if you can become someone who can jump genre and make audience pleasing movies again and again but also retain an art to it so that they’re intelligent. Do that and that would be brilliant. But I also think the model for me is doing stuff like FIELD. We didn’t have to do that after SIGHTSEERS. We weren’t forced into it going oh god there’s nothing to do. We’ll do something like that. It was a choice. There’s lots of different muscles to flex while I’ve got them. At the moment where I can get financing, then I’ll keep going.