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, Jeremy Thomas, Zoe Flower, Alaineé Kent at RPC, James Rocarols (co-interviewer), Justine McGlone (for transcribing everything!)
Interview #5 – Jeremy Thomas (Producer)
Stats: Recorded 14th August 2014 – Audio recording 29:24 – Behind the scenes at Bangor Leisure Centre, Northern Ireland
S&S: You must be thrilled to finally get this filmed. Would that be an understatement?
Jeremy Thomas: It’s been a long journey. Like some of the movies I’ve made, it’s been years to get the things realized. Because aligning the stars with all the elements and getting it right and the right size and then people doing it took some time. But I’m very happy with the…
S&S: You had some quite big names attached along the way, like Nic Roeg…
JT: No, no he wasn’t attached. I didn’t have it then. Nic Roeg was interested in Ballard and he did High Rise but that was not with me. That was not with me. And then other people, I wondered, have tried to do something with all of Ballard’s books. They’ve had people who were passionately into the book but they’re very hard films to adapt and set up because the content is fresh.
S&S: Do you think that’s part of the problem is that the book is quite difficult to film and that’s why there’s so few Ballard adaptations really?
JT: Well, we did the other Ballard adaptation(CRASH) and of course EMPIRE OF THE SUN is somewhat different because its autobiographical and it’s in the real world not in the world of the imagination. Ballard’s books fuel the world of the imagination is maybe demotive of the journey to translate that to the screen. Where they’re often this dystopic idea of where the planet is and where we’re going, the human nature. That is maybe this kind of easy going adventure model of storyboarding science fiction story, a story that has a profundity under the story and also his imagination takes one to a place that is off limits.
S&S: This must be the first Ballard adaptation directed by a British director because all the others have been…
JT: American or Canadian.
S&S: Yeah, because there was an Atrocity Exhibition adaptation that was American as well. Which I think, in a way, it’s quite disappointing if you consider that say an American contemporary of Ballard…
JT: I tried to adapt another one which was, I don’t know, I didn’t manage to complete that one. And there’s other books of Ballard’s that I’d like to adapt. I can see them and one particular one that I’m very attracted to.
S&S: Concrete Island?
S&S: I just wondered.
S&S: Do you feel a kind of affinity to Ballard’s stuff?
JT: I got to know him very well. And, um, and became friends at least from the few years before Crash, and CRASH too quite a long time so he was very, very enjoyable person to have spent time with and to have um. He was a brilliant person and it was always a pleasure seeing him.
S&S: So how did you come across Ben for the film?
JT: Well, I had seen Ben Wheatley’s films. His previous film and like any film lover found him original and provocative.
S&S: You’d seen his films.
S&S: You’d seen Ben’s films, yeah.
JT: Then my son who is a director’s agent rung me up and said um, who works with a colleague of Ben Wheatley’s agent. He said, you know, Ben was very interested in High Rise and he discovered that you have the book, so we started from there and then I met with Ben and he’s natural.
S&S: Did you share a similar vision for it, do you think?
JT: Naturally then he explained what he and Amy Jump’s take on what the film should be. Which was a closer adaptation to the book and in the period of the book.
S&S: That’s the interesting thing for me…
JT: Then suddenly it became, it was, you know, often on film projects for me you have sort of an eye opening moment, whether it’s like a change of heart or a completely “Oh well I was thinking of that when in fact that’s a better idea.” So then I thought well you had to adapt it in the period, that was the right thing to do. Mind you I had been working on this for so long that maybe looking at the seventies in the beginning of the early 2000’s that was maybe different but it certainly clicked, yes.
S&S: It’s an interesting, different way of taking it, because I guess, if you set it in the seventies then um it becomes less a cautionary tale about the future then now. So did you have a lot of discussion about that or when you heard Ben’s rationale for that were you taken by that immediately?
JT: Yeah I was taken by the adaptation he was going to make. And the book is, was you know, a totem for Ballard’s ideas which were very much reflected in the film.
S&S: Do you feel, in some ways, the time has come for the film or that you know there’s always a Ballardian moment, I suppose where, I guess the moment, if you talk about class and everything in the last few years there has been more of a conflict between the middle classes and the super rich which wasn’t so much that in the seventies it was more about sort of…
JT: But knowing Ballard he was already thinking of that. You know he’s very prophetic and um he was sort of the futurologist and he was thinking about, I mean, this idea of Royal and High Rise and the gaited community continued with the sort of special living areas for rich people. This theme comes up in probably the first page in High Rise.
S&S: So did you ever imagine making this picture in Bangor, when Ballard’s world is so often centered around that…
JT: We’re not in Bangor, we’re in Docklands. We were looking for films that were made in strange ways and all we see is what’s in the camera or through the lens We were looking for a building and we found this one which is about to be torn down and this is a seventies building. When we arrived here we were looking for seventies London and uh there is no seventies London here. Plus lots of places had been knocked down like this sort of socialist architecture. So when we came here we were looking for a combination of places and we happened upon the last location of the day of surveying of the place we came across the Bangor Leisure center. Which immediately showed its potential to be our studio because it had what we needed – space to build a decent sized sound stage, two basketball courts, two swimming pools which we needed, a squash court that we needed, the corridors that we built or rooms, other rooms which we utilized. Plus we could put all our wardrobes and everything inside.
S&S: Yeah we were just saying that you’ve got the swimming pool’s changing rooms are actually being used as changing rooms for the actors!
JT: So with imagination and then of course a lot of films are made in a cruel world created on top of this in a technical way.
S&S: So this was just literally an abandoned building for some time?
JT: An abandoned building, yeah. It’s been sold and it’s going to be a hotel. It’s big.
S&S: Yeah absolutely. It’s a big space.
JT: You have the pool. All our facilities were outside the carpark. It’s very, cuz it’s now our studio.
S&S: And they mentioned they’d done part of the shoot at the Stena building.
JT: Yeah we did two weeks shooting at the Stena building. Which was another building which we, was a building in the process of being changed from an old fashioned ferry terminal and of course that was built in the 70’s again and that in itself is how it was. And we used the top floor of the building and there’s another area we used . But nobody knows, except those that were there, that we were actually using an old ferry building.
S&S: So we get the sense from the shoot that it’s very, well it’s all on schedule and very efficient and hard working…
JT: As films always are! Ambitions are high and the sources are, are finite. You have to use all your ingenuity and season many movies because its easy, in a way, without detaining creativity and imagination that you have to make a film. Everybody knows that. Once you’re in it, you know it because every hour is expensive. You hire people, hire expensive equipment, and facilities for keeping all these people fed and covered and transported. It’s um very costly running a film. Everyday is valuable and there’s finite days so that’s why it’s very focused. And it’s work, but it’s enjoyable. People enjoy it. The actor’s have particularly enjoyed it.
S&S: Are we able to ask what the budget is?
JT: It’s 6.5 million pounds.
S&S: 6 and a half. That’s not too bad at all.
JT: Maybe a little less, maybe a little bit more but around there. It’s not a low budget or a high budget. The budget is based on the film being made modestly but correctly with the best equipment and the best actors. The actors and the people who are working and knowing that the film is of a certain cost. So everybody is rewarded in line with what the budget of the movie is. It has to be decided like that. It’s the only way you can make a film like this. Making it comfortably but also modestly.
S&S: Can I just ask a question about the casting? Um because when the film was announced, I think I’m right in saying Tom Hiddleston was announced pretty much from the beginning and then it seemed like there were a few months and then there was a wave, a couple of waves of other actors being announced and I just wondered if that was a case of there was like just how it was?
JT: There was no pre-planning on that. It’s just, Tom was there, first in and then the other actors came in, through casting etc..
S&S: And there was an audition process?
JT: Some audition process, yeah. Choosing process. When someone’s work is very well known, do you need an audition? You try and entice them with a great meaty role. And then you know, Jeremy Irons came to the film. There is a moment when a producer needs to quantatise the imagination of those they are trying to entice into the film. So you need a sort of certain place for the reader to go in their minds with the cast. With the imagination of Ben Wheatley’s film with these players. So that is, you need a little bit of that to get the film off and running. Then you get the film up and running and rolling. Then everybody knows it’s real. Then you cast the film.
S&S: How has your relationship with Ben gone, seeing as he’s kind of stepped into a new way of filming with this film in a way?
JT: It’s work. You’d have to ask him. From my respect its been very good. He’s a good collaborator to work with and um he’s a very confident, and a knowledgeable filmmaker. He knows fully about filmmaking and it’s enjoyable to work with somebody like that, who knows the craft, Ben knows all about cinema. And that is fabulous for me.
S&S: It comes through in his films really well.
JT: But this rates as a very enjoyable film. It’s been very hard work and all the actors are delightful and seem to be having a wonderful experience with the film and with Ben. It’s next week and then it’s over.
JT: It’s all focused on the shooting of the movie. Shooting the movie is just the necessary process to get the film to edit and mix with music and sound and then to get it out into the theater.
S&S: I’m not sure you can tell us if there’s any indication as to who might be doing the score?
JT: Um I’m not.
S&S: That’s fair enough.
JT: But that has been decided.
S&S: And obviously you don’t know as yet as to when the film will be released?
JT: It’ll come out in about a year’s time, but there’s a lot of things to do first.
S&S: This is shooting in 2:35:1 ?
JT: Yes, in scope. It’s the cinema frame isn’t it?
S&S: Yes, especially with the 70’s, it gives it that feel.
S&S: Did you ever discuss making this film with Cronenberg at all or did you feel you’d done one film with him and that was it?
JT: No. Although I was actually working with him, he was this special kind of director. CRASH, he made into an incredible film and he was a huge fan of Ballard.
S&S: All his early films, especially STEREO are very Ballardian. I’m sure Ballard would be very proud of this film.
JT: Oh yes, he would have loved this.