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Ben Wheatley, British Film Institute, High-Rise, J G Ballard, Mark Tildesley, Sight & Sound

HIGH-RISE Interviews #6 – Mark Tildesley (Set Designer)


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, Mark Tildesley, Zoe Flower, Alaineé Kent at RPC, James Rocarols (co-interviewer), Justine McGlone (for transcribing everything!)

Interview #6 – Mark Tildesley (Set Designer)

Stats: Recorded 14th August 2014 – Audio recording 18:01 – Behind the scenes at Bangor Leisure Centre, Northern Ireland

Mark Tildesley: Yeah we’re in the former glorious Bangor Castle Leisure Centre. Which is something that Ben found in the early days with Jeremy. They were looking to come and work here. And so half of it was built in 1973 and our story is in 75, so it’s sort of perfect for our setting. And obviously in our script we needed various pieces. So we needed a squash court, we needed a swimming pool that we could fill with detritus, we needed a gymnasium so there were pieces here and then it has obviously a big space for us to work in, you know, to build our sets inside.

S&S So everything’s being done here essentially?

MT: Yeah, we have two bases. One here, which is where we run the production from and build stuff in the studio and from the gymnasium. And then down at the Stena ferry link in Belfast City Center we built the foyer and the penthouse in the same building down there.

S&S: There’s lots of going up and down lifts in the book anyway, is that being recreated here?

MT: Yeah, so, we built the lifts but we have a penthouse lift, which is a glass lift, which was quite fun. Completely glass mirrored only. And then in the foyer we built our foyer of the building with our lift shafts, practical with all the electronics and stuff. We never really lifted anyone up because they went in, close the door, and sound effects.

S&S: So was it a challenge building everything on the basketball court then?

MT: It’s tight, yeah, yeah. It’s tight, it’s been fun because we’ve all been in one or two spaces so it just meant with Ben he sort of likes to react to things and sort of suggest ideas and so we’re around to facilitate stuff. Yesterday he asked us for a spinning champagne bottle and so we’re here to make it. In that sense it’s great that we’re in like two places to work.

S&S: And how has the sort of seventies feel informed everything? It’s been a bit of fun?

MT: Yeah it’s great fun. Initially we tried not to be too on the money so you know that it’s seventies because it ends up looking like a 70’s commercial. I mean, inevitably the film does go insane towards the end. So we sort of had to pace it a bit and try to pull things back and make it feel slightly like there’s some sense of normality, so that you know, the impression of the sort of the way that the society breaks down in the flats is more powerful.

S&S: Yeah, I guess I get that kind of imposing claustrophobia and the sets have to convey that Ballardian sense

MT: Yeah, you don’t get out much! So we started, we used Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseilles as a sort of starting point for something that was sort of something we liked the idea of. I mean there’s not much of Corbusier’s architecture left now. I mean there’s the Birmingham Library, you know you can wander around the Barbican. The Barbican’s quite interesting in the way that it’s a world that has the sharps and the other pieces in the same sort of environment. So that was quite an interesting template but a little bit boring. But the rest of Corbusier’s architecture is either in Eastern Europe now or it’s mostly gone.

S&S: I wonder if they ever considered going to Eastern Europe to film?

MT: Yeah we were considering shooting plates. So we’ve been devising this block of five fingers, this hand centrally, and it’s quite a difficult one not to make it look too sci-fi. You know, you just got to make it look like your hand but not really like a hand. So we used the Corbusier thing and then we decided, that because we were using various pieces of stuff to put it together we used this concrete theme or feature that you get down in the Barbican and so you see these two pillars in the swimming pool. In the supermarket we built six great concrete pillars just so you had a sense that it was all in the same block. We’re in this virtual place and you never really leave it. Once or twice you leave it. So we used that concrete feature to sort of tie everything up. The sense of claustrophobia is the weight of that. So in the foyer if felt very much like the whole weight of this building held above you so there was a lot of pressure on everyone.

S&S: And how about in the final scene, I haven’t read the script, but at the end of the book there’s this sort of penthouse and the sense that it’s a different world and they’re stuck there with animals running around? Where is that?

MT: Yeah, we built the penthouse in the Stena building and then we built an internal garden so that you have, this is our five fingers, so we’re playing with this idea of just chinking them slightly so that you get the sense of, that’s a little bit sci-fi if I’m honest. But you get the sense of the farm and the fingers. And then that it’s based around, we have a sort of symbol of these three circles which is the symbol for the architect.

S&S: What, the architect in the story? Royal?

MT: Yeah, Royal. So Royal has these three logos; the three rings and so that’s set somewhere in the east with plains of marshes off to the left and a seventies city which is very, very different from like the city now.

S&S: So is there going to be a lot of CG in the film?

MT: Yeah this is all built in CGI. So this is the Stena building, so we use this building and then we built a sort of hydroponic garden which comes out from the building and then into the barn which is the folley which is built for his wife, which is the office. And then we used here, this is a wall garden which is literally 250 meters from the castle, Bangor Castle wall garden.

S&S: Oh yeah, that’s over there. That’s what they’d shown us. So you’ve combined those two…?

MT: So we used this. So we were building our barn inside here as well and we had an upstairs so you come through one end and out the other into the garden. And then we’re stripping out here and you’ll see the other, one of the other towers and then the penthouse building as well. So that’s how we sort of cheated.

S&S: These are great, aren’t they? Just the furnishings, it’s like A Clockwork Orange (1971).

MT: We’ve homaged A Clockwork Orange. In Royal’s flat when you go inside the ancient barn it’s like white perspex lit. It’s very clean and crispy. So we’re building this world, this town. We’re building, somehow without being too cliché, these sort of levels of this sort off on the top floor they don’t have newspapers, they have fine arts and wonderful pieces of modern furniture. And then in the middle section, which is Charlotte’s and Laing’s world. Laing’s is obviously very clean. He’s the last person to move into the building. So he never really unpacks his world. It all remains in boxes and unfinished. And then he paints, a man comes and paints the entire flat grey. Charlotte is a sort of bohemian character with the son, which is fathered by Royal, just above so she lives in this sort of world that is the nearest we get to doing something quite seventies, in fact Laing feels like he’s a character from the late fifties.

S&S: And do the apartments show how the high rise is set up into sections, like a class system?

MT: Yeah it does without being too on the money. Yeah I think you hopefully get a sense of that, by the time you get downstairs what you get into is patterned wall paper, carpet and clutter so when you get to the Wilders you know they’ve got lots of books and their world is like she’s centralized around bringing up the children so she has yogurt makers and she has lots of plants and there’s still a sense that she’s still aspiring down there to move up. They want to get up to the world of parties and stuff.

S&S: And how many people have you got in your team?

MT: Not that many. I had about six of us.

S&S: How far ahead were you doing this before the actual shoot?

MT: We didn’t have a ton of time but Ben is incredibly, brilliantly well organized so all these (STORYBOARDS) were here. Yeah these were all here. The lovely thing is they’re quite fresh so they’re sort of bullet points rather than a storyboard. Very helpful when you’re in that scene you just have to go and read, just have a quick look at them to remind what the intentions were, so that’s been really fantastic. He’s super focused, but very relaxed as well so not held up by this or you know fixated with any of this. It’s just, this is just a layout so that we can move forward with it and do other things.

S&S: So I know you were saying about A Clockwork Orange reference, was there a sense that you didn’t want to reference that film?

MT: Yeah, no, we didn’t really want to reference it.

S&S: Because you don’t really want to?

MT: No it’s a different thing.

S&S: Something like Shivers (1975) another seventies link which some people, you don’t want to reference it too closely.

MT: No it’s not too closely. Do you know what, it’s not over stylized as a film, I don’t think Ben shot it that way. It’s very fluid and we just go for it each day, it’s not type planned shots. It’s super delicate. But there’s a sort of work ethic in this film making that I’ve not seen for a while. It’s like Michael Winterbottom.

S&S: I hear you’re not given lunch breaks?

MT: Yeah, no, so you turn up and normally you get started and there’s an eight o clock call or 8.30, 8.15 you start. So there’s a nice energy into the day. And there’s a nice sense of problem solving as you push through, because you know you hit all sorts of stuff as you go along.

S&S: That comes from Ben’s background and slightly lower budget productions?

MT: I think so and it’s very refreshing, I’ve got to say. You know, he’s handling it, I mean we’re not into big budget film making but it’s a leap up.

S&S: Have you worked with Ben before?

MT: No. I haven’t actually. I think he interviewed a number of designers and I just came off a bit of a cumbersome Warner Bros thing. It’s like you do show and tells all the time. Come on. Oh it’s great, I love it period. So it’s very refreshing and a great opportunity to work with Ben because I now see that he is a brilliant talent. He’ll be a treasure I think.

S&S: It’s an interesting next step for him.

MT: It is. Where is he going next? I think it’s interesting in a way because I’m not comparing him, because it’s a very different beast but Winterbottom managed to just keep turning over and turns away from the punches. Just trying different things.

S&S: You worked with Winterbottom before?

MT: Yeah I’ve made quite a few films with Michael. 24 Hour Party People (2002) and The Claim (2000) and a fair few. I’m working with Danny as well. A lot of Danny Boyle. So he’s very refreshing too.

S&S: Well he comes from a similar background.

MT: I think so. In a way he’s sort of toyed with the idea. I’m not putting this at Ben but he sort of toyed with the idea of a bigger production and it didn’t work at all. And now he’s best with four colors and 20p! If you strap him down that’s when he’s the most inventive. And you get that feeling with Ben as well. That he’s more, not more comfortable, but the sort who favours the inventiveness of this sort of limited palette and budget. We’ve had to scrape and scrap and reuse and recycle and all that but in a way, I was talking to Paki Smith, Paki’s the set decorator. It’s actually made us a bit more thoughtful about what’s the one essential thing you might need that day to tell the story. As opposed to being able to have a plethora of stuff behind you ready to move in. It’s like a sort of minimalist, simplistic way of making films. And it’s not over fancy lighting and the camera work isn’t over fancy. It’s nice, really good story telling.

S&S: Was there any sense of trying to get away from being too claustrophobic and opening out in some ways or not so much?

MT: Not really. I think we just decided that actually it’s immersed in its world, a dark and horrible difficult world that you don’t get out of for quite a while. You know we do pop out for fresh air about two or three times but we haven’t done a lot of our bigger establishes of the building because I think we’ll see the building from outside and what’s going on inside so the lights are failing and things are happening and the lights go down and there will be moments that sort of establish the environs, like the Barbican. But I don’t think we’re going to go out beyond.

S&S: Has this swimming pool caused any difficulties in that are there any logistical difficulties working with all that water?

MT: No it wasn’t that. It’s just the way we had to get Jeremy Irons out in the first couple of weeks. So we had to destroy the swimming pool to start with. We completely filled it with car bits and tires and black oil.

S&S: So that’s the scene right at the end of the film?

MT: Yeah, and then we built a tank and sunk him into it. He’s buried into the dark water. It’s a very beautiful shot. But we had to get that out of the way in the first week.

S&S: Was that difficult having to shoot around actor’s different schedules?

MT: Yes, the logistics of the film have been incredibly difficult just because if you’re on a low budget thing and you’ve got people popping in to be involved. They can give you a couple of weeks and then they’re outta here. But they’ve handled it quite well. so we had to start with the pool black, now we have spent weeks cleaning it. Yeah, great idea! Some things you just have to do. This sort of schedule has been intriguing. It’s one of those things that’s an evolving story that would have worked really well if we could have had the money to shoot it in sequence. Then you could add, you know how this thing, so Ben’s got, I’ll just show you. So this is just the set wish list. These are just non scripted images, so we’ve just smashed a hole in the squash court upstairs because this building is coming down.

S&S: You can trash this place, can’t you?

MT: Yeah. We’ve got this nice image. I’ll show you. It’s funny. Well I think it’s funny.

S&S: They’re great pictures, aren’t they?

MT: Yeah these, so you know, we’ve been able to literally do stuff you wouldn’t normally do. Which is good fun and so we’re you know that was our sort of graveyard at the top left, dead bodies in black oil with car bits and all the stuff from the pool was in there.

S&S: That’s quite Cronenberg, isn’t it?

MT: It’s very dark. Let me tell you. So bloodied. I mean it’s been a bit creepy and then you find Wilder with all his alcohol down in the sauna and that’s the sort of the spa area where he has the massage in the first scene, that’s all wires coming down. Yeah so this is people who are leaving, so they start to move out of the flats as they disintegrate. And we get to the point where rain is coming through the ceiling so it does get quite surreal, apocalyptic and weird towards the end. But it’s been quite hard, that’s hard to judge when you’re out of sequence because people come down like mad fucking werewolves.

S&S: That wouldn’t look out of place in a graphic novel really, those images, at all.

MT: I’ve got these all scanned. I mean I was going to say to Ben you should…

S&S: You should put it in a graphic novel, It would look good.


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