May 20, 2016

Ben Wheatley Explains How He Perfected the High Rise in ‘High-Rise’

Josiah Hughes / Exclaim

This week, director Ben Wheatley’s massively anticipated J.G. Ballard adaptationHigh-Rise will finally get a non-festival release in Canada. The film is audacious and ambitious, capturing Ballard’s dystopian vision. Naturally, it was a challenge to bring the book to life onscreen.

That said, once Wheatley had the idea to take on the project, things came together rather quickly. “It was reasonably quick,” he tells Exclaim! “Once I started looking into it, it was within three or four days that I was talking to Jeremy Thomas who owned the rights and is a producer of it. From there, it was about a year. It was very fast.”

One thing that helped kick the film into high gear was the participation of lead Tom Hiddleston, who was immediately interested in the project. “Tom Hiddleston was someone that we wanted to use from the beginning, and he was the first person on board really,” Wheatley says. “He kind of set a pace for it. I had basically gone to see Tom, met with him a few times and chatted to him about it. He was aware of the work I had done, and obviously I know his stuff. It was just a matter of shuffling bits of schedule around to make it work.”

Of course, to make High-Rise work, the filmmaker needed to find the perfect building to match his retro-futurist vision. Fortunately, he stumbled upon an abandoned sports centre in Bangor, Northern Ireland which had been untouched since the ’70s. “It had never been upgraded or changed or refitted or anything,” he says. “It gave us all the swimming pools and the squash courts and the gyms and things. There was a large space inside it we could build, so we built lots of the apartments and stuff inside that.”

Although he had his biggest budget yet, Wheatley still had to work to make the most of his money. “We had to think tangentially about how to do things,” he says. “We didn’t build loads and loads of apartments. We built one apartment, which was kind of moved around and changed into different shapes…. When we thought everything was shot in one space enough, we’d flop the image so everything was shot backwards. And we put everybody’s watches on the other hand and printed all the labels backwards so that we could keep using the space but it would look completely different on the screen. There’s a lot of old school camera tricks in the film.”

Like many dystopian stories before it, High-Rise works as a sharp criticism of the class system. But while many consider Britain’s classes to be more rigidly defined than the rest of the world, Wheatley explains that the film’s themes are universal. “It’s basically rich or poor, isn’t it? It’s if you’ve got money or if you haven’t got money, that’s it,” he says. “I think the British class system gets held up as this complicated thing from the outside, maybe. It might look like it’s complicated, but it’s not. It’s just basically about money, and that’s the same everywhere.”

That said, Wheatley managed to share Ballard’s social critique without beating the audiences over the head with it. He credits that subtlety to “taste,” adding, “It’s not something where you have a specific plan, but you can feel it. Even one cut, if you make a change, you have to watch the whole film. Because a film is a kind of organic thing. You change one frame at the beginning, and it can affect everything in the film. That side of it, just trying to make sure that the drama and the pleasure of watching it is balanced against the messages inside it.

“All these things have to be balanced,” he continues. “It’s one of the sexiest and best looking films I’ve made in terms of camera movement. It’s part of the deal you make between the audience and the filmmaker. You can see this stuff, which I know you’re going to like, but then you’re going to see other stuff which you might not like. But if you make sure that the seasoning is right, then you can stomach it. But if you just lean on one part of it — if the film was just incredibly brutal all the way through — then it would turn people off, I think.”

High-Rise opens today (May 20) in Vancouver and Toronto.

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