May 20, 2016

Ben Wheatley’s attack of social vertigo

The Ex-Press / Katherine Monk

VANCOUVER – “If I had to draw something right now, I would draw a cross face. I can draw them quite well,” says film director Ben Wheatley, revealing a secret talent – and maybe, just a hint of repressed hostility.

It’s hard to read his face. Half-covered in facial hair and wearing a look of unmistakable fatigue, the director of Sightseers, Down Terrace, A Field in England, the new feature High-Rise and a forthcoming Martin Scorsese-produced thriller called Free Fire.

looks like a prisoner who just sat down in the warden’s office: Present, honest, but not altogether enthusiastic.

This is something he has to do. When you make a movie with a studio, they expect you to hit the road and talk about it, and for several months this past year, that’s exactly what Wheatley did for High-Rise – which finally opens in North American theatres this weekend.

“I did 22 screenings in the UK before the release,” says Wheatley. “I went up and down the country. I wanted to see who was coming, to look in their eyes and see who they were. I thought the film is weird enough, and it was getting a pretty big push from Studio Canal at that point. And I thought it would just be churlish to sit back and say, oh, I have done my job. I think it’s important to get it out there as much as possible. I’m glad I did. I would do it again.”

Wheatley says when you make the kind of work he and his wife, writer-editor Amy Jump do, it’s highly affirming to see it connect with other like-minded souls.

“The people who show up are people who love cinema. And they are up for a challenge and excited about movies that are different.”

‘Different’ has been a word used to describe Wheatley’s oeuvre ever since he made Down Terrace, a low-budget black comedy about father and son assassins who don’t get on all that well. Social realism tinged with a nightmare sensibility, Wheatley’s films often feature grotesque violence, but not presented with the titillation of a slasher film. His movies seem desperate to explore the human condition without wincing at the ugly stuff.

“I find it difficult to talk about the work as a piece, as a whole,” he says in response to a question about theme. “I remember going to Moscow and they showed Down Terrace and A Field in England and Sightseers… and the first question was ‘Why are you afraid of old people?”

Wheatley laughs. “The films are all really different. And they are all the same. We go through the scripts and we go through the way we shoot and the way we cut and we try not to repeat or reference ourselves. You watch them back and they are kind of the same film again and again and again.”

It’s pointless trying to get Wheatley to articulate his sensibility. You have to watch the work to really understand where he and his creative collaborator Jump are coming from.

You have to watch Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons holed up in a 1970s-era concrete high-rise, replaying scenes from the French Revolution as scripted by science-fiction writer J.G. Ballard to grasp the strange Wheatley fruit. Or, you could just watch Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and David Lynch’s Eraserhead, two of Wheatley’s favorites that speak to the same abstracts of the soul, while sticking a finger into the third eye socket.

“I’ve also seen all of Cronenberg’s stuff. It speaks to me,” says Wheatley.

“For me, it’s never been about box office. I have a responsibility to make sure I don’t lose people loads of money but I certainly don’t chose projects for things that are sure fire money spinners. In the back of my head I hope we can, but I think independent cinema itself was born out of maybe one or two movies that people decided to go to,” he says.

“Now independent cinema is being killed. First it was by VHS, and now by DVD and on demand… a whole new generation has been brought up where their first point of contact with cinema is not in the cinema. It un-trains people from going to the cinema just to find stuff. There are massive advantages to that because it means so much is available, but it also means the strangling of the theatrical release as a way of a movie making money. And that is bad for everybody.”

Wheatley says he’s interested to see people try old-school release strategies, such as Tarantino’s reprise of the roadshow and the long, single-screen stand. But as High-Rise taught him on several scores, there’s but a hair’s breadth of difference between a science-fiction film and a period one.

Originally published in 1975, the same year that David Cronenberg’s similarly themed Shivers made everyone afraid of the bathtub, Ballard’s book looks at class stratification from an almost literal perspective, where the Royals live in the penthouse and the nobodies populate the lower floors – the gap between the haves and have-nots growing more urgent in every scene.

“When I reread the book I realized how prescient it was,” says Wheatley. “It had gone from being a piece of science-fiction to something that you’d see in the newspapers. And I think basically period movies and science-fiction movies are the same thing. They are just the shifting of focus so that stories about now can be told in a slightly different way. And I think that’s what they have always been. I think a film that isn’t relevant to this moment doesn’t make any sense.”

Wheatley and Jump did made adjustments to Ballard’s material to make it feel more contemporary regarding character, but the rest is a testament to the ‘70s and its penchant for aggregate concrete, sexual promiscuity and formulaic answers to social ills.

Tension between the classes features largely, as it does in most of Wheatley and Jump’s work – one way or another.

Wheatley will tell you he’s not an Eton boy and that he earned his first pennies drawing.

“I met my wife at a disco. We were 16,” he says. “It was like West Side Story.”

Wheatley laughs again. “I like the fact she is a serious creature. She refuses, point blank, to do any press or tour. And I think she made the right decision. She doesn’t even talk to financiers… On set we can get very screamy with one another. But it’s all okay after we wrap. She just gets to create, to do the work, which is fantastic for her.”

Meanwhile, Wheatley is stuck here with me, talking about High-Rise and a master class he gave in Vancouver. “It’s really more of a talk about my movies than any master class,” says the man who would have been a fireman or a decorator had he not followed his girlfriend to art school.

“Career artist is a different thing because you’re earning money from art, and I’ve always earned money from art. I think what happened is I was about six and stayed at a friend’s house and we did drawings. Then I stole one of my friend’s drawings and said ‘look what I made!’ And my parenbts were like wow, that’s brilliant. Well done! And after that, I could draw. And then I started drawing a lot and did it professionally….”

You stole a drawing and claimed it as your own?

“Yeah. Is that going to go up top now?”

No. But it’s interesting.

“It is, because I have always drawn. But when I was 30, I realized I couldn’t draw that well, and I was much happier about it after that. Now I draw a lot more. And I get a lot more pleasure from it.”

Chances are, Wheatley will be doing a lot more directing, too. High-Rise may be his biggest film to date, but Free Fire is going to be even bigger, given the cast includes recent Oscar winner Brie Larson, Armie Hammer and Cillian Murphy.

“For me, it’s not about a bigger budget, but about finding a bigger audience – and meeting it halfway. What do you have to give up to get that big audience? In a way, it’s far more perverse because you play a narrative game with your audience, pushing them to the breaking point. I’m really interested in that.”

High-Rise opens in select cities Friday.

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