Mark Olsen / LATimes
It’s based on a cult favorite dystopian novel, directed by a daring indie director, and features one of cinema’s most exciting new stars. So it’s not surprising that “High-Rise” has become one of the most anticipated titles of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by Ben Wheatley, adapted by Amy Jump from the 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard and starring Tom Hiddleston, “High-Rise” will have its world premiere on Sunday night in one of the festival’s prime slots for titles looking for distribution.
Hiddleston plays Dr. Robert Laing, who is looking for anonymity among the thousands of residents in a 40-story apartment complex. Instead, he finds chaos, madness and violence escalating all around him as the building descends into tribal factions. With a cast that also includes Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss, the film is a disturbing microcosmic allegory that examines the perils of both joining in and shutting oneself off, a savage attack on consumerism, complacency and lifestyle obsession.
Few authors are so distinctive as to become a word all their own, and yet the term “Ballardian” has come to officially define a postmodern dystopian bleakness.
“Ballard used to say he wasn’t writing about who we are, but about who we might become,” said Hiddleston in an email ahead of the festival. “He said his books are like a roadside warning on a highway, as if to say: ‘Caution: bends ahead.’ ”
Producer Jeremy Thomas had wanted to bring the book to the screen for decades and has seen the project go through various near-miss incarnations. Thomas was friends with Ballard, who died in 2009, and also executive produced David Cronenberg’s controversial 1996 adaptation of Ballard’s book “Crash.”
After the long wait, Thomas said, “I think J.G. Ballard would be delighted with this adaptation.”
Wheatley became involved when he noticed the book on his shelf and wondered why it had never been adapted into a film, completely unaware of Thomas’ long history with the project.
“It was just a naive thought — it’s a culturally important book, and it’s not been done, and why not?” said Wheatley. “As a kid, I’d read it. It’s one of those entry-level books into counter-culture; I’d read ‘Naked Lunch,’ ‘Crash’ and ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ around the same time.
“But eventually you drift away from those things, and later I realized it was underpinning a lot of the way that I was seeing things. Something like ‘High-Rise,’ it’s so in our culture, it’s seeped in in ways you don’t even notice.”
Wheatley has fast become one of the most startling, daring and acclaimed voices in international genre filmmaking after staring out as an animator.
His 2009 debut with the small-town gangster tale “Down Terrace” was followed by the 2011 pagans and mercenaries gut punch of “Kill List.” Edgar Wright was an executive producer on Wheatley’s 2012 serial killer/couples comedy “Sightseers.” “A Field In England” from 2013 was a psychedelic war film set during the English Civil War. Wheatley also directed the first two episodes of the eighth season of the television series “Doctor Who.”
Martin Scorsese, a vocal fan, is executive producing Wheatley’s next film, “Free Fire,” now in post-production.
On the phone earlier this week from Paris, where he had programmed a sidebar as part of the L’Étrange Festival, the U.K.-based Wheatley spoke of the ways in which “High-Rise” is both like and unlike his previous films. Though working with a bigger budget and bigger stars than before, “High-Rise” is still marked by the imaginatively unruly sensibility and dark humor that have been part of all of Wheatley’s features.
“We tried to make a film that was a bit sexier than the other films we’ve made, and is a bit more designed and controlled, but then obviously there’s no escaping the things that we like,” Wheatley said.
“It’s that loud/quiet Nirvana-style of playing, where you go from heavy emotions into lighter moments,” he added. “I’ve always enjoyed that kind of filmmaking. You can’t be heavy all the time and it’s dull to be light all the time. When you have those emotions together, that feels more like life.”
Jump, a credited collaborator on all Wheatley’s features save his debut, wrote the script without reading any of the previous adaptations Thomas had commissioned, instead working straight from the book. (Wheatley and Jump co-edited the film together and are also married.) It was Jump who made the decision to set the film in 1975, the year the book was published.
“Ben always said that our ‘High-Rise’ was an adaptation of a book which was written in the past, looking forward to the future, and that we were making a film from the future, looking back to the past,” noted Hiddleston.
Where Hiddleston’s performance as Laing is based in a deep well of anxiety and repression, a character desperate to stay at a remove from all that is swirling around him, actor Luke Evans gives a ferociously full-bodied performance as Wilder, a resident who finds his true self amid the madhouse atmosphere of the building’s civilization in collapse.
“The cue is in the name, I guess,” Evans joked of his more flamboyant flourishes as Wilder. He noted that in preparing for the role he did research on the actor Oliver Reed, notorious for his hell-raising lifestyle and wild antics on-set and off. “It’s that edge of unpredictability, there’s charm but there’s this edge to it. You say the wrong thing and there’s going to be an eruption.”
Wheatley also worked for the first time with composer Clint Mansell, acclaimed for his work with Darren Aronofsky and others. In a masterfully devastating pairing, the 1975 ABBA song “SOS” is used twice in the film. During an early party scene, a string instrumental version arranged by Mansell is heard and then later the song is heard again in a haunting rendition that is the first new recording in a number of years by the group Portishead.
“The idea of it is really that kind of cultural echo, where you hear something and then you hear it again in a different context,” said Wheatley. “By the time you get to the second playing of it, everything’s broken down and the actual lyrics were speaking directly to the movie.”
Mansell added, “The idea of the party version and then the Portishead version, you have a definitive sonic representation of the degradation of the system. My version was born from swinging party music, string arrangements of contemporary music, and then you have the definite mood change by the time you have the Portishead version.”
“High-Rise” represents a big leap up for Wheatley, working with famed source material, international stars, and high-profile collaborators alongside his longtime colleagues such as Jump or cinematographer Laurie Rose.
“I’m really looking forward to showing it to people,” said Wheatley. “It’s a gamble, isn’t it? You’re kind of going, does the modern audience want to see something that’s complex like this? I think they do; I know I do. I’m desperate for it. But we will see. Fingers crossed.”