Phil Brown / Shock Till You Drop
Since his directorial debut (DOWN TERRACE) that was financed with IOUs and favors, writer/director/editor/producer/good guy Ben Wheatley (hear our recent audio interview with him here) has been one of the most fascinating filmmakers of his generation. Whether it be his cult horror shocker KILL LIST, murderous rom-com SIGHTSEERS, or the acid trip history lesson A FIELD IN ENGLAND, Wheatley’s films always mix visceral impact, artistic experimentation, and searing intelligence into a potent brew. He’s an exploitation filmmaker for the art house circuit and a serious artist for genre nerds. More than anything else, he’s a filmmaker for whom audiences can expect the unexpected. You can be certain the latest Ben Wheatley joint will leave you floored, but exactly how the British filmmaker manages to pull off that trick seems to change every time.
Wheatley latest feature HIGH-RISE hits screens this week and for the first time, it’s an adaptation rather than an original screenplay. Working from a cult novel by J.G. Ballard (who provided the chilly source material for Cronenberg’s CRASH), the film follows the inhabitants of a massive apartment block created as a social experiment. Filled with every possible amenity and organized from top to bottom by social class, it’s supposed to be a utopia yet quickly transforms into a violent orgy (what else could possibly happen?). It’s Wheatley largest movie to date in terms of scale, boasting gorgeous visuals and effects from the usual grimy handheld visual stylist, as well as a star-studded cast filled with names like Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Reece Shearsmith. Of course Wheatley being Wheatley, his biggest project to date is also his most twisted and challenging. The guy just can’t help himself.
Filled with nightmarishly surreal imagery, searing social commentary, bizarre performances, and a positively perverse sense of dark humour, HIGH-RISE is certain to be one of the strangest films of 2016. Wheatley has stayed true to the cult novel in a manner that will please its fans and alienate anyone expecting cuddly normalcy. The flick confirms Ben Wheatley’s unique talents yet again and Shot Till Ya Drop was lucky enough to catch up with Wheatley for a quick interview to celebrate its release. Diving into everything from his interest in the source material, to his ongoing collaboration with his co-writer/editor/wife Amy Jump, to the perils of chatting up future projects, we really got Wheatley to spill the beans on this one. Enjoy.
SHOCK: First off, I just want to say how impressed I am that HIGH-RISE was your most high profile and biggest budgeted movie to date, and yet you used those resources to make your must fucked up and complicated movie yet. Congrats.
WHEATLEY: (Laughs) Thanks. I tried.
SHOCK: Was that your immediate impulse or had you considered doing something more overtly commercial?
WHEATLEY: Well, it doesn’t really work like that. They don’t give you a load of money and then ask you what you want to do with it. That came with the adaption of the book. These kind of come hand in hand. You’ve got a famous book like HIGH-RISE, so then you need an international cast to finance it. There’s a kind of price point that you can make stuff at that will raise money from international sales. For this movie it was about five and a half million pounds. Then you work backwards from there and see what you can do with that money. So if you wrote a script for HIGH-RISE that was going to cost sixty million pounds, then that’s tough. It’s not going to happen. So, it’s all kind of a juggling act, but certainly with a movie that is period, has a large cast, and lots of costume stuff, the line producers are smart enough to work out the cost of that. After that, it’s just about deciding where to put your resources and how you plan it that makes it look expensive or not so much.
SHOCK: You’ve obviously written and developed all of your own projects before, so what made you want to adapt this book as oppose to writing your own story again and was there any concern on your part about adapting a book that has a cult audience with certain expectations?
WHEATLEY: What attracted me to it was that I was big fan of the book when I was a kid. Then when I re-read it I realized that instead of being predictive fiction which it was when I read it the late 80s, it’s become much more prescient and feels like it’s talking about now. I just couldn’t figure out why the movie han’t been made. It’s such an important book that it seemed weird it hadn’t been adapted to the screen. So that was that. In terms of the fanbase, it wasn’t something that we thought about in the beginning. We had a basic idea that we’d try to make it as close to the book as possible. So it felt like that would protect us from most of the trouble. When you go into a book adaptation and all you’re after is the title and the fanbase and you want to throw out the plot, which happens a lot, that’s when you come unstuck. But we always went in with our hearts open and wanted to make the closest possible adaptation of the book to the screen. Now whether or not we’ve done that right is another issue. But that was always our intention.
SHOCK: It was interesting to see you go into full nightmarish surrealism, which you hadn’t done full blown before, even with A FIELD IN ENGLAND. How did you find that? Tough to know how far is too far when the point is to go too far?
WHEATLEY: I think all of the films have had a seesaw between social realism and more surreal elements. Even as far back as Down Terrace, there are some of those elements in there if you look for them, Certainly the use of slow motion and montage near the end. So that is something that’s been growing inside the work for a while. SIGHTSEERS had a lot of that inside it. I’ve always loved that. I think the mixture of neorealism and French New Wave is something that I’ve always liked. And I’ve come to it through the filter of the Movie Brat stuff as well. You see it all the time in their work, in Scorsese’s work especially. You know, Taxi Driver is a realist movie that is also surreal. So I wouldn’t say that HIGH-RISE was a massive step away from the other stuff I’ve done. It still holds those two styles inside it. But now we’ve got more money to control the environments we can shoot in. Now we can have dolly and track and all that stuff. In the past, we just didn’t have the resources so they were designed in a different way. They were designed more towards handheld because handheld would allow us to tell the story efficiently and quickly.
SHOCK: Yeah and HIGH-RISE is beautifully stylized. How did you find working that way and do you think it’s something that you’ll do more of in the future?
WHEATLEY: Yeah, definitely. The thing is that Amy and I went into the movie wanting to make something that was sexy. It had to be desirable. You had to love the tower and love the environment for it to collapse with any power. But also, we’d never really made a movie like that before. All of the other movies have been kind of grubby. So this was an opportunity to make something that looked and felt glamorous to a degree. And I wanted to have people having sex that actually looked like they were having fun and not just being in misery. So it has all of these elements in it, like dancing and merriment and passion. That is part of the deal between you and the audience as a filmmaker. If you’re going to take people to the darker places, you need to balance it with upbeat stuff as well.
SHOCK: Class is obviously pretty central to this story and it made me realize it kind of runs under your previous movies as well, certainly in the cult in KILL LIST but also just the characters from SIGHTSEERS and DOWN TERRACE fall into a repressed under class. Feels like it can’t be an accident. What do you think keeps bringing you back to that theme?
WHEATLEY: Well, I know there’s a thing where people think that class is a particularly British obsession, but I think it’s a global issue. Call it what it is, which is having money and not having money. Success and failure. It’s all part of the same bag of problems that humans have as a social group. I think every is based on that. It’s the acquirement of money and the feathering of your own nest is often at the cost of everyone else around you. That can happen emotionally and that can happen physically as well. It’s what drives everything and what has always driven everything. That’s why I go back to it because it is a fundamental part of humanity. The problems that we have in every aspect of our lives are caused by these issues, I think.
SHOCK: Did you write the script with Tom Hiddleston in mind? Because I think he seemed kind of perfect for this project. Not just because he’s a great actor and I’m assuming his star power helped secure financing, but also because I’ve always felt a certain sick sense of humour in his work that really lines up with the sensibility of HIGH-RISE.
WHEATLEY: Oh yeah, totally. I think you can see that in all of his performances from the archness of the Loki character all the way to the sweet neuroses of the Joanna Hogg characters. There is something very particular about Tom where he’s an intelligent guy and that comes across in his performances, but also underneath it there’s a neuroses that I always liked. He seems to be struggling with his own emotions and brings that forward in the performances. That certainly made us think of Laing, who is someone who is completely controlled and trying to appear like a mask, but underneath he’s a mask.
SHOCK: Once again I’ve got to thank you for using Reese Shearsmith (THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN). I’ve been a fan of him for years and always thought he would bean excellent character actor if someone would give him the chance outside of comedy.
WHEATLEY: Oh yeah, of course. Have you seen any of Inside No. 9?
SHOCK: Oh god yeah. It’s fantastic. Actually I was curious since he’s been in a couple of your movies now if you’ve ever discussed collaborating on one of his projects, like directing an episode of Inside No. 9?
WHEATLEY: He did ask me to do one of the Inside No. 9s, but I couldn’t do it because of a scheduling thing. But look, I think it’s going to be a very long and productive relationship. We get on really well and I really appreciate his performances, I think they’re brilliant. With any scripts I’m working on, I’m always looking to get him in there somewhere.
SHOCK: Would you ever write something together?
WHEATLEY: I don’t know. My kind of role in the writing is very basic these days. If I’m doing anything, I’m just fleshing out scripts that Amy finishes off. That’s sounds disingenuous. That’s not what happens. (Laughs) When we collaborate together, I’ll write the first draft. I’m like the page-filler. Then she comes in and reorders and rewrites. So I wouldn’t want to put that onto Reese. (Laughs)
SHOCK: Yeah, I actually wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about your collaboration with Amy Jump. I noticed she got a very prominent screenwriting credit at the end right next to your name. I feel like if she writes and edits, aside from you running the set she’s as involved in the storytelling as you. Do you think of the movies as your films together?
WHEATLEY: Yeah. Increasingly, yeah. Certainly the last few, HIGH-RISE, and A FIELD IN ENGLAND and the new one FREE FIRE, they’re becoming more like the Coen Brothers or something in terms of the blending of credits. But it’s also a matter of looking at what is important. The director’s role of talking to the actors on set is very important, but does that mean that you’re more important than the person writing it or the person editing it? I’m not sure anymore. So it does feel like a co-authored film now. I’ve got “A Film By Ben Wheatley” on the front of HIGH-RISE as a contractual thing, but I’m going to get away from that in the future. We won’t be doing that anymore.
SHOCK: I also have to say that from the outside I find the ongoing depictions of marriage and relationships in your movies together very amusing.
WHEATLEY: (Laughs) Yeah, well…we’re just trying to be honest. But you know…
SHOCK: I wanted to ask you about the HBO series that you told me about before that was some sort of shared Ben Wheatley universe combining a number of your characters. Is that still happening?
WHEATLEY: I don’t know. That’s kind of grumbling on. We wrote a script for it that’s pretty good, but we’ll see what happens. I made the rookie mistake of talking about it early. Actually, they did release a press release, so they’re partially to blame for all this. But yeah, I did spend a lot of time in interviews going on about all the projects that now, five years down the line I still haven’t made. It’s getting slightly awkward. (Laughs).
SHOCK: Did you get to work with Martin Scorsese much on FREE FIRE?
WHEATLEY: Yeah, a bit. We had a few conversations and meetings. It was pretty amazing really.
SHOCK: Is that done now?
WHEATLEY: Yep, it’s finished.
SHOCK: Do you have any sense of when that will be released?
WHEATLEY: Yeah, it will probably come out in September or later in the fall. In terms of where it pops it head in festivals, I’m not sure yet. We’re waiting to see.
HIGH-RISE hits theaters May 13th and On Demand, Amazon Video and iTunes on April 28th.