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May 20, 2016

Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise channels strange, taboo-breaking films of the 1970s


Richard Crouse / Metro

How to describe High-Rise, the darkly funny film from director Ben Wheatley?

Here goes; imagine the love child of Lord of the Flies and The Towering Inferno. An adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about class segregation in a luxury condo, High-Rise is chaotic and completely bonkers.

“There’s material in here that is difficult and there’s structure in here that’s difficult but there’s also fun,” says Wheatley.

“There’s anarchy and sex and dancing and music. I always like to think about it like those 40s and 50s Hollywood movies and what they used to look like. There’d be no contradiction in a cowboy movie stopping for someone to sing a song.

“You don’t think about the pacing being really odd. The idea behind it was that those films were broken up into chunks. There’s a variety to them that make them really enjoyable. That’s what I was hoping for with this.”

Wheatley says the story of social warfare in the closed environment of an apartment building is just as relevant now as it was when Ballard wrote it in 1975.

“Ballard used to describe it that he was standing by the side of the road waving that there is danger ahead. But when I reread it when I was 40, it’s like, Crap, it’s not a warning anymore. It’s like it was taken from the newspaper. This is actually happening, which is kind of shocking but also kind of interesting.”

Known for his uncompromising films like Kill List and Sightseers, movies that critic Sheila O’Malley described as “black comedy thrillers involving crime, murder” and notable for their “absence of a moral compass,” the 44-year-old director is the cinematic spawn of mavericks like Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell and John Boorman, British filmmakers who broke taboos in big budget movies like Don’t Look Now, The Devils and Deliverance.

“That was the mainstream,” he says. “When you dig into the BFI archive and look at the Jack Bond stuff and see the other end of the avant guard cinema that was being made at the same time, it was absolutely crazy. It’s a real shame that has been lost. What also makes me chuckle is you see reviews saying that High-Rise is insane or incredibly experimental and you think, ‘This film wouldn’t have stood out as all that strange in the ’70s.’ It would have been a more conservative film of that period.”

Today it’s a little tougher to raise money to get challenging films like High-Rise made. He says Hollywood-y or famous actors help, and to that end he signed Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss to tell his outlandish tale.

“I like what (producer) Jeremy Thomas says about it. His whole career has been about smuggling weird into the mainstream and I think that’s about right. It’s a deal between you and the audience.”

Part of that audience is Ballard’s considerable fan base.

“The Ballardian website have interviewed us a few times and they seem to be convinced that we haven’t totally pissed up the leg of the memory of J.G. Ballard. There was never any intention to rile those people. They are partly the reason we are able to do the film, they are the fan base. Why would you go out of your way to irritate people like that?”