Ben Wheatley interview: High-Rise, Doctor Who and more

Director Ben Wheatley on adapting High-Rise, casting Keeley Hawes, and why he made his two Doctor Who episodes.

Heading into UK cinemas at the end of this week is High-Rise, the new film from director Ben Wheatley. Wheatley, of course, has previously directed projects as diverse as SightseersDoctor Who and Kill List. And he spared us some time for a chat about his new movie…

High-Rise differs from your previous work in that it’s an adaptation. How did the connection to both JG Ballard’s book and producer Jeremy Thomas come about?

Well, the starting point is always: let’s do something different to the last film. At least that’s we try to do, but in a sense everything is always the same. That’s the trial of these things. You try to make stuff that’s a departure from before, but when you look back at it there are always similar themes and rhythms that come out of it. In the case of High-Rise, I actually pursued the book myself.

Independently?

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Yeah. Usually I ask my agent – who’ll check out the rights situation on a property – to see who had the option. As it turned out in this case Jeremy Thomas’ son worked at the same agency and said: ‘My Dad’s got it!’ So it was really quick. I think from making an enquiry to actually having a meeting with Jeremy was about three days.

Did you know him before that meeting?

No, I knew what he looked and sounded like from the documentary on the DVD of The Naked Lunch and I’d seen him out of the corner of my eye at various industry events, but I’d never met him. He’s like a mythical figure in the industry so I never thought I’d ever talk to him about anything, really. But we went along to Jeremy’s offices in Hanway Street, which is very impressive as it’s full of posters and stuff from all the movies he’s made. (laughs) In fact, his office is full of props. He’s got the typewriters from Naked Lunch and samurai swords from the Takashi Miike film he’s made, alongside all the Carry On… stuff from his Uncle and his Dad.

It’s basically a treasure trove of post-war cinema!

Pretty much! It goes from Doctor In The House and the Carry On… films to the Bertolucci movies [The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and Stealing Beauty] and The Great Rock N Roll Swindle!

An eclectic mix.

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Yeah. Anyway, luckily before our meeting was arranged Jeremy had seen Sightseers and had become interested in what I was doing, so the planets sort of aligned around High-Rise and it became something that could actually happen.

Hadn’t he tried to get the film made in the late 70s with Nic Roeg directing?

That’s right. Basically Amy [Jump] and I came in and chatted to him and we said we’d write a script on spec, without being paid, and if they liked it that would be the film we’d go out and try to make…and then get paid! If they didn’t like it, well that was fine and we’d all go our separate ways and do something different. I know that sounds crazy, but there is a method to that madness. By doing it that way you’re freed up, to a certain extent, as there’s no real deadline and also no process of getting script notes from a committee of people.

It certainly doesn’t look like a film that’s been made by committee!

That’s true! (laughs)

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This has more sets and SFX work than your previous films. Did you shoot your episodes of Doctor Who before High-Rise?

Yeah, Doctor Who was a bit of a tactical move for me.

In what sense?

Well, in the sense that… yes, I was a fan of the show and that it was something I knew my son could watch, but, purely technically, I was very aware that I was doing High-Rise later that year. Because of that I wanted to get up to speed and filming Doctor Who is basically like going to director’s boot camp! It’s fast and furious and hugely complicated and technical, so it really sharpened me up for the seven-week shoot we had on High-Rise.

This is a very different type of adaptation of Ballard’s work than David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash. That’s a very brilliant, but incredibly cold film. This feels a lot bawdier as an adaptation.

Well, I think the book’s very funny. And we wanted to make an adaptation of the book that was close to the book! I mean, why adapt a great writer and then throw out all the stuff that works in the novel? You see it a lot where these films get made and they just jettison all the interesting stuff and then basically only use the title. We didn’t want to do that as…well, I think it’s just arrogant to tamper with stuff that’s really good and then break it. That’s not right.

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Did placing the film in the period it was written – the mid-1970s –factor into that thinking?

Probably, but I think it’s more that Amy and I have an axe to grind – or a perspective on the material, should I say! – because of our ages. We’d have been the same ages as the kids in the tower, while Laing, Wilder and Charlotte would have been the same age as our parents.

What struck me on viewing the film was how well you externalised a lot of the internal character stuff from the book.

Which bits?

In particular all the Marie Antoinette-type shenanigans up in the penthouse. That’s not in the book, but it visually represents exactly what’s going on with these characters and how they view themselves in relation to the rest of the tower.

Yeah… I think it would have worked to do it exactly as it was in the book, but it would have appeared a lot calmer and more reasonable. In film you just have far less time and space to get across information, full stop. But that’s even truer when it comes to character and setting. Reading a book is very different to watching a movie as the reader controls the pacing to an extent. I mean, you can go back and re-read certain sections as many times as you like, whereas when you work in a time based medium like film you just don’t have that luxury.

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Let’s talk a little bit about the cast. Obviously the big names like Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss are unsurprisingly all great in this, but I think the one who will surprise a lot of people is Keeley Hawes.

She actually auditioned for the role, which I was really surprised about.

Well, I think – correctly or not – she’s perceived as being primarily a TV actress.

Yeah, that’s probably right. I thought she was great in Ashes To Ashes and she’s fantastic in this. In terms of the broader cast, we just felt that script was like a great big treat for the actors. Thankfully they all loved it and really got their teeth into it.

The structure of this film is really interesting too. I remember seeing you talk after a screening of The Shining at the BFI a few years ago and you described film as “a system of holding information”.

(laughs) Oh, Jesus! Was that at that screening with Jan Harlan [Stanley Kubrick’s producer and brother-in law]?

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Yeah.

That was fucking terrifying! (laughs) I agreed to do it because I wanted to meet Jan Harlan, but it was like that dream you have of being at school with no clothes on. I was sitting at the end of this line of people on stage thinking: “The only thing I can offer here is that I really like The Shining!” [laughs]

But actually The Shining’s a good example of what we’re talking about here. Even though it’s a more contained narrative, it’s not really a traditional narrative. It has a premise that plays out to its conclusion, but it does that without many of the usual conventions and contrivances of plot that most films have, especially during their second act.

That’s right.

In High-Rise you have a similar-ish situation in that the middle of the film is basically ‘…and things got worse’. You do this editorially by compressing an enormous amount of time. Was that filleted down in the edit? And how long was your first cut?

I don’t think the first cut was massively long. Since A Field In England what I’ve tended to do is an assembly cut, where I cut during the shoot. The assembly of High-Rise was probably around two and a half hours. But the actual ‘proper’ cut that I do with Amy was always around 1 hour 56 minutes or something.

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Does the assembly help shape the ‘real’ cut that you two put together?

Not really. Basically, what we do is throw the assembly away and start again. That assembly is really more for my benefit than anything else. It’s so I know that I’ve shot enough coverage for the scenes and that the performances are consistent.

How hard was tracking the performances of such a large cast across the edit?

It was hard, but actors tend to be pretty good at knowing where their character is in relation to the story. Unless an actor’s really gone wrong it’s usually not an issue. The first time I ever came across that was working on Ideal (the Johnny Vegas comedy for BBC 3). The schedule on that was like confetti in the air! You’d be shooting a scene for episode 7 alongside a scene for episode 1. So I was really worried that the continuity of the performances would be fucked, but it was fine. Monitoring that is just part of the actors of skillset.

I think more of an issue was having different styles of acting and performance in the same film. And I don’t mean in the same scene. That’s relatively easy to deal with. It’s when you have different styles and performances from different actors, who aren’t necessarily in the same scene, but have scenes that are relatively close together in the sequence of the film. Yeah, that definitely gave me pause for thought, mainly because I’d never done anything with such a large ensemble cast before. But the whole thing of cutting as you shoot – and then having the confidence to deal with that on set – helps you navigate your way through that.

Ben Wheatley, thank you very much.

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