A pantheon to morally dubious characters and the atrocities they commit, Ben Wheatley’s body of work is characterized by the subtle ways in which he is able to both disturb and elicit humor in the same storyline.
In Sightseers, for example, the director forces his audience to sympathize, and even root for, a pair of deranged murderers by rationalizing their actions through pitch-black comedy. In Kill List he navigates into horror territory but not without stopping to enjoy the humanizing banter between his leads. More recently, in A Field in England, he dismisses the lines dividing fantasy and fact to relish in a psychedelically infused adventure.
Taking his fondness for the bleaker side of the human spectrum into account, Wheatley and J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise feel like a predestined match. Wheatley tackles this tale of class, brutality and debauchery in a similar manner as his previous work. Anchored by star Tom Hiddleston, the ensemble cast of High-Rise is given the task of portraying a microcosm housed in an affluent building, in which one’s position in the food chain is correlated to one’s position in the structure. Those at the bottom are the least powerful, and the ones on top want to keep it that way by any means necessary. But once their isolation and tyrannical ruling forces this community to implode, the façade comes off and society’s inner beast rears its head.
The increased budget and higher-profile talent hasn’t diluted the unique flavor of Wheatley’s work; High-Rise is an acquired (and bloody) taste. MovieMaker had an extensive chat with the British director about what audiences have been trained to expect from films, financial risks, and why class is a fundamental human struggle.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In comparison to your previous films, High-Rise had a larger budget, bigger cast and a more elaborate narrative structure. Does these elements alter your process or approach in any way?
Ben Wheatley (BW): Not really. If you take in the television work and other work I’ve done, it doesn’t seem like such a dramatic leap. Between A Field in England and High-Rise, I directed two Doctor Who episodes, which involve lots of sets, a large ensemble cast, and lots of crane work and tracking. It doesn’t really make any difference to me. I’m quite at home in large budgets, as much as I am in small budgets. It depends on the movie.
All the films that we’ve done pragmatically fit within their budgets. A film like A Field in England was not stretched. It’s not like we go, “Oh my God, how are we going to make it on this small amount of money?” The script and the budget are the same thing. They happen at the same time, so you know you are going to be able to make it. It’s always going to be a pleasure experience. It’s not going to be a nightmare, making something low-budget. It’s much more of a problem surviving the year when you don’t have that much money! The actual making of the film is never really a problem.
When I’m making a film I never think about financial risks and returns. Obviously when it comes to the moment of truth at the box office, that’s always nerve-racking. A Field in England cost £300,00, which is around half a million dollars. Obviously you wouldn’t want to lose half a million dollars. Even at the other end, my first film, Down Terrace, cost £6,000 or about $9,000. You wouldn’t want to lose $9,000. There is a definite feeling of responsibility for the budget, but then you have to put that to the side because you can’t let it affect what you are doing.
MM: In your films, the morality of the characters is never easily defined. That adds to the complexity of the storytelling overall. Why do you find this particular type of character compelling?
BW: I’ve always wanted to make movies that were about human relationships, and a large part of cinema has an idea of what’s good and bad; it’s very polarized or very binary. Bad people are very easily identified. There is no discussion about why they are bad. The more humane, relatable, and real characters are, the more interesting they are.
MM: Were all the visual elements and motifs written into the screenplay? One that’s particularly striking is the face that’s peeled on screen. It’s an unforgettable and fitting image in this setting.
BW: Some of them were always in the script. Technically, in terms of that sequence, we were always at the mercy of the prosthetics guys. Dan Martin designed the prosthetics for that. He showed up on set with this thing and it worked; that’s the face that’s peeled in the film. If it hadn’t worked we might have had to go around it [laughs]. It was a practical effect, and it worked straight out of the bag.
For me, that’s one of the best physical effects I’ve ever seen. Even on big-budget stuff that you see in the cinema, I’ve not seen something as clever as that. It’s one thing to make a realistic head, but this one is one that peels and it could be peeled multiple times, so I could go again and again. It looked so realistic. It was incredible.
MM: A face being peeled off that way is sort of dehumanizing.
BW: Totally, that’s the whole thing. It’s about how we confront society with and armor and with a mask. The mask is not necessarily honest, and beneath it we are much simpler. Once you take off the emotional machine that is your face, underneath you are more of a creature.
MM: There are a lot of unanswered questions in High-Rise that appeal to the audience’s ability to fill in the blanks or to understand the world based on their own conclusions. Nothing is explained literally. Why did you believe this was the correct approach, and do you think films often shy away from that ambiguity?
BW: Life isn’t explained. I think modern cinema is a world of literal explanations. There is no ambiguity in modern cinema and audiences have been trained to be upset by ambiguity. They become cross because they want everything to be liquidized and fed to them immediately. When you look at the commercial movies in the ’70s, certainly High-Rise doesn’t look that strange in comparison to those films. If those films came out now, they would suffer and they would be wrecked critically.
We just tried to make something that we enjoyed and that we would want to see more of. The idea of the audience coming to meet the meaning of the film rather than just being literally told it… it’s something I enjoy.
MM: There is literal social climbing in this film, and Tom Hiddleston’s character is right the middle between both conflicting groups. What’s your take on the social justice element in the film and the concept of class?
BW: I think class in itself can be seen as a specifically British thing, but it’s not so, it’s universal. I think that really what class means is the difference between those who are powerful and the powerless, and that’s a fundamental human dilemma. There is someone above you and there are always people below you, and it’s how you act to those below you that defines your humanity, and how the ones above keep you down is probably why you are in eternal frustration.
In the film, it’s not even about the rich and the poor because even the poor in High-Rise are rich. It’s not like the elite are at the top and the working class on the bottom. The lower echelons of the building are filmmakers, they’re not welders. [Luke Evans’ character] works for the BBC. He’s not a miner or something like that. It’s this different set up, one percent-style, where they’ve taken themselves away from the world, and put themselves into this gated community, and they still find problems with it and tear each other to pieces.
MM: Do you think that we always want to be better? There is a line by Elisabeth Moss in the film that says, “I know we’ll be happier if we could afford to live higher.” Are we bound to this idea that we need more material wealth to be content?
BW: I don’t know. It depends where you sit. I’m not so much worried about material things, but there is certainly a kind of a rat race that we are involved in. There are things that money can buy, things that’ll make you happy or sad, that you move yourself towards. It’s about getting yourself to a position where you are happy. The problem is, what the agenda is, what the things are, why you want those things, how they’ve been sold to you, and whether, really, they are ever going to make you happy, however high up you get up the building.
MM: Did you ever consider adapting the story to the present or would that have been problematic?
BW: I think a period movie, or a science-fiction movie, is always about the same thing, and they are always about now. In the case of High-Rise, it’s the past and the future at the same time. To talk about elements of now can feel hectoring, and too on the nose. Because everyone knows about the present, and the film isn’t a documentary, and if you make it literally about this moment, and people find it easier to pick it to pieces. And then there were other elements of the book itself, that would be broken if you set it now. In the book, the idea was that they lived on the edge of the city, and they could be secretive and away from it all, but it would be impossible to be secretive now because of social media. And then you’d have to change so much of the book to make those elements fit—you’d break it.
MM: While watching the film I wondered why these people weren’t leaving this building. Why are they still there?
BW: Because they like it. They enjoy it. Its like, they’ve got these buttoned-down lives, very specific lives, very specific social interactions and structures, and then they’re given permission to just go crazy. And why would you want to leave that? It’s great. Sure, there are bad things that happen, people are being assaulted and raped and murdered, but also they’re all drinking and dancing and having sex all over the place, so it’s a way up.
MM: Can you tell me about working with your cinematographer Laurie Rose and how that relationship went into getting the visual style you envisioned for the film?
BW: Well, Laurie and I talked a lot about ’70s cinema, and whether or not we should go down that route. We had a conversation very early on about whether we should shoot on film, and we just thought, “No, we don’t live in the past. This is the moment.” We’ve always shot this way. Digital cinematography’s been really good to us; neither of us would have a career without it. It wouldn’t have made it spectacularly better to shoot on film. And so we got that conversation out of the way, and what we realized was that we wanted to make the film as if it had been made already, as if it was shot on location in the past. On all the sets, we tried to emulate available light. The sunlight came through the windows, so I didn’t have loads of lamps indoors. It was quite freeing like that—we lit for 360 degrees, pretty much.
MM: So you’ve never been a purist about film as the ultimate medium to shoot on?
BW: No, I don’t believe in it at all. I think that film is an acquisition medium—it’s superior to digital at the moment, that’s for sure. But that’s not enough to make me want to shoot on it. There are a lot of other things that digital gives you that film doesn’t. For instance, we have to shoot multiple cameras, and we can shoot as much as we want to and not worry about it. We can move really quickly, and don’t have to have as much light. You can get a much higher production value for much less money on digital than on film, and for that, you sacrifice some of the highlights.
MM: And there’s also the fact that is instantaneous. You can see the results right away.
BW: Yeah, that’s helpful, but that’s not a deal breaker. It’s more being able to shoot it out, without tons and tons of lights. It makes so much of a difference to how far you can push the budget and how quickly you can shoot.
MM: In terms of working with your actors, you have this big star, and then you have an ensemble cast, also big names. What’s your process of working to assemble a cast like that?
BW: An ensemble is difficult, and its not necessarily about whether or not they’re famous or whatever. It’s more about how you bring together lots of different acting styles, or, the reality of shooting scenes with an actor and another actor they’ve never met before, and those two acting styles will be butted up against each other in ways you wouldn’t imagine. I cut the film as I shot it, so I could keep a handle on those kinds of issues.
MM: Are there a lot of rehearsals, or do you work on set?
BW: Yeah, it’s all on set.
MM: Is there a reason for that?
BW: Usually because it’s not theater and the actors aren’t there. They’re never there early; they’re always coming or going to something else. That’s how I’ve always worked.
MM: Can you tell me about the way you manage to give your stories humor even at the darkest moments? Kill List might not be so humorous, but Sightseers is definitely funny, and High-Rise is along those lines too. There’s this thread of dark humor that touches on the worst aspects of humanity. What in that interests you? The humor of the absurd, perhaps?
BW: There aren’t many things that aren’t funny, and even with the most terrible things, there is a funny side to it. Being human is about looking for humor for relief, to allow you to survive. If you’re too earnest and literal about stuff, you’ll kill yourself. And I find it slightly disingenuous when I see movies which are all crying and weeping, because my life’s not like that, even when it’s darkest. It’s part of a policy to make things real—it may not be a comedy, but you have characters that have a sense of humor. Most people have a sense of humor.
MM: Was the BAFTA award that’s used as a weapon in the original source material?
BW: No, it’s not in the book. Amy [Jump, Wheatley’s co-writer] wrote it in.
MM: Is that because it’s something that’s so valuable, but once it comes to this situation it loses its value?
BW: Yes, or maybe it’s something that he is defined by. It’s something that he uses to punish other people with, and probably just an exaggeration of what he would do in normal life.
MM: It was your first time working with Tom Hiddleston. How was that relationship?
BW: I’ve met Tom a few times before, and chatted to him about what we were doing in the past, and we got on really well. As an actor, he’s incredibly dedicated and just totally focused on what he’s doing. He looks like a movie star, like a matinee idol, but then he’s also got this feeling of something underneath, and that plays a lot in the movie.
MM: When you’re hiring actors, are you ever conflicted by their past roles—in his case, Loki?
BW: No, I loved Loki. That’s why I really wanted to work with him. I think I would have been in trouble, though, if I had kept the long black hair. That would have been a poor choice. I think he’s really good in this role.
MM: You have another film coming out this year. How does that continue your filmography?
BW: Yeah, it’s a very different film than High-Rise. It’s called Free Fire, and it’s much more action-based. It’s kind of a procedural look at what a gunfight might be, and it’s in real time. Set in the ’70s again, in Massachusetts, in the Boston area, about a bunch of guys who come over from Ireland to buy guns to take back to Northern Ireland. And it all goes fine, but the local guy they’ve hired to load the boxes into the van to take them away, and the guy the gun dealers have brought to unload the boxes out of their vehicle—they know each other. They got into an argument last night at the bar, and that argument spills over into the gun deal, and it all goes to hell. So there’s about a half hour of set up, and then an hour-long shoot out. MM
High-Rise opens in theaters May 13, 2016, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.