With his latest venture writer-director Ben Wheatley has, it seems, achieved the impossible: a faithful screen adaptation of JG Ballard’s ‘unfilmable’ 1975 novel High-Rise, a savage social satire in which the residents of a brutalist tower block enact the breakdown of civilisation in microcosm, with all the chaos, violence and debauchery that entails.
Written by Amy Jump, Wheatley’s wife and frequent collaborator, High-Rise stars Tom Hiddleston as the building’s placid newcomer Dr. Robert Laing, Luke Evans as the firebrand Richard Wilder and Jeremy Irons as remote and eccentric architect Anthony Royal. Wheatley spoke to Empire at the Zurich International Film Festival in September, shortly before the film’s red carpet screening.
How familiar with Ballard’s work were you before you signed on to High-Rise?
I’d done the teenage thing of reading his books with that whole package of other writers - William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, that gateway into counter culture. Then I came back to Ballard in my late twenties, so I kind of knew High-Rise. Then when I re-read it in preparation for this I realised how it had seeped into me, how much it’s affected my attitudes and how it has seeped into the culture generally. If you see The Raid or you read 2000 AD, it’s ingrained in that stuff.
When you re-read the book, did it surprise you how prescient it was and how relevant it was to society now?
Yeah, I mean specific things like Wilder making the TV documentary in the middle of the chaos, and them all filming themselves and projecting it on the walls, that sent a shiver down my spine. Another thing that surprised me is that I’d always thought it was a book about class struggle, the working class against the upper class. It isn’t that, it’s between lower middle-class and upper middle-class. It’s not like Metropolis with the workers at the bottom and the architect at the top who they have to rise up against and overthrow. What they’re after is much more petty, much more subtle in a way.
Any other revelations?
Something else I took from the book is how slippery Ballard is with the protagonist, and how he plays with our assumptions about narrative. You read it and you go, ‘Well, it’s Wilder obviously’. He’s the hero and he’ll rise to the top of the building, break Royal’s back across his knee, throw him off the building and win. Then he doesn’t and you go, ‘Oh, fuck. Well, it’ll be Royal then because he’s the power elite’. But it’s not him, and it’s certainly not Laing because he just lets the whole thing roll over him, so who the fuck is it?
It’s a terrific cast. How did that come together?
Basically, once you get the first person, everything else fits into place. It also works in a financing way. You’ve got a great book and everyone wants to invest in it in principal, but until you’ve got that first name actor no one actually does. That’s why some films don’t get made for years and years. We always wanted Tom Hiddleston, he was a perfect match, he felt like our Laing. Obviously I’m going to say, ‘It was only ever going to be Tom Hiddleston’, but it really was.
Did you ever consider setting the film in the present day?
Totally. Since the book was written people have been trying to make this movie. Obviously if it’d been made when the book came out, it would’ve looked like the movie we made. Then when you get to the 80s and 90s, it would’ve been floating off into more projected futures. But the further you get away from the period, it kind of breaks the book. How would you deal with social media in that story? You’re cooking a dog and you’re filming it. It’s on the internet and immediately everyone knows what’s going on in that tower block. It breaks the metaphor. Or that’s how we felt.
You did update it in certain respects though. There’s a speech from Margaret Thatcher that Ballard couldn’t have heard when he wrote the book.
It’s a kind of complicated thing, with us now being far further into the future than Ballard was projecting in the book. We’ve seen everything that’s happened after the book came out, so it’s kind of an adaptation of the book and a reaction to everything that’s happened since; it’s connecting that seventies projection of the future with the situation we’re in now.
It has a very distinct visual style. How did you create that?
There’re a lot of challenges with period stuff. It’s like, if you look at furniture magazines now, you flip through them and think, ‘no one actually has this furniture in their homes’. But in twenty years time, art directors will get those magazines out and go, ’this is what it looked like back then’. It’s the same with the seventies. You look at magazines from then and it doesn’t look anything like my memories of the seventies. Amy and I and our designer Mark Tilsley spent a lot of time talking about that. There’s a mixture of periods stuff, so it’s not all the greatest hits from the seventies. But we also wanted to make it kind of a pocket universe, like the future Ballard predicted from 1975. And also we were making a period sci-fi movie so those elements came into it as well.
Was it hard to find a suitable building to film in?
It was. We tried to shoot in the Birmingham library, but they said no and then they knocked it down. Another thing is that a lot of the original brutalist buildings had been clad in marble and stuff in the eighties, which made them look even worse. We were lucky, we ended up in Northern Ireland in a sports centre built in 1971 - which they’ll probably knock down soon, too.
What do you think Ballard would say about the film?
I really can’t speak for him. I’ve seen interviews he did about other movie adaptations of his books and he was always incredibly gracious and generous about them. I think he’d appreciate that we tried to stay as close to the book as possible.
What do you think he’d make of the state of society today?
I think he’d be grimly depressed about getting so much of it right. There’s no prize for that is there? Yeah, you were right about the dystopian nightmares you predicted. Well done JG.