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ScreenTalks Archive: Ben Wheatley on High Rise

tom hiddleston standing in a room full of mirrors
6 Mar 2017
27 min listen

In this ScreenTalk from March 2016, Ben Wheatley discusses High Rise, his adaptation of J.G Ballard's dystopian novel set in a block of Brutalist high rise flats.

About Ben Wheatley
Brighton-based Ben Wheatley began his career directing adverts and television comedy, before turning to feature films in 2009. Wheatley cemented his status as a low-budget cult hero with the likes of hit man horror 'Kill List', psychotic camping comedy 'Sightseers' and Civil War nightmare 'A Field In England'.

Aptly surrounded by our own Brutalist towers, Ben Wheatley talks to The Times chief film critic Kate Muir about his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 'High Rise'.

This ScreenTalk contains strong language


Photo of director Ben Wheatley

ScreenTalks Archive: Ben Wheatley

Brighton-based Ben Wheatley cemented his status as a low-budget cult hero with the likes of hit man horror Kill List and psychotic camping comedy Sightseers.
In this ScreenTalk, Wheatley talks his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise



EEJ: Ellen E Jones
KM: Kate Muir
BW: Ben Wheatley

EEJ: Hello and welcome to this, the latest in a new series of Barbican ScreenTalks, where we unearth exclusive conversations with some of the world's leading filmmakers, recorded at the Barbican cinemas. 

Our vast ScreenTalks tape archive includes Q&As with double Palme d'Or winner, Ken Loach, and pioneer of social realism, Joanna Hogg. 

But in this ScreenTalk, we hear from a director whose been described as 'one of British cinemas most sungular voices'. Brighton-based Ben Wheatley began his career directing adverts and television comedy, before turning to feature films in 2009. 

His debut, the brutally violent and hilarious domestic crime thriller, Down Terrace, was made on £6,000 over just 8 days. Wheatley cemented his status as a low-budget cult hero with the likes of hit-man horror, Kill List, psychotic camping comedy, Sightseers, and civil war nightmare, A Field in England. 

But in this ScreenTalk from 2016, Ben Wheatley talks to The Times' chief film critic, Kate Muir, about a different kind of film, his adaptation of JG Ballard's High Rise. 

Based on the 1975 novel, High Rise depicts a luxury London apartment block, whose socially segregated residents gradually descend into anarchy. Wheatley was working with a much bigger budget than previously and this film has glossy production values and a starry cast to match including Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller. 

The directors mischevious and dark humour is in full effect - as it is in the interview you're about to hear. Wheatley talks about why he found Ballard's book depressingly prescient. He reveals how his love of ABBA led to a goosebump-inducing Portishead cover, and he gives  a fascinating insight into his partnership with editor and screenwriter, Amy Jump - who also happens to be his wife. 

True to form, Wheatley doesn't hold back on his opinions, or the words he uses so please be warned, this podcast contains some very strong language. 

I'm Ellen E Jones, join me for this Barbican ScreenTalk as we take a trip into the mind of Ben Wheatley. 


KM: So, the first thing I wanted to ask you was, what drew you to the brutalism and the violence of Ballard and why did you have to make this film?

BW: Well, I mean, it's initially when I was a kid that I read it, I liked it because of the sex and the violence and the drugs. 


BW: And as a forty year old man with a child, I liked it because of the sex, the violence and the drugs. But also, because of how depressingly prescient the book had become. Certainly in a London where, it kind of, no one is really embarrassed about, you know, hiding away from the poor and building enclaves and all that kind of thing. And also, our kind of - when I reread the book, elements of it where they're filming everything on Super 8 and projecting it on the walls, felt kind of oddly like YouTube and our current obsession with social media. 

KM: I absolutely thought that. And I also through the sort of sex, the orgies going on was just like oh, Tinder, or oh, Grindr or, you know, now. And the sort of property problems between the lower middle classes and the middle middle classes and then the upper middle, because there's a very narrow range of people fighting over small details, which is exactly what happens in London in the most depressing way. 

BW: I like the 'Oh Tinder, Oh Grindr'. I thought you were going to break out into song. 


BW: That's a musical I'd like to see. 'Grindr: The Musical', would be a real eye-opener, wouldn't it?

[sings] 'Where are you?' 'I'm over here!' 

KM: One of the other things I always like about your movies is the massive credit for Amy Jump. And at the end, you probably saw there, it said - Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley - you know she's written everything. She's taken a book which didn't have much dialogue in it, really, it was sort of book of descriptions, a very thin book. I mean, I'm sure many of you have read it. But...

BW: A big thin book, though

KM: So, how do you collaborate? I'm interested in the two of you. Because they are also partners collaboratively - you're husband and wife collaborating and how it works? And she edits as well, doesn't she? But she's not here

BW: No. 

KM: No. 

BW: So I come out and I take the credit for everything. But she, on this film particularly and on A Field in England, as well, we're.. This whole idea of 'ode to filmmaking' is kind of bollocks. You know, when you've got a writer whose an editor, the director/editor credit is almost a shared credit because there is so much power in the writing in terms of what the story is. And if you're editing as well, then that's like the whole package, so, I mean there are increasingly becoming films made by a couple. And I don't know, there is no proper credits for it. I think the Coen Brothers have a similar situation, you know. And though I do have 'A film by Ben Wheatley' at the front of this, which is probably a credit I'll never take again - I had my arm twisted into that - and it is slightly embarassing. Yeah, I think that's the thing, film is a massively collaborative medium but, you know, creatively she's doing most of the heavy lifting on this one, to be fair. 

Because in terms of the writing, what happens, I said, 'Shall we do 'High Rise?' And I pulled the book off the shelf and she took it and then she went and did it. And that was my creative... that bit there was the bit I did. And it's certainly not, was it the film Death Trap with Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine, about writers and they like, sit with two typewriters opposite each other. Anyone seen it? 

KM: That didn't happen for you? 

BW: No. No it did not. That's not my experience at all. It's more, the Charlton Heston one - 'have you finished?' No, I haven't finished. She likes to write in bed. And I like poke my head round the door and I'll go - 'have you done it yet?' [tuts] 'Leave me alone'. And then eventually I come in and it's done. 

KM: So let's talk about your role in the film. Which, I mean, for me, I saw it once - I have to say the first time I saw it in Toronto and I remember meeting you in Toronto at the Film Festival, it was an audience of critics, some of whom were really really quite ancient Canadians and after about 15minutes there were people sprinting for the door with zimmerframes and sticks. 

BW: See, I never saw this! I must have been sitting quite close to the front

KM: No, this is a press screening at 8.30am 

BW: Oh, I see, alright

KM: They were just desperate to leave and this is quite a Marmitey film, that, there are some people - I love it, you love it! But there are some people very, very disturbed by it. I mean, what are the buttons you feel you're pushing in this film? What's freaking people out in this pleasurable way for some, but not for others?

BW: I don't know. I think that some people have quite a limited ability to experience narratives that aren't completely predictable [laughter]. I think there is, there are many movies in this sub-genre, of the 'big tower films', if you want you can go to. I mean, there's a perfectly brilliant movie, Die Hard, if you want that film, you can go and see it. You know, with a man who moves into an apartment, kind of, gets cross and a nasty man turns up and he throws him off the building at the end. That has been made and that's OK. And also Towering Inferno, which is more in the middle, which is like lots of people who deserve to die being trapped in a building and slowly dropping off one by one. I mean, look, I can't criticse people for not liking something because actually it's rude, isn't it. Like you say, it's Marmite. I love Marmite. 

KM: What about Tom Hiddleston? That was a good early spot. Because obviously he's on telly every Sunday now. 

BW: Yeah, he was massively famous when we got him

KM: Yeah, he got popular. He was lucky wasn't he?

BW: I discovered Tom Hiddleston - this, I like this, I like the way this is going!

KM: When did you decide to pick him off the shelf?

BW: If only it was as easy as that, that casting was just picking actors off the shelf. You have to with these, with all projects you have to kind of make a wishlist of people you want to work with. And you never get any of them, but you have to at least start somewhere. And Tom was at the top of the list for us. And it was because, there's something about Tom where he's obviously, to play Laing, you need someone who's obviously intelligent but also has a kind of mask that he hides stuff behind and then he's, there's all these emotions coming through. You've just seen the film, I don't have to go into it, but, you know. So that, and I'd seen Tom, initially I'd seen him in Avengers, I'd seen him in that, and the same with Luke Evans, I'd seem him in Hobbit and thought 'Who's that guy?' I didn't know, literally from nowhere, and then - it's rare that you see actors who suddenly turn up in movies and you don't know who they are. And then I kind of did a bit of research and I tracked him down to his Joanna Hogg roots and thought he was fantastic. And I went to see him, because Jeremy Thomas, a producer knew him, because he'd just made Only Lovers Left Alive with him, so there was a direct route there. And they all went to see Coriolanus, which was just terrifying for me, being a heathen. And realising I'd have to talk to Hiddleston immediately afterwards about a really complicated play which I, you know, I went to the bar and did Wikipedia just to make sure I didn't come across as a complete idiot. But yeah, it turned out alright, and here we are. 

KM: Indeed. What about, I mean the production design on this is just glorious. It must have been such a pleasure to have, you know, you've made films in 8 days on sort of 50pence, so the preivously films like Down Terrace you made in 8 days, didn't you. And to go from Down Terrace, even Sightseers, Kill List to this, where you have actual money. How did you find those places? How did you decide on that 70s look?

BW: I mean, it's no disrespect to the other movies I've made but this seemed to be the first film I'd made with a full deck of cards. It's the first film we've had where we've actually been able to move the camera on a track, even though, slightly we did move it on A Field in England but it was on a ladder that Laurie, Laurie Rose our DP had bought a little thing off the internet that would move the camera along on it. I know, it's just the smallest violin in the world playing for me, but still. This was the first time we got to build big sets. I mean, there'd been little stuff, the tunnels in Kill List were built, and stuff, but it was just amazing to get that level of control. I had a massive art department by my standards with Mark Tildesley, the designer, he did a fantastic job. And we kind of got to drill into every kind of aspect of the High Rise. 

KM: The other thing I loved was the music. At one point you bring in Portishead to do the, the ABBA SOS song. Where did that come from?

BW: I've been a massive fan of Portishead from the very beginning. I remember even having dreams about Portishead before their album came out, wondering what their music would be like. I know, it's bad. But you know. I was obsessed with them about it. And so, a few years ago, Amy and I were watching Glastonbury and they were on and I just thought, oh my god I love Portishead so much. And as is my habit, I looked at my phone, searching my own name and I found that Geoff Barrow followed me on Twitter, weirdly. I was like 'Jesus Christ!' and immediately emailed him and that kind of, it was something that couldn't have happened ten years ago. I can't imagine how anyone you know, to contact Portishead, I don't know how you'd do it. So yeah, I started chatting to him and it started to grow from there. And I kind of went out and saw him in Bristol and chatted about the possibility of doing an ABBA cover. Which they were up for and that track is like the first thing that Portishead have done in 7 years. Which is amazing in itself. But I also had to write to ABBA. Which again was pretty incredible. 

KM: Were they following you on Twitter?

BW: No, they weren't. They're not on Twitter. Well, they're not following me on Twitter. But, they...

KM: He's mr_wheatley, by the way. 

BW: Yeah, and now usually posting photos of my train journeys, so if you want to keep up to date on that shit, then, follow me. Yeah, I wrote a letter to ABBA, being as cool as possible, and then at the end I thanked them for the music. Which know. But I'm a massive ABBA fan, you know, and it's not a joke for me, ABBA. It's not a piss take or a hispter-y pose. I love ABBA and I have done since I was a little kid. Not that I have a house, with a room that's dedicated to ABBA, or anything like that, but I listen to the music, you know. And they said yes. Which is, amazing, you know. I think they knew Portishead and they knew Jeremy and thy knew Ballard. So those things...

KM: They knew Ballard?

BW: Well, they knew of him. Maybe I don't know? I can't imagine that party! 


BW: Maybe, who knows. And anyway, it all came out of that really. 

KM: I'd like you to, in the audience, we want to find, I want to find Sienna. Where are you Sienna? Now, Sienna plays Jane. She looks rather different now. Plays Jane the actress. Tell us a little bit about, because you were talking to me earlier about the costumes and the sort of retroness and how far it went, and your character. 

SM: It was...Jane Sheridan's brilliant. When I met Ben for the first time, he told me this story about this air hostess he'd met, pretty much. 

BW: Hang on...hang on...

SM: Do you remember? 

BW: Not in public!

KM: You're among friends, it's OK

SM: She wasn't! We were talking about, you know I was saying my whole life I'd wanted to play a character like this and my dream was to play a character who was like 'Darling, if you can't see it, I can't tell you!' And you told me this story about going to an air hangar and meeting this woman who was like, in a mini-skirt and drinking espressos and loads of make up on and all her hair done up and she was about fifty. And you kind of said, 'So, what do you do?' And she said, 'I fly Learjets'. 

BW: Yeah. 'I'm a Learjet pilot, darling', she said. I was unbelievable. 

SM: And when I met Odille, who was the costume designer on this, we talked a lot about modernity and I said I don't think Jane is very modern. I think she's kind of obsessed with the 40s. I mean, she's a pretty shit actress but, she's in to it. And she talked about modernity in a very interesting way. To me, as an actor, people get all reverential about, especially this film, it's like 'It's the 70s! Oh it's all glamour, oh it's trendy now, it's all fashionable'. But, Odile was brilliant. She said every time someone approaches fashion or with a film, they get excited about the fact that it's, you know, period. But you have to remember, that at the time it was always modern. And there was no question of that with this one. It was just, everything was modern, everything was fresh. Amy's script was fresh. Everything was beautiful. I loved it. 

KM: Enzo [Cilenti], where are you? Oh, there you are, right there on the end. 

BW: Are you going to tell the story where I lent you loads of money, Enzo?

SM: Take the microphone!

KM: What about working on..Tell us a bit about working on the set? 

EC: I don't remember...

KM: You're in a horrible swimming pool, aren't you?

BW: The thing to say about this is that Enzo and Sienna are husband and wife and I managed to cast them...

EC: You managed to give us our second honeymoon, it was fucking amazing. 

BW: Yeah, I managed to cast them completely independently, not knowing that they were married. I don't know, I guess it's just a judge of character, I kind of liked both of them and then...then it wasn't a massive coincidence that they knew each other. 

EC: No, it was a shock, Sienna came when, Sienna got her audition for this, this wonderful movie. She kept quite, 'my god, my god!' I'm meeting Ben Wheatley on his new movie'. I was like, 'well great, darling, I'm so happy for you'. And I was languishing doing something shit, I think. And, then she got it and then about four weeks later, I found out I got a meeting for this job as well. 'Oh, yeah, yeah, I'm going to read for it'. And I didn't expect to get it at all, because I never play posh. Because Bradford people don't play posh, we can't do it. We can't stretch that far. But, it was organised chaos, it was the most perfect place to be for an actor, I think. And I hate to preface any sentence, 'as an actor', because it's just shit, but you want to be in the hands of someone who completely and utterly knows what they're doing and completely and utterly trusts you and completely and utterly - basically winds you up and lets you go. And that's what this experience was. And it's very, very, very rare. You don't feel like meat props. You are kind of allowed to do what you want to do and you know it's appreciated and it was just absolutely exquisite. So, yeah. 

KM: Thank you

EC: I'd love to do it again. Alright, dude. 

KM: You're in his next film?

EC: Yeah. 

KM: Which is called...?

BW: It's by performances like this that he gets more and more work. 

KM: Which is called Free Fire?

BW: Yeah. 

KM: Give us a quick line on that, and then we'll open the...

BW: Free Fire, yeah, I'm just finishing it this week for the sound mix. So, it's set in Boston, in the 70s again, which is a favourite period of mine now, because no mobile phones, so you can have all sorts of thriller-y things happen where they aren't easy to get out of by just bringing up a map or something. 


BW: And set in Boston, obviously shot within driving distance of my house in Brighton and a thriller about people trying to buy guns to take back to Belfast and it all going a bit wrong. As you do. 

KM: Let's open the questions to the audience. Would you stick your hands in the air...

BW: T-shirts...

KM: There's a roving mic

BW: It's roving up there...I think you have to point to someone now. 

KM: Oh OK, that's a good idea. Well, you can just shout. Go on. 

Q1: The film's set in the near future from the vantage point of 1975, what was the main impetus behind that? And why not do it a different way?

BW: Two reasons, one was that a lot of the book would have been a bit knackered if you'd done it now. Mainly because of social media. So that the idea of hiding a tower away where people were going bonkers would be kind of fucked by Instagram. And, I think it's a reasonably modern phenomenon, the need to record everything, including your breakfast, and who you're having sex with and stuff and then just putting it out to the whole world and I think that kind of idea that you could hide somewhere without people just turning up en masse, which would happen now I think. And then the other thing was that, kind of, I wanted to, and Amy and I both wanted to have a look at our own childhoods. We were both born in '72 so, and also that idea period movies and sci fi films are always about now, really, but they give you a bit of distance so you can talk about now in a way that doesn't seem too finger-pointing and specific. 

KM: Did you look at movies of the time, I mean, there was much talk of Zardoz in The Observer. 

BW: That's Mark Kermode - he's obsessed!

KM: Yes, he's obsessed by it! But you know the mirrored scene in the lift

BW: Yeah

KM: Which is sort of the double reflection of Hiddleston

BW: The tabernacle...

KM:...which is very similar to Sean Connery in his posing pants

BW: Yeah, but it's also the same as Man with the Golden Gun but no one mentions that!

KM: But I mean, were you looking at Nick Rouge from the time? Or...

BW: Yeah, I'm a massive fan of Rogue and Bourne and Ken Russell and Schlesinger and all those guys, but I'm not a kind of filmmaker who gets everyone together and watches movies and goes 'Just like that!' It's more it seeps in from the sides. My official line is they are 'cultural echoes' rather than references, or 'ripped off'. So it's a thing that happens, not a thing that I'm desperate to... 'oh I'll just take a bit of this just and put it in here to remind people of this', it's more organic than that. Hopefully. 

KM: Another question here, we've got a couple of microphones...

Q2: I hope, it's a development, not an adaptation, it's a development of the book - it was more brilliant than I thought was possible. I absolutely loved it. I like Marmite but I love the film. 

BW: Thank you, sir. 

Q2: From both of you. I mean, the script as much as the directing and everything else. But I want to ask you what the film's about because I think you captured the fact that underneath the veneer of consumerism, there is class hierarchy and the viciousness of class hierarchy is resilient. But is it also about what Ballard, and maybe what you think about Brutalist architecture? What prompted that question is I read recently that Ballard actually lived in a very unfashionable suburban inter-war semi. So do you think it is also about modernism? And the architecture? That environment and what it can do to people?

BW: I think I'm kind of, you know, it strikes a bolt of fear in me to be asked to say what the film's about, specifically, you know, because I kind of shy away from that because it's slightly dangerous, otherwise I'd just do a tour of telling you what it's about and you don't have to sit through two hours of it. Just cut straight to the quick, you know. And I'm not sure if the film, I don't know if the film or the book is necessarily a kind of critique on post-war architecture to a degree, I mean I think it's a metaphor and it can work as, the building can work as a building or as a man or a woman or as a city or as a country or a planet. But yeah, I think that any confined space where you're jamming a load of people together and then kind of putting a dogma on top of them is always going to come slightly unstuck. 

KM: One up here?

Q3: I was just wondering if you had Clint Mansell in mind at the time for the soundtrack and what it was like working with him?

BW: Working with Clint was another one of Twitter helping me out. It's a weird thing, he'd used the media to talk to me by doing interviews going 'Oh, I like Ben Wheatley, he's alright, I'd like to work with him'. He did a couple of interviews like that and I obviously found it because it mentioned my name so I was straight in there. 


BW: And I was kind of like, wow, because I'd never thought about Clint even being in my orbit, really, because he's too big, he's too, you know, I mean I loved his soundtracks and I've been following him since Pi. And before, being a PWIE-fan, I could never quite make that connection. That 'Oh my god, that guy from Pop Will Eat Itself is now the guy that does the soundtracks for Aronofsky, and thought that was excellent. So yeah, he'd done that, and again he followed me on Twitter so I was like fuck yeah, so I emailed him. It's very difficult to talk about music without sounding like a late 90s NME journalist in terms of trying to describe music in words is difficult and it's the real problem between directors and composers, you know. Because it's you go, 'It's got to be threatening but kind of light and also...endearing? Piquant? I dunno'


BW: And the poor bastards have to go away and think of something. Or you just lay a load of Harry Potter over it and go yeah, like that, the temp - just copy that. So yeah, it was hard. But what I love about his stuff is that there's a melody but it also breaks underneath and he's kind of - see this is the NME bit - he's discordant, but his music's got massive big tunes in it as well. So, when I talk to him about it, I told him I wanted something that was arrogant and thrusting but broken. And so it starts off like 'Come on! We all live in this tower! It's all going to go really well!' and by the end it all like.... Then he kind of constructed loads of these duelling themes. So there was a Laing theme, a Wilder theme and the women's theme. The women's theme was very small then it kind of grew and grew and took over everyone else's theme until it became the kaleidoscope theme at the end. We had a lot of fun doing that. 

KM: Amy's script made much more of the women than the book, it change the dynamic a bit, because they were sort of more invisible

BW: Yeah, I mean, I think the thing about the book that we both felt was that there's lost of stories in the book but Ballard just gives you the edge of them, he doesn't ever, you don't get those narratives. And definitely, the story of the women and the story of the children is in there and you get the end of their story but you don't get the middle of it and she wanted to pull that out. Just because she felt the children had been hard done by and the women had definitely been hard done by and wanted to push them further up in the story. 

KM: I think we've got room for one more question...

Q4: Hi, I suppose in reference to you bringing up social media a few times just now, it's made me think about these two phrases that always seem to get used to describe social media these days of echo chambers and filter bubbles. And it made me think to that last shot of the bubble and the echoes of the mirrors. And I wondered whether consciously you were thinking about social media when making it? Or if it's something that's happened a bit more afterwards?

BW: Yeah, I think that, like I was saying before, the social media aspect of it is from the book, and a lot of Ballard's writing, he was predicting that stuff. He could see it coming down the pipe, that we would become increasingly self obsessed and broadcast it. But I think the bubble could also be seen as the bubble, a bubble, which is kind of the gap between the decades that almost, that we always build up to this thing then, pops, and then reforms into something else. And that the film doesn't really end, it just is a new beginning of something else, into another cycle. And in the same way that you see the children, Toby is kind of taking on Thatcher and he's going to be turning into something else that we already kind of, because we're so far ahead in the future, we already know what his life is going to be like. And yet here we are back in another 70s with, you know, economic collapse and ecological disaster and terrorism. And slightly shitter music. But that's because I'm old, I'm allowed to moan about stuff like that. 

KM: Thank you to Ben Wheatley for his film, his love of ABBA, everything. 

BW: Thank you!


EEJ: Thanks for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with Ben Wheatley. We'd like to hear from you, tell us what you think about High Rise on social media, you can find us on social media at barbicancentre. 


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