On the 19th of February The Cameo held a special preview of the new film High-Rise starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, and Sienna Miller. Director Ben Wheatley was the special guest of the evening and kindly took the time to conduct a lengthy interview session with audience members afterwards. With many of those present already avid fans of J.G Ballard’s original 1975 book, Wheatley discussed some of the challenges that he faced when adapting such a well-loved book to the big screen. He also spoke more generally about working in the film industry and detailed some of the more technical aspects of the film-making process.
Q: First off, I want to talk about the adaption from book to film. I think that when you tackle such a respected piece of work like Ballard’s High-Rise, there will be criticism no matter what. So was that ever an issue for you?
Ben: No. We didn’t really think about it until we’d finished. But while you’re making it, you just can’t think about it too much. Up until this point, we’d always thought about it from our perspective, as though we were the audience and what we would want to see. If you try to think about would it work here, would it work there, you would be paralysed by it.
Q: In relation to casting, you were adamant from day one that you wanted Tom Hiddleston. Why did you have him specifically in mind? Do you think he brought what you were expecting?
Ben: Well, initially I had seen him in The Avengers and the thing I liked about Tom was that at the same time as being in massive Marvel blockbusters, he is very much involved in supporting independent cinema. On one level, he’s like the matinee idol, but on the other side, he’s this super intelligent guy and really controlled all the time. His face is like a mask and I felt he was very much like Laing in that respect.
Q: Have you been a fan of Ballard’s work for long?
Ben: I read High-Rise and Crash when I was sixteen and then I came back to them as an older man. I find that when you go back to something again and again that different things stand out every time. But in terms of adapting books to film, it’s a heavy weight because you can’t play about to the same extent as you would with something that you just made up, especially if it’s a well-loved book with hardcore fans.
Q: With the book being written in the seventies but the focus very much on the future, did you ever consider moving the setting forward to the present day?
Ben: Well, when the rights to this book for a film adaption first came out in 1976, it was always seen as being set slightly ahead in the future, but then as time passed and you go forward, you lose a lot of the book because it doesn’t make sense anymore what with changes in technology. I think if you try to remove it too much from its original setting, like say if we tried to set it in the present day people would be taking selfies, then that just would have taken away from the feel of the film. Anyway, I think that the seventies is now distant enough that it looks “exotic” as opposed to just being naff as it did when I was a schoolchild.
Q: How exactly did you get to make this film?
Ben: I pursued the book because I wondered why it hadn’t been made into a film before and during that time we were looking at a lot of books and searching around for the rights to them and High-Rise was weirdly local. Jeremy Thomas who produced Naked Lunch, Crash, and The Last Emperor had the rights to it. Basically, we had an idea for what we wanted to do with the film, of setting it in the seventies, but Jeremy had gone through loads of different scripts for it for the last fifteen years and so we offered to do it as a spec script. If he liked it then we would do it and if he didn’t, well that was it. It freed us up because then there was no legacy with the other scripts and Amy [Jump] could be as free as she wanted with it and we didn’t take any money.
Q: So your detractors don’t have much to stand on then because Jeremy Thomas had been wanting to see this on screen for so long and what you brought was what he really liked?
Ben: I don’t know about that. I think it was more that we came to him with an idea and a script. I mean, it’s the same thing with low-budget stuff, a lot of the time you think that the way forward is trying to find people to fund you, but in a way just being blunt and moving forward and actually doing something makes things happen.
Q: What draws you to working with actors who are known for their comedic roles?
Ben: I love comedians because they know what it is to die (on-stage that is) and the sadness of that and of trying to get people to laugh and then failing, occasionally. There’s a toughness to that, I think, that goes through their performances.
Q: And finally, you directed and edited the film, do you feel that you get a better result that way?
Ben: Well, there’s this whole nonsense of editors saying that directors shouldn’t edit their own stuff because they’re too emotionally invested in it, but for me, I have a short memory so I just find it easier to do the editing myself. Amy does the same amount of editing too. Part of the voice of the film is down to us editing. It’s like a cottage industry, all done at home upstairs and no one else is allowed to come up and see. Then, whatever happens in those moments is our call.
Image: Studio Canal