While wrapping up my recent conversation with British director Ben Wheatley about his new movie High-Rise, he mentioned liking Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I told him that I hadn’t seen it, but it surprised me nonetheless as I’d heard it was incoherent. “So? Since when was that a problem?” he said with a laugh.
That attitude makes sense coming from someone who makes the kind of challenging, playful, confusing, and delirious movies like those Wheatley has been for the past several years. His most recent is High-Rise, a fairly faithful adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name about a massive apartment structure that slowly implodes as a result of an internal class struggle and dependence on technology. Throughout Wheatley skewers capitalism, pulls ingenious performances out of the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss, and evokes a series of classic films by directors like Luis Buñuel, Stanley Kubrick, Marco Ferrari, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and more.
I spoke to Wheatley last month in the theater of the Thompson Street Hotel. I didn’t know such a space existed prior to entering it and even then, it was still surreal—rows and rows of thick and foamy fluorescent orange seats in an otherwise all-black space that Wheatley and I sat in the middle of (separated by one seat). We discussed his unique filmmaking process with his regular collaborator, Amy Jump (who’s also his wife), retrofuturism, and why a movie like High-Rise is so hard to get made in today’s cultural climate, even though it shouldn’t be.
Gawker: Why High-Rise?
Ben Wheatley: When I reread it, it felt like it had been torn out of the newspaper. When I read it when I was a teenager, it was predictive science fiction, and I enjoyed it but I didn’t connect it to anything, in the same way that you might read Philip K. Dick or [Robert] Heinlein or anything like that. But when I reread it, it just felt like he’d gotten a lot of it right. It was more relevant than ever.
What stuck out to me immediately as the most relevant thing about this story is how it shows that technology keeps people indoors. Was that something that was on your mind?
Yeah, that and the way that we’ve merged with technology so that it becomes an extension of us. The thing that struck me when I reread the book is that they were filming themselves the whole time and projecting the information onto the walls, which really made me think of YouTube and that we can’t live now without broadcasting. We’ve become our own media nodes, constantly updating everybody about what we’re doing, whether anybody cares or not. I thought that was very sharp of Ballard to see that from 1975, because that really is mad science fiction from a 1975 position, certainly in the UK, where we [were] probably 20 years behind America. We didn’t even get supermarkets in the UK until 1960. My nan went to the States in 1935, my great grandmother. We found all the letters from her reporting back saying, “Oh my god, there’s these shops where you can buy all different types of foods.” It was all corner stores before that in the UK. And the idea of televisions that have more than three channels. That was still going in my lifetime. For him to then take the information that was around him and basically predict YouTube, it was pretty incredible.
Presenting that vision of the future from 40 years ago now—in a retro-futuristic framework—speaks to the bigger picture of human nature that he was getting at, right? Is that part of the point of making High-Rise now?
Yeah. I like the idea of the past and the future being safer places to represent now. I think basically every period movie and every science fiction movie are doing the same thing, which is shifting our culpability up or down the timeline so that we can present difficult issues without having to make us feel personally guilty, or disengaging some of the context, the more nitty gritty of the context that we’re in in the moment. It becomes much more complicated when it’s a personal thing that you’re being called out on.
What exhilarated me most about this movie is that feeling of “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.” It feels like ‘60s and ‘70s cinema in a big way, in that it’s experimental, you engage in class commentary, and you don’t spoon-feed, but present ideas without giving a definitive moral.
All the films that [writer/co-editor Amy Jump] and I have made are like that. I’ve never been a fan of exposition in particular. I’m a fan of thinking. I like cinema that makes you think. But not exclusively. Cinema is a broad church that can support all types of cinema. But when I feel most exhilarated, it’s coming out of a movie, trying to put it together after it’s taken no prisoners. It’s a shame that that kind of cinema doesn’t exist as much [anymore]. The other thing is if you take this movie and you put it into any week in 1975, it doesn’t look that crazy. How’s that happened? This type of movie would have been a studio movie and it would have been mainstream, effectively. Now it’s not. It’s been pushed far, far back to the edges of culture.
Was part of the way that you got to make a movie this challenging a result of your high-profile cast?
Yeah, of course, that makes a difference. But that’s just a reality of unlocking certain amounts of money. The thing is the film wasn’t very expensive, so it’s effectively a low-budget film that punches massively high because of the art design. The cast didn’t rinse us for loads of money. They wanted to support the project so they weren’t coming in hard on it. I think that helped it.
Are you aware of the reactions that this movie has already elicited?
Yeah, I follow it.
It’s pretty divisive.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Do you think that has to do with making a movie that makes people think?
I don’t know. It’s just taste, isn’t it? There’s plenty of things I don’t like, and there’s plenty of things I do like. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s divisive like that. The way modern cinema’s gone is that anything that isn’t completely obvious becomes a mistake. But also, I can understand why people didn’t like it. It doesn’t matter. There’s no judgement on that.
I felt like I saw references to or reflections of a variety of directors in this movie, almost from scene to scene. Everything from A Clockwork Orange, which people have noted repeatedly, to The Exterminating Angel given the fact that your characters don’t leave the building. Were you cognizant of the references you were evoking?
Some I was, some I just did and didn’t realize. I am a conclusion of watching a lot of cinema. I’ve watched a lot of movies and it’s all broiling around inside. I’m not a postmodern filmmaker in that respect and I don’t sit down and go, “Right! We’re gonna do the scene from The Thing and this is gonna be the shot from this and take this bit of music from this movie, which is gonna make us all remember that film.” I’m not that interested in that. But when I look at my own movies, I can’t deny it. It’s not necessarily references—it’s more like echoes. And it’s not just cinema in there. There’s television and comic books and all these kinds of things. It’s a tricky one in interviews, ‘cause your natural instinct is to deny it: “I didn’t copy that stuff!” Or, “I’m not THAT influenced by it.” But it is undeniable. It hasn’t been assembled, Frankenstein-like, from those influences. It’s more in the moment, we make decisions about things and in the edit suite, we choose things. And then it starts to coalesce from that.
It took me a while to untangle what I took from the movie. What you ultimately got at for me, especially with the Thatcher quote you include at the movie’s end [“There is only one economic system in the world, and that is capitalism”], is that our contrived idea of “society” is the root of order, but people are always on the brink of displaying their primal, id-based selves. But then when that root of society is then id-based itself, or id-encouraging in the way capitalism is, destruction and collapse are inevitable. Does that seem...?
Yeah. When you read Ballard’s stuff, he deals in extreme metaphor. The building itself isn’t necessarily a building. It could be a body, it could be a person. He’s explicit about that in some respects. The characters are sets of ideas that are firing around inside it. Laing and Toby and Royal are the same person, effectively, at different stages of their development. Or Laing and Wilder and Royal are the same person, at different points of their psychological makeup. You could take those positions within it. It’s a subset of types of movies that Amy and I have been making. We do films about couples, movies about childlike men and their stoic, strong wives. Or we make movies that are like wrappers that hold different elements of a person that are all fighting to become unified, that’s something like A Field in England or High-Rise, but then High-Rise is also a film about couples destructing rather than coming together. There’s a lot going on.
Do you like to fuck with people’s heads?
I think that’s a genre thing we’ve been working on for a while. There’s a lot of elements of genre that gives people a pass. Behaviors become OK and simplified, and when you actually look at what the actual actions are of characters in films and what they get up to and why they are the “hero”...I think the original Cloverfield’s interesting like that because he flips it onto the street to find what the monster was up to. You get some movies where the heroes go ‘round and by the end of it, they’ve murdered a hundred people. You go, “They’re the hero?” In any other story, they’d be the villain. It doesn’t matter what happened at the begging of their tale. By the end they’ve caused so much [pain]. I love in one of the Austin Powers when he kills one of the minions and they cut to the family being told about it. This is most of cinema isn’t it? It’s like what Kevin Smith said about Return of the Jedi, with the destruction of the second Death Star. All the private contractors that were on there just building this thing and they all get fucking incinerated. How do we explain that?
I think the blockbuster industry is somewhat culpable in our cultural desensitization of death.
Within narrative. That’s a different thing. That sits outside. I don’t think it’s in a general sense. I blame that on news rather than movies (laughs). I think it’s more in a metaphorical sense.
It seems like it does people a disservice to make death so consumable. It should be brutal and tough to deal with.
You should feel bad about it, to a degree. But then we’re actually creating an environment here where the karate movie can’t exist and that’s a bad thing. That can’t happen. I think there’s checks and balances within it. I think it’s fine to talk about it, but I wouldn’t be so prescriptive as to stop it. I enjoy these movies, too, but it’s talking ‘round it.
You can only put into the world what you see as being right.
And also you want people to feel. I think the example for me is Hannibal, the TV show, where it’s so horrible, unbelievably horrible. I was watching it, thinking, “Why is this so fucking horrible, this thing?” I think it’s because if in real life I saw a dead body over there and they’d just had a heart attack and died, I’d be traumatized by it and think about it for weeks. If I see it on a TV show and that’s happened...I don’t care. They must have hit that thing and gone, “Right, well now we do a procedural investigation, but no one cares about murder anymore so it has to be this much murder.” If anything had happened on that show in real life, everyone would be talking about it forever. For every episode forever and ever. There would be a whole industry of publishing books about it, going over it, “Well, how could this happen?” I was thinking that’s a crazy gap, between reality and how a show is perceived.
I think of the most recent Purge movie, which suggests that rampant violence could be contained into one night. At the end of the second one, a survivor just pulls into a hospital the next morning, as though there wouldn’t be lines around the block, as though the hospital wouldn’t still be overbooked from lost year’s purge. Very tidy.
High-Rise crescendos into chaos. What were your thoughts about presenting that and making it intelligible?
Well, it’s all planned. It has to be. You can’t do parties and you can’t do a war film and you can’t do action without it being planned and planned and planned, otherwise people get hurt. There was a lot of storyboarding, a lot of it’s written into the script. Amy writes the scripts, and we’ve been working on this for a while. The common wisdom with scripts is you don’t write in anything visually because it irritates the directors and it makes the page count go wonky because suddenly they’re not a minute a page anymore and it gets out of hand. But because we make our own movies, we don’t have to conform to any of these ways of working, especially because she’s the editor as well, with me. She writes the editing into the script. It’s lots of little scenes. In a normal script it’d be a big old scene and then they’d find ways of cutting it up. It wouldn’t necessarily be talked about in that structure. It would almost be like a ghost script between the script and what got made, which would be the decisions that the editor was bringing to it and plans and whatnot. So all that stuff is baked into it early on. And then I do a lot of storyboarding just to get a sense of what the film is going to be like so that it’s not overloaded with an incredible sequence [early on] and then you’re wondering why the film doesn’t do that anymore.
Are there advantages to this unique experience of working with your wife so closely?
I don’t know about on a personal level, to speak to that really, but in terms of why wouldn’t the editor and the writer be the same person, seems to be the question.
It makes the writer think in a more visual way because they’re going to have to deal with the edit at some point, and it eliminates the editor as a person who comes into a project at the end with their own agendas from other movies that they’ve done, and other ways of cutting, and all this kind of stuff. From my point of view, it’s a much purer way of working. Now obviously, any editor hearing that would be furious and rightly so. They’ve got their own things that they think they bring to stuff and how it works. But in terms of my understanding of cinema is the person with their hand deciding what frame goes where is the one with the power completely so why would you want to put someone between you and that situation? When you have the editor as the writer this whole idea of the script being written three times or whatever they say—why would the last rewriting of the script happen without the writer involved in it?
And then there’s stuff within it that she’s made decisions about in the writing visually, which cross over into what I do as well. We try to find a way of communicating this. This goes back to the French, really, but there’s a lot of weight put on the director as the primary creator. We all know it’s a collaborative medium, but when you’ve got a writer-editor and director-editor, they kind of balance out, those two roles. It’s more of a proper partnership. And then all of our movies are movies we’ve made by a couple—a man and a woman’s voice in them. That’s why they represent men and women at the same time, or we hope they do.
Is there a downside to the free thinking that you espouse? It seems like your wings would get clipped somewhere down the line.
It depends on what you want to do. Last year before I did High-Rise, I did two episodes of Dr. Who. I didn’t do them like this. My wife didn’t edit it. I didn’t say anything about the script. That wasn’t anything to do with me. I got that, it was an assignment, and I did it. I went into that wanting to do it. I didn’t do it because I needed the money or was desperate for work. I sought it out, I sent my agent after them and I said, “I want to do Dr. Who because I’m a big fan of Dr. Who.” I did get paid for it, but that wasn’t the primary concern. And that experience was absolutely fine. If I made High-Rise and had a load of people materialize out of the mist about how it was going to be cut then it would have been a problem. But generally the movies I’ve done I’ve had final cut on, so everything’s clear from the start.
How is it that you’re able to do that and other people aren’t? Is it because you make smaller movies?
Yeah, that’s mostly it. High-Rise is a Jeremy Thomas-produced film, so it’s the first one I’ve done that I wasn’t the de facto producer on as well. Rook Films that made all the other films I’ve done I’m a co-owner of with Amy and Andy Starke. That hierarchy, I’m at the top of it, so I get to decide that stuff. And also from the beginning we’ve been reasonably relaxed about stuff. I don’t live a large life. I kind of keep to myself. I’m quite quiet. I can say no. So we can do things like A Field in England, which is like a year’s work that we got fifteen grand for or something like that, between the two of us. That can happen. That gives you control, basically.
Is your primary motivator artistry? Expression?
Yeah, making stuff. Enjoying myself, more. Having a good time. And kind of...that’s it. Why would you not do that if you had the chance? I really love making films and I really love the process of it any different levels as well. Eventually I’ll do something that I won’t have complete control over but I won’t go in and cry about it. I’ll have gone in knowing what was going to happen.