THERE is a scene early in Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s classic dystopian novel High Rise in which a character removes the flesh from a cadaver’s face and then hacks its skull open. The sequence is at once repellent and hilarious — a stomach-twisting paradox that will chime with anyone who has followed Wheatley since his break-out 2011 movie Kill List.
“Life is funny most of the time. Even when bad things are happening it can be amusing,” nods the director. “There’s always an element of both, isn’t there?
Through his career, the 43-year-old English filmmaker has honed a singular sensibility, blending arch wit with a desire to shock. Both sensibilities are on display throughout High Rise, which stars Marvel Cinematic Universe alumnus (and rumoured future James Bond) Tom Hiddleston as a dapper medical teacher (it is he who splits the skull apart) marooned in a 1970s apartment block as it descends into feral class conflict.
“He’s a guy who is slowly cracking,” says Wheatley of Hiddleston’s commanding turn as a civilised gent pitched into a world without laws or morals.“I saw a lot of that in Tom’s various performances. He has that special quality. I also love he way he does indie British films and big Hollywood stuff and that’s not a contradiction. He sees it all as part of the one continuum. I really admire that.”
Hiddlestone is currently starrring in The Night Manager on BBC. The presence of such a big name such as drastically altered the momentum of the movie. Wheatley’s budget increased to a decent $10m and, just like that, securing meetings with distributors and film festival programmers was not a problem.
“Once you have a marquee names, certain things are triggered. With my other films, there wasn’t the same pressure. Once you get past a budget of $5 million, it suddenly gets a lot bigger.”
Born in 1972, Wheatley can just about remember the Seventies first hand. He sets the story, as Ballard did, in the middle of that decade. This was an excuse to outfit the film with shag-pile carpets and naff sofas and to dress the cast in horrific droop moustaches and rumpled leather.
The effect is curiously chilling, like leafing through old family photographs only to see mysterious figures festering in the shadows. “It was kind of eerie, watching it come alive,” says Wheatley. “There’s a scene set in a supermarket and the set is big enough that you can stand there and be surrounded by it. It brought me back to what I remember as a kid — everyone smoking and getting really f**ked up.”
“There was something alien about those movies from the ’70s. It’s almost as if people’s faces were masks. Nobody is really making conversation in the normal sense. They’re like human machines. We’re so far away from that time now yet we think we knew what our parents were getting up to. Actually we don’t have a clue.”
The heavyweight cast also includes Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss (who does her best with the Estuary English accent), Sienna Miller (as a bonkers temptress) and Jeremy Irons as a batty mad scientist (well, mad architect) hiding out in an arcadian garden at the top of the tower.
Shooting was in Belfast and down the road in Bangor. Initially, the plan had been to film in London or Birmingham. But all of the brutalist post-modern buildings had either been demolished or, as in the case of London’s Barbican, remained in heavy use.
“We wanted to do it in Birmingham Library. They wouldn’t let us. And then they knocked it down. Bangor was perfect. The buildings were unchanged because they were next to a police station so nobody had tried to blow them up.”
Wheatley’s career has a thoroughly modern trajectory. Raised in north London, his big break was an internet clip entitled “cunning stunt” depicting a friend jumping over a car. This brought him to the attention of the advertising industry and his slick, clever commercials were soon winning awards.
He moved into television, directing segments of the BBC Three sketch show Modern Toss. His first movie, 2009’s Down Terrace, was a violent black comedy shot in eight days on a $30,000 budget. However, his true moment of arrival was Kill List, a haunting psychological thriller with supernatural elements, co-written by his wife Amy Jump (who penned the High Rise script).
His next project will, like High Rise, also have an Irish aspect. Wheatley has maintained a correspondence with Cork actor Cillian Murphy for going on decade and wrote the upcoming Free Fire with Murphy in mind.
The film is set in Boston in the 1970s and sees Murphy play a Republican who stumbles into a deadly gun-battle on the south-side of Boston.
“Cillian and Michael Smiley [Luther, Black Mirror] are there to buy guns for the IRA from a local arms dealer,” he says.
“Two local Boston guys are there to help them load the stuff into their van. The arms dealers turn up and they’ve got two other Boston guys with them to help unload the weapons. But the Boston guys had a big bar fight the previous night and things get a little heated.
“Cillian and Michael’s characters are telling them to just calm it. Instead, it all goes off and they are trapped in this warehouse while a gun battle is going on, almost in real time.”
Wheatley grew up with Ballard’s novel, which chillingly portrayed a dehumanised future and the horrors than can unfold when people try to push back. The question Ballard ultimately poses is whether it is better to be a faceless cog in an unthinking machine — or be plunged into a Hobbesian world of bloodshed and conflict? Clearly the author’s ruminations were rooted in the social ills of the Seventies. Yet Wheatley believes the book remains chillingly relevant today.
“In a way we’re always either in the ‘70s or the ’80s,” he says “That’s what you have with Kenysian economics. You give the terrorists a different name, the ecological problems a different name. But the issues stay the same. That was one of the things Ballard was getting at. Nothing ever really changes.”