A few years back, I was delighted to meet High-Rise producer Jeremy Thomas after the panel discussion of his career during the 2008 Coolidge Award, which is given by Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater.
To honor the maverick film producer that night, a dais was comprised of Thomas himself, actors Debra Winger and Tim Roth, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and legendary director, Nicolas Roeg, all who discussed their experiences working with Thomas, who received many an accolade that night for his unwavering determination in producing non-commercial projects that fall more on the risque side.
From early efforts like Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1978 occult film, The Shout, to Nicolas Roeg’s massively underrated psychological drama from 1980, Bad Timing, to David Cronenberg’s unfairly maligned adaptation of William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, to Ben Wheatley’s new film, High-Rise, which was adapted by Wheatley’s life and screenwriting partner Amy Jump from the novel by J.G. Ballard, Thomas has always produced from the gut.
As a huge fan of Nicolas Roeg myself, I asked Jeremy Thomas that evening about his experience working with Roeg on Bad Timing and Insignificance and asked if he had ever wanted to work with Roeg again, and that is when Thomas mentioned adapting Ballard’s High-Rise, which Roeg had wanted to direct even before the pair had collaborated together, but regrettably at that time, the book had been optioned out by someone else.
Since that conversation we had back in 2008, there had been rumbles about a Thomas produced High-Rise coming to fruition with different directors but nothing concrete existed until the announcement that Wheatley, a young director whom I greatly admire, would finally get the chance to bring his interpretation of the book to screen, and after seeing the film twice in the last two weeks, I, for one, am so happy that he did.
When I started to imagine a Wheatley version of the Ballard novel, it had occurred to me that Ben Wheatley’s films have always been set in a specific time and place such as the National Tramway Museum or a war torn field in 17th century England, and in contrast, the novels of Ballard have always seemed to exist without a set place in time.
But, what becomes the strongest link between the two creators and what eventually makes High-Rise such a successful adaptation is the unique ability to cleverly and even comedically point out the ugliest aspects of human beings, no matter of the era that is being examined. I was also somewhat concerned going in due to Wheatley’s penchant for splashing a touch of gore around as he did in The Kill List and Sightseers, and given the physical combative class conflict scenes in Ballard’s novel, I worried about the potential for a floor to floor bloodbath that would overwhelm the viewer with the “red, red groovy” at the cost of the smaller observations so precious to the original source material.
What does transpire on screen is a clear restraint by Wheatley; the violence does not overcome the narrative and characters. Though Wheatley teases his audience with the potential of a bloodsoaked film in an early scene in which our anti-hero Dr. Laing (who is skillfully underplayed by Tom Hiddleston in a part he was seemingly born to play, unlike his recent failed attempt to capture Hank Williams in I Saw The Light) peels the face off of a cadaver to straighten out the smirking of a young cocky intern. This moment, and the use of a “three months later” scene at the beginning of the film that seems to have been pulled from Cannibal Holocaust, sets a tone of a class struggle, but the struggle will play out in a different way than the setup leads you to believe.
Set in the pre-Thatcher England of the 1970s, the setup seems clear, the higher you are allowed to live on the titular Brutalist monstrosity, the better you must be doing in terms of wealth and status. But, this is not a film about that era’s class struggle, but one on the conflict between people and the conditions in which they live based on more than birth privilege. An early encounter at a party between Laing and Charlotte Melville (played by the perfectly boozy and onpoint Sienna Miller) where she describes Laing’s rental application as “very Byronic” indicates that the tenant selection will be based on more than just bank account and title. Another scene in which Laing is bruskly escorted out of a party thrown in the penthouse apartment of the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) not for being poorly dressed but for not following the attire of the party’s Louis the XIV theme indicates that whether upper or lower class, what becomes clear is that anyone can instantly become undesirable.
The building soon becomes a symbol of rebellion of the individual and not of class with the most threatening element being the loose cannon inside of lower level resident Wilder (Luke Evans), a beefy BBC documentarian who wishes to make a program about the inadequacies of the building that he witnesses. As Laing proudly states towards the end of the film to the building’s hierarchy, “Wilder may be the sanest man in the entire building.”
High-Rise succeeds with great wit and deft attention to the smallest visual details, which is less about the Kubrickian adoration that critics attach to every English film these days (there are other directors folks) and more about the small moments that propel the narrative into a glorious madness. Some eight years after I spoke with Jeremy Thomas, I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with director Ben Wheatley this past Monday about High-Rise, beginning with a question I had about one piece of set design that baffled me on my first viewing…
FOG!: When thinking about the level of detail in the apartments in High-Rise, you see items from different eras depending on the class level of the tenant, but one item I found curious was a poster that hangs in Wilder’s apartment for the 1966 Karel Reisz’ film, Morgan: A Suitable For Treatment, which is a movie I adore. I tried to find parallels between Morgan (David Warner) in that film, and the character of Wilder but I am drawing a blank. It’s the only film poster in your film, and I am curious as to why you selected that one, and why is it in Wilder’s apartment?
Ben: There are other posters in Wilder’s apartment but you just can’t see them. I think that A Kind Of Loving is in there as well. You can imagine that these were the kind of movies that Wilder was inspired by to get into film, but instead he winds up a documentarian at the BBC. That would’ve been the films of the British New Wave that he would’ve seen as a kid. And we really wanted to cast David Warner from Morgan, but we couldn’t, as there was a scheduling conflict, so that poster was the only way that I could get him into the film. (laughs)
Sorry that you couldn’t get David Warner, but I am so glad to have seen Bill Paterson towards the end of your film as Mercer, as he is one of my favorite actors from the 1980s for his work as Dickie Byrd in Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy and then as Jack Lithgow in Traffik.
Thank you. Yes, he is one of my favorites as well, mostly from his work in The Singing Detective.
Staying with the set design, in a key scene, Dr. Laing, during one of the more violent moments in the film, gets into a tussle over a can of paint in the apartment’s supermarket as turmoil exponentially rises in the building. What were your thoughts on the importance of color in the different apartments?
It was less about color particularly and more about making sure that those apartments felt that they had different uses and different warmths and different feelings. Laing’s apartment for example was bare and never moved into, and it was kind of still wrapped in plastic and cold and goes to its grey state, whereas the Wilder’s apartment is full of children’s stuff, and they are a proper family, so they have the detritus of family life. Talbot’s flat where an early party happens is an apartment of a man who has no attachments, so it’s more modern and more chichi but basically to hide the fact that it is all the same apartment as they’re aren’t separate sets. It is a modular set that can be stricken again and again and can be moved around slightly.
I feel that A Field In England relied heavily on having a knowledge of the history of The English Civil War to fully appreciate it. With High-Rise, how much of the film do you feel is lost on people who didn’t personally experience life in pre-Thatcher 1970s England?
I do think that High-Rise is universal enough that it doesn’t matter, but it is in the same way that when you watch a cowboy movie, and you don’t know the history of the west, does it spoil it for you? When you watch a film like The Unforgiven, is it important to know about Montana and the ins and outs of cattle ranching? Not massively. You can appreciate it of course, but you can appreciate it more if you know about the history. But, then that’s a cultural thing between different countries isn’t it? But also within age groups too. Someone like me, that grew up in the 1970s, would I be able to understand it the same way that an English person who was born in the 1980s or the 1990s? You should be able to get about 90% of it, but there might be another 10% that you might able to glean from it.