Ben Wheatley on High Rise, the art of horror-comedy – and his sci-fi ambitions
Ben Wheatley

With his new film, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-RiseBen Wheatley cements his reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting directors, following the likes of Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers.

Matthew Turner met up with him at the Glasgow Film Festival to talk High-Rise, sci-fi ambitions and the tricky balance of horror and comedy. 

High-Rise has some interesting things to say about today’s world

The film retains the 1975 setting from Ballard’s novel, but it has plenty to say about today, as Wheatley elaborates:

“I believe that there’s a cyclical, historical kind of loop that we’re in – we’re either in the ’70s or ’80s most of the time and we have been since the war.

“It’s either we’re all fucked or it’s everyone’s making loads of money and no-one wants to think about it and then it’s all fucked again. It just goes backwards and forwards like that.

High Rise

“So what does High-Rise have to say about today? It’s irrelevant – it is now. And it’s also, why do you make a period film or why do you make a sci-fi film? They’re not about the future and they’re not about the past, they’re about now, they always are.

“All films are about this moment otherwise they don’t have any connection, there’s no traction on them for the audience.”

Finding a balance between horror and comedy

Wheatley’s first three films achieved a perfect balance of horror and comedy, and High-Rise treads a similar line, albeit in extremely dark fashion.

So how difficult is it to strike that balance, and how does he know when it’s working?

“I guess [I know it’s working] when I laugh. Because I’m the universal person, it’s empathy and humanity, isn’t it?

“You want to assume that people are like you because you wouldn’t want to get into making films if you were some total social outcast, not understanding anything about how humanity works.

“But I think a lot of filmmaking is taste and I kind of trust my own taste and trust [screenwriter and partner Amy Jump’s] taste, and when we watch stuff back and we enjoy it, then we figure that’s job done.

“There’s lots of people might disagree with that, but that’s their business. There’s lots of things I don’t like, but I don’t get to complain about it, you know?”

Assembling the perfect cast

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High-Rise represents Wheatley’s starriest cast to date.

He had the following to say about the film’s superb line-up of actors.

On Tom Hiddleston as Laing:

“There wasn’t any real question of who we were going to get to get for Laing – we wanted Hiddleston, because there’s lots of different levels to Tom. On one level he’s kind of like a British matinee idol, he’s tall and good-looking and stoic and strong and straightforward.

“But then on the other side of it he’s Tom as a person, he’s very intelligent, but he’s measured, so he controls himself really well, which is a trait that is important for Laing, so you can see Tom’s thinking – really quick, but he thinks about what he says and he doesn’t ever put a foot wrong and it’s really brilliant.

“And it was great that he did it because he made it happen basically, at the beginning, we wouldn’t have been able to finance the film.”

On Jeremy Irons as Royal:

“You can’t really argue with the Irons casting because that’s just so perfect. I had a few chats with him and he’s a very sharp man. He doesn’t suffer fools, but he’d seen Sightseers and he liked that, so there you go.”

High Rise Jeremy Irons

On Luke Evans as Wilder:

“I’d seen him in The Hobbit and thought, ‘Who’s that? He’s fucking brilliant’, and then I met him and I could see he could be really cross [laughs].

“He was kind of smouldering in The Hobbit, but you could see there’s much more energy and anger that’s in him and we just let him rip, really, and that was a revelation.”

On Sienna Miller as Charlotte and Elisabeth Moss as Helen:

“I’ve liked Sienna’s stuff since seeing her in Factory Girl. Up until that point, I only knew her from newspapers and then I watched the film and was like, ‘Fuck, THAT’S Sienna Miller? Oh my God, she’s brilliant, that totally doesn’t tally with my slightly prejudiced view of what she would be like’.

“But her and Elisabeth Moss have got this thing where you look at the rushes and there’s no spare frames in any of that stuff, everything they do is great.”

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He has big ambitions

Wheatley has tended to work with low-budget character pieces, but when asked whether there was a dream project he had always wanted to make, the director had the following to say:

“There’s some stuff we’re working towards. I want to do some big sci-fi stuff, if I can.

“I’d like to have a career that’s like a 1940’s director, to be able to go from genre to genre and from assignment to assignment that are all very different and for the films to be good [laughs].

“If I can do that, then that will be brilliant, but it’s not a specific thing, like ‘I really want to do my adaptation of Joan of Arc‘. I might do a comic book adaptation or something like that.”

High-Rise is in cinemas from Friday.

Main image via Getty

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