Ben Wheatley isn’t crazy about film critics. “It’s a job that I wouldn’t want or seek out,” he recently told the online film magazine Flickreel. “As a creative person, I think you should be making stuff… and if you aren’t, why should you have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes?”
Wheatley’s typically mischievous comments sparked a heated reaction online (“I should have kept my mouth shut,” he later told me, ruefully), but they are nothing new. Back in 2012, when interviewing Wheatley for The Culture Show about his murderous caravan comedy, Sightseers (if you haven’t seen it, think Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer meets Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May), I suggested we film a sequence in which the director killed with me an axe. I thought it would be funny, and apparently so did he. So I spent the next half hour falling face down in a muddy field while Wheatley wielded his weapon with something approaching glee.
Whatever his view of critics, I like Wheatley. Like his films, he’s energetic, intelligent and unpredictable, with a wickedly ghoulish sense of humour. He may affect a shambolic look – today, he’s all shaggy hair and dishevelled wardrobe – but there’s something of the steel trap about his mind, and his conversation. Along with Amy Jump (the writer and editor who is his partner in film-making as well as in life), he has forged a distinctive path through modern British cinema, drawn equally to “the sociorealist traditions of Alan Clarke and Ken Loach” and the “more crazy, freewheeling” work of Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and John Boorman (“the holy trinity”). A huge comics fan (he has a particular fondness for 2000 AD) and a talented artist and animator, Wheatley first made his name with online virals such as 2005’s Cunning Stunt, a short, sharp internet sensation in which his friend Rob Hill jumps over a moving car, only to be run over by a second vehicle coming the other way. He won a Lion award at the Cannes advertising festival in 2006, and worked on TV comedy shows such as Time Trumpet, Modern Toss and The Wrong Door before moving into features with the misanthropic (2009) and the horror-inflected (2011), films that blurred genre boundaries to startling effect. They didn’t make for easy viewing but had a raw integrity and a cynical, satirical edge that made them unmissable.
There are no axes to wield or mud to lie in when I meet Wheatley in a Soho post-production house where he is working on Free Fire, a movie to be released later this year. Executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, it’s a crime thriller set in Boston about two IRA men coming to America to buy guns – a deal that inevitably goes wrong. But we’re about to come to blows over an altogether more ethereal matter: John Boorman’s notoriously bonkers 1974 sci-fi pic .
“You’re such a Zardoz hater!” says Wheatley with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity. He’s right: I think Zardoz is a terrible film – a fascinating failure perhaps, but rubbish nonetheless. Wheatley loves it, however. His Twitter profile picture is the movie’s giant stone head, which weirdly resembles his own bearded visage, and I detected faint echoes of it in his new adaptation of JG Ballard’s , the real subject of our discussion.
“To be fair, and not to burst your Zardoz theory about High-Rise,” he says with a wry smile, “I don’t know if any of those references were conscious. Films like Zardoz and are massively influential to me, but I try not to be that postmodern film-maker who just drops stuff in, although it does seep through sometimes.”
Set in a brutalist 70s “luxury” apartment block that becomes a twisted microcosm of society, High-Rise stars Tom Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing, a smooth, slippery antihero who moves in just as the cracks of anarchy start to appear. While Jeremy Irons’s architect Anthony Royal lords it up in the penthouse, below him dog-eating chaos begins to reign, rising up in feral fashion, floor by floor. Despite their vast differences, there’s a connection between Zardoz and High-Rise, both of which are home-grown, sci-fi-tinged works rooted in the mid-70s. Ballard’s novel was published in 1975, the year after John Boorman’s dystopian epic provoked gales of laughter with scenes of Sean Connery climbing into a flying head to break into the plush world of “the Vortex”, wearing only a bright red posing pouch. Both depict a future in which a class-segregated society is teetering on the brink of collapse; both imagine lavish idylls and increasingly hellish environs existing side by side.
“The thing about Zardoz is that it’s a bold science-fiction movie of the type that doesn’t get made any more,” says Wheatley. ‘“Let’s be honest, most science fiction is just a second world war movie with spaceships. Or everyone’s green and they’re using it as a metaphor for race. What you don’t get is that absolutely bonkers, grand idea of having alien concepts that you can’t even grip on to. That’s what’s so great about Zardoz. You just go, ‘What?! They’re going there… in a giant head?! That spits guns!’ I don’t know how you could resist this film. And Sean Connery made it when he was at the height of his powers. That’s like Daniel Craig doing Zardoz tomorrow. So I loved Zardoz unconditionally from the beginning.”
The other thing Wheatley loved unconditionally from an early age was Ballard’s writing. “I read High-Rise when I was about 17,” he says, “along with all the usual counterculture stuff: Naked Lunch, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The thing about Ballard was that you could feel his radiation. He seemed scary, and dangerous, and that was why you had to read his books. I read Crash around the same time, and I remember thinking it had a turn of phrase that didn’t feel like anybody else. A way of looking at the modern world and making it alien. I read Hello America and The Drowned World and so on, all in a lump. But High-Rise kept returning…”
Several film-makers have tried and failed to bring High-Rise to the screen, most famously Nicolas Roeg in the late 70s. “I had no idea about that,” Wheatley says, “which was a good thing. Imagine how intimidating that would be: ‘Hey, let’s try to do the thing that Nic Roeg didn’t manage to do…’ Ha! But what happened was that we had just done A Field in England [2013’s hallucinogenic English civil war weirdie, released simultaneously in cinemas and on DVD, VOD and TV], and Amy and I thought we were starting to get enough clout to be able to option books. So we looked on the shelf and saw High-Rise. And I thought, ‘Fuck, I love that book, and it’s never been made, I wonder why not.’ I called my agent who said [producer] Jeremy Thomas had it, and within three days I was in his office. It turned out he had just seen Sightseers, and loved it. So it was all very fortuitous.”
With High-Rise, Wheatley and Jump (the latter takes sole screenwriting credit on the project) wanted to return to the source. “What Jeremy liked about our approach was that we were going back to the book, and to the 70s – to make it period, which no one had done before. If you’re trying to develop a film of High-Rise in 1978, it makes sense to set it further in the future, because the book is probably set in ’82 or ’83. But then that thinking goes on and on, and eventually you get too far away from the book, and more importantly from the technology. You get into the world of social media, and then the story about the isolation of the tower doesn’t work any more.”
So which elements of Ballard’s book proved most difficult to adapt?
“Well, I don’t want to speak for Amy, but the book is tricky because there’s not a lot of dialogue in it. A lot of it is reported action, and a lot of the fun of the book for me is in the descriptions. Also the book is full of hidden narratives – basically the story of the women and of the children, which Amy wanted to bring out more. As far as the setting is concerned, we were in the future, looking at the past, looking at the future. There’s also the fact that both Amy and I were born in 1972, so we would have been the same age as the children in the tower block. So as much as it’s looking at Ballard, it’s also looking at our own parents – at what that generation means to us. That then coloured how those characters were brought forward.”
Born in Essex and now based in Brighton, Wheatley moved to London’s Belsize Park when he was seven and attended Haverstock school, subsequently dubbed “Eton for lefties” in honour of such high-profile alumni as the Miliband brothers. Wheatley met Jump at a Feet First indie night at the Camden Palace and they married in 2006. Both were “first generation to university for our families”, and both felt an affinity with a central theme of High-Rise: the strange tensions between the bizarrely defined strata of British society.
“What was difficult was getting the upper echelons right,” says Wheatley. “That’s when I’m outside of my comfort zone. Because I didn’t go to Eton. And much as you want to be true to the characters you know about, you also want to be true to those you don’t. Oddly, you assume that in the book it’s the working class versus the upper class. But it isn’t. There is a class war, but it’s like lower middle v middle v upper. What makes it all break down in the book is that they’re put together in what is meant to be a kind of utopia, and then they all join together in moaning about stuff that’s broken. It’s as if anarchy can come from the lift not working or a lightbulb breaking or a window getting smashed – and from there it all tumbles out of control. And that middle ground they have of complaining joins them back together again. That’s really the arc of the story.”
The key to making that arc work lay in the casting, and Wheatley is full of praise for leading man Tom Hiddleston, who dominates the screen as the enigmatic Dr Laing. I presumed that Wheatley and Jump had been drawn to Hiddleston because of his brilliant work in such critically acclaimed films as Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated (2007) and (2010). But when I mention these, he looks sheepish.
“The truth is I hadn’t seen those,” he says, “and this is a very poor reflection on me because to be honest, I was avoiding them. Sometimes you get the idea that you don’t want to see a film, and they had got loads of good press which just made it worse. So the first time I actually saw Tom was in The Avengers . I hadn’t even seen the Thor film, and I was like ‘Who is that guy? He’s fucking great!’ So I started looking into it, and then I bit the bullet and watched the Joanna Hogg movies. And I just thought, ‘Oh wow!’ It taught me something about myself and my own prejudices because they were exactly the kind of cinema that I like. They reminded me of Cassavetes. So you’ve got those two poles of Tom’s performances: the Loki [his character in The Avengers] end of the street, and the more improvised Joanna Hogg thing. Then I went to see him in Coriolanus, which was terrifying. I don’t know the play that well and I saw the technical rehearsal of it, and halfway through I thought ‘Fuck, I’m going to meet him in half an hour and I’ve got to talk about this and not sound like an idiot’. I don’t go to the theatre that often. But I got on well with Tom. And he’s just a very, very clever man. And once we got into it and he threw himself into the Ballard, he read everything, he wrote endless notes. Plus, he was really nice to my son who’s a big fan of The Avengers. So we had a great working relationship.”
Acting talent aside, Hiddleston is also a box-office draw. When High-Rise played at the London film festival last year, I attempted to interview Wheatley and Hiddleston on the red carpet, much of our conversation being drowned out by the screams of clamouring fans, at least one of whom was carrying a Captain America shield. I have no idea what those fans would make of High-Rise, but it was clear that they’ll follow Hiddleston wherever he leads.
“You’ve always got the question of how to trigger the finance for a film as crazy as this,” Wheatley says. “And that comes from casting as much as anything. The thing with Tom is that he’s got that sort of 40s or 50s British matinee idol thing that we don’t have any more. He’s charming, but there’s something a bit dangerous about him as well.” The rest of the cast is equally charismatic, including Luke Evans as an embittered documentary film-maker (“Luke’s a real movie star who can pull off that complex attractive/repulsive thing”) and Sienna Miller (“she was doing three movies at the time, and she was brilliant”) as the alluring aide to Irons’s Anthony Royal, whose tower-top idyll is not a million miles removed from the “Vortex” of Zardoz.
“Jeremy casts a big shadow,” says Wheatley, a huge fan of David Cronenberg, who gave Irons his finest (dual) role in Dead Ringers (1988) and adapted Ballard for the screen with the Jeremy Thomas-produced Crash (1996). “Jeremy Irons has worked with everyone, in every possible way. So there’s nothing you can say that will be telling him anything new about how to get a performance.”
When High-Rise premiered at the Toronto film festival last year, it divided critics (the Guardian sniffily called it “a dog’s dinner” that turned “a warning into a joke”, while the Telegraph declared that “there’s almost nothing Ben Wheatley gets wrong in High-Rise”). I tell Wheatley that I think that kind of love/hate reaction is much more positive than mere indifference, and wonder whether he actually reads – or cares about – the reviews.
“Yeah, I read reviews,” he says. “I read Twitter, I read everything. And it’s dangerous. Because it can become a bigger part of the experience than the making of the work – it can take up a lot of headspace. But criticism has massively changed. In the past there would have been three newspapers, and that would have been it. Now there’s everything. It’s almost like you can hear the whole audience the whole time, and perhaps the critical voice gets drowned out by that. So for every film, you can find a review that says it’s great and a review that says it’s the worst film ever made, and then you’ve got every shade in between. So searching through them is kind of not helpful.”
But you do it anyway?
“Yeah, because I’m interested in what those reactions are. It’s tricky because it’s not like it can make you change what you do next, because by the time you do the next film you’re a different person. So you end up looking back at the film you made, and then you become part of that firmament of criticism.”
Does he spend much time revisiting his previous films?
“Not really. I watch Kill List, but that’s because it’s got a commentary with me and Amy on it, and I listen to that when I’m away. I’m sentimental. It’s interesting to see what kind of a person I was when I made them. Watching Kill List, I do think, ‘Fuck, I was mean’. It’s a cruel film. Last year in Chicago I did a talk at the university there. I hadn’t seen it for ages and I watched it from the back and thought, ‘Jesus, it’s so angry’. But then I think High-Rise is too, in the end. I think we’ll look back on it and go, ‘Oof, that was a bit sharp!’”
Throughout our conversation, I notice that Wheatley often says “we” rather than “I”. It starts to feel as though Amy Jump is the third person in the room with us, although there’s a good reason why she’s not here.
“She won’t do press,” Wheatley says. “When I look at our films, they’re definitely made by a couple. But I end up being the one who gets the voice. Which is weird, because if she’s the writer and editor of a particular film, her position of power creatively is almost as strong as that of the director.”
So why doesn’t she talk to press?
“She genuinely thinks that the work is all there is, and there’s nothing outside of what that statement is. She’d rather I didn’t talk to them either. And she’s kind of right. I find doing press difficult. So I usually try to keep my conversations about the films to technical stuff – light anecdotes rather than talking about what we are trying to say. Because it’s that problem you have in galleries where you have a little description by the painting and everyone looks at the picture, then reads the description and goes, ‘OK that’s it! Now we’re moving on.’ You spend two or three years making a statement, a two-hour statement, and then we sit here and I just go ‘burble burble burble’, saying anything that comes into my head, which I don’t get to edit or change. So you get me at that moment, in that split second, and I could say anything. Because I’m not a politician.”
What he is, however, is a workaholic. With Free Fire in the can, Wheatley and Jump are currently developing an adaptation of The Wages of Fear, a tense tale about the transportation of volatile nitro-glycerine from a novel by Georges Arnaud, first brought to the screen by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1953.In the meantime, what should we expect from Free Fire?
“I wanted to make an action movie that was more on a human scale. I watch a lot of movies and I’m increasingly finding that things I should be amazed about, like buildings blowing up and stuff, just don’t have much impact. And then I began reading about what an actual gunfight is like from police transcripts and reports, and how crazy it is. How no one can hit anything. You see these reports that say that American cops fired 200 bullets… and they all missed! Because if anything is even slightly moving, you can’t hit it. And you can’t just hit something miles away with a .38 Special – it’s all bullshit. And in the story the gun deal goes wrong and they all start blazing away at each other, and then they’re all on the ground. And the rest of the film is: what do they do next?”
With an all-star line-up that includes Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley and Jack Reynor (“Yeah, we did well on the casting, didn’t we?”), Wheatley has called Free Fire “a modern 70s movie [with] the stylish no-nonsense feel that you get in ”. Other touchstone texts cited by the director include The French Connection and The Driver. It sounds like something of a departure, certainly in terms of the scope of its audience.
“The joke Amy and I have is that we always try to make films that are completely different and inevitably they’re always the same. Someone said to me the other day, ‘You’ve done a film set in a house, in a caravan, in a field, in a building, and now this one’s set in a warehouse. Why do you always make films about small spaces?’ And I thought, ‘Oh fuck, yeah, when you put it like that, it’s kind of a hard one to get out of’. So that’s a recurrent theme, as is men being like children, and how we deal with violence. I suppose this is different because it’s American [although largely shot in Brighton], and it’s genre with a big G, so it’s much more commercial in a way.
“But I also think High-Rise is very different from the other movies we’ve made in terms of the marriage of sound and vision, the movement of camera, and being able to control environments absolutely. Every element is controlled; it’s a much more precise movie than we’ve made before, and that side of it I’m really happy with. In terms of what people will make of it, I really don’t know. I’m still coming to terms with it myself. I think it’s of the moment, and that’s what was interesting about the Ballard book – that it’s weirdly reflecting what’s happening now. There’s that thing that you’re always either in the 70s or in the 80s. Right now, we’re in the 70s again: recession, terrorism, ecological collapse. And then the 80s is cocaine and arrogance and money; everything’s on the up, everything’s brilliant and it’s never going to crash again. And then it’s the 70s again! I think a lot of these movies are about working out what moment we’re in. But, unlike a politician, I don’t offer any easy answers…”
High-Rise is in cinemas 18 March
For all other news on the health