How ‘High-Rise’ Director Ben Wheatley Got Tom Hiddleston, His Other Actors to Take High Risks

High-Rise Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Tom
Andrew Morales/REX/Shutterstock

For a man whose films tackle the darkness of humanity, Ben Wheatley has a reputation as one of the nicest directors around. Actors constantly praise his kindness and some of the biggest names in the business are lining up to work with him. That’s a hearty endorsement, considering what he puts his cast through in “High-Rise,” his adaptation of the 1975 J.G. Ballard novel set in an apartment building that descends into chaos and anarchy.

“High-Rise” features Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons amongst its tenants, and manages to be both a brutal and beautiful work of art. Though made on a relatively modest budget of under $20 million, it’s a considerable leap in scale for Wheatley, whose previous films like “Kill List” and “Down Terrace” were made for well under $1 million. It is currently available on demand before hitting U.S. theaters on May 13.

The film opens with a pretty brutal scene involving a dog; has that earned you a lot of outrage?
Not as much as I thought I would. Even in the U.K., which is internationally famous as a place for dog lovers, there hasn’t been much. We thought it would be massively controversial. Not that we were courting it, we didn’t put it in on purpose. It was in the book.

Isn’t it strange how people are okay with violence towards humans, but not animals?
You’re used to that. if you’d never seen a film before and you saw a human die, you’d be much more empathetic. But it’s part of drama that humans get mangled in all different ways; its become abstract. It’s different with animals. I mean, I used to cry at “Lassie.”

“High Rise” is not only set in the 1970s, it looks like a film made then. Not that it’s aping a particular film, but it has the feel of a movie of that era.
Laurie Rose, the DP, and I talked a lot about the choice to shoot on film or digitally and whether to ape more ’70s styles or not. We realized in the end we didn’t want to get too far away from the filmmaking grammar we’d set in our previous films. We used mostly available light and it was lit in 360 so we could move around as much as we liked. We shot digitally because we are guys who owe our whole careers to digital filmmaking. We didn’t feel the advantages film gives you visually outweighs the advantages of being able to shoot as fast as we can think.

There’s a scene that feels like it could have come out of a Dario Argento movie, a really beautiful mirrored shot.
And that was all done practically. We built a lens that was basically a triangular mirrored thing that was in a tube that had a crank handle. And we shot it on that. Its always better if you can do it practically. I don’t know where we would have even started to make that in CG.

The film also has a very real feel to it; it has humor, but the violence isn’t cartoon or stylized.
That’s what I like about cinema is seeing those gear changes in and out of things; there are elements that are slick and then suddenly it’s raw. It comes out of liking Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg and (Martin) Scorsese movies. In “Taxi Driver,” you’re not always sure of the tone, which is like life. And you’re not told how you’re supposed to react. The way you react is how you find out things about yourself.

Do you ever worry about losing your audience?
I don’t know what losing your audience is. There’s walkouts, but what kind of an idiot walks out of a film? I don’t think I’ve ever walked out of a movie. I’ve always made the movies for me and that sounds arrogant, but I understand there’s an audience that’s like me and I play to that audience. My gamble is that it’s big enough to support the film.

I know there were walkouts at it’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Did that concern you?
It can be bruising on the day, but it’s fine. I get worried that one day you’ll make a film nobody will go and see. But at least people are passionate about it.

You have a reputation as being a really nice guy, and yet you make very dark movies that require a lot of your cast.
The actual making of a movie is complicated and stressful and part of my job is creating an atmosphere that makes them feel they want to take risks and that they can’t do anything wrong. When you get that right, you get these incredible performances out of people and you don’t have to do any work. A lot of my work is hopefully done in casting.

How did you go about casting this ensemble?
Tom was cast first. I’d seen Tom in “Avengers” and I knew who all these other actors were, but I don’t know who this guy was and he was so brilliant. That film should be called “Loki,” they’re really just supporting characters in the story of this disaffected madman trying to please his father. The rest of them were people I really wanted to work with, like James Purefoy, who I’ve been a big fan of or people I’ve worked with before. Elisabeth Moss’ agent let us know she was interested and I never would have thought of her for this, but once I did, she was perfect. And I knew she could do accents because of “Top of the Lake.”

Was she the only American in the cast?
Yes, and it’s ballsy for her to sit in the middle of a massive U.K. cast and pull off this great British accent. But she did it. When you get an accent right, it’s impressive. I remember seeing “The Wire” and looking up Idris Elba and learning he wasn’t American and just going “What the f—!”

What was the biggest challenge of making the movie?
Having that level of cast was complicated. And having loads of children around a swimming pool is not much fun and makes me scared. But it was a shoot with little incident in terms of off-screen drama. Everyone was so sweet. One actor, his first day, was lying in blood and he basically realized he was going to be covered it in for the whole shoot. But he never complained.

Would you be interested in ever making a big-budget studio feature?
Yeah, I’m a comics fan, I have been since I was a kid. It’s all fine as long as you go into it with your eyes open, knowing what it’s going to be. There’s two ways of looking at it; one is you are a director for hire for a studio thing and you go in and do it. The other is kind of what Matthew Vaughn has done; you originate the material and are part of the production team that sets up the financing for it and you’re involved from the start. That looks like a great way of working.

What comics would you be interested in adapting?
I’m a big “2000 AD” fan and I’ve thought about those characters. A lot of my favorite stuff has been done, I’m a massive “Watchmen” fan and a big “Dark Knight” fan. I guess “Elektra: Assassin” would be good, that hasn’t been mined yet. Or “Ronin.” But I keep hearing that people are making “Ronin.” He’s quite bonkers … that would make a good TV series.

You have “Free Fire” coming out this year. Then what’s up next?
I’m writing the “Wages of Fear” remake. It’s terrifying because it’s been done twice before, brilliantly. But that’s also why it’s interesting to me. We’re making one of the central characters a woman, as well. It’s trying to make those set pieces strong enough to match up to the other movies. My hot take is I’m going to add more trucks.

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  1. English is not my language, but it should be “its world premiere”, not “it’s world premiere”. Come on, this is Variety, not a juvenile blog :)

  2. LAB says:

    High-Rise is not a movie made for the widest possible audience but I really dug it. Dark, funny, brutal, and fearless. Sure, people in the building make decisions that defy normal logic but that’s the way the novel presented the story. It was even more taboo and unsettling. I’m glad I didn’t have to sit through implied incest.

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