The story behind Ben Wheatley's High-Rise is a case study of controlled chaos.
"Let the psychotics take over. They alone understood what was happening."
To make a movie about chaos, Ben Wheatley exercised extreme control. When he sat down to adapt J.G. Ballard's classic novel High-Rise, about a socially stratified apartment complex that dissolves into anarchy, Wheatley first storyboarded every single shot in the film—by hand—at least three times over. This resulted in nearly a thousand drawings, which Wheatley used to effectively "watch the film for the first time."
But the meticulousness doesn't end there. Rather than relinquish control of the film to the editor, Wheatley prefers to edit his own movies. He does so while on set; at the end of each production day, he cuts dailies.
Wheatley’s High-Rise, which Ballard fans will find to be a mostly faithful adaptation, stars Tom Hiddleston, Elisabeth Moss, and Siena Miller. Hiddleston's character, the apartment complex's newest resident, is a floater; neither rich nor poor, he gains access to both the promiscuous parties of the working class and the raucous Renaissance-themed balls thrown by the most elite tenants.
The film is a clear allegory for the modern classist society, so when that society implodes into a free-for-all of murder, rape, and pillaging, it’s an uncomfortable watch. Wheatley balks at nothing to depict the core truth of Ballard's novel: nature is chaos, and human nature is entropy.
No Film School sat down with Wheatley to discuss his evolution as a director and his rigorous process after a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. High-Rise opens this Friday, May 13, in the US.
NFS: How did your previous professional experiences inform your ability to direct this massive undertaking?
Ben Wheatley: I worked in viral advertising. If you wanted to win a job, you had to be able to pitch and direct it. You'd have to know that you were going to be able to achieve all the effects work for the budget. So you ended up the creative and the director and the effects supervisor. You had to have a very specific set of skills.
I spent three years editing my own stuff and other people's stuff. I was an edit assistant and kind of followed it from that point on. I taught myself editing. What I generally do is just buy "How To" books for cracking software because it's all the training you need. You don't need to take courses for that stuff if you've got a general competency with computers.
A modern filmmaker needs to have all those skills. I was always determined to be at least a little bit in someone else's shoes to know what each department did. The main skill of directing is time management. If you don't know how long something takes to do or how hard it is, then you make unreasonable demands on departments and then everyone gets really cross, really quick. And then you fuck it up and you don't make the day. Making a day is super important.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYmY2tBYins
NFS: How did you encounter the Ballard novel?
Wheatley: I had read the book when I was a teenager and then I re-read it when I got a bit older. When I read it the first time, it was like many other science fiction books. But when I came back to it, it felt like it'd actually been happening [in reality].
NFS: How did you conceive of the film's very intricate aesthetic framework?
Wheatley: I storyboard a lot these days. I never used to. I always had a bit of an odd relationship with storyboarding. I thought it gave you a false sense of security—if you draw it, then you [think] it's fine and then you get [to set] and unless you're really brilliant at drawing, you can force a lot of things into the frame that you can't actually frame in real life. Or the frame doesn't look as good.
"The main skill of directing is time management. If you don't know how long something takes to do or how hard it is, then you make unreasonable demands on departments."
What I find [storyboarding] helps me do is visualize the whole movie. You can effectively watch the film for the first time. And I don't just do the action; I do everything, all the dialogue sequences. I'll draw it all by hand. It makes you think about every aspect of the film, even the duller stuff you wouldn't normally think about. It's the weakest link in the chain that kills a film, and usually those are the things you are not even thinking about, like how people exit frame or how one scene cuts to the next scene.
So I storyboard the whole movie and then I put it in a drawer. And then I storyboard it again from scratch and then put it in a drawer. I do that two or three times. Each time there are, like, a thousand drawings. With High-Rise, I colored the final version and gave it to the rest of the departments to give an idea of where we were going. They would be put up on the wall in the production office and everyone would look at that and then you could break out and have conversations.
But the storyboards never go on set. I'll find out what we're going to do on set by looking at what the actors do in the space during rehearsal, and then it may be a spot decision, depending on the mood of the movie at that point.
NFS: Do the storyboards help you in the editing process, too?
Wheatley: Well, I edit my films. While we're on set, I'll edit in the evening after we've wrapped; I'll go and cut that day's rushes. So, within a few days, we've got quite long sequences. The actors will come in and watch. At the end of each week, we'll watch everything we've shot.
"As an editor, you've got your control on the pulse of the whole film. I don't know why you'd surrender that to another person."
NFS: Have you always edited your own work?
Wheatley: [Not all of them.] It's a direct route to what I want. Editors say directors don't understand or are too emotionally attached to their own rushes and bend the film out of shape, and that you need a clear mind to edit. But I don't find that to be true. I think that's editor talk. As an editor, you've got your control on the pulse of the whole film. I don't know why you'd surrender that to another person.
I started as an editor, so I know the ins and outs of it. But I edit a bit with my wife, Amy Jump, who is the writer of High-Rise, as well.
NFS: You seem to choose your collaborators very carefully.
Wheatley: Yeah. I've worked on every film with Laurie Rose as the DP, so our understanding of how we work together is very specific. And I've had the same sound crew, as well. It's like a family. We've all developed and come up through the industry together.
NFS: How did you connect with Laurie originally?
Wheatley: He and I met doing some TV work. I got along with him really well and he made a foolish mistake of [friending me] on Facebook. He posted this thing saying, "I've got a crew if you've got a film." So, I was like, "Okay!" We did a short together and then my first feature.
What I really appreciated about his work was that he was like the witnessing eye—a human eye—that could take in emotion. He doesn't just swing a camera around—you get that a lot these days, the style that kind of passes for documentary filmmaking, this shaky cam thing.
A movie that we watched quite a lot together was Grey Gardens. For us, that was the ultimate version of the inquiring eye camera. We made a lot of movies that were handheld after that—three or four films—so yeah, that's a very strong relationship. I generally handle what the shots are going to be unless they are handheld shots.
NFS: How much of the set was live action and how much of it was VFX?
Wheatley: It was mostly real. There are a few exterior shots that are CG. Everything else was done practically, in sets. The major choice we had was whether the views out the windows were going to be green screen. I just didn't fancy the green screen because it was going to turn every shot into an effect shot and it was going to cost a fortune. And then you always have this trouble with green screen—once it's been comped, you never know if it looks right or not. Even if it looks really good, you still know it's not real, to a degree.
What we did, in the end, was drop birds and slight movement of clouds onto the background. But they were very easy effect shots. So you could sit through the movie once it was edited, and go, "I'm starting to notice that the background is still the same." And then you could change it rather than committing up front to thousands of shots.
"I think society is an illusion and that we all invest in it and hope that it won't go wrong."
NFS: Did you build many sets? The rooftop of the high rise is incredible—it's almost like an Alice in Wonderland meets Barry Lyndon world up there.
Wheatley: That was a real location. We shot in Bangor in Northern Ireland, which is a seaside town. We had a sports center that had swimming pools and squash courts and all this stuff in the movie, which was built in the '70's, so it fit [the story] perfectly. And then we built the apartments inside that space.
The rooftop garden was a bit of a problem, production-wise, because we just didn't have enough money to build a space that big. It would have had to have been extended out with green screen. It would have been a clutch. It would not have looked good. So when we found [the location] we all walked around and went, "Oh, geez." It was amazing. We didn't have to do anything to it. The CG element of that was the walls themselves; when you're inside it, you could see trees beyond them. They were all painted out.
NFS: Have you been thinking about issues pertaining to social class for most of your life?
Wheatley: I think it's something that we all deal with, all the time. It doesn't have to be as detailed as class in Britain is, but certainly the idea of rich and poor or the idea of success and failure, which it often boils around to, affects everybody in every culture. I've been thinking about it forever, yeah.
"It's slightly dishonest how a lot of cinema works, where people are so heroic and so good all the time. Good people do bad things all the time."
NFS: At one point in the story, everything starts to devolve into chaos. It seemed to echo the idea that nature is chaos. Human nature is entropy.
Wheatley: I think society is an illusion and that we all invest in it and hope that it won't go wrong. When it does go wrong for a lot of people, we kind of go, "Oh, well that's just tough luck what happened to them, and it won't happen to me." And then eventually it does.
Zombie movies are about this. The zombie movie is a civil war movie. It's distasteful to shoot other people, so they turn them into monsters; the other people are monsters.
It's just trying to deal with our own inevitable deaths. That you don't think you're ever going to die. Western society deals with death as failure; when people die, it's their fault. But the death of the person is also the death of the society. And the society will always come to an end in one way or another, and often does in your own lifetime. You just don't quite notice it. With hindsight, we can go, "When the banking crisis happened, the country changed forever."
NFS: The protagonist occupies a very complex moral ground. He's our ears and eyes into this world, but he's not a very active character. How did you build out his psychology?
Wheatley: I just think he works under the idea that he's always trying to be good and straight. He tries, but fails. His cowardice shows. He's set up as the audience avatar, so his moral failure is all of our failures to not [take responsibility]. You know, those little moments where we have to take a stand and we just don't.
I thought it was really important to see that. It's slightly dishonest how a lot of cinema works, where people are so heroic and so good all the time. Good people do bad things all the time.
You're defined in your life by not what you say, or all this noise that everybody makes about their opinions, but by when you've got a chance to do something and you do it. I think the protagonist just slips through the net. He's just like a cockroach. He does the minimum that he needs to do, and he finds a way of surviving where he doesn't completely commit to anything or cause any trouble. Which is pretty despicable. That's when you know whether you've succeeded or failed as a human being. It's kind of like, "all right, that's who I am."