In Conversation With The Director Of High-Rise

Ben Wheatley takes his film making to the next level in this bleak new indie flick

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Ben Wheatley has two films out in 2016. Free Fire, an action movie produced by Martin Scorsese, comes in the autumn; before that there's High-Rise, based on the 1975 JG Ballard novel — it is obligatory at this point to refer to it as "dystopian" — in which a rigidly stratified apartment block (humble at the bottom, privileged at the top) erupts into extreme violence. Wheatley and Amy Jump, his writing and editing partner as well as his wife, set the latter in the year the book was published. 

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An abandoned leisure centre in Bangor, Northern Ireland, was used in part to bring Ballard's building to life; Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons and nearly a dozen other famous faces play the residents who revel in its downfall. High-Rise has much to admire, especially in the work of Wheatley, who, as director of Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, has a high rate of success with low-budget genre movies.

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Esquire: had your biggest budget yet. Did money change your directorial ways?

Ben Wheatley: No, but it was nice to build some sets, which I'd never done. It's a different language when you work on sets. The big difference for me is the ensemble cast.

Esq: How do you persuade known actors to be in your films?

BW: Sometimes I write letters, certainly to ask someone to play a small role.

Esq: Portishead cover Abba's "SOS" on the High-Rise soundtrack, their first release in six years. Was that a letter, too?

BW: I met Geoff Barrow [of Portishead] through Twitter, which is one of the brilliant things about Twitter. Getting Abba to agree to it was a massive mountain to climb. That was a letter, mainly one about award-winning Jeremy Thomas [producer of High-Rise] and his Oscars and culturally important JG Ballard, rather than, 'Hello, I'm the director of '.

Esq: Was it important to use a song from 1975 in a film set in 1975?

BW: The lyrics make perfect sense for this film. The book is set in the future, but a future that doesn't quite happen. So our version of the supermarket in the building isn't full of Curly Wurlys and Wagon Wheels. I was born in '72, and my memory of the Seventies isn't like a design book tells you it was, which I think is true for a lot of people. Modernity doesn't quite happen for everyone.

Esq: You and your wife write drafts of scripts in turn, not together. So whoever's not writing pops in with cups of tea to sneak a peek at work in progress?

BW: I can tell you that is really frowned upon. I might write a draft, it comes back, and it's completely gone. I might take my name off [High-Rise is credited solely to Amy Jump]. It can't be an ego thing. 'Is it better? Yes or no?' If it's better, you have no position. We've been writing together since we were kids. That we can make films together is brilliant. Even talking about being able to make films at all is brilliant.

High-Rise is out on 18 March

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