After four decades of abortive attempts, J.G. Ballard's dystopic 1975 novel High Rise has finally made it to cinemas. Set in a near future that happens to be the 1970s, the film depicts a luxury tower block as it becomes isolated and descends into savage factionalism. Amid a cast of morally ambiguous residents, the film's nominal protagonist is Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a pragmatic survivor who is able to navigate intricate class loyalties and unafraid to eat dogs when he needs to.
One of the main reasons that Ballard has proved resistant to cinematic adaptation is that his formally inventive prose is so idiosyncratic that it requires an equally distinctive film-maker to successfully translate it. In the case of High-Rise, it required two: director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump, the husband and wife team behind Sightseers, Kill List and A Field in England, who are among Britain's most promising and ambitiously imaginative film-makers. Ahead of High-Rise's release, we spoke to Ben about his work on the film and having faith in his own voice.
High-Rise is often deliberately disorientating. How did you strive to get the tone?
It's kind of a taste thing and it's also intuition, how you make it all balance out. There was a lot of watching the movie again and again. During the six months that we cut the film, it was assembled within two months and the rest of the time we watched it every day, editing for thirteen, fourteen hours at a time. Every little change rippled up the whole movie, so we couldn't really alter anything without watching it all. That's a bastard on something that's two hours long, but it was the only way. We created the tone frame by frame across the whole running time.
It must be difficult to get critical distance at that point. When you've been working on a movie for years and you're watching it every day, how do you know what's right for it?
Because that's the job, you know? There are ways of working where you throw yourself at the mercy of groups of people and surrender your authorship, but I can't imagine ever working like that. There's two of us editing it, Amy and I, and she's written it as well, so there's enough oversight that that wouldn't happened. Amy is particularly ferocious when it comes to cutting. She'll strip it down and strip it down until it's as hard as a diamond. And then when we're happy with it ourselves, that's when we stop.
On a film like High-Rise everyone can have an opinion on what they'd change, but that doesn't necessarily make the film better, it just makes it different. We wanted to make sure that the translation of our taste and our decisions to the screen was as unfettered as possible. Where things go wrong is if you start taking on other people's ideas: even if in the moment they might be right, by the time you get to the end your film is slightly fucked because it doesn't have a proper viewpoint. It needs one voice, for better or for worse. We stand by ours, and it might not be to everybody's taste but that's just tough. If you feel too afraid and try to double guess what the audience are going to want then you've already lost. You've got to assume that the audience is within you. What you're doing as a creator is producing stuff that you want to see and then making the assumption that others will feel the same way.
The residents of the tower block all have very different objectives, so are we supposed to identify with certain people and not others? How much sympathy do you wish for the audience to have for the characters?
I'd like to think that I'm even-handed. That's important, as part of the emotional realism of a film is that the director isn't short-changing the characters and setting them up to fail. Audiences can detect that really quickly, and life isn't like that because everyone has shades of grey. One character commits an awful act later in the film, but at the same time he's a human being and though he does despicable, terrible things it doesn't necessarily mean that everything he's ever done is despicable and terrible. It's very safe to imagine that people who do bad things are evil, and I don't think that's true.
Other than the change in mediums, the most significant difference is perhaps that book takes place in the 1970s, while the film is set there. What interested you about that?
That's true, but then the book is also a predictive fiction to the near future. It was written in about 1974, so it's predicting somewhere between 1978 and 1983. We made the decision to not do the same and set it in our near future because too much of the technology would break the central core of the book. Social media totally destroys the idea of being able to hide away in a tower block somewhere going crazy because everyone would know about it.
We thought it was a look from our perspective of being born in the 1970s, knowing that our parents would have been like these characters, around the same age. At this point we're in the far future ahead of the story looking back, so we have an insight into what happens after its events. It's almost like we're reaching back from the future to join the book, and from that position is where the film exists.
High-Rise is in cinemas now. Images: Optimum Screenings.