Toronto 2015: Tom Hiddleston and the secrets of Ben Wheatley’s ‘High-Rise’
“Here we go, it’s ‘High-Rise,’ it’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing and it’s J.G. Ballard.”
Director Ben Wheatley’s introduction to the highly anticipated world premiere of “High-Rise” was in no way misleading. That is very much the film that unfolded. The packed-house crowd at Toronto’s historic Elgin Theatre was hit like a stun-gun by the film’s ferocious, unrelenting energy.
Adapted by screenwriter Amy Jump – Jump and Wheatley share a title card in the end credits and also co-edited the film – from the 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard, among whose previous screen adaptations are Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” and David Cronenberg’s “Crash.” The story is a societal allegory in which the residents of a high-rise apartment building break out into violence and escalating madness as services break down and there is a sort of warfare between floors.
“I think there’s a misperception. A lot of people say they’ve read ‘High Rise’ and haven’t. Including myself, I had to re-read it as well,” said Wheatley after the film. “It isn’t a book of the working class and the upper class fighting a class war in a tower, which would be the really easy version of the story. It would make much more sense, they’re at the bottom, they’re at the top and they fight. It’s not that at all. It’s the upper class versus the upper middle class. And that’s a really grubby battle.”
In introducing the film, Wheatley was joined onstage by producer Jeremy Thomas, and cast members Tom Hiddleston, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons. As the film is screening as part of the festival’s inaugural competition section known as Platform, there was an extended Q&A afterward. Wheatley was in conversation with Toronto film critic Adam Nayman before being joined again onstage by Hiddleston, Moss, Irons and Evans.
On the challenge of bringing the book to the screen, Wheatley spoke of his collaborative process with Jump. (They are also married.)
“On the writing side, it’s nothing to do with me. I didn’t write it at all,” he said. “She has to tackle that stuff on her own. There is no writer-director relationship where she’s at a typewriter and I stalk around the room having ideas. It just isn’t that. Basically my only idea was I really want to do ‘High Rise,’ and I gave her the book and she adapted it.”
As to how he then navigated as director between the book and the script, he added: “For me, the thing I was faithful to was the script. Amy was the translation between the book and then script and I worked from the script. I didn’t go back to the book after that. Once the script was written, that was the bible.”
A question for Hiddleston had to do with whether it was difficult to prepare for a role in which social graces essentially go out the window.
“The fascinating thing for me about the film, the novel, the screenplay is that Ballard is interested in scratching away at civilization,” Hiddleston said. “Anyone who knows his novels, knows his writing, knows that he’s deeply curious about who we are in extremity and how extreme circumstances test our good manners and the veneer of sophistication that we have.”
In one moment in the film, Hiddleston’s character of Laing writes something on a piece of paper which goes unseen by the audience and gives it to Evans’ character Wilder. A question from the audience for Hiddleston had to do with Laing being a man who seems to have many secrets and whether or not the actor would care to share one with the audience.
“I’m going to answer this one,” interjected Wheatley. “The big one for me is what does Laing write on the piece of paper that he hands to Wilder. And I talked to Amy about it and I was like, ‘what the … is on that piece of paper?’ And she said, ‘The characters have to have secrets from the audience, because we all have secrets and it’s super important that you don’t know everything about what’s going on.’ And then she never told me.
“You can get the Blu-ray and freeze-frame and see what’s on it, but that isn’t what necessarily should be there,” he added with a wry chuckle. “So that’s the kind of thing, I think the withholding of information is pretty important and for now for you to winkle it out of us in a Q&A would really blow it.”
A question came for Jeremy Irons. A woman noted how much she loved his voice and she asked him to recite the alphabet.
Irons, who up to that point had not spoken a word, took a microphone, tapped it gently to be sure it was on and said, “There was a time in my career when both John Hurt and I were neighbors, and we were discussing how many good, young, up-and-coming actors there were. And John says to me, you know what I do, when I see a really good actor I say to him, ‘You have a wonderful voice, have you ever listened to it?’ And he’s [finished.]”
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