All These Concrete Dreams

40 years after JG Ballard’s urban nightmare-novel High Rise, director Ben Wheatley takes on the film adaptation that nearly never was.

Where prostitutes, their pimps and their pimps’ sketchy arms dealers lined the streets of Bishopsgate, east London as recently as the late 90s, towering pillars of commerce and luxury now stand. “Ever get the feeling you’re locked out?” a friend observed as we walked through the area recently.

It’s no revelation that as soon as a wavier corner of a major city raises its head above the parapet, it’s vulnerable to a cultural garroting from the highest bidder. Take Williamsburg, a once down-at-heal student province which, in the last ten years, has been the target of a commercial bumrush; its bars fitted with plush leather and loyal patrons shipped to New Jersey. Whilst “urban regeneration” isn’t always a bad thing — bringing in its wake employment opportunities, efficient infrastructure and better hospitals — it’s a buzz term, much like “nuclear warfare” was 30 years ago.

It’s why a novel like High Rise is as relevant now as it was on its 1975 release; a time when newly-instated opposition leader Thatcher was selling a young generation of industrialists — The Yuppies — the wonders of economic libertarianism.

Out this March, the cinema adaptation of JG Ballard’s cult novel follows the story of a physiologist who moves into a posh west London residential block. The spacious new-build offers Dr Robert Laing (played by Tom Hiddleston) solace from the city: though clean cut, he’s reclusive and socially awkward, healing from a recent divorce and keen on disappearing into
the background.

In Ballard-land, hell lurks round the corner. Laing’s neighbours are divided by social ranking: top of the pile is the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), whose penthouse apartment affords views of a bleak and financially destitute 70s London. Then there’s Sienna Miller’s Charlotte Melville, Laing’s sexy, messy temptress and Luke Evans’ Richard Wilder, a documentary filmmaker-cum-class warrior, set on exposing everyone’s inherent prejudices. Sodom to Miller’s Gomorrah, if you like.

Soon enough, the group’s top-floor parties turn into orgies and orgies into rape and murder. When Ballard released High-Rise, The Guardian declared it a “HIDEOUS WARNING”; what might happen if socialism continues its sharp decline and the heartless capitalists take hold. Nowadays, it’s not about whether socialism can sustain itself, but how much culture, heritage and opportunity investors are willing to take away.

Fittingly, director Ben Wheatley and regular collaborator, screenwriter Amy Jump struggled to find a location in London bleak enough to work with. The once working class area surrounding Trellick Tower – Ernö Goldfinger’s North Kensington skyscraper said to be the inspiration behind Ballard’s novel – has become a regeneration hotspot.

Eventually, the pair found themselves in the baronial shadows of Hugo Simpson’s abandoned Bangor Castle Leisure Centre in Northern Ireland. Though not imposing enough for outside shots, its interiors – all swingin’ psych prints, shag carpets and usable swimming pools – fit the bill nicely. “It had never been renovated but never been vandalised either,” Wheatley tells me, breaking an Alka-Seltzer into his bottle of Evian. “They’d built a new sports centre down the road, so this one had been moth-balled. We were like, ‘Fuck, this is great’.”

Just like the team behind Trainspotting, who built the film’s set designs into a Glasgow factory, the High-Rise crew spent most of their time in the ghostly athletics shell. They even set up an office there, presumably somewhere between the squash and indoor tennis courts. “We lived in it, basically,” Wheatley says. “There was a football pitch area which had a double-height ceiling — which we needed for the lights — so it acted as a mini-studio.” Outside, the computer-generated tower, which seems to lurch forward like a crow’s claw, were designed by Mark Tildesley, known for his work on the 28 Days Later saga.

As teens, Wheatley and Jump, now married, studied together at Haverstock School in Chalk Farm. In the High-Rise press release, Jump recalls her experiences of a crumbling capital. “I recall nothing but anxiety when I think about growing up in London in the late 70s,” she says. “Streets full of shit, rubble and rusty metal. The endless fucking trudge behind a buggy full of shopping, along the hellish fume tunnel of the Finchley Road.”

Wheatley spent much of the 80s escaping into sci-fi comics, futurist dystopian thrillers like Judge Dredd, and the rest of the 2000 AD catalogue. Ballard’s twisted visions of what might be — the drained rivers of The Burning World, the firestorms of The Wind From Nowhere — left a mark, too. “Sci-fi, space stuff or whatever, is really about now. It’s just you either set them in the past or in the future, just to take the edge off, so people don’t feel like they’re being hectored — because that’s a harder pill to swallow.”

The pair’s love of the murderous and the macabre is plain to see: 2012’s much-celebrated Sightseers is about a romantic British road trip that turns into a killing spree. 2009’s even bloodier Kill List follows a retired British soldier who gets drawn into the shadowy methods of a murder cult. “You can even see it in [the two episodes of] Doctor Who [that he directed in 2014]”, says Essex-born Wheatley. One of them, “Deep Breath”, starts with a Tyrannosaurus Rex traipsing through the streets of Victorian London.

In 2013, Wheatley and Jump got talking about High Rise. “We started asking, ‘Where are the rights, who’s got the rights to this thing?’” It came to light that Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Thomas – whose films include Sexy Beast and David Cronenburg’s Crash, another Ballard adaptation – had signed the paperwork decades previous, and that a number of directors had attempted to commit the story to the big-screen, from The Man Who Fell To Earth screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, to Don’t Look Now mastermind Nicolas Roeg. Staggeringly, development plans date back as far as the late 70s.

If pocketing a hot potato like High Rise wasn’t a grand achievement in itself, Wheatley managed to wheel Trip-Hop overlords Portishead in for the project, too. The band are known for taking their sweet time between albums, and almost always shy away from extra-curricular activities. When it comes to collaborations, it’s a no from them.

“I was watching Glastonbury with the Mrs and they came on. We both go, ‘God, I love Portishead.’” After noticing that the band’s Geoff Barrow followed him on Twitter, Wheatley dropped the producer a DM. “He emailed me back and I was like, ‘Oh, hello Geoff Barrow, [laughs] do you want to meet up for a drink?’” The group agreed to submit of cover of ABBA’s “SOS” for the film’s apocalyptic closing scenes. And how exactly did the filmmaker clear the rights to an ABBA song? “I got lucky. All I did was ask.”

To promote the film, Wheatley drew on his viral video-making expertise. He had, after all, spent a few formative years raking in millions of YouTube hits directing short clips (one of which, 2005’s Cunning Stunt, sees a man leaping over speeding cars). For High-Rise, using skillfully clipped edits from the movie, he put together an advert for Royal Architecture, the firm headed up by Jeremy Irons’ slimy aristocrat. “Ever wanted something more?” it asks, enticingly. “Join us at High Rise.”

The ad, uploaded via StudioCanal’s YouTube page without much fanfare, was inspired by a video campaign real-life UK property developers Redrow released, and subsequently deleted, in early 2015. The Redrow short follows a young buck through his plush new kingdom. At one point, he creepily checks in on his sleeping girlfriend, before vowing to “make the impossible, possible… to stand with the world at your feet.”

“It is a totally clear expression of the psychotic nature of housing in London at the moment,” architect Sam Jacob told The Guardian. After the Redrow tape dropped, Jacob uploaded a version overdubbed with one of Christian Bale’s monologues as American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman.

“We looked at that and went: ‘Fuck. High Rise, the book, doesn’t feel like it’s in the past, it feels like now more and more,” Wheatley says. “That was definitely an influence on it. [With our ad], we got the essence of the story across without actually having to tell it.” If anything, Wheatley’s trailer is more of a social satire than a movie précis. For hardcore authenticity, he even set up an accompanying website, anthonyroyalarchitecture.com. “One of the great things about the internet and that you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket anymore: communication can trickle through the net in many ways.”

Whether it’s 1975 or 2055, you get a sense that in our increasingly archaic, hyper-industrialised cities, the dread and power of JG Ballard’s masterpiece will live on. The film that, very nearly, never was, High Rise is Ben Wheatley staring hard at the modern skyline — the canned chaos that looms over towns below, standing buffed and cocky like battling pirate ships — and letting out a laugh.

Jack Mills
All These Concrete Dreams

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