Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s microbudget black-and-white English Civil War mushroom-trip movie A Field in England (2013) squeezed a tense and bizarre story from just a few dudes wandering around in a field. The married couple and filmmaking team — Wheatley as director and Jump as writer — previously made the crime thriller Kill List (2011) and ultra-dark rom-com Sightseers (2012). Neither bears much resemblance to A Field in England, or to each other. Now, with their new screen adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s psychedelic 1975 novel High-Rise, the pair has ventured into yet another visual style: a surreal kaleidoscope of color and texture, with an impressively big-budget look for an indie.
“They said, ‘We can’t make it, it’s too big, too complicated,’” Wheatley says of High-Rise’s producers. It's easy to see why: High-Rise follows Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a head doctor who moves into a towering condo that becomes enmeshed in a brutal class war. The wealthy elite live at the top, enjoying champagne and riding imported horses on the roof at their Baroque parties, while the lower classes occupy the floors beneath them. Laing lives closer to the top but is a tourist in both worlds. When the power goes out for days, the condo devolves into Lord of the Flies, in Mad Men style.
Ballard’s novel had been famously optioned in the late ‘70s by Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout) but then deemed unfilmable; none of the action takes place in scene, there’s very little dialogue and the decadence that's described — giant towers, grocery-store raids, orgies of sex and violence — seemed prohibitively expensive to create.
The film could have easily cost twice as much if it were made in the States with a Hollywood studio, but Wheatley and Jump have worked out a streamlined approach that doesn’t cut into creative freedoms. Jump doesn’t speak to press, so Wheatley does the talking for them. “I’ve tried to understand every aspect of the filmmaker’s process,” he says, “because you can’t ask people to push really hard if you don’t know what they do. Once you’ve got a handle on the technicalities, you can push things to the very edge, which looks really expensive but costs far less.”
Wheatley saved time in production design with Mark Tildesly (Danny Boyle’s go-to) by going off to a corner and drawing with him for hours — Wheatley also draws — so they could speak in a visual language without messy verbal translation. The result is layered scenery, where every rug, painted wall, plush pillow or ultra-modern recessed living room says something about whichever character owns it.
Wheatley's key collaborator remains Jump, of course. They were teenagers when they started writing novels and plays. But he realized she was the wordsmith, and he was the visual thinker.
“Sometimes the director is very involved in the writing, but I’m not with Amy. I’m well-aware of where my skills lay,” he says. “A Field in England she rewrote to the point that there was so little of mine left — no commas, no character names — I didn’t keep my name on it. My only part in writing High-Rise was to suggest we make it. She disappeared with the book and came back with the script.”
Unlike most screenwriters, who are taught to be as sparse on the page with visual descriptions and camera directions as possible, Jump goes all in, writing in detailed editing notes, because the two have learned that they’re not interested in rewriting the story in the edit room.
“The thing people say, that films are made three times, this is often said by people who don’t have the writer in the edit suite,” Wheatley says. “In the edit suite, we argue about what we’re going to do. We’re very brutal, and there has to be total agreement for every decision we make.”
Jump even writes in her own sound design and music to the scripts. “Music can be a trigger. You’ve only got two hours to elicit a fake memory within the audience from a fake memory on screen. In High-Rise, Amy wrote in ABBA’s ‘SOS,’ split in half. The classical version is in the party scene [at the top of the tower], and the Portishead one with the lyrics is in a separate place. You get a schism as you hear it differently the second time. Obviously it juxtaposes the scenes, but it also recalls the earlier party at the same time.”
Like most elements of High-Rise, the music functions as part of a slick machine to build atmosphere. Every minute of the film condenses as much visual splendor and plot as it can. It’s so economical that you might wonder if Wheatley and Jump’s methods might be the next step for Hollywood itself if the industry wants to remain viable. But that would mean some metaphorical time-traveling back to the early days of the studio system, where writers had just as much power as directors or producers.
Next on the couple’s list is a film made twice already: The Wages of Fear, first adapted in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot. (Sorcerer is William Friedkin's 1977 version). It’ll be “nerve-shredding,” Wheatley promises, set in the present and shot on a budget similar to or bigger than High-Rise. But these collaborators aren't quite ready to leave microbudget and no-budget moviemaking behind.
“I’ve never felt constricted,” Wheatley says. “The script has to be written to fit what you can spend, but there’s a lot of pleasure that. And it allows you to make crazy stuff that doesn’t have to be moneymaking, like a $300,000 Civil War black-and-white picture about people taking mushrooms.”