With darkly challenging
films like “Kill List,” “Sightseers” and “A Field In
England” under his belt, English director Ben Wheatley has earned plenty of acclaim from
critics. So many were surprised when Wheatley insulted the profession a few
weeks back, calling it
“a job that
I wouldn’t want or seek out,” and suggesting critics talk about art rather
than making their own.
the heralded filmmaker in an awkward position when it came time to promote the
U.S. release of his latest, the Tom Hiddleston-fronted thriller
“High-Rise.” Now, Wheatley was literally
facing his critics in interviews, among them was me.
As a critic,
I was hoping to better understand Wheatley’s perspective. Chatting with him in
a New York movie theater about his adaptation of the cult-adored J.G. Ballard’s
1975 novel, I came to realize it’s not critics in particular that rile
Wheatley, but more our modern internet culture. As the conversation wound from
“High-Rise” to his literally critical comments, scorned movies he
loves and the hot button issue of #OscarsSoWhite, Wheatley returned again and
again to his frustration with internet culture and “the modern need
to broadcast” our every thought and food snapshot.
To Wheatley, it seems the
internet has subjected film to a new level of criticism, where it can be picked
apart in a way that puts him eternally on the defensive of his work.
Considering this, his comments on critics take on a new, more complex
You begin “High-Rise” with a bold move,
showing beloved Tom Hiddleston barbequing a dog. Is that choice a kind of
litmus test for the audience?
Yeah, I mean it’s how the
book starts as well. It’s basically the book saying, “Here we are. If you
can’t handle this, then don’t bother
with the rest of what we’re going to show you.”
But also, it’s a clever
thing that Ballard does, because he compresses the beginning of the story.
Otherwise if you don’t have that, it
puts more focus on the logic of what happens, and it becomes a kind of
procedural thing or a sociological thing about the collapse of a building.
Which that’s not what the film is. So
I think Ballard was super smart [in beginning that way], you can’t really fight
it. And it’s kind of weird because he kind of predates how a lot of movies work
A lot of horror films work
exactly the same way, where there’s an action sequence at the front. Going back
to “Indiana Jones” or any of those things, you have something to tell
the audience what the tone is. And then you can kind of get back into it
It’s a very risky opening, because in film it’s often
that you can get away with just about anything. But killing a dog may be a bridge too far.
You don’t agree, or you wanted to challenge that?
It didn’t bother me, to be
frank. (Laughs.) I mean what kind of an audience balks at that? I know there’s that website where you can check to see if
dog’s get killed or not, which is fine.
But if your agenda is or your tastes are that you have very specific things
about the things that you are going to watch that you can’t stomach, that’s not
the audience I’m after. You really want these people going in with an open mind
to process the information and find meaning
in it. Not that that they come with a lot of prerequisite rules that they
apply to film watching.
Ballard’s novel has cult classic status in
the U.K., but isn’t as well known in the states. For American audiences, can you describe
Ballard is, for me, one of the
big counter culture writers, and figured in my teens as big as [William S.] Burroughs
or Hunter S. Thompson or [Jack] Kerouac or something like that. But also he’s
one of our big sci-fi writers as well. And in the same way that Burroughs is,
he is kind of in a genre all of his own. There’s not a lot of writers that are like Ballard. He kind of has his own [genre], because his life was so specific,
going from – to put it in a film context – “Empire of the Sun,” even
though that is a fictional version of his childhood, it’s close to what
happened to him.
So he’s gone from being a
kind of child living in a system where everything is immutable and privileged
to overnight being in an internment camp, and seeing everything that they
thought was going to last forever being smashed to pieces. And I think that
runs all the way through his work. And he has this almost forensic vision of
the modern world. When you read it, he’s talking about things that are around us,
but he sees it in a completely fresh and
acerbic or he kind of disassembles the illusion that we’re in. We’re all – well,
I don’t want to speak for everyone – but I
feel that at my worst times I’m in a bubble of society where I think that
A) I think I’m going to live forever. B) I think that everything in sight is
designed to serve me, and that society will never flounder or collapse. It cannot for a moment misstep. And I think a
lot of people feel like that. And yet Ballard has seen it from absolutely the other
end, of it just completely collapsing
and people showing their true selves.
You’ve mention how now reminds you of the ’70s in the
sense of being on the precipice of chaos. Had you ever considered setting the
film adaptation in the present?
No, because there’s two
issues. One is that period movies and science fiction films are essentially the
same thing. And this one is both, oddly, unusually. But they are movies that
are talking about the present moment, but dressed in a way that feels more seductive
and interesting for want of a better word, but without also having to point the
finger at the audience and say, “You, you
people have done this.” Then people are too wrapped up in the current
context to take that message. But if you split it out, either into the future
or into the past, you can talk about things a bit more freely. And then you can
come to that understanding rather than have it banged over your head or ignore
bits of it if it’s uncomfortable, saying, “Oh, that happened in the
past.” Or “Oh, it’s science fiction.”
But essentially they are always the same.
So there was that. But the
bottom line was there’s modern technology that breaks the book’s premise. The
idea that you would have a tower on the edge of the city, where people would go
crazy and no one would find out, is kind of gone
unless it were in North Korea or something.
Sure, because Twitter kind of shatters that sense of
Yeah, yeah. In the book,
they have telephones and stuff. So they could have always phoned. But it’s more
the modern need to broadcast is the
problem, that everyone needs like a little news node, where you’re just putting
out information the whole time. I was having lunch just now, and people are
photographing their food. And why?
I’ve heard photographing your food helps heighten
your enjoyment through anticipation.
Yeah, that’s bollocks.
(Laughs) So what? You take a photograph of your food then put a filter on it
so it looks nicer?
You brought together an incredible cast. Did anyone
need any convincing over the content?
No. I think the thing about
actors is they are looking for stuff like this, actively looking for it, because they want to stretch themselves to their full extent. It’s not like you
have to gall them into it, that what
they’d rather be doing is nice, safe stuff. Acting is about stretching your emotions to their
elastic limit and finding out what’s there.
That’s the meat of it. If you’re not doing that, what are you doing?
So I think when they see
something like this, it’s like, “Oh god, it’s got so much in it.” There’s so much meat to those characters and
those situations. So they were attracted by the script. And I was lucky,
because I’d made a lot of films quite quick, they could see all those movies,
and that helped too I think.
I’ve seen in reviews of this and of Tom Hiddleston’s
mini-series “The Night Manager,” his character described as
“enigmatic.” What do you think it is about him that attracts those
kind of roles where it’s a character whose motivations and morals may not be
Well, that’s kind of like
the audience, isn’t it? As soon as you’re filled in completely who a character
is, the less interesting they become. It’s why people always love villains
rather than heroes, isn’t it? Because the hero is vanilla. You know what
they’re motivations are, what way they’re going to go. If it’s clean-cut like
that, it’s not that interesting. So you want to see the conflict inside people.
That’s where the drama is.
I think with Tom as well,
there is a conflict with him. On one level he’s like a movie matinee idol. He’s
really good-looking. He’s the right shape,
and for me he’s like a–
And you do take advantage!
Well, of course, yeah! He’s
like a ’40s or ’50s matinee idol, looks great in a suit and all that. But then
the other side of it is, you can see he’s straining to be good, but then he’s not
morally. I think that’s the thing that the audience likes, because we’re all
trying to do that. We’re all trying
to do the right thing, and then trying to explain away why we don’t.
You’re known for a very dark sense of humor. Is their
anything that’s a guilty pleasure of yours that might surprise people?
Well, I watch a lot of
stuff, and I like a lot of stuff. I really like “John Carter.” I don’t
understand why everyone was upset about that. And I really liked “Speed
Racer” as well. I remember coming to L.A. just after it had come out, and
someone asked me what I thought about it, and I was really effusive. And they
were like, “You can’t say that
in a meeting! No no no!” It’s just like, come on. And “Lone
Ranger,” I loved “Lone Ranger,” and that’s why we cast Armie
Hammer in our new film [“Free Fire”] because of that.
That makes me personally happy, because I think Armie
Hammer is uniquely funny and deserves better.
Well, “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
was really good as well! He’ll be fine. Don’t worry about Armie Hammer, he’ll
be all right. Yeah, I love big
Hollywood stuff like that, and particularly exciting when people are cross
about movies. You go, “That’ll
probably be quite good then!” So I seek them out.
Have you seen “Batman v Superman”?
Yeah, I liked that as well!
I don’t understand [the critical reception]. I don’t understand. I really enjoyed it. What are you going to say about a film like that? How can you
say it’s silly when it’s a man who dresses like a bat? Who’s the only person in
Gotham who’s afraid of bats?
That’s always my argument with Batman, I want to
experience the slight silliness of it.
Yeah, if you wanted to scare
people, you’d jump out naked, wouldn’t you? (Mock roars, then laughs.) People
would run away! I grew up with the Adam West stuff, because they repeated that
endlessly on U.K. television and I loved it. I mean, it’s so good. I read
“Batman ’66,” which they do a comic based on the Adam West Batman.
It’s fantastic. You know, in a world where Caesar Romero refused to shave his mustache off and put the make-up on on top of
Which is kind of appropriately nuts. Who does that?
It’s proper scary!
You’ve made statements about film criticism, describing
the job as one you “wouldn’t want or seek out,”
and saying critics “complain” instead of making art of their own.
Well, I didn’t say that. You
can paraphrase that one down.
I’ll include a link to
the full quote. I don’t want to attack your opinion on it. I’m
curious if you think there is an artistry or a value to film criticism.
I think there’s definitely a
value to it, and it certainly helps
with the – you know I grew up reading “Time Out”s film guide, and
without that I wouldn’t have known about a lot of movies.
I can’t remember what happened on that day. The
context of what happened, what that interview was and how it got so out of hand
so quick was that I’d said something like, “Before I made any movies, I was
very vocal and aggressive about other people’s work. And then after I’d made a movie, I’d found that
possibly I should have reigned that back in.” And then he went straight in
with, “Well, what do you think about
critics?” And that’s where it all came out. And it’s stupid, because
it is biting the hand that feeds you to a degree.
But yeah, anyway…
I think we all want the same thing, which is
good movies. But we’re working on opposite ends of that.
I think as a filmmaker, it’s
part of the conversation, but it’s not a massive
part of it. It’s part of the conversation with the audience as well. And the audience is the most important thing,
when you hear them.
I’ve just done a 22-date
tour of the U.K. with “High-Rise,” with Q&As. And it was amazing,
you get to go to all the cinemas for starters, and see what they look like and
what the audience is like, and what the audience is like. I’d never done that
before. And I don’t understand why I hadn’t. But that’s the thing, they’re the
ones who will watch the film or not.
And it’s word of mouth, which makes movies or destroys them. And you can see it
just in box office numbers. It’s this relationship between testing and how the
box office works. It’s about these people that see it, and then will tell their
friends to see it or not see it.
you can see your box office [open big and then crash or open] big and then a
little bit, little bit, little bit because it’s holding, because they’re all
telling each other [to go see it]. That’s not reviews that are do that in the
end. Maybe in the first week, but after that it’s a different mechanism at
Have you seen a difference in the way U.S. and U.K.
audiences react to “High-Rise”?
I don’t know about the U.S.
yet because it’s not been out. I was really excited that it did all right in
the U.K. for a movie that is in your face, and pretty crazy, compared to modern
cinema. You know, if you went back in time and released this back in ’75, it
would just sit happily.
It reminded me a lot of the disaster movies from that
Yeah, yeah, it’s like that.
I looked at “Towering Inferno,” which is a very similar film to
“High-Rise” in some respects, which predates the book to be fair. And
I looked at “Earthquake” as well. It was great that people went and
enjoyed it. See, my Q&A tour is a very small sample of that, because 22
screens felt like a marathon to me. But on the first Friday in the U.K. there
was a potential to see it on 160 screens. So, 22 screens is not really a
There’s been an ongoing discussion about more
inclusive representation in film. Have things like #OscarsSoWhite impacted the
way you look at your own filmmaking?
With a film like this, it’s
a tricky one, because historically this is accurate. If you’re going to change
the balance of ethnicity within a film like this, it kind of starts screwing up
the idea of when it’s set. And then that doesn’t make sense. But it’s a really
awkward conversation to have.
I never thought about it at
all until recently. And I always thought that how you cast something, there’s
so many personal decisions about how
you do things. And to have that kind of impinged on you seems to be
counter-intuitive to how you make films. But then I also understand the way
that this many different types of issues and cultural baggage that people bring
to the making of anything that they’re blind to. I don’t know. On the other
hand, we’ve been trying to get movies made which had very diverse casts, and
they just haven’t come out yet.
So I don’t feel personally
like I’m the guy who’s just making loads of films with loads of films with
loads of white people even though it’s true! (Laughs) But it was never a plan. We were more thinking about gender
bias than we were thinking about that to start with. That was more what I
consciously thought about, certainly with things like “Freakshift”
which we haven’t made yet, so it doesn’t really defend me. But it was kind of
flipping that upside down so it was groups of women rather than groups of men,
yadda yadda. I don’t know. I think it’s just about the audience, isn’t it?
If you’re making stuff for a
modern audience, then there should be a mix. But then a lot of the movies I’ve
been making, I’ve been making very niche. So, I don’t know. It’s a bit of a
I think it’s something a lot of people are working
through, which is why I ask filmmakers about it.
Yeah, like “A Field in
England” is all men and white. But then it would be, that’s just the
period. “High-Rise” is a harder one because obviously there were
people of color in London at the point, but they wouldn’t have been in that
building and they would have been actively stopped from being in that building.
And that was a part of it that we just wanted to avoid. It’s not in the book
But we wanted to avoid this situation. If you were kind of trying to do
it realistically, they’d all be incredibly racist and then what do you do about
that then? You’ve changed the cultural and the actual historical mix to suit a
modern audience. But then how do the ’70s characters speak to each other?
Suddenly you’ve got a movie that’s all about
racism and a modern audience would be hearing that, and they wouldn’t be
hearing anything else. So that was kind of part of the thinking behind it, but
I mean it’s not something that’s easy. It’s tricky.
But the next movie,
“Free Fire,” has got more of a diverse cast, but then it’s eight men
and one woman. So (laughs) it fails the Bechdel Test straight off the bat. And
I think it’s the first film we’ve done that has
failed, which is fucking irritating.
Actually no, “Field in England” fails it as well because they are all
men. There must be a subcategory for that though, because it’s not fair to fail
it if you don’t have a woman at all.
There is a website about that, I know that.
I know, but it’s a weird
thing. Like I spend my whole time defending my own movies against any kind of
interference from outside. And now there’s an academic bubble that’s building,
which is a new type of judgment brought down on stuff that doesn’t have
anything to do with a much more overarching social decisions that are being
made about movies, or judgments are made about them. I don’t know. But it’s not
“High-Rise” is available on OnDemand and hits
theaters on May 13.