The High Life

Producer Jeremy Thomas had been hoping to make a film from author J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise for decades, dating back to the novel’s publication in 1975, even involving Nicolas Roeg as director at one point. Heralded as a leader of New Wave science-fiction that redefined the genre as a field addressing sociological, as well as hard science, during the ’60s and ’70s, Ballard also penned Empire of the Sun and Crash, books adapted by Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg, respectively.

High-Rise shows Ballard in full dystopian mode, postulating a near-future world where the rich remove themselves from society by ensconcing themselves in their own planned community. But, inevitably, the caste system of haves and have-nots manifests within, as those on the higher floors take to looking down upon those beneath them, with class warfare the inevitable result.

The film adaptation stars Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons, new work from director Ben Wheatley, who began his career helming Down Terrace, a zero-budget effort that he followed up with Kill List, an edgy crime story that bleeds over into horror. The killer road movie Sightseers and the down-and-dirty historical A Field in England came next.

Each film, also edited by Wheatley, demonstrated an original voice blending black comedy with strong characterizations derived from real-world issues and fears. All of this ties nicely into High-Rise, a book that Wheatley read as a teenager.

“I didn’t have any concept of it as a film,” Wheatley admits. “In fact, I didn’t have any idea I’d be doing film back when I was 16, but reading it again a few years back, it leapt off the page with visual possibilities.”

While previous adaptation attempts offered different approaches for depicting Ballard’s near-future, Wheatley chose to retain the novel’s ’70s-eye view of things.

The High Life

“We didn’t want to modernize the book because altering it too much would break the story,” he states. “The way we use social media would alone be enough to tear it all down, since people document and broadcast so much. There was no true equivalent to that in the ’70s, though he does have them filming events in the book and projecting the images on walls; that doesn’t have the immediate mass-immersion from posting a video [online] today, so you couldn’t maintain any secrecy in that environment.”

Visualizing the mostly interior universe of this Ballardscape was a pleasure for the director, who had the whole movie drawn out before the art department came aboard. “I tend to storyboard meticulously, even drawing the dialogue scenes,” he explains, “so I can see how the characters fit into my visual ideas. For me, this process provides a rounded vision of what the film will become. During production, art direction continuity would become an issue since we weren’t shooting in sequence, yet the level of destruction and visual chaos seen in each location within the High-Rise had to match.”

A film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise examines the physical and psychological effects of living inside a tower block, a small vertical city housing 2,000 people, where rising tensions and class warfare descend into full-blown anarchy. Set in 1970s London, director Ben Wheatley drew inspiration from the acclaimed 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, a film depicting upper-class lives in an environment that disintegrates into squalor.

The heavy emphasis on boarding also helped Wheatley address what he finds to be the hardest part of filmmaking. “It isn’t doing big action scenes or camera moves that becomes a problem, but rather just getting all the ins and outs as you move from scene to scene,” he explains. “If you don’t think it all the way through and just try to make do with a lot of coverage, it can seem very multi-cam/TV.

“To my mind, the big game is doing stuff with the least amount of cuts,” he continues. “If you can shoot film like they did in the ’40s, where you might get one close-up out of the whole scene, then you have the power of cinema right there in your hand. I’m nowhere near that yet, but getting as much information up front helps avoid missing details that can prove important later with respect to storytelling, visual geography and even pacing.”

Wheatley drew inspiration from the camera work of the acclaimed 1975 Maysles brothers documentary Grey Gardens, a film depicting upper-class lives in an environment that descends and disintegrates into squalor. He and longtime director of photography Laurie Rose looked at several films from the period, with Rose recalling, in particular, Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.

“I struggle with a lot of ’70s lighting,” the cinematographer relates. “The ones who seemed to be doing the most modern lighting at the time were Vittorio Storaro and Gordon Willis. We made a conscious decision after we’d absorbed those references to try and forget them and ultimately make a modern film, not a tribute or pastiche, but with definite flavors of the period. The strong design and costuming ultimately achieved that.”

High-Rise marks a steep ascent for Wheatley and Rose with respect to budgets. This meant shooting on sets instead of the limitations of found locations. “From the very beginning, we were involved with set design,” says Rose. “That was a revelation to Ben and I, as the building very much [becomes] a character in its own right.”

Production was based in Ireland, where a period Leisure Centre designed by Hugo Simpson with architectural Brutalist stylings served as a basis for the film’s titular housing construct, allowing production designer Mark Tildesley to exploit the structure while fashioning the dwellings and passages within.

“Being so involved in the design process and working in conjunction with Mark and his team meant that we could fit practicals and put windows wherever we felt they were the most useful,” Rose continues. “For a real truth in the spaces, we had solid ceilings, lots of practicals, and carefully placed our ‘natural’ light sources. I was keen to keep windows out of shot, as it would have required VFX every time someone stood near a window. As a result, we generally placed them above the eyeline.”

For shots that did show the sun in frame, Rose used a 10K tungsten unit, and for simulating broad daylight, he relied on HMIs going through unbleached muslin for warm tones, employing various grades of net for added exposure control.

“Having done studio work before, I was super-sensitive to overblown windows as a gag to remove the sense of anything being out there,” he states. “This tends to feel like the gag that it is. However, it’s worth noting that Willis and Storaro rarely tried to balance those types of windows too carefully because, from the inside, windows always feel hot—but they always used fabrics over them to attain the feeling of depth.”

Interiors often appear to be lit primarily from practicals, an effect Rose achieved by augmenting in-frame sources with off-camera paper lanterns. “Because Ben likes to see lots of the set we’ve taken the time to build, I had to rely on the practicals in the corridors especially,” he reveals. “This meant replacing bulbs with photofloods in the vintage metal sconces—which did experience some heat damage—and putting them all on dimmers.”

With power failures an integral part of the story, Rose needed to devise a means of illuminating the film’s later scenes. “I needed some light to remain in what were essentially windowless spaces on the interior of the tower,” he explains. “During the process of recceing period buildings, I came across these great emergency light fittings—swiveling twin spot lamps sitting on top of a 12-volt battery mounted on the wall—that I suppose may have been relatively new to the period. In the event of power failure, these would kick in, providing light to evacuate by. We replaced the 12-volt spots with mains-powered versions and installed these fabulous units, so when the power failed I had hard directional spots.”

To augment “emergency” illumination, Rose also fitted louvered vents into the corridor ceilings. As a stylistic choice, Rose prefers to light up to a preferred stop rather than exposing down to available-light levels. “Even when I do have the budget for lots of light, as on High-Rise, it can be a task balancing out in a natural way that I’m happy with,” he acknowledges. “Where I can, I like to stick to the optimized 800 ASA, rarely pushing it too hard, but I’ve been known to go to 1280/1600, fully aware of the losses I’m buying while doing that.”

While he shot their earlier films on RED ONE and EPIC cameras, Rose has used the ARRI ALEXA almost exclusively in recent years. “Until the idea of true 4K delivery, there was no reason for me to use any other type of camera system,” he declares. “Incredible latitude, bombproof file format, data handling and post flow [and] outstanding heritage 35mm camera support from ARRI—I love it.”

The DP’s lens of choice remains with Zeiss. “I’ve shot Super Speeds, 1980s glass that’s fast, lightweight for handheld, but still holds up to large-scale projection in contrast, details and focus,” he adds. “I’ve always used older glass on digital cinema cameras because they rub the edge off of a sharp digital sensor.”

Rose augmented those as needed with 18-100mm and 25-250mm Cooke Classic zooms. “These were a little slower and had their own characteristics that I embraced, namely edge distortion and an almost imperceptible soft wide end, so we had to be careful assuming anything with them!”

Workflow for the project reflected the DP’s earlier choices, as well. “Coming from a background of zero to low-budget meant that I didn’t work with a grade in mind,” he allows. “I always try and expose and color to what I want the end product to be. We monitored a tweaked Rec. 709. A print LUT for dailies was provided by Goldcrest London.”

Mission Digital serviced the show’s pipeline with a DIT cart monitoring camera feeds and dailies deliverables that were mastered to LTO.

With respect to shot composition, there’s a clear demarcation of authority between director and DP. “My domain is blocking and camera movement,” says Wheatley. “But if it’s going to be handheld, that’s Laurie’s expertise. I’ll call, ‘dealer’s choice’ or ‘roving single,’ and then he kind of feels his way through the take. He brings what I’d call a humane eye to the mix. When he goes handheld, his witness camera feels sensitive to what he sees. Since I edit as I go, I have a pretty good idea of how it’s all coming together right from the start, which I use to monitor the feel of the camera from scene to scene. I try to head off any issues about different styles clashing together. That way you can go confidently into the next day’s shooting because you know you have the right shots and that they will cut together well.”

Rose preferred not to use Steadicam, instead tracking on the floor. Sometimes a speed rickshaw was used, but then more and more handheld was employed as the narrative shows life in the High-Rise breaking down.

“I did get to use a lightweight Techno 22-footer for the baroque party scene,” he reports. “Planned as a single shot, we spent the whole day on about 14 takes.”

The cinematographer oversaw the DI at Goldcrest, which didn’t involve a huge reevaluation of the work as shot. “The nature of our stories so far have been mainly realistic and didn’t call for much radical DI work,” Rose notes, “correction across a scene and sweetening low-light work, or pulling back highlights, digging into the shadows perhaps.”

The High Life
With power failures an integral part of the story, cinematographer Laurie Rose used emergency light fittings at the film’s location, a 1970s Leisure Centre in Ireland with architectural Brutalist stylings. In the event of a power failure, these would kick in, creating directional spots for Rose. The DP also used a 10K tungsten unit and HMIs going through unbleached muslin to mimic sunlight, creating warm tones with various grades of net for added exposure control.

Since wrapping the film, Rose has made forays into small-screen work, including the acclaimed London Spy, along with the third season of Peaky Blinders. His collaboration with Wheatley continues with Free Fire, another ’70s-styled pic. This tale of an arms deal gone wrong features an even more impressive cast of players than High-Rise, and is executive produced by Martin Scorsese.

Meanwhile, Wheatley is paying things forward, executive-producing Belly of the Bulldog for his longtime 2nd Unit DP Nick Gillespie, who’s directing from his own script. Currently developing a new theatrical version of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (previously remade by William Friedkin as Sorcerer) and long linked to an HBO project said to be in the vein of The Prisoner, the filmmaker seems poised to break out on multiple fronts in years to come.

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