Trading dystopian survival tips with the director of the Ballard adaptation everyone’s talking about and the composer who created the film’s sound world
Following a group of increasingly feral professionals as they battle for control of a luxury tower block, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise shows what can happen when the social, sexual and psychological pressures of vertical living overcomes rational thought. Adapted from J.G Ballard’s 1975 novel, the film’s characters engage in an orgy of ultra violence that’s highly entertaining to watch, albeit a little distressing if you have an aversion to horse steak or barbequed dog. We caught up with Wheatley and the film’s composer Clint Mansell to talk about the dark side of humanity, brutalist nostalgia, and the impact of Ballardian literature on their work.
With more high rises being erected than ever before, it feels like the perfect time for J.G Ballard’s urban nightmare to find a new audience. What was the first novel of his that you both got into?
Ben Wheatley: Crash. It was his turn of phrase, how he could make something simple or banal sound terrifying. His books always felt dangerous. Other sci-fi novels were about spacemen and they were really boring. Ballard had this perverse idea that you could get enjoyment out of being mutilated. For me, it was that, Naked Lunch, Fear & Loathing, doing drugs and reading comics – being 17, basically. Looking back I realize how much it formed the way I saw the world, and how his ideas had been spread through culture. I was getting radiation off it for years through comics like 2000AD, and then I went back to the source.
Clint Mansell: Growing up in the West Midlands, buildings like Rotunda naturally gave me a Ballardian outlook on the world, but I didn’t discover his work until a progressive English teacher of mine introduced me to High Rise at school. I was, and still am, very much an internal person. At grammar school I was always searching for ways to become invisible. His characters were people that I could identify with myself through their observations. Also the records I was listening to at the time – Joy Division and the first Banshees album – both drew on the same alienation that Ballard had. I really gravitated to it when I was 15 or 16. It's brave going back and revisiting it. I loved it.
Clint, you lived on the top floor of a tower block in Stourbridge in the 80s. How did the architecture of that building affect you?
Clint Mansell: That environment undoubtedly influenced how I think. I once got stuck in the lift between the ninth and tenth floor one Saturday morning. I hate heights and lifts. People used to stick a match in the alarm bell so it would ring all day, so nobody ever paid much attention to it. So there I am in this lift hovering between the 9th and 10th floor shouting, “Hello! Can anybody help me?!!” The fire brigade got me out in the end and I couldn’t move off the couch for the rest of the day because I was in shock. That was part of the trauma of living in Byron House in Stourbridge. It still resonates with me. I stopped using the lift after that and walked up nineteen floors. They blew it up a few years later.
Cities are breeding grounds for artists – but young people are being forced out because they can’t afford the rent. Will that lead to a deficit in new cultural forms and artistic expression?
Ben Wheatley: The main issue is the killing of aspiration, that there’s no chance. The gap between being fucked and really rich is becoming so broad that you can no longer sell the dream of upward mobility. That’s the essential problem. The only reason these places are attractive now is that the artists turned up and made then trendy. If you kick them all then what have you got? I grew up in North London around Belsize Park in the 70s, and it was like bedsit land. The pubs were once really vibrant and then they shut because there was no-one left to go to them. It became a cultural wasteland; there was no community. I think artists will always find somewhere and make it exciting, but what happens to the cities themselves? Will they rot from the middle out? It’s like all those tower blocks that are bought out yet no one lives in them. It’s just bizarre. It’s a symptom of this uber-capitalism where properties become investments rather than somewhere to actually live. Like when people buy art and no one sees it anymore, it’s in a box somewhere, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. So these houses become abstractions of investment rather than what their purpose was.
Clint Mansell: When the book came out in 1975, those were still very dark days. It was not long after the war. You’d go around London and you’d still see bombsites. There weren’t that many people who were looking forward. It wasn’t a huge part of the culture like it almost seems it is now, that we’re constantly looking forward to what's coming next. I think the world in general was just happy to still be here in 1975. Music reflected that, from Delia Derbyshire to krautrock. It was all going off on a little tangent from the mainstream. Records like David Bowie’s Low were hugely influential on Joy Division, Ultravox, and Gary Numan. You see how that fed into what Nine Inch Nails did and so on. It’s about the mentality of the audience really. I have no idea how many books would have sold in those days but it’s a bit like what happened with The Sex Pistols: not everyone saw them, but everybody who did went and formed a band. Ballard had the same sort of effect.
What about the glassy postmodern high rises? Will they stand the test of time?
Ben Wheatley: I wonder how much of the postmodern stuff is going to be left in 20 years time? You can see The Shard from here and that is classed as a temporary building, it will only last 70 years and they’ll have to bring it down again. So a lot of this stuff that we see in London will totally change again within our lifetimes.
Ben, what are your Top 5 tower block movies of all time?
Ben Wheatley: The Towering Inferno, Dredd, Raid, Die Hard, Shivers. Go and watch Shivers, it’s exactly the same as High Rise. (laughs)
Clint, if you had to save one Ballard book from a towering inferno, which one would it be?
Clint Mansell: I think it would have to be High-Rise. I feel like it's his central work and it’s a book I've known for a long time. Now having worked on it and enjoyed the experience, that would be it.
Finally, if you were both stuck in a tower block and your only chance of survival was to eat your dog or your neighbour which would you choose?
Ben Wheatley: I’d eat the dog in a heartbeat, straight away. Even if I was just peckish (laughs). I had to take the dog in the film out for walks every 10 minutes. I’ve still got bags in my pockets for all the dog shit (pulls out bags). I’d eat the dog straight away.
Clint Mansell: It’ll be the next-door neighbour I’m afraid. So don't live next door to me (laughs). I live alone with a cat right now. The thing about living alone is that you could choke to death on a pea while having your dinner and nobody would discover you for about three days, in which time the cat probably would’ve eaten me.
High-Rise is out on March 18th. Clint Mansell is touring the UK next week, for more information go to www.clintmansell.com