SET in a new residential tower block at the dawn of Thatcher’s England, High-Rise is the latest JG Ballard adaptation from the Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor, Crash).
The high-rise building has all the luxuries of modern life in the 1970s – swimming pools, a supermarket and high speed elevators.
However, when amenities break down and disputes arise between tenants, life in the building quickly degenerates into class war between the lower classes living on the floors at the bottom of the high-rise and the upper classes in the most luxurious apartments at the top.
The film’s lead character, Dr Robert Laing – essentially Ballard’s representative in the story, as the author always wrote himself into his novels – is played by Tom Hiddleston, who can currently be seen on the small screen in the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager.
Greeting me on the film set at the disused Bangor Leisure Centre with a “What’s the craic? Dead on, aye?” delivered in a decent Belfast accent, Hiddleston tells me about the themes within High-Rise.
“What Ballard is interested in is who we really are, beneath the veneer of sophistication and good manners,” he says.
“At what point do your manners break down and when does your more animalistic nature emerge? That’s what he’s doing with High-Rise.
“He has put together a group of people who are cultivated and educated and they are a kind of social elite – doctors, architects etc. He’s put them all in one building which makes every provision for their entertainment and glamour.
“And then Ballard shuts the power down. Everything stops working and you see that these superficially elegant and glamorous people are actually motivated by very basic human things – greed, lust, power, territory.
“I think Ballard is deliberately provocative about that – he’s saying, ‘this is who we are’.”
Hiddleston – an Old Etonian who, like Ballard, studied at Cambridge – tells me he had to do some fairly stomach-churning research for the part of Dr Robert Laing.
In particular, a scene at the beginning of the film features Laing cutting open a human head in order to demonstrate to medical students how the brain is organised.
“I asked if I could go and talk to a doctor to see how to cut someone’s head open. So they got me an appointment with a forensic pathologist and I went up to a hospital and watched an autopsy,” he reveals.
“I’d never felt faint in my life until that day. It was very profoundly affecting.”
“I’ve always been a fan of JG Ballard and I’d adapted one of his novels, Crash, before,” producer Jeremy Thomas tells me during a break in filming.
“This journey started off with a different sort of film. I was going to make it slightly set in the future, but then it turned out that the best way to do it was to set it in the time the book was set, in the ’70s – that was Ben Wheatley’s idea.”
This is the first time Thomas has produced a film in Northern Ireland – he and his crew came over to see what was available on the back of the recent upsurge of film and television production here.
“We hadn’t found exactly what we were looking for and the location manager said on the way back to the airport, ‘I want to show you somewhere in Bangor’.
“We arrived here and it was all there in front of us, because our screenplay was about a swimming pool and squash courts – both of which were here,” he says of the set, to which Northern Ireland Screen has invited The Irish News for this behind-the-scenes chat with cast and crew.
Thomas was delighted to get Wheatley on board for the project. The young director has proven himself to be one of the most exciting British film-makers in recent years, with Kill List and A Field in England being highly acclaimed for their dark originality.
“I like his films,” the producer says.
“From his first film on, they are really good, innovative and original. And when I heard he was interested in the High-Rise adaptation, I saw him as the ingredient that I needed to realise the sort of film I wanted.”
When we visit the set of the film, which also stars Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller (Layer Cake, Alfie), Luke Evans (Fast & Furious 6) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of The Lake), Hiddleston and Miller are shooting a scene in the swimming pool.
It looks like it has barely been altered for its role in the movie.
“The real star of the film is the building,” enthuses Miller.
“It’s an amazing cast but I just thought the story was fascinating and dark and sinister – and all of Ben’s work is brilliant.
“This is probably the most experimental and dark film I’ve ever done.”
And how did she find spending her summer in a disused leisure centre in Bangor?
“It’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences ever,” she assures me.
I’ll have to take her word for it.
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