How “High-Rise’s" orgy scenes got made on a budget: “‘Game of Thrones’ has pumped the per-person cost of nudity through the roof”

Salon talks to star Tom Hiddleston & director Ben Wheatley about the J.G. Ballard adaptation's apocalyptic appeal

By Gary M. Kramer
May 14, 2016 2:59AM (UTC)
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“High-Rise” is director Ben Wheatley’s dizzying, savage adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dazzling, savage novel. Amy Jump, who is Wheatley’s wife, penned the screenplay. The story concerns a physiologist, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who moves into a modern apartment complex—complete with swimming pools, supermarkets and other amenities—and watches society break down completely. The high-rise is, of course, a metaphor for class inequality, with Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker and shit-stirrer living on one of the low floors, challenging the status quo of Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s designer, who lives in the penthouse. Laing, who lives on a middle floor, watches the devolution and subsequent revolution with a cool detachment--that is, until his hand is forced and he must act to survive. (Read Andrew O'Hehir's Salon review.)

Wheatley delivers the goods in “High-Rise” with real panache, vividly depicting the violence, orgies and other bad behavior. Hiddleston, currently starring in the impressive TV miniseries “The Night Manager,” and Wheatley had tea with Salon in a New York hotel room to discuss their film, shooting orgies, and how they would fare with the end of the world.


Tom, on screen, you’ve lived in a converted barn in Tuscany in “Unrelated,” a stately mansion in “Crimson Peak,” and now in a modern apartment complex in “High-Rise.” If a man’s home is his castle, where are you most comfortable?

Hiddleston: I like my house in London, to be honest. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s an old artist’s studio from the mid-19th century. There have been extensions, but it is, essentially, a bungalow. My feet are on the ground. I’ve got a little outside space, and it suits me just fine.

What about you, Ben?


Wheatley: I live in a house.

Hiddleston: A lovely house.

Wheatley: We had a little house, and now we have a bigger house. If I swing a cat around, it doesn’t hit the walls or the floor or the windows.

Tom, you’ve appeared in several class-based stories, from Joanna Hogg’s films “Unrelated” and “Archipelago” to “High-Rise.” What appeals to you about these kinds of characters?


Hiddleston: I hope I haven’t been typecast. The Hogg films are depictions of human life that she recognizes…

Wheatley: The Joanna Hogg roles are very different from each other and the Laing role.

Hiddleston: The one thing that I think unites these three characters is…


Wheatley [interrupting]: Height! [Hiddleston and Wheatley burst out laughing].

Hiddleston: They all look like me…

Wheatley: It’s uncanny! [Laughter continues]

Hiddleston [getting serious again]: They seem like one thing on the surface, and there is something else going on beneath it.


Wheatley: That’s definitely what attracted Amy and me to work with Tom. He has a sense of control and then he has a sense of something else bubbling below the surface, trying to capture those emotions. He’s like that as Loki.

Hiddleston: That’s probably who I am. I don’t know anyone who isn’t like that. That’s my, perhaps—and it’s not a clean reading—my experience. We are all so complex and contradictory. We try to put our best foot forward and, quite often, behind closed doors is something much more chaotic and turbulent and vulnerable. There’s that phrase that everyone you meet is fighting a battle you don’t know about.

Wheatley: That’s a good one. Where’s that from?


Hiddleston: I can’t remember. I don’t know. From somewhere. But it’s true! I’m not sure whether it’s about the size of our society now. My sister [studied] social anthropology at college and she did a paper about this. We still haven’t evolved beyond really being able to associate with more than about 100 people. As evolutionary beings, we’re still made to know about 100 people. As the numbers get bigger, the more dissociated and detached we become from everybody else. In order to make sense of the world, psychologically, it’s easier to objectify people and say, “You are that.” People are defined by their job, or their physical appearance, or their zip code. And it is easier on the brain—and I suppose what I’m saying is that if you acknowledge each of those individual faces in a crowd is unique, then each character is going to have its unique complexity and turbulence, and that’s what I find interesting about being an actor. [Hiddleston flips his hand in the air in a triumphant gesture. Wheatley appreciates it with a raucous cheer.]

Ben, how do you approach a tricky text like the Ballard novel and capture the spirit of it on screen?

Wheatley: Well, I’ll tell you how it’s done. You get a really, really brilliant person to write the script. Amy Jump did it. To be clear, I had no hand in the writing of the script. The cliché of how a director interacts with a screenwriter, stalking around the room in a smoking jacket, ripping pages from the novel, and indicating “Put this in!”--it’s not like that. Our relationship is completely separate. She took the book away and came back with a fully formed script. That was it. That was the script that we made.

What can you say about your vision for the film? How did you imagine it from the book?


Wheatley: My job was adapting the screenplay. The script is a very clever adaptation of the book, but there are other things going on in it. It’s talking about Amy's and my 1970s childhood, and our relationship with that generation. It comes [together] in baby steps. There are elements that are practical, like the whole idea that the characters are talking from balcony to balcony. That dictates the shape of the building. It took me a while to work it out. I stayed in an apartment with balconies. When there was a description in the book that the tower is like a hand and the palm is the lake, I thought: that’s what it is. When you see the bend on the fingers, that’s where we are going to put these tiered balconies. I had a lot of conversations with Mark Tildesley, the production designer, who came up with a way to unify the whole space. We were worried that the swimming pool and the supermarket and other disparate places would feel like they were in different locations from the tower, and that would throw the audience. Mark came up with the idea of this motif to bring everything together with a triangular pillar, and built that into every set. I liked that it impinged on the humans. It’s not a nice shape. You get the feeling of weight—the whole building is weighed down on everybody. That helps.

Let’s talk about the end of the world…

Hiddleston: A great subject!

Laing is organized, proficient, disciplined. Yet at the start of “High-Rise” he is seen being barbaric. He adapts, as necessary, to the bizarre. What are your survival skills, and how would you fare with the breakdown of society? Are you more likely to be assertive (as Wilder is) or be invisible (as Laing tries to be)?


Wheatley: It’s happening, isn’t it? We’re already in it. I always love that in my relationship with Amy, she’s the one who’s ready to be called straight to arms. Whereas I get stunned easily in stressful situations, so I would be quite useless.

Yes, my spouse says if a dirty bomb were to go off, he’d go outside and inhale deeply. I, however, would try to stay alive, even if it kills me!

Wheatley: I’ve had a similar thing. I always think in the moment, I’d become the man. And come the moment, the man doesn’t turn up. My inner coward would manifest itself.

Tom, how do you think you would you react?


Hiddleston: I think I’ve spent my whole acting career answering that question. The truth is, I don’t know. How could I know?

Wheatley: You’re very good at running, though… you could probably remove yourself from any situation and be five miles away before it kicked off.

Hiddleston: Thanks, I’ll take that.

Suddenly, Ben notices something unusual going on outside. The interview stops for a moment. We all look out the window where jet planes are skywriting. ["FACT CHECK ARMENIA," the text reads when completed]

Hiddleston [astonished]: I’ve never seen anything like that in my life! Does that routinely happen in New York?

Wheatley: My brain’s on fire…What is that?!... It’s like a bubble jet printer for the sky!

Hiddleston [incredulous]: Gary, Is this the end of the world? [Laughter, and then the interview resumes again in earnest]

Hiddleston: Drama is what happens to human beings in extreme situations. That is why we’re fascinated by it. That’s why everybody flocks to films about the apocalypse, that’s why people love zombie movies. That’s why people are moved by superhero movies. That’s why everyone sees “The Revenant.” They are asking: What would I do in that situation? And the truth is that none of us know. We would like to believe that we would make noble, courageous decisions, but you don’t know until it happens, I suppose, the choices you would make. Would I be someone who is crippled by fear? Would I be too brave, too soon, and therefore disadvantage myself? I remember watching “Alive” and being so interested by this true story where certain people emerged from the group and were tougher than others.

Wheatley: I think the story of being brave is a fabrication. On a moment-by-moment basis, you get tested again and again. When you read about the Second World War, these guys are confronting stuff again and again and again, it’s not just surviving one thing. But within that behavior, you can have days where you’re terribly afraid, and days when you’re not. I think that is probably closer to it. You don’t always behave extremely well, but sometimes you do.

Hiddleston: One of the first parts I ever played was in a play called “Journey’s End,” about a company of officers in a trench in 1918, and they all deal with the horror of the First World War in a completely different way. A schoolmaster retells the story of “Alice in Wonderland,” because it makes him feel comfortable. Somebody else complains about the food; the next tries to skive off sick with neuralgia; and the soldier I play, who is intensely brave in battle but is deeply, deeply damaged, and gets himself to sleep with a bottle of whisky every night. And I remember I was 18 years old when I played this part, and I had no frame of reference to draw on. I was the right age, and had I been there 100 years ago, I wonder which guy I would be?

Laing seems somewhat afraid of having an emotional connection. Can you discuss that aspect of his character?

Hiddleston: That’s the interesting challenge to me, presented by the book. Ballard deliberately chose Laing’s profession as a physiologist. He’s someone who is obliged to be detached to deconstruct the biomechanics of human engineering, which keeps him at arm’s length from behavior dysfunction. He’s able to diagnose human behavior according to chemicals and hormones, and organ dysfunction, but the fact is, he’s a man faced with a crisis, and at what point does he commit one way or another? How does he feel about it? I think that detachment is what makes it interesting. I think he comes face to face with some truth about himself that he never acknowledged, and had never been aware of, in the devolution of the high-rise. Laing has moved into the high-rise to get away from the entanglements of real life. He wants the anonymity of a clean, grey, clinical space.

Laing attends various parties in the high-rise: costume parties, children’s parties, social get-togethers and even orgies. How did you film the orgies, Ben?

Wheatley: It’s really tough filming orgies, I’ve found. Amy was laughing, because in the script, that party wasn’t going to be as raucous as it was. I brought that upon myself. I sent the production team out to go get me a load of naked people, and it’s very hard to get them in Northern Ireland because “Game of Thrones” has pumped the per-person cost of nudity through the roof. So now, no one will be naked in Northern Ireland for under £1,000. It’s very expensive. So we had to figure out how to do it. When I did “Kill List” in England, it’s only £30 more to be naked for an extra. But in Ireland, it was £1,000 straight up. So I had this clever idea to contact local swingers groups, because I knew they would be just the kind of people…

Hiddleston: I wasn’t present that day.

Wheatley: So these guys and gals turned up and they loved it. They loved being naked. And you’d see them out of the corner of your eye, and the trickiest one was this guy who had the most enormous penis I’ve ever seen. It was down to his knee. I think, as a man, it’s a fight-or-flight thing from the Serengeti when you see a penis that big. You can always see it. Even when you have to think about something and are focusing on some middle distance, you realize, “I’m staring right at this guy’s cock!” [Tom starts clapping in hilarity] It was just huge. And he was so proud of it. It’s the best thing that happened to him. I met him earlier in the day, and he was a very confident man, but little did I know why. But I did find out. So that’s how you film orgies.

Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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