WHEN the apocalypse arrives, Ben Wheatley tells me, he’ll probably eat his dog first. It’s a matter of practicality. “I think the dog is more likely to come to me when I call it,” Wheatley admits. “He’s naive like that. The cat I might kill out of spite because he’s never liked me. Ten years and every time I go to stroke it it moves away. What’s all that about?”

Clearly Ben Wheatley’s cat can read Ben Wheatley’s mind. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for watching the director’s latest film for an insight into his mental processes. In collaboration with his wife, writer and film editor Amy Jump, Wheatley has adapted JG Ballard’s cult 1975 dystopian novel High-Rise. A book about class conflict, the psychogeography of brutalist architecture and societal breakdown and, yes, a book that begins with its protagonist Dr Robert Laing dining on dog meat.

The film is a bold, bravura, not-for-everyone take that turns Ballard’s cool, distanced, shimmering prose into febrile dream imagery and dresses it in 1970s boho decor and a nicotine fug (so many cigarettes are smoked in this movie. Not real ones though. Health and safety reasons). Oh and there’s even the odd proper film star onboard: Tom Hiddleston as the emotionally detached, dog-eating doctor, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Jeremy Irons dressed all in white playing the high rise’s architect.

As such it’s something of a step up from the micro-budgeted, balefully brilliant genre exercises Wheatley has made his name with (most notably Kill List). “We’ve just entered low budget,” he jokes when he discusses the price of High-Rise. “We’ve just scraped in.”

Wheatley is in town today for the film’s Glasgow Film Festival screening and we’re sitting in the ground floor of the Citizen M hotel discussing filming cult novels, Keynesian economics and Game of Thrones nudity inflation. (Yes, that is a teaser).

High-Rise was a book Wheatley read as a teenager. When he returned to the novel at 40 what struck him was how much of the future Ballard had predicted. “There’s weird things in the book like them filming each other and projecting it on the wall. You go, ‘well, that’s YouTube.’”

That was one reason he wanted to make it. “And also I’d been thinking of horror films. I was trying to make another horror film and in the same way I did with Kill List I made a list of the things that made me scared and shuffled them around. I came to the conclusion that the thing I’m really afraid of is the 1970s. I think it’s to do with stuff like being a kid and being helpless as a kid in the 70s. And it’s to do with those public information films.

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water? “Yeah, man. F***, it’s terrifying.” Mix in the idea that Wheatley and Jump were both 70s children and could have been potentially kids in the film’s tower block [if you buy into the movie’s alternative history time frame obviously]. All in all, then, there was enough emotional and intellectual investment to make him want to make the movie. “I often get asked ‘did I live in a tower block?’” Wheatley adds. “I did not live in a tower block. ‘Is the film about how bad tower blocks are?’ It is not.”

Out of all this fear and fascination comes the movie. High-Rise is a sci-fi film set in the past, which makes it an example of retro-future, or future-retro. Is this a film that is looking back to the 1970s or looking forward from that decade, Ben? “I don’t believe any film is about the future. They’re about now. They’re all about now. They have to be. Because we’ve got no idea about the past and we’ve got no idea about the future. So you can only make a film about now.”

Still, there’s something of a 70s vibe politically and economically going on at the moment, I say. Austerity-fuelled declinism is in the air. “But isn’t that just Keynesian economics? It goes like that …” Wheatley moves his arm in a sinuous wave motion. “We’re lucky it’s not the 30s and the 40s. The early 90s when the housing market crashed, that was another 70s. And then it’s back up the other side with Oasis turning up at Number 10.”

Economics raised its hoary head in another aspect of the film’s production. The movie was shot in Northern Ireland and the orgy scenes proved slightly problematic. Not due to Northern Irish prudery it turns out, but because of Game of Thrones. “We found it really difficult to get hold of nude actors because of Game of Thrones basically. In Northern Ireland they pay loads of money. So it’s really hard to get people to be naked. That’s what I heard. On Kill List I think it was £30 more for an extra to be naked. We thought that’s what it would be. But it was something insanely expensive. So we couldn’t afford anybody. The production manager looked around and found a swingers club and said ‘do you want to come down and be nude?’”

Ballard is one of the towering voices of post-war British literature. It’s surprising, I say, that he hasn’t been adapted more. Obviously there was Cronenberg’s Crash and Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun … “He’s done quite well,” Wheatley interrupts, smiling.” But that’s more or less it, I continue.

There’s a couple of reasons for that, he reckons. Ballard tends to write on a big canvas. That can be expensive. Plus, he adds, Ballard doesn’t really do traditional narratives. “If you’re going to do it straight you’re in trouble with Syd Field and the three-act boys. You’ve got an arc in which the [main] character doesn’t get involved. It asks a bit more of the audience. We’ve had that reaction.”

For a moment he imagines the other versions of the movie he could have made, mapping them onto other films in the tower block genre. “I think the Die Hard version of it is Laing as someone who is proactive and a hero and he goes up and throws Jeremy Irons off the building.” He pauses and rethinks. “Although that’s Die Hard 3.”

That’s not the film he’s made of course. He’s made a film where his protagonist dines on his dog. Bruce Willis eat your heart out.

High-Rise goes on general release today


Ben Wheatley on why Tom Hiddleston is the perfect Ballardian actor:

"Because He’s controlled. He’s highly intelligent but very controlled. He tries really hard to be right and good all the time but there is also a sense in his performances  that there’s something else bubbling away. Even with Loki [in The Avengers] you can see the two sides of him; trying to be good but can’t "That’s what we wanted someone who’s sharp and clever, inherently clever which Tom is, but then also he’s a matinee idol and he looks like he should be in that building and he looks brilliabnt in a suit. It’s important. There’s that cachet of him being a movie star but there’s also the emotional intelligence of him. All those thigs together made him attractive to us."


Wheatley on brutalism:

"I like those buildings. I think they’re really interesting. I think there's the whole Jonathan Meades thing where he’s saying 'well, they knocked down all the Victorian buildings after the war because they were ugly and horrible and then everyone went "oh Christ, we’ve knocked all the markets down and replaced them with all these concrete things." And now we’ve knocked them all down because we didn’t like them either. But in 20 years' time everyone will say 'they’re great.' I think that’s the worry, isn’t it? But then I think a lot of it was cheaply built. That was more the problem."


Wheatley on why sex scenes are harder to film than violence:

"Violence doesn’t really impact on the actors because it’s played, it’s not real. But asking actors to kiss each other … I know actors don’t mind it. They’re professional about it and it doesn’t mean anything to them. But to be in the room with people kissing and you’re the one asking them to kiss each other is quite weird. But that probably says more about me than anything.

"Also, you're on the line a bit. You’re working with a stunt co-ordinator to do a fight, but if you’re doing sex scenes and you’re going 'well, I would do it like this', you have to stop yourself before you make that kind of direction."