As Ballard-ian places go, an abandoned 1970s leisure-centre on the edge of Bangor, Northern Ireland, isn’t bad.
The Speedo swimming-pool clock, which decades ago looked down on chlorinated birthday parties and school lessons, now sits motionless above a waterless deep end.
Here, in desolate former gymnasia and decaying squash-courts, JG Ballard’s novel High-Rise, published in 1975, is being adapted for the screen.
At the heart of this adaptation is the independent film-producer Jeremy Thomas who, for more than 40 years, has made films with a bewilderingly extensive catalogue of auteur directors that includes David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, and Bernardo Bertolucci, with whom he won nine Academy Awards for The Last Emperor.
“The films he had produced all required courage and ambition”, Bertolucci tells me. “He was the indie producer we all dreamed of.”
He is, High-Rise’s director Ben Wheatley says, “almost like a genre himself: the last of the great international cigar-smoking producers”. The British producer is the last of a dying breed: an independent operator who “stands between the money and the creativity”, producing big-screen art films that are often way ahead of their time.
High-Rise, which stars Tom Hiddleston as the smoothly adaptable Dr Laing, sits firmly in the middle of the Thomas canon. It is a sophisticated film made by people with sophisticated taste. In Ballard’s novel, the veneer of civilisation is stripped away as the privately-developed tower’s services begin to malfunction, sending its well-heeled residents spiralling into a feral struggle for supremacy in which rape, murder and the eating of dogs is blithely accepted.
The film is also a testament to Thomas’s friendship with Ballard, whom he got to know in the 1990s when he produced Crash.
The movie was a scandal, banned in Westminster by politicians who hadn’t seen it and inspiring the Evening Standard headline, “A film beyond the bounds of depravity”. Ballard loved it.
Films to watch in 2016
Films to watch in 2016
1/30 Hail, Caesar - 5 February
The Coen brothers' latest film might be their most ambitious yet. Telling the story of a Hollywood fixer struggling to keep A-listers in line, it has a movie within a movie, an amazing cast, and, judging by the first trailer, some luxurious visuals
2/30 Deadpool - 12 February
Comic book superhero movies have been getting slowly more self-referential and self-parodic lately, and Deadpool looks to be taking itself even less seriously than Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man. It looks as though fans will finally be getting the comic book-faithful, foul-mouthed version of the character they wanted, but it remains to be seen whether Deadpool will actually be funny, or just descend into toilet humour
3/30 Zoolander No. 2 - 12 February
Zoolander's return was derailed somewhat by backlash over a trans/gender fluid character played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The long-awaited sequel will no doubt do well at the box office, but I'm not sure if the fashion industry is as fertile for satire now as it was in 2001, and the trailer relies too heavily on honouring old gags rather than creating new ones
4/30 Knight of Cups - 4 March
A new film from Terrence Malick should have been a huge cause for celebration, but Knight of Cups has been swimming in post-Cannes purgatory for months now. In March it will finally get a theatrical release. Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, it sees a man return home from New York and get sucked into the hollow hedonism of LA, fighting to extricate himself from it
5/30 Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - 4 March
Based on journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this dark comedy sees Tina Fey play a foreign correspondent reporting in the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom, where she develops a weird relationship with a fellow journalist played by Martin Freeman
6/30 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - 18 March
The wind seems to have gone out of the sails of the Man of Steel series in spite of the addition of a new Batman, and there's a more palpable anticipation for Suicide Squad (which arrives later in the year)
7/30 Everybody Wants Some - 15 April
Coming off the back of multi-Oscar winner Boyhood, this Richard Linklater film looks a lot like Dazed and Confused if it was set in the 80s, albeit pitched more towards comedy
8/30 The Jungle Book - 15 April
Disney is trampling on its own hallowed ground with this live action remake. Elf and Iron Man director Jon Favreau is a fairly safe pair of hands though, and Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito and Bill Murray are all on board
9/30 Money Monster - 13 May
'Financial TV personality Lee Gates, who offers up stock advice on his hit show "Money Monster," is held hostage by a viewer, Kyle Budwell, who lost all of his money following a bad tip from Lee during his show'
10/30 Snowden - 13 May
Platoon director Oliver Stone takes on a very important and timely story. But can he make it entertaining the way The Big Short did with the financial crisis?
11/30 X-Men Apocalypse - 27 May
2016 will see a ninth X-Men film. Ninth. Every cast member you would expect will be back to collect their paychecks, which might require a crane
12/30 Finding Dory - 17 June
The Finding Nemo sequel will focus on Ellen DeGeneres' forgetful blue tang fish. It's expected to have an anti-SeaWorld message, which should make it strike a chord with parents as well as children
13/30 Independence Day: Resurgence - 24 June
Will Smith isn't in it. Moving on
14/30 The BFG - 1 July
There's still a lot of love for Roald Dahl's stories, and this one is being adapted by none other than Steven Spielberg. There hasn't been a huge amount of buzz around it but it's early days, and Mark Rylance is an interesting casting for the titular Big Friendly Giant
15/30 La La Land - 15 July
There's a lot of expectation on director Damien Chazelle's shoulders following the success of Whiplash, one of the smallest films ever to have been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. La La Land will certainly be different, a musical comedy-drama about a young pianist and an actor played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone respectively
16/30 Ghostbusters - 15 July
This is something of a question mark. On one hand, it's landed a cast of incredibly funny actresses, but on the other, another reboot? Really? There's also thought to be a very meta all-male version in the works from the creators of Jump Street, set in the same universe as Men In Black no less
17/30 Star Trek Beyond - 22 July
If you thought Abrams' Star Trek films were bad, feast your eyes on the trailer for the next one from the director of the Fast & Furious franchise. Expect major face-palming from Trekkies in July. Hopefully the new TV show will offer something a bit less action-orientated and a bit more cerebral
18/30 Untitled fifth Bourne film - 29 July
The Bourne series completely went off the boil with Jeremy Renner as its lead, but now both Matt Damon and original director Paul Greengrass are back to steady the ship. This might well be Jason Bourne's last outing, so I hope they send him off in style
19/30 Suicide Squad - 5 August
Harley Quinn was one of the most popular Halloween costumes this year, despite the holiday falling months before the release of the film she's in. That says a lot about the hype over this comic book adaptation, which revels in the villains rather than the heroes for once and sees Jared Leto step into Heath Ledger's size 58 boots as the new Joker
20/30 Sully - 9 September
Friendly-looking dad named Chesley Sullenberger who saves a plane load of people? Tom Hanks is your guy. Clint Eastwood will direct this biopic, about an airline captain who was hailed as a national hero in the US after successfully executing an emergency water landing on the Hudson River off Manhattan
21/30 Bridget Jones’s Baby - 16 September
It's 2015 and Bridget is now pouring her soul into an iPad rather than a diary. This sequel might perfectly skewer the frustration of growing up in an increasingly youth-orientated world, or it might just serve to tarnish the originals like with Sex and the City 2
22/30 The Magnificent Seven - 23 September
I'm not convinced there's the demand for Westerns that Hollywood seems to think there is. We'll find out in September with Antoine Fuqua's remake of 1960's The Magnificent Seven. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke are among the gang
23/30 Masterminds - 30 September
Based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery in North Carolina, this comedy comes from the man behind Napoleon Dynamite. Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis form a strong cast, but there are no trailers to go on yet
24/30 The Girl on the Train - 7 October
That book everyone was reading on the commute inevitably makes it cinemas in October, with Emily Blunt playing Rachel Watson, an alcoholic whose husband left her for his mistress, and who witnesses a murder and starts to realize that she may have been involved in the crime
25/30 Doctor Strange - 4 November
Doctor Strange might not have been the most obvious character to take to the big screen, but by this point Marvel could make $1billion at the box office from a comic an exec once scrawled on a piece of toilet paper
26/30 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - 18 November
J.K. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut adapting her own book here, with a film that takes place in the Harry Potter universe but is well removed from Hogwarts
27/30 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - 16 December
Disney is releasing a Star Wars movie every year between now and 2020. This first standalone 'anthology' film centres on a Death Star heist, but may prove to just be filler while Star Wars 8 is in production
28/30 Passengers - 21 December
'A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in one of its sleep chambers. As a result, a single passenger is awakened 60 years early. Faced with the prospect of growing old and dying alone, he eventually decides to wake up a second passenger'
29/30 Jumanji - 25 December
Is nothing sacred? Everyone is so pissed about this remake of the Robin Williams cult hit that it will be a miracle if it escapes a critical drubbing
30/30 Silence - sometime in 2016
Martin Scorsese's next film doesn't have a mafioso or corrupt banker in sight. Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield star, playing two Jesuit Portuguese Catholic priests who face violent persecution when they travel to Japan to seek out their mentor and spread the teachings of Christianity
Thomas describes Ballard as “a prophet, a very happy man who was troubled by the world – because how can you not be?” It’s a voice reminiscent of “jazz poetry”, says Wheatley, “you have to pay close attention”. Often Thomas connects thoughts in fragments. Speaking of the potential appeal of his latest film, he says: “High-Rise. Ben Wheatley. Ballard. Fabulous.” Poetry.
Bertolucci recalls a producer with the “enthusiasm of a teenager, ginger-blond hair and the reassurance of a teddy bear. I decided on the spot to put the film in his hands”.
This still-enthusiastic, still teddy-bear-ish man works with the kinds of budgets Hollywood looks down its nose at. Without millions of marketing dollars, Thomas’s films live or die on their quality and cultural cachet.
Today, Thomas says that he has a “particular recipe for how I put my films together: independent films with unusual and original themes with specialised material that is not treading the usual path… I don’t know how to make a blockbuster. What’s interested me over all these years sits squarely in the counter-culture.”
He didn’t always recognise this. When he produced his first film, Mad Dog Morgan, in 1976, Thomas was in his mid-20s. Out in the Australian bush with a crew in excess of 100 and a star, Dennis Hopper, “in the most extreme stupor of excess”, the producer thought he was “making a Peckinpah film, with many explosions and people being hacked to pieces”.
Mad Dog Morgan was an interesting choice for a producer who grew up amid the great churning mill of the British popular-film industry. Thomas’s father, the director Ralph Thomas, made a string of hit movies in the two decades following the Second World War.
His uncle, Gerald Thomas, directed all 31 of the Carry On films. “My first memory is playing on the set of Carry On Sergeant, in 1958,” Thomas says. “I was born in Ealing near the studios, moved to a country house near Pinewood, where I grew up around people who I didn’t realise were Katharine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and Dirk Bogarde”.
Thomas went straight from the boarding school Millfield to a job in a film laboratory, aged 17. He quickly worked his way up until, in his early twenties, he was editing Ken Loach’s 1973 TV film, A Misfortune.
Meeting Loach was a pivotal moment. “My father wasn’t what you’d call a Tory,” says Thomas, “but he fought in the war, got a Military Cross and had middle-class values… When I met Ken, I didn’t have a philosophy. I listened to him and my eyes were opened to a completely different kind of politics. I started thinking about the rights and wrongs of the world and it changed my outlook on things a lot”. Loach remembers Thomas as a “good lad to have around”.
The Doctor and Carry On films that Thomas’s father and uncle made represented everything that Loach and the British New Wave were kicking against, and the younger Thomas was carried forward on the rising tide of his generation. Seeing his father and “very funny” uncle Gerald work had a big impression on him, but “sub-consciously, I moved in a different direction and from the beginning of my time choosing what to produce, I revered the off-beat”.
On Hanway Street, Soho, the off-beat lives and breathes in the offices of the production company Thomas founded in 1974, and of his international sales arm.
Here, a whip from David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, there, a samurai sword from Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. Thomas shows me a Donald Duck cell signed “to Jeremy” from Walt Disney, and a Best Picture envelope sent to him after the 1987 Oscars by Eddie Murphy.
They perch above a wall of photos that includes Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast and a Polaroid of Dennis Hopper in New Mexico, faded now. Hopper remained a treasured friend of Thomas, who often returns to the admiration he has for the “master film-makers” he has worked with: Ken Loach, Nicolas Roeg, Nagisa Oshima, Bernardo Bertolucci.
The admiration is mutual. “After many movies and many years I look at his career and admire somebody who can today be as ambitious as he was when I first met him,” says Bertolucci. “Jeremy doesn’t know it but he has inspired me many times when I was feeling empty, drained and hopeless.”
“I think Jeremy has always been a champion of individuals and, to some extent, the rebels of cinema,” says Hiddleston, “You can see he’s interested in and incredibly supportive of filmmakers who are... independent.”
My conversations with Thomas are not without melancholy, though. In his Academy Award acceptance speech for The Last Emperor, he said the film’s victory was “a real affirmation for me that independent cinema can be epic and popular”. He no longer believes this. Digital effects and a lack of money mean that ambitious independent films either don’t have to be made – or, more often, can’t be made – on location with large crews.
He remains, though, “smuggling the impossible into reality” through the medium of film. “That’s one of my private theories. It’s about smuggling these counter-cultural ideas into our culture through third parties.”
‘High-Rise’ is out on 18 MarchReuse content