One of this summer’s surprise movies which seemingly came from out of nowhere and is suddenly getting a lot of attention thanks to a secret screening at Comic-Con last month is Neill Blomkamp’s debut District 9. Part of the buzz surrounding Blomkamp’s first feature comes from its high-profile producer, Peter Jackson, but it’s also the way Blomkamp has created a science fiction epic with an intriguing and original premise for a relatively modest budget that has genre fans excited.
Twenty-eight years ago, a large spacecraft appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa filled with scavenging aliens, who were brought down to earth and placed in the slum area known as District 9. Now, the alien creatures dubbed “Prawns” need to be relocated to a new area and assigned that job is Wikus van der Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley), a field operative with the MNU, a company commissioned to make the aliens’ weapon technology work for humans.
If you were already plan on seeing this sci-fi action flick and don’t want to know too much going in, you should be safe reading our first interview with Neill done at Comic-Con before we actually had a chance to see the movie ourselves. After reading it, if you’re interested in knowing more, then you can watch our follow-up interview with Neill done after we saw the movie below.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve kind of been laying low with this movie, virtually making it in secret.
Neill Blomkamp: We didn’t mean to though.
CS: You were just down in South Africa making this movie…
Blomkamp: Yeah, it’s all Johannesburg. That’s where I grew up, and I was directing “Halo” and then “Halo” collapsed and then I started doing this film. We spent 2007 just writing it and developing all the artwork and the design and everything, so I guess that was very quiet, and it was financed by QED, a little bit outside the studio system, but then Sony picked it up really quickly. I guess we were just laying low by the nature of how the film was structured. Just being left alone to make it. Most of 2008 was really shooting and then the later part of 2008 was editing. We only started ramping up all of the press stuff or the media stuff probably eight months ago.
CS: Right, it was ShoWest and I think that was the first footage anyone saw.
Blomkamp: Yeah, that’s exactly when.
CS: I remember Sony showed me a little summer splash reel and all they had for “District 9″ was a little photo. So did Peter show your short and that’s what convinced him you could do “Halo”?
Blomkamp: Yeah, basically. He was on board to produce “Halo” and then Mary Parent, who was the woman who was putting “Halo” together, had seen my stuff and she sent it to Pete, because they were looking for a director. He saw it and then I flew down to New Zealand to meet him and talk about making the film. From there, I started working on the film and I worked on it for like five months until it collapsed.
CS: Being from South Africa and knowing that the general premise involves a conflict between humans and aliens, you automatically assume that it’s a metaphor for Apartheid. Can you talk about that a little bit and was there any kind of influence from what was going on in the country before?
Blomkamp: Yeah, you’re completely right but I think this film is an exercise in soaking up culture, if that makes sense. Where I grew up and what that means is that now the film is presented and the way I put it together and directed it really, I didn’t want it to beat people over the head with any sort of preachy moral lessons or anything. I didn’t want it to be my point-of-view on the subject. But what I did want was all of that crazy Apartheid segregative atmosphere that I grew up with but in a science fiction setting. There’s a lot about this film that’s very subconscious and just in the fabric of me, and Apartheid and the segregation in Johannesburg is how I grew up. I was also a fan of science fiction films, a huge fan, so they’re just merged now.
CS: I saw a lot of footage at ShoWest that hasn’t been included in the footage, a lot of documentary type footage for instance. Is all of that in the movie or was that more for the viral campaign?
Blomkamp: The stuff you saw would have all been in the film.
CS: Is it very much done in that documentary style?
Blomkamp: It’s both. It’s kind of docu real life footage of all means–news, documentary, security cameras–but then a whole bunch of it is just cinematic, so you kind of bounce between traditional cinematic storytelling and then real found footage and back again.
CS: We’ve seen some shots of the giant spaceship hovering over the slums of District 9. Can you about how you did some of that stuff? I assume this isn’t a huge budget movie, so did you do it all with CG or some practical stuff as well?
Blomkamp: The practical stuff is a lot of the inanimate stuff that’s lying around like alien weapons or vehicles are practical but for the most part, anything truly alien, like a ship or the creatures, they’re all visual FX, they’re all digital. I love in-camera stuff. I love that kind of 1980′s sci-fi edge to things where it feels like it was captured in the camera, but unfortunately with how well-versed audiences are now on movies. If you give them some sort of animatronic creature that doesn’t move as well as a CG creature, they’re going to be pissed. The key now is to try to make the CG feel like it’s in-camera as much as possible.
CS: Did you spend a long time developing the aliens before even writing the script? You wrote the script also?
Blomkamp: I wrote it with Terri Tatchell. (We did that) during, so 2007 was writing and designing, and then 2008 was either manufacturing those designs if they were live action or beginning to build them as visual FX assets so they’d be ready later.
CS: I want to ask about Sharlto Copley who plays the lead role and your decision to cast him. I haven’t seen every commercial or trailer but I believe that he plays a large role in the central storyline, so where did you find him?
Blomkamp: That’s one of the awesome things about Pete producing this is that Sharlto is in the film, because Sharlto is like a high school friend of mine who has never acted in anything in his life, but I know how talented he is. If you see the film, he’s pretty talented, he’s pretty compelling. I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t said, “Hey, Pete, can we cast Sharlto Copley as the lead?” and him saying “Yes.” I don’t know if I would have been able to have done that, so he’s in the film now.
CS: Can you talk about the relationship with Peter Jackson? You’re pretty much a first-time director with an unknown actor and you have this producer who is one of the most famous filmmakers due to “The Lord of the Rings.” Did he go down to South Africa and visit the set at all or was he fairly hands off?
Blomkamp: He wasn’t in South Africa, but most of the time, other than when we were shooting, I was in New Zealand.
CS: You did all the post-production and visual FX there as well?
Blomkamp: Actually, four visual FX companies worked on it and one of them was in New Zealand, which was WETA obviously, so most of the post was done in Canada, but the year of writing and designing was all New Zealand and only half of 2008 was shooting so the rest I was there editing. Then finally, post was in Canada.
CS: What would you like people to get out of this movie? Without seeing it, this seems like a smarter film than something like… well, it’s not “Men in Black” or that kind of summer popcorn movie that we might expect. Are you surprised by the summer release and the attention it’s getting at Comic-Con or do you think it will find an audience?
Blomkamp: Well, F*CK! I hope it finds an audience, Jesus… yeah, I really hope it does. I mean I honestly have no idea how people are going to receive it, but one thing I was hyper-aware of was the fact that if I come out of the gates with a first film that just tanks, it’s not going to be good for me, so that in one side of my mind and then on the other side of my mind, I had a whole bunch of science fiction ideas and concepts and just themes and imagery that I wanted to have realized. I think this film is a pretty good merge between the two. It still is a ride and it’s still something audiences hopefully will be engaged with, but it’s not totally conventional.
CS: To be honest, you’re probably better off doing this than with “Halo” because even as soon as your name was announced, you immediately became a target. People would be like, “Who is this guy getting this big movie?”
Blomkamp: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what happens if you deal with any sort of massive piece of intellectual property I guess, if you attach yourself to it. I agree that I’m better off now.
CS: Do you still have any interest in doing that if they can get it together?
Blomkamp: I’m interesting in doing a “Halo”-type movie. I’m not interested in doing “Halo.” I think that the world and the universe of “Halo” is very cool and extremely compelling. For me, I mean that’s the reason I agreed to do it in the first place. I love it. Master Chief is a character that is an incredibly awesome compelling character. He’s basically a victim of this industrial military complex. I mean, everything about it. It’s got the full spectrum of science fiction that interests me, but the reason I wouldn’t do it is because I put a lot of sweat and blood and effort into it for five months and it collapsed. It’s just fate. I’m not going to do that again. I’d rather go down the road of a new idea somewhere else.
CS: If you get a chance, you should try to talk to Terry Gilliam while you’re here, because he knows all about that stuff.
Blomkamp: Oh, with “Lost in La Mancha”? Jesus, Don Quixote… that was worse than “Halo.”
CS: Do you have any idea what you might do next now? Are you looking for something or waiting to see what happens with this movie first?
Blomkamp: I’ve got an idea for something I want to do, and yeah, I’m pretty hellbent on trying to make this idea happen, but it’s all happening very quickly. I mean, I’ve never made a film before, so I haven’t gone through the process of living and breathing something for two full years, and then have it end like that. It honestly caught me off guard. All of a sudden, I realized I was unemployed like that, so I wasn’t thinking or preparing of developing anything during “District 9″ because I was so focused on it. I’ve got the genesis for the idea and I need to flesh it out.
Now that you’ve read our preliminary interview, check out the complimentary interview below, done roughly one week later in the New York offices of Sony.
District 9 opens everywhere on August 14. Look for our video interview with Neill’s star Sharlto Copley next week.