Neill Blomkamp on the Origins of Chappie



 In 2009, Neill Blomkamp made a name for himself with the South African-set alien invasion movie District 9, followed in 2013 by Elysium, and if you’re a fan of either those movies, then it’s not going to be too big of a leap to say that you’ll probably enjoy his latest movie, Chappie.

Loosely derived from his earlier short film Tetra Vaal, it’s another science-fiction action-thriller set in South Africa, this time in the not too distant future where robots are being used to police the out-of-control criminal element. Military robotics designer Vince, played by Hugh Jackman, has created an even larger robot dubbed “Moose” that integrates directly with a human pilot, but his colleague Deon (Dev Patel) wants to improve the current model by making them sentient. Before Deon can implement it, a group of criminals (played by South African rappers Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er) kidnap him and his robot with the intention of using “Chappie” (played by Blomkamp’s long-time collaborator Sharlto Copley) to commit bigger crimes. spoke to Blomkamp a couple weeks ago at the New York junket for the movie. I know a little bit about the short and how this evolved out of that, and that came out around the same time as District 9?

Neill Blomkamp: No, it’s way older. It was around 2002 or 2003. I was trying to get out of doing visual effects and move into music videos and commercials, so I was trying to direct basically and just show that I had a collection of work so I could get representation as a commercial director. I shot that piece, which in retrospect is kind of a weird piece, because it’s not a Nike commercial. I would have done better trying to get into commercials if I did a fake Gatorade commercial, but I did something that I loved and that’s always a good thing. I just wanted to see a police robot in Africa. But that didn’t lead to this film though. What led to this film was that while I was writing Elysium, I was writing those droids in that movie, and I was listening to Die Antwoord separately. One night, I just came up with the idea of that band raising one of these robots. That is really the genesis of this film, and then I was like “Well, I’ve already done a police robot thing way back.” I’ll just tie the name to that and a couple of other things. So I used Tetrovaal as the company.

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CS: Did you actually know the band at the time? I would think that if you wrote a movie like this and then cast them as the main characters, it would change everything. When you listened to their music did you know anything about them?

Blomkamp: Yeah, probably a year before I came up with the idea for Chappie I had met them and obviously I knew their music, so I just had their music on when I was doing Elysium, and I was like, “Sh*t, this would actually be very interesting if they were themselves.” Not even acting, just themselves, raising this robot, and they’ve gotten into criminal activity. That’s an interesting concept and that’s where it came from.

CS: You have some pretty well known stars like Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver, but with all the people who’ve seen their videos, Die Antwoord may have a bigger fanbase in some ways. I wish they were here to do interviews although that may be a bad idea because they might punch the junket people.

Blomkamp: Yeah, they’re pretty unique. I would have been interested to see them in interview situations like this, though. It would be fun.

CS: It would be different for them because it’s not music journalists, it would be movie people who might not know who they are. You started writing with that in mind, but since technology has changed a lot since you did that short…

Blomkamp: Not really. No, the way that technology has changed in those ten or twelve years is there’s no fundamental change. There’s no paradigm shift. It’s just quicker and the software is more complex, but the ideas are all the same. Like a shift is like when you go from models and miniatures and prosthetics to Terminator 2. That’s a shift. The technology in essence is exactly the same between ’03 and now. It’s just like when you do particle simulation, you can do way more particles with way better processes. The way you calculate light and radiosity and bouncing light and refraction. You have better computational ability, but it’s all the same sh*t. It’s not totally different.

CS: When you did Tetrovaal was that also an actor you replaced with CG?

Blomkamp: No, that was different. So I did all of that on a home PC, and the exact reason that I did it was to make it look like expensive VFX so my fake demo reel of fake commercials made me look like I was some hotshot director, which I wasn’t. The only way I could do it was to do it myself, so the way I did it was that I couldn’t afford motion capture but I had a library—I don’t know where I stole it from but I stole a library of moves in motion capture, like a guy walking, a guy jumping. I stole a bunch of moves from some other place and then I shot background plates in South Africa with no actor, knowing that in the gap where there is no actor, there would be a computer-generated robot. So I’d frame stuff for that, and the only time in the whole piece like when the robot is hiding behind a wall and he turns around and returns fire and then hides again. That’s me acting that out and then I roto-animated myself, so I took the motion from me and put it on the droid using key frame animation. Ironically, that was the exact process that we used for Chappie, just on a massive scale.

CS: It’s interesting that you could do that short all on your own and now when you make the movie you have…

Blomkamp: 200 artists.

1251623 - ChappieCS: For some reason, this feels more grounded and practical than Elysium and it feels more like District 9 with a CG element, but it’s not as obvious a CG element.

Blomkamp: There’s actually more CG in this film, though, because there’s almost a thousand shots of Chappie and he’s never anything other than computer-generated, so he’s always CG which means the lead character is digital which means that’s a lot of VFX. But it’s done in a way that it looks so real that I think your brain… you know that it isn’t impossible, like a space station. So you think of it differently. You think of it, “Oh, this is the leading character.”

CS: But all the locations were actual locations…

Blomkamp: Yeah, no sets.

CS: And was any of that enhanced with CG?

Blomkamp: No, no.

CS: There’s other interesting casting besides Die Antwoord, because it’s a very different role for Hugh Jackman. I wouldn’t say it’s the most flattering role he’s played, but it’s a strange and unique character, so what made you think of him and did it take some convincing?

Blomkamp: No, he didn’t take any convincing. It was one of those… I can’t speak about why he took the role, but I always loved the character and I always thought he was such a weird villain, and I loved the idea of him being Australian and that Hugh could just keep his accent. It was kind of honest. He didn’t have to manipulate or change himself to fit the character, so I always wanted him. The second that name came up I was like, “God I hope he does this.” I love working with that guy. I would make a thousand films with him if I could. Such a good dude to have on set.

CS: And Vincent seems almost hyper-Australian, almost like a cartoon version of an Australian. Did you develop that character with Hugh or did you have in mind exactly what you wanted?

Blomkamp: I had imagery and stuff and photos of mullets and sh*t that I sent him. He was like, “Yeah, dude. Let’s just go all the way.” (laughs) 

CS: With action movies over the decades, there was a very specific period in the ‘80s and ‘90s where people loved a lot of action movies and this harks back to that a little with the Hans Zimmer music and one of those elements is Hugh’s character.

Blomkamp: Like larger than life.

CS: Larger than life, they were fun and not as serious.

Blomkamp: I agree with you about everything except the music, because the music was meant to be not like Zimmer’s other stuff, because it’s not orchestrated, it’s all electronic.

CS: Right, it’s more like ‘80s synth music that you might hear in a John Carpenter movie.

Blomkamp: Right. Oh, I see what you mean. Okay, yeah, I see what you’re saying. Well, that’s a good sign.

CS: I was wondering if you had an affinity for those movies and whether they have influenced your work.

Blomkamp: I like John Carpenter’s films, I don’t like the scores. I know they’re his. The thing for me with this actually was the Vangelis synth. It was Blade Runner, but like an action kind of version.

CS: When I was listening to the music and I didn’t know it was by Hans, it was sort of interesting…

Blomkamp: ‘Cause it’s different for him. That’s what I loved about it. First of all, I can’t believe how awesome that guy is to work with. I love working with him. I pretty much only said two things to him. I asked, “Can it be non-orchestrated?” so it forces you to make everything digitally or through synthesizers, which are organic to some degree and not digital. And “Can you include synth?” so it’s non-orchestrated and secondly, it has this synthy ‘70s/’80s kind of sound. And he just went nuts with those two concepts and came up with what the film is, which is my favorite score.

CS: Also mixing his score with Die Antwoord songs made it more interesting. I want to go back to working with them, because there are definitely elements of their fashion and even the production design from their videos in this movie.

Blomkamp: It is. That was very difficult to do actually on a political level. When you have artisans that work in production design for their whole career and you go to them and say, “Listen, this entire set, this is under Die Antwoord’s direction. They’re going to do whatever they want in there.” That’s a very strange thing for a production team to hear and that caused a lot of friction actually, but it was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t hire them just for acting. I hired them because they’re complete artists that have an entire image that they do and that they hand-make themselves, so why wouldn’t they hand-make their den? Why wouldn’t every element in there be chosen by them and painted by them? That’s exactly what they did and that’s why it looks so unique and cool. 

1251623 - ChappieCS: Was it strange for them to play version of themselves and using their same names, wearing the same outfits, etc.?

Blomkamp: Well, they’re also even wearing their own faces on their outfits.

CS: It’s interesting to see a science fiction movie like this that’s mixed with… 

Blomkamp: Reality.

CS: And it takes place in 2016, so maybe that’s what they’ll be doing a year from now. 

Blomkamp: Down and out. I don’t think it was difficult for them. They flowed right into it. On a creative level, they had no issue getting into the characters or the performance.

CS: I assume it was all scripted but did they have the leeway to improvise around their characters?

Blomkamp: I try to do as little improv as I could on the movie. I just didn’t really want to.

CS: I imagine it’s hard with the FX element although you do have Sharlto there to keep things going if they want to improvise.

Blomkamp: Yeah, but even with Sharl. With Sharl, I was like, “Listen, it isn’t District 9. Let’s not do improv.” Most of the film we didn’t improv much. You know, for Die Antwoord that’s kind of a good thing. Even if they can do improv, even for their first film and learning how the process goes, it’s good to have a playbook to go by, so that’s how we did it. 

CS: How does Sharlto feel about being dragged into being an actor? I remember when I first met him for District 9 which he acted in despite wanting to be directing his own movies.

Blomkamp: I think he’s wrapped his arms around acting, so I think he’s firmly in the acting profession now, but he does talk to me often about wanting to get behind the camera, because that is how he started. He didn’t really want to be actor. I’d be curious to hear what he tells you though, because I feel like ultimately he should be directing stuff, but that’s probably what makes him such a good actor is that he understands what is needed and what isn’t needed. That’s not always a given with actors. They’re so insular in what their point of view is.

CS: One of the elephants in the room, which I’m sure is going to be an easy comparison is RoboCop and they just did this remake last year, which may still be in people’s minds. So how hard was it to avoid that? Did you just ignore the fact that remake was happening and do your own thing?

Blomkamp: It became less noticeable to me, but I do remember when that film was coming out that I was in the process of basically prepping Chappie, and I was like, “Sh*t, this is unfortunate timing.” It bothered me back then, but now, it doesn’t bother me at all. Now, time has gone by and that film is gone to me. Because when you watch it, it’s so different from RoboCop, but it’s these elements that are similar that are inescapable. 

CS: Like Moose

Blomkamp: The Moose is a conscious tipping of the hat to ED-209, because the original Craig Hayes-Phil Tippett ED-209 is one of my favorite designs ever, but in terms of story and actual substance, there should be nothing similar about the films. They should be totally different, and I think they are. It’s about an artificial intelligence baby essentially. Very unrelated. 

You can read what Blomkamp had to say about his sneaky way of getting the gig to direct the next “Aliens” movie as well as what Sigourney Weaver had to say about returning as Ridley right here.

Chappie opens nationwide on Friday, March 6 with previews on Thursday night. Look for our video interviews with some of his cast next week.