In Which I Have a Long Conversation with Neill Blomkamp, Director of District 9

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Next week Time is going to run a piece about District 9. I won’t be writing it, because I’m not a movie critic. But I did have a chat with the director, Neill Blomkamp, and the piece will be using quotes from that conversation.

I was going to chop the interview down into manageable bits and post it here, and I did chop it down some, but frankly I enjoyed talking to Neill so much, and he was so open about his filmmaking process, I figured I’d just put the whole thing up.

Things we talk about: The death of the Halo film; the fact that the lead in District 9 is an old friend of Neill’s who had basically never acted on screen before; bovine aliens; the boringness of THX-1138; why his FX don’t look like other people’s; my wasted life.

Lev: Can you tell me about how this movie came about? Because for a while there I thought you were making the Halo movie. Then you weren’t.

Neill: I was directing commercials in 2006, and then I got hired to direct Halo by Peter Jackson. So I went to New Zealand to go do Halo, and I spent about four or five months just working on Halo every day, really just going to town on that movie. And then it just collapsed. When it collapsed it happened pretty quickly. Peter and Fran said that, you know, they felt bad that I’d moved down to New Zealand, and I’d invested so much in this thing, and it just bottomed out. So they said, we can help you get another film off the ground — you can use the same crew and the same designers at WETA and just keep the momentum. We can finance it outside of the system.

So what Pete did was, he kind of cash-rolled the first part of 2007, with the design teams at WETA, and we wrote the script and designed the film until it got sent out to Hollywood. And then QED [the production company] picked and then we started production.

How did you originally get hooked up with Peter?

It was around 2005. I knew I was ready to get into feature films.

How did you know?

Well, because I always knew I wanted to direct features. I think I knew that from the time that I was about 18. I think from about the time I was 10 I knew I wanted to work in films, I just didn’t know in what capacity.

So I was directing short films on the side when I was a visual effects artist. Then I started directing commercials and music videos. But I felt like I needed to work with a crew, to get familiar with all the sort of technical properties of filmmaking, and get as proficient with every aspect as I could. Only around 2005 did I feel like I was able to step into the realm of full length features confidently and feel like I wasn’t going to screw it up.

I had RSA as my production company in LA, for commercials, and they have lots of connections to Hollywood. I met Ari Emmanuel, who represents me now, and Ari took all my work — my demo reel, all my short films and commercials — and sent them to Mary Parent who was setting up Halo, and Peter Jackson was a producer for Halo and they were looking for a director. And Peter saw it and then he invited me down to New Zealand to meet him and meet Fran, and see if the fit was right, and then he signed off on me.

That must have been pretty cool,

Yeah, it was really exciting. It was awesome.

And you’re like 30.

Yeah, I’ll be thirty in September

Interesting. [Interviewer, 40, looks back on his wasted life.] You’d already done Alive in Joburg, which I was a fan of from way back. [It’s true!] Tell me about the process of turning that into a full length film.

The reason it was short was simply that it was a crazy creative exercise where I just wanted to put science fiction in Africa. Really the only thing from Alive in Joburg that makes it into District 9 is the idea of wanting to put the kind of science fiction I liked as a kid into Johannesburg. So once I decided that that was the way I was going to make my first film, it very quickly became clear that all these very serious topics about racism and xenophobia and segregation would start to shine through the science fiction-esque veneer.

I had to be very careful that I didn’t get too close to these topics which are pretty serious with a film that’s mostly, you know, a sort of a summer thrill ride.

Tell me about the hero, Wikus.

With the stuff we had written we knew he was this ridiculous Afrikaans bureaucrat — like this guy who has this completely overwhelmingly sense of self importance, which isn’t backed up by anything. He’s just very bureaucratic and a total pencil-pusher

But because of the documentary nature of the movie, and because I wanted to make it feel very fluid and real and unlimited, I knew I wanted to use a massive amount of improvised acting, and I had to try to find someone who would be an exceptionally good improviser and also someone who had an incredible amount of heart and could carry the character as he goes through the second part of the film. He also had to be South African, because he had to understand the history of South Africa, and that intrinsic fabric of South Africa, and the two races meeting and sort of butting heads. So then I got Sharlto Copley, my friend from Joburg, who I just knew had the right ingredients to carry all these different parameters of the story. And what happened was, once we starting filming the movie, he really made Wikus what Wikus is now. All the subtleties come from the improv.

I want to talk about the look of the film a little bit. How did you go about designing the aliens for District 9? Their sort of anatomy and their look?

I had designed a very different looking alien for a few months, but then one day I decided that the way they were being portrayed in the film was essentially like an insect hive — they had lost their queen on their spaceship, they were drones, termite aliens that didn’t have any direction because the structure of their society had collapsed. When I figured that out I really realized they should be insects. So it kind of changed my entire design philosophy, and I went down the road that they should be insects. So that was the first thing.

The second thing was that I had to combine the insect part of them with some something that humans could empathize — like they needed eyes, and they needed some sort of a face that humans could register, and they needed some sort of anthropomorphic shape. Because I think if they had some sort of four legged or bovine shape or cow shape, it would be difficult for humans to relate to.

And they had to be a bit prawny-looking as well. [In the movie, the locals call the aliens ‘prawns.’]

The prawn thing. Throughout the whole movie I tried to pull as much stuff from South Africa that was real and apply it to the science fiction. South Africa has many derogatory terms for many different races. Prawn arrived after they have been designed, and I found it sort of funny because they’re not even prawns, they’re closer to insects. So it’s not really even accurate.

You said something earlier about bringing science fiction to Johannesburg. Is it very unconventional idea to set science fiction in South Africa? Has that not been done before?

If it has been done, I’d love to see it, because I’m not sure that I has. That was the reason for me doing Alive in Joburg. I grew up in Joburg and moved to Canada in 1998, when I was just about to turn 18, and throughout this decade of living in Canada I began to realize that I was getting more interested in Joburg, even from sort of a research perspective. I’s a very interesting place to be. I feel like it started because I grew up there, but now it became something else. On one side of my mind you have this place with a crazy racial background, and on the other side of my brain you have this science fiction geek. And then one day the two just mixed and I decided I wanted to do science fiction in South Africa.

Was there tension between the need to create a sort of crowd-pleasing popcorn movie and the serious political content of the movie?

Yeah, no, there is. I don’t know whether tension is the right word. What happened was, when I was making the movie in 2007, the first few months, I was going down the wrong road and was hell bent on making the movie too seriously. I tried to address all those topics, because all those topics are very important to me, but then I realized: “What are you doing? You’re making a summer film here!” And I want to make more films in Hollywood, and this is my first movie, and to make something that was all ponderous and serious was ridiculous.

So first what I decided was, I’m going to make it as much of a thrill ride as it can be. It’s just going to be a Hollywood movie. And then, in the background, I could put all these topics that have affected me, that are massively interesting to me. They can be woven into the DNA of the film. Obviously the story comes out of segregation, but it really is more of a personal story than a societal one. So it was a bit of balancing act. But I erred on the side of, it’s your first film. Use it as satire. Chill out.

Let’s talk about the FX, the way they look. The way they’re integrated into documentary footage — the movie doesn’t really look like anything else I’ve ever seen.

There’s really two aspects to that. The first is that I use a lot of documentary-based footage, and the one that I was really interested in using was news footage. I love the idea of science fiction through news footage. Anything fantastic, anything fictional through the lens of a news camera is a really interesting concept to me. The news stuff, and the documentary stuff, and the security cameras, they really ground it, and that’s what makes it feel a bit different.

I remember watching THX-1138 the George Lucas film and just being stunned by him using security camera in, what was it, 1971? [Yes! Nailed it.] So powerful and gritty. Was that an influence?

I don’t think THX was, only because I didn’t know it well enough. I think I’m going to watch it again.

It’s very boring.

Star Wars, the second one, was a massive influence on me. I should watch THX again.

Anyway the second part of the footage was the stuff you could call cinematic footage, which was more traditional filmmaking. But in both cases what I tried to do was, I wanted the image to feel incredibly raw and unmanipulated, almost like it came straight from the camera sensors right onto the screen. And then the exposure levels in that harsh African sunlight. I wanted it to feel very dusty, like Johannesburg feels in my mind. I just wanted the film to feel like that.

It’s not the kind of CGI that looks all crisp and perfect. It looks dusty and banged up and real. How do you achieve that effect?

There are two things happening to do that. First, whatever the three dimensional object that is computer generated, it has dust on it. So the aliens are pretty dusty, and the mother ship has a lot of rust and oil on it.

The second thing is, the way that you photograph them, I tried to almost have a disregard for the visual effects. So instead of setting the shot up and really making a big deal of the effects and then going back to normal footage, I wanted it to feel as if the effects were completely part of the scene. I wasn’t really as if I was focusing on them as effects. It was rather as if they just made up the fabric of the shot. Kind of like ifyou walked out onto the street with your own video camera, and you filmed some cars, you would do that differently if you went on an empty street and had to put some visual effects cars in there. You’d really try to sell it and structure it differently. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted it feel completely natural and off the cuff

So like, not putting things dead center of the frame?

And just paying attention to light, and not being afraid of putting them into harsh sunlight.

Did you build those aliens? Was there any puppeteering? Or was it entirely digital?

It was entirely digital. Pretty much how it works is that every alien you see is digital. And Wickus was make up and prosthetics. And you know when they wheel him through that lab, and you see those dead aliens on the side? Those are real, those are models.

Tell me about Peter Jackson’s role on the movie. I know he was a producer on it, but I never know what that means. How much of him went into the movie?

The best way to sum it up is that this whole film exists because of him. Not only did he allow me to raise the money, because I would have packed my bags up after Halo and gone back to Vancouver and God knows what would have happened. More important is stuff like, I wanted to keep the accents these sort of real thick South African accents, and he said, “let’s do that. But lets make sure they sound like Johannesburg and not LA.”

Then he used my high school friend as the lead character of the film, who’d never acted before. So he did that. He’s the guy that allowed everything to happen. And if it was me versus whoever else, a studio or some other group that paid to make stuff happen, it just would have never have happened. He is responsible for this film existing. And that’s the main thing. That’s the thing that I’m most grateful for.

On the day to day, when Terry and I were writing the film, we would have meetings with Peter and Fran and Philippa and they would give us input. And Pete would give us ideas and say, “these are my ideas, there’s no pressure to use them, it’s your film.” If he wanted to participate he would. I didn’t see him at the shoot, but we would send him dailies, and he would send me notes, and would always say, make the film you want to make. And in editing he was very helpful — he would come into the edit room and see something we’d been working on for awhile, and he was fresh and would give us awesome notes on clarity. That’s what you get when you have a filmmaker that’s that experienced around.

You really don’t see his fingerprints on this film. It doesn’t look like a Peter Jackson film, it looks like a Neill Blomkamp film.

It’s interesting though, because some of our sensibilities are the same. Like the splattering of people, guys kind of exploding over the hood of a car — he was using that in his early films.

Inevitable question: Are you thinking about a sequel?

Well, it’s kind of weird. I’ve only been exposed to this new world of people looking at the film for about two weeks. For the last two years, it’s just me and the movie, and now a lot of people have seen it, and the question of sequel has come up. And it literally didn’t dawn on me until the last week of filming about the idea of a sequel.

Now that I’ve starting thinking about it, if the audience likes it and the film is successful, I would love to make another movie. It’s such a gratifying type of movie for me to make, it’s got all the elements that I love, and it’s got all the science fiction I love. I’d go back. But only if its successful — only if people want it back.