more from Neill Blomkamp on ‘District 9’
I’m totally obsessed with District 9, and I don’t care who knows it. I haven’t been this gripped by a movie in years: it’s almost like being in love: I can’t wait to see it again. (I’m gonna have some time to kill on Thursday evening before my midnight show of The Final Destination, and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna kill it by seeing D9 for the fourth time.)
I got so much great material from the press events for District 9 — even after my interview with Neill Blomkamp and my piece on Sharlto Copley were done. So after the jump, some more juicy random tidbits from Blomkamp, all of which are really geeky and nerdy and production-y — if you’re not into that kind of stuff, you can probably give it a miss.
Neill Blomkamp speaks:
“I did a short film in 2005 [“Alive in Jo’burg”], which is where this film grew out of. I was a science fiction nut when I was growing up in Jo’burg, and as I became older I realized that I wanted to be a science fiction filmmaker. I hadn’t seen science fiction in South Africa before, so I just wanted to combine those two. Once that was the genesis — South Africa’s very complex, racial, segregated history — a lot of other concepts grew out of that.
“There was a very weird crossover between the film and the reality of the filming. We filmed in an area called Chiawelo, which is kind of a suburb of Soweto, which is kind of a suburb of Johannesburg. There’s a thing in South Africa called RUP housing, which is government-subsidized housing — they’ll build you a brick house in another area of the city. You get put on a waiting list, if you’re an impoverished resident, and you will eventually be able to get one of these houses. The area that we filmed the movie in, what plays as District 9, every single resident in that area was being removed to be put into RUP housing…. So we ended up with this open piece of land with all these shacks on it. And the shacks would have been swept away very quickly if we hadn’t put up a fence to try and preserve them — in that part of the city everything just gets reused all the time.
“We were in contact with locals quite a lot, because there were many still living there as we were filming. Overall it was a good experience. The people in that area tend to be very warm, and the only kind of trouble was right at the end of filming, when they started to realize that they could shut down the filmmaking process if they were making too much noise or getting into some of the shots… when they started to realize that the power was actually in their hands instead of ours. We had to pay them to allow us to finish the final few shots of the film.
“The immediate people around us — the South African crew — were outstanding. But when it came to the higher levels, it was a lot more difficult than I expected it to be. The police would say, Yes, they’d be involved, and then they would drop out. And we weren’t able to use the South African police service or any of their logos or vehicles. The military would string us along for six months, and then the military would pull out. They received a treatment — there wasn’t a full script — but they received a pretty good idea of what the film would be. I think they didn’t really know what to make of it. Ultimately I wouldn’t say that the South African authorities were open to this. I would say that they were on the fence about it, and leaning toward not being open to it.
“One of the things I was trying to be aware of was the complexity of how things are, that there is never one perspective: things are never absolute, never black-and-white. What I tried to do is make something that felt open and honest, and it definitely didn’t just have my point of view, it had a whole bunch of points of view in there. And Wikus has an arc that, in his case, he came out on the other side, choosing the right option. But everything inside the world can play out a lot like how life plays out. Sometimes it’s dirty, sometimes it has an unresolved ending. Hollywood likes the resolved ending, everything tied up. And you can do that with one character but you can’t do that with the whole situation.
“I was really aware when we set out to make the film that if I go about it the wrong way, it’s gonna be a film that takes itself too seriously, which is a bit dodgy for a first-time filmmaker. Also, I just don’t want to make a film that beats people over the head with a whole lot of what would essentially be my point of view… After about a month or two of writing, I realized that this was too serious, and if I made this I’d be making a mistake. We [Blomkamp and cowriter Terri Tachell] wrote “satire” up on the wall, because that was the way to go. It would free me up. Once I crossed that line, I realized that, Okay, now I can make a film that has my two favorite things together: it has these topics I feel like talking about, and I can mix them with the other half of me, which is weapons and design and aliens and tanks and stuff. At that point I realized that I’m going to allow Hollywood, the popcorn, to be in the foreground, and have the interesting South Africa side in the background.
“The thing that freaked me out the most was the humor. And most of it comes from Sharlto, which was why I hired him, I knew that he would bring that humor to it. You may not like his character at the beginning — I’m sure you don’t — but he’s still funny. Sadistically funny, sometimes, like when he’s burning those eggs. That’s awful. But it’s so awful it’s hilarious. The humor was what I watched the most, because it was the element I had the least experience with.
“There’s two parts to South Africa’s history. There’s the part that everybody knows, which is the white oppression of the black majority. But then there’s a second thing that’s happening now, which I wanted to include in the film, which is something that reached its critical mass almost from the day we started filming the movie. Hundreds of thousands and now millions of immigrants from the collapse of Zimbabwe have been crossing the border into South Africa and have been living in the impoverished areas of South Africa with the impoverished black citizens of South Africa. And it was a powderkeg situation. In “Alive in Jo’burg,” I was asking those black South Africans about black Zimbabweans. That’s actually where the idea came from. Those answers were real.
“In 2008, when we started filming, everything went south. I dunno if you saw the news here, I don’t know if you heard about the lynching and the burning and the macheting: it was seriously violent stuff. And it happened as we were shooting. I never thought we’d wake up one morning to smoke on the horizon with police helicopters everywhere and front page news of people being burnt alive. It was bad bad bad.”
[Here I asked Blomkamp if the news footage in the film of riots and burning and urban unrest is real footage of those events, and he said it is.]
“I kept asking myself the whole time we were making the film about where to draw the line between stuff that South Africans would understand and appreciate versus the rest of the world, who may not really get it. Putting Nigerians into a setting where they’re involved in a crime syndicate, that’s something that South Africans would instantly think was absolutely accurate and completely hilarious. That is exactly how South Africa is. All of downtown Jo’burg is Nigerian-occupied, and most of the violent crime in Jo’burg stems from the central area around Hillbrow, where huge Nigerian gangs own and control a lot of the ins and outs about how the city works.
“There’s lots of African witch-doctoring and voodoo, but the idea of the consuming of body parts is something that I put in there because it is African and it is part of South Africa’s makeup. But I knew that a North American population may or may not get it. It’s authentic to South Africa and it’s authentic to West Africa.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of designs for the aliens. The way Weta Workshop works in New Zealand is, they have a room this big [indicates the huge conference room we’re sitting in] with just artwork. The artists will prepare 700, 800, 900 — I think on King Kong they did 1,000 actually — pieces of artwork, and then Peter Jackson will come in and isolate what he wants and they’ll use those to spawn more. I did less than him but more than I think I would have done naturally, because the artists are just so good at providing you with ideas.
“I wanted to take one part of the concept of the aliens from a writing and conceptual standpoint — which is that they were insects. I like the idea of an insect hive that’s lost its queen and it’s just a whole bunch of drones and the queen is gone. So I thought, Okay, we should design them so they look like insects, and then because of Wikus’s arc and the fact that eventually we were gonna empathize with the creatures, it meant that we needed some sort of geometric facial structure, you know, eyes and something that humans could psychologically connect with. I thought that was sort of clichéd and Hollywood, but you have to do that — a human isn’t going to empathize with H.R. Giger’s Alien.
“Wikus is speaking English to them, and they’re speaking their language to him. I didn’t know how the audience would take that, but I knew that that was accurate to much of South Africa. South Africa’s got 11 official languages, so very often you’ll see people doing exactly what happens in the movie. I speak English, you speak Zulu, I speak Khoisan, he speaks Afrikaans. They do that — it’s very strange. Wikus is one of the only humans who’s taken the time to understand how they speak. But they can all understand English because they’re forced to — they have to understand that if they’re not home by curfew they’ll be shot. But they physically can’t speak it.
“The aliens are always digital throughout the movie. The only place there are prosthetic aliens is when Wikus is wheeled through the lab and there’s a few dead ones around — those are practical. I thought that Weta would be responsible for doing the aliens digitally, and then they turned Pete [Jackson] down [presumably for The Lovely Bones], and they turned me down — I found it hilarious that they turned him down. It was because they were working on Avatar. Avatar has consumed New Zealand.
“Because I live in Vancouver and I want to make a lot more films, I thought I would use a Canadian FX house — and also it meant we got the British Columbia tax rebate, so we got more shots per dollar, which is awesome. So I met with Image Engine, which is the company responsible for the creatures. And they’ve seriously done insane work, especially considering how much money we had.
“Because I have a background in effects, I knew how we could be more efficient. Photo-real aliens were the goal, and we used tricks to give the visual FX guys a leg up. If I wanted aliens that were levitating jellyfish hovering in and out of Soweto, I would be putting them in a bad position. They could probably make it look real, but research and development and the amount of time it would take would be three, four, five times greater. I knew that if we used hard-surfaced, shell-like finishes to the creatures, we would obtain a photo-real look quicker, just because that’s how computer graphics work. So I knew that they were gonna be hard-surfaced, I knew that they would be covered in dust, which also helps. And I wanted them to be in harsh African sunlight with harsh shadows, which gives a better photo-real result than even this room with a whole bunch of fluourescent lights.
“Hopefully the ending feels open and honest. I wasn’t necessarily trying to say that we’re doomed forever: it’s more a case of, In this particular slice of history, at this moment in time, this is how things played out. It’s a lot like being alive in the world today — we don’t know how it’s gonna play out. It does seem like it can end in a variety of different ways. The humans could start treating the aliens better, but not because they learnt to do that on their own accord but because one of them got away into the ship and might come back. Or the aliens come back and they don’t decimate humanity… Ultimately it’s gonna take hundreds of generations, it seems like, for any real unxenophobic growth to happen.”
[Did Halo collapse because of budget problems?]
No. I like that one, though. I read a few things about Fox saying that I turned in the GDP of Equatorial Guinea or something as the budget of Halo, which I thought was profoundly hilarious. Considering that this film is $30 million, and that kind of efficiency is what I was applying to Halo. It was Universal and Fox fighting with one another that killed Halo.