A Conversation with Neill Blomkamp

“I was genetically created to do that film, I really was. And it would have been an awesome film.”

While the name Neill Blomkamp may not garner much recognition at the moment, the short films and commercial work of this South African raised director has teased stardom for a number years. In fact his most recognizable efforts, a series of Citron car commercials featuring transforming vehicles capable of grinding out some serious dance moves, have become an online viral sensation thanks in part to their near flawless visual effects and humour. Two defining elements directly relatable to Blomkamp’s unmistakable creative process.

But now, after a rough start with the highly publicised debacle surrounding Fox and Universal’s mishandling of the Halo film adaptation, Blomkamp stands poised to conquer the silver screen with the release of his much-hyped sci-fi drama District 9.

Fletcher: Thanks for your time Neill. Can you tell me where you’re at with the final cut of District 9?

Neill Blomkamp: The editing is done actually, I’m right at the extreme end of post production. We’re just checking our digital intermediate true mounts and then were done. It feels good man. Two years of work. I hadn’t really gone through this process before.

F: Most of your past work has been done on short format projects. How did you find the mechanics and scope of working on a feature length project?

NB: It’s definitely different, but mostly different in terms of pacing yourself and working with extreme amounts of time. But the day to day process of each individual aspect is relatively similar. The only place on a day to day basis where things get more intense is when your getting seriously into scene with an actor, and the actors delving into a performance that you would never go anywhere near, or at least I hadn’t gone anywhere near doing short films or commercials. But other than that it’s setting up shots with a much longer shooting period or your editing for a far longer period of time. So it’s similar, but it’s the pacing that’s screws your mind up a bit.

F: District 9 has its origins a shot film you made called ‘Live in Jo’burg’. What was the initial inspiration that drove you to direct and produce that original short?

NB: I’ve really been thinking more about that lately, ever since this film has been coming to an end. I use to be a visual effects artist and an animator, so I’m very involved in imagery and concepts through images. Think what happened is that I really really wanted to see science fiction, like the sci-fi I grew up with, put into the environment that I was growing up inside of.

Sci-fi always takes place in some sort of first world country or it takes place in outer space or on some other planet. I just wanted to see what it would look like if I put science fiction inside Jo’burg. So I guess the genesis of that short film was nothing other than the creation of those images within this bizarre environment. And from there, because of how rich and complex South Africa’s political history is, once you throw in the sci-fi element you get this really weird appealing science fiction base that you can build off of.

F: So why Johannesburg? What’s your connection with the place?

NB: I grew up in Johannesburg. It’s nothing more than that really. I spent all of my childhood looking at third world imagery before moving to Canada, where it was virtually non existent.

It’s just such an unusual place to put science fiction inside of, so that’s why I picked it. It was imagery based. Not so much a political one, but then once I had decided to do that I realised how many other ramification came with the idea.

F: Was it challenging to physically shoot the film in Johannesburg?

NB: Some of the shooting in Johannesburg was a bit of a nightmare, but overall it was good. This type of film never gets made there, the films that do get made there seem to be a little more political, and more serious while this is a bigger more Hollywood type film even though it does have political ingredients that make up the fabric in the background of the film.

F: You use the term ‘Hollywood film’, though you’ve filmed mostly in South Africa, postproduction is being done in New Zealand and the visual effects produced in Canada. Do you feel like you’ve gotten the Hollywood experience with this film?

NB: It really is like the ‘Commonwealth Show’. I guess there really isn’t that much of a Hollywood influence directly, but the story and the idea behind the story is more of a ride, a science fiction ride more than something designed to send a political message. And I think that in itself, whether the influence is coming from Hollywood or not, the concept itself is set up to achieve a different goal.

F: You have some pretty major support behind you with Peter Jackson jumping on board as producer. How did that relationship come about?

NB: Well I went to New Zealand to direct Halo, the film adaptation of the video game, and Peter was producing on that movie. I worked on Halo for five months and then Fox and Universal, the two studios who were dealing with Halo, were fighting with one another and eventually the whole thing just imploded. So I was getting ready to move back to Vancouver and Pete’s partner Fran Walsh was like ‘why don’t we turn ‘Live in Jo’burg’ into a feature… don’t you want to stay down here and keep working with the crew and make a film?’

I was like ‘Shit yeah, totally. That’s perfect!’ So within a few weeks of the other film collapsing we were ready to move forward with District 9.

F: And I understand the film will be premiering at Comic Con this July? That’s a pretty major litmus test for the film and yourself. How did the opportunity come about?

NB: Well everything relating to marketing on the film is being handled by Sony, who are doing an awesome job. They’re making the film front-and-centre in the science fiction and pop-culture forums. It’s coming up everywhere. So things like setting up Comic Con is coming directly from Sony’s marketing team. I just get presented this slate of things that are happening.

F: A good deal of District 9 is shot as found-footage or documentary footage. How hard has it been to integrate the special effects into such a gritty realistic frame so it matches your shooting style?

NB: It use to be almost impossible to do so. I think that’s why films use to, to a certain extent, look so stylistic. The problem was you couldn’t track what your real life camera was doing. And you have to know what your real life camera is doing in order to simulate that movement so your virtual camera can photograph your virtual characters and put them into the real life photography.

That meant when computer graphics were starting off you had to lock off your camera. You had to put it down on a tripod and not move it, and so the computer didn’t have to deal with a moving frame. You could put your computer graphics into something that was dead still.

I think Steven Spielberg was the first person who wanted to move the camera with Jurassic Park, and the guys who were making the dinosaurs at Industrial Light & Magic said ‘No, you can’t’. And so he just kept forcing it and forcing it until they had to develop software that could track the camera that he was going to move.

And so it has slowly been taking hold and now it’s up to the point where you can buy software off the shelf that allows you to three dimensionally track a live action camera. Now it makes no difference, you can give visual effects houses fully locked off camera footage or hand held dirty home video style. It doesn’t really matter.

F: Considering all the hype surrounding the collapse of the Halo project, in particular your supposed role in its demise as an unproven director, were you aware that the studios were trying to use you as a scapegoat?

NB: Well that whole episode happened two years ago, but when it was happening I was defiantly aware of what was being said, about the fact that my involvement may have killed it.

The truth of it is, I think a lot of those rumours were being spread more by Fox than Universal. I think Fox was doing whatever it could to gain control of the film because Universal was in the drivers seat and Fox just didn’t like that. They were either going to get control of the film or they were just going to collapse it. And ultimately that’s what they did. And it’s very easy to blame a director who hasn’t done a film before.

The truth of the matter is of course that I was genetically created to do that film. I really was. And it would have been an awesome film.

F: As a creative artist looking to bring a vision to the screen, how frustrating was it having to deal with studio politics? Are you resigned to the fact that they can throw a spanner into the works anytime they wish?

NB: Halo was a complete nightmare! It was as bad as it gets, so yeah, from that perspective I don’t think I will ever put myself in that position ever again.

But then the flip side of it is District 9 has been unbelievable. And that’s for two reasons. Sony has been really awesome as a studio. I just really really like them and they seem really receptive to the film. And then separate from that is that Peter Jackson is almost like the studio to me, he has control over the film. Pete has ultimately been the one who’s going to say’ ‘Let’s move forward on that’ or ‘no, I think your pushing the boundaries too far with this.’ He either reins me in or lets me do it. So the whole process for me on this film has been totally different, it’s been awesome.

F: And now, with everything said and done, how are feeling with the imminent release of your first major feature film?

NB: The anticipation of just waiting for the film to come out… I think that will start as of today, which is insane. But I’ve got a lot of press and marketing which I have to do up until Aug 14 which is when the film releases in the U.S. So up until that point I think I‘ll be anticipating it’s coming out. I just have to switch my mind from making it to anticipating its arrival.

F: One final question. You’ve built such an involved and complex narrative within District 9, can we expect to see any expansion on this with the Blu-ray and DVD extras?

NB: Yeah, we have been thinking a lot about the DVD and Blu-ray. There will be a lot of stuff on there, some really awesome stuff. We created volumes of media when we were designing and creating the film. There’s just an endless amount of stuff, and a lot of that will be on the Blu-ray. It’s going to be awesome.

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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