Neill Blomkamp: Straight Outta Joburg

While the name Neill Blomkamp may not garner much recognition at the moment, the short films and commercial work of this South African-Canadian director has teased stardom for a number years. His most recognizable efforts, a series of Citron car commercials featuring transforming robot-vehicles busting out some serious dance moves, have become an online viral sensation thanks in part to their near flawless visual effects and seamless action. Two defining elements that have watermarked Blomkamp’s unmistakable creative aesthetic.

After a spectacle false start to feature film resume, thanks to the highly publicised debacle surrounding Twentieth Century Fox and Universal’s mishandling of the Halo film adaptation, Blomkamp stands poised to become a major player within the Hollywood hit machine with the imminent release of the much-hyped sci-fi social drama District 9. Calling in from the post-production offices of New Zealand’s Weta Digital, where the film’s final touches are being locked down, an exhausted Blomkamp took some time to talk with us about the long and protracted journey it took to see District 9 become a reality.

Fletcher: I understand Sony Picture has a release date of August 13 locked in for District 9. It seems you’re cutting things close as I understand your still doing postproduction. How is it all coming along?

Sharlto Copley, Peter Jackson & Neill Blomkamp

Neill Blomkamp: The editing is done thankfully, and I’m actually 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: From what we’ve seen so far, District 9 seems quiet an ambitious project from the short format projects you’ve helmed in the past. How did you find the experience of working on such a large production?

NB: It’s definitely different. Mostly in terms of pacing yourself and working with such extreme amounts of time. But the day-to-day process of each individual aspect is relatively similar.

I’d have to say that the only day-to-day differences, where things get slightly more intense is when you’re getting into a scene with an actor, and the actors delving into a performance that never expected to get 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 you’re 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: The narrative and themes of District 9 have their origins in a short film you made back in 2005, Alive in Jo’burg which focuses on a number of social themes. Can you offer a little insight into the initial inspiration of that original short?

NB: I’ve really been thinking more about that lately, ever since production of this film has been coming to an end. I started out as a visual effects artist and an animator, so I’m very involved in imagery and expressing 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 grew 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.

It’s just such an unusual place to put science fiction inside of, so it was mostly an imagery-based choice. Not so much a political one, but then once I had decided to commit to the concept, I realised how many other ramifications came with the idea.”

F: Was it challenging to go back home and 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 of film, even though it does have political ingredients that make up the fabric in the background.

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. Whether the influence is coming from Hollywood or not, the concept itself is set up to achieve a different and original goal.

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. Are you at all active in how the marketing of District 9 is unrolling?

NB: Only in the way that I go where I’m told. 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 a Comic Con panel is coming directly from Sony’s marketing team. I just get presented this slate of things that are happening.

F: District 9 really leans into the found-footage, docudrama style of shooting with a very naturalistic, almost voyeuristic feel about it. How challenging was it to integrate the complex special effects into such a gritty realistic frame?

NB: You know, it use to be almost impossible to do so effectively. I think that’s why some films, to a certain extent, look so stylistic. You see the problem was that you couldn’t track what your real-life camera was doing with a virtual camera. And you have to know what your real-life camera is doing in order to simulate that same movement, allowing your virtual camera to photograph your virtual characters, and place them into the real-life photography.

That meant when computer graphics were first being to be used, you’d have 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, with Jurassic Park, was the first person who wanted to move the camera. And the guys making the dinosaurs at Industrial Light & Magic basically said ‘No, you can’t’. And Spielberg just kept forcing it and forcing it until they had to actually develop software that could track the camera that he was going to move.

And so the technology 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. So now, it makes no difference if you a give visual effects house fully locked off camera footage or hand-held dirty home-video style shots. It doesn’t really matter any more.

F: There’s been of lot of coverage regarding the situation that landed you in New Zealand working with Peter Jackson and the Weta team. Can you offer a little perspective on the situation from your point of view?

NB: Well, as you know I went to New Zealand to direct Halo, the film adaptation of the video game, and Peter was producing on that movie.

I’d been working on Halo for five months when Fox and Universal, the two studios who were dealing with the Halo property, began 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 just turned around and asked ‘Why don’t we turn Alive 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 taken by surprise a little bit, but 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: Considering all the media coverage surrounding the collapse of the Halo project, and much of it focused on your supposed role in its demise as an unproven director, were you aware that the studios were effectively attempting to frame you as their 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 were really the ones in the driver’s 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 point blame at 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 filmmaker looking to bring their vision to the screen, how frustrating was it having to deal with these kinds of petty studio politics? Has the experience jaded you on the Studio system, do you take it with a grain of salt and hope the next project is a smoother ride?

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 the 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 about the imminent release of your debut feature film?

NB: The anticipation of just waiting for the film to come out? I’m just starting switch my mind from making the film to anticipating its arrival.

But I actually think that will start as of today, which is insane. 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 wrecked with anticipating of it’s coming out.

F: Apart from looking like a brilliant piece of cinema, the production, effects, and visual design executed on this film is stunning. Will audiences have an opportunity to learn more about how you achieved the aesthetic? I know Peter Jackson is something of a maverick when it comes to Blu-ray production and collateral content, so I would imagine District 9’s back story is in good hands.

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. Honestly. there’s just an endless amount of content, and a lot of that will be on the Blu-ray. It’s going to be awesome.


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