District 9 Director Neill Blomkamp: The Movieline Interview
If the name Neill Blomkamp isn't yet familiar to you, give it a week. Hand-picked by Universal based on the strength of his short films and commercials, the gifted director -- a 29-year-old, South African-born Vancouverite -- was months into pre-production on the Halo film when studio infighting scuttled the project. Guided by mentor Peter Jackson, Blomkamp instead went to work on Sony's District 9 -- an original idea about a race of insectoid aliens, held for decades against their will in a slum in Johannesburg. It's a rich concept that provided him the opportunity to weave weightier themes about race, cruelty and intolerance into an undeniably fun summer thrill ride. And Blomkamp delivered, producing the thinking-man and thinking-woman's alternative to the glut of sci-fi brainlessness currently dominating the box office. Movieline spoke to the director on the cusp of his well-deserved breakout success.
District 9 operates on multiple levels, but I wonder how you'd describe it to someone coming in cold?
District 9 is about two races colliding, and the city where that happens is Johannesburg. The thing of District 9 is that I'm not trying to be overly metaphorical or have any preachy lessons or any political standpoint other than I grew up in that environment, and I love science fiction, and I'm merging the two. I'm aware of the fact that for my first film I should make something that's very much me, but shouldn't feel to someone sitting in the movie theater that someone is preaching to them. And I think if you make a film about South Africa, you're in danger of doing that. So I was very aware of that, that I wanted it to primarily be something unusual, something -- awry is the wrong word -- but unusual and compelling, and then after that, you can start weaving in the fabric of apartheid and South African history into it.
It definitely has this future-dystopic, Children of Men kind of thing going for it.
Dude, I tell everyone, if you want to see the future, go to Johannesburg. That's the absolute truth. You said future dystopia, but that is Johannesburg. The only difference is that there's a spaceship there, but if you throw the spaceship out, that's Johannesburg. It's gated communities and biometric thumb-readers if you want to get in. The rich live here and the masses of impoverished people live there. It is science fiction -- a city of science fiction.
Can you talk about your childhood a bit, and what led you to this?
I grew up in Johannesburg until I was 18, and then my family moved to Vancouver. I was at the point where I was going to go to college and would have probably left South Africa anyway. So we moved to Vancouver. And I knew that I wanted to get into film, so it just helped that I was in North America from that point onward. But I never lost that blood-level fascination with Johannesburg. I view it now in the same way as other topics that I'm interested in. Setting a science fiction film there, as opposed to, say, San Diego, is appealing. But I think it would be more appealing in any Third World country. Like, if you put aliens in India, I'd rather see that than aliens in New York. That could be because I'm from the Third World.
So that's my background. Once I moved to Vancouver, I started working as a special effects artist for a few years, then directing music videos and commercials. But features was always the goal.
The movie also delights in its sort of fundamental horror elements, like the sci-fi classics of the 1950s.
We don't have as many frights, but you're totally right -- in the back of my mind there's this kind of late-'70s, early-'80s gore monster movie thing that I'm very interested in, with a lot of prosthetic and in-camera stuff. I don't know if the audience will feel that when they watch it, but I hope there's the elements of that 1980s style.
Many of the aliens looked so real I had to wonder if you were using actual latex creatures is some sequences.
Yeah. That's just very good CG. The visual effects are pretty astounding. I mean given our budget, a Canadian company called Image Engine did the creatures, and really hit the ball out of the park. They're very, very photo-real.
So what parts were actually created and tangible?
There's a lot of tangible weapons, certain biological things that happen to humans, occasionally dead aliens and gore, and inanimate things that don't have to move. But it's not only that -- it's also how you present it. Everybody could watch the movie and think, "That's such a 2009 movie," but hopefully not. Hopefully they'll feel that ever-so-slight nudge towards that 1980s in-camera stuff. I don't know. It will be interesting to see if anybody picks up on it.
I wanted to ask you a bit about something you probably get asked about a lot -- Halo. What happened there, exactly?
What happened was really simple: Fox and Universal were fighting over who had control of the movie, and I think Fox wanted more control. And a whole lot of politics occurred and it imploded. I would have directed the shit out of that film. And I was busy doing it.
What brought you to it?
What happened was my agent gave all of my work to [former Universal Studios President of Production] Mary Parent, who was producing. She was building Halo at the time, and Pete [Jackson] was already on board, and Guillermo [del Toro] had just stopped directing it, because he was going to do Hellboy 2. So I flew down to New Zealand to meet [Peter], because he had to sign off on whoever was directed it.
And that's what started your partnership with him?
Yeah. So I flew down there and worked on it for five months. Like, I was fully directing Halo for five months.
And you weren't at all intimidated by the prospects of tackling that big a movie at that point in your career?
It's a good question. I respected the size of it and I respected how much pressure it was going to be and what I needed to do to pull it off, and not be crushed under that. And I think part of what helped me would be Pete, because he provided that sort of buffer where he could take some of that pressure off and allow me to be creative. Because if there's too much pressure, it doesn't allow you to be creative. You just sort of get flustered by all the stuff that's burying you. So he would have provided that buffer, but ultimately you're dealing with an incredibly popular piece of pop culture and a lot of people stand to make a lot of money off of it. There's just a lot of politics involved, and none of it involved me.
What was your take on it? Was it your pitch they liked?
Well, sort of. I met Mary Parent, and I never thought I'd be offered a film like Halo. I just didn't think it was on the radar. So she asked to meet me, and I think in those first meetings I did give her my kind of pitch on what it would be, and she liked it. And when I met Pete I did the same thing. I spent five months developing that pitch. I like seeing science fiction in a very real way, so it would have been like Black Hawk Down on another planet. And we developed everything like that.
So something very militaristic.
Yeah, very much so. Just dealing with it realistically. Kind of like how The Forever War could probably be made now. A sort of not-glossy war film.
I guess the touchstone for the realistic war film these days is The Hurt Locker.
Fuck dude, The Hurt Locker is so good. Jesus Christ -- I just saw it a few days ago. So good. Exactly.
Could you describe your first meeting with Peter Jackson? What you were feeling, and how he behaved, and what the two of you talked about?
I do remember it, pretty clearly. We had a meeting in [Jackson's Miramar-based effects company] Weta's design room, upstairs, where I met him for the first time. We both just kind of sat and spoke, first about Halo, and then about filmmaking. I think we liked one another -- I liked him, maybe he was at first like, 'Who is this fucking little dick?' But it was good. We just started throwing ideas around right from the beginning. It almost felt like it happened right away. I still lived in Vancouver, so it took a few months for me to move down and get into it.
Did he give you a piece of advice that echoes in your head a lot?
He gave me a lot of advice. He gave me a few sort of like, you know, sentences that stick in my head. But I think the thing that will stick with me the most isn't really a sentence -- it's more of his attitude, and the way that he makes films. This film is sort of low-budget, right? We did have financial constraints, and I think I was really aware of them, and I was very much figuring things out based on that. So in other words, there were perimeters, and I would go about trying to make a film within them.
And the way that he does things is totally different to me -- it's like 180 degrees away from me, where he'll imagine everything. His mind simply doesn't allow for those kinds of [financial] perimeters -- the information does not apply. "This is what I want. If you aim for this, you'll somehow figure out a way to make it happen." When I saw that happening, I thought I could probably use some of that, because it frees your mind up.