Neill Blomkamp shakes up the system with Oats Studios

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Jun 30, 2017

In 2009, director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the movie scene with the critically and commercially adored District 9. Based on his 2005 short Alive in Joburg, District 9 proved a pretty damn good opening gambit for the South Africa-born director … getting a Best Picture Oscar nomination never hurts.

A sophomore slump came in the form of 2013's Elysium, starring Matt Damon … and then there was Chappie, a bonkers fever-dream of a film where a robot throws ninja stars and Hugh Jackman has a duck-tail mullet. Roundly dismissed by critics, Chappie is Exhibit A in evidence of Blomkamp's willingness to take creative risks.

Most people don't think those risks paid off. I am not one of them. Chappie is weird and fabulous. Did you not read "robot throws ninja stars"?

Blomkamp's latest project is Oats Studios, through which the director creates ambitious sci-fi shorts, released (for now, at least) for free on YouTube and Steam. "It's like an incubator." says Blomkamp of his grand Oats project, "a nursing ground for concept and ideas" that allows him to explore new creative avenues outside the confines of the studio system. The first collection, Volume One, began with the post-apocalyptic Rakka, co-starring Sigourney Weaver, and continues with the Vietnam War-set Firebase, out earlier this week.

To coincide with the debut of Firebase, I had the chance to speak with Blomkamp … and I didn't geek out about Chappie too much. Just a little.

Can you talk a little bit about your motivation behind embarking on this project?

What I wanted to do was try to create a situation where the audience was eventually going to have the ability to finance whatever we were making directly. To be on as much of a one-on-one, immediate communication level with the audience as possible. That's really what it's all about: just trying to be creative. And if something works and the audience pays for it, it works. And if something doesn't work and it was the wrong move, the audience doesn't pay for it, and it doesn't work. But it's up to us to find out what does and doesn't work. Not to pre-guess that before it's greenlit, or before the script is thrown aside because of fears that may or may not be real.

Your features have been distributed by Sony, which is a huge studio with a huge bureaucracy, obviously.

It's interesting, because I understand how it needs to be bureaucratic. It makes complete sense to me, the level of oversight that needs to be done there. I would say that I am the statistical outlier, the weird piece that won't plug in. Not that the studios are doing it wrong. The studios in that system work fine. I just also need another avenue, another outlet that works better for me. It doesn't rule out making normal Hollywood films, which I still want to do. I still love the idea of directing films, writing [films], and having enough resources behind them to realize a vision correctly. But I am very well aware that I need a separate, different, more creative outlet that lets me do what I want to do. And with the way technology is going and the way that distribution is changing, why not attempt to see if you can have that relationship with the audience?

It's definitely true that studio filmmaking is getting somewhat risk-averse. I don't know if you saw The Mummy, but that was corporate filmmaking at its worst.

I actually haven't seen that. But, yeah, what I want try to do is see if there is way to make stuff that actually feels -- whether you like it or you don't like it, it should be undeniable that it looks like some kind of passion. And I think that's a really interesting notion. To try to always be passionate about what you're working on, and make it because you love it. And if the audience gets behind it, they get behind it. And if they don't, they don't. But you made it for the right reasons. And I think that is probably still doable in Hollywood, for sure. But it's just easier for me this way.

I definitely feel like Chappie was like that. I love Chappie.

Ah, thank you. Yeah, Chappie was made that way. And the audience for the most part rejected that. The intent was the same as Oats, which is to attempt to be as creative as possible, put passion into it, believe in it.

Chappie is so odd tonally, but in a way I find very interesting. There's this blend of childlike innocence and wackiness with very dark themes and content. I describe it as being like an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon.

The intent was to have this weird, childlike, goofy, farcical, almost joke-like, don't-take-me-seriously tone that was mixed with asking the biggest questions you can ask about existence or the soul or sentience. When you mix the weird, strange tone of "everything's a joke, including this film" with the deepest questions you can ask, some people just turn their backs on that. And some people did get it, as well. That was the goal.

Is your experience with Chappie, with audiences not responding to it, something that led you to start Oats?

I wouldn't say so. I've always been close to technology. I've used Steam as a gamer. Before I was in feature films, I always used to spend my own money on doing my own weird short films. And the only reason I was doing that was just to be creative. People look back on stuff, and they're like, "You're only doing it so you can get ahead" or "You only made Alive in Joburg so you could make District 9." I made Alive in Joburg because I wanted to make Alive in Joburg. It's not as strategic as that. It's more of a case of always trying to be as creative as possible. Two or three years ago, when we started this, I just wanted to find a way that I could be as expressive as possible, knowing that there is a huge chance that it's not really a viable business model.

How is this going to be financially sustainable going forward? Because these are not cheap, five-minute shorts – they're longer, and there are a lot of visual effects going on. You're staging battle scenes.

Well, I'm not sure it will be. If there is a film at the end of Volume One that feels like the audience really likes and they want to see more of, one way is to just independently raise the financing to make that piece. And once you make that piece and you release it, the proceeds of that can pay for Volume Two or Volume Three or other films. Or you can speak directly to the audience and ask them to crowdfund their favorite film that Oats has made so far into a feature film and sell it to everyone else. You can ask them to pay for Volume Two ahead of time. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. We could make Volume Two and sell it instead of putting it online for free. There are actually several ways to do it. It's just a question of are there enough people that are interested?

Was making one of these shorts into a feature always the end goal?

There are certainly feature films that I would love to make. But expensive, large-scale features. There are other [shorts] that don't have the depth to be immediately turned into feature films, because they were never really designed that way. They were really just for the sake of being creative. So, the answer is I pretty much love everything that we are making. It's more of a question of what's financially feasible because the audience also likes it. And you're going to be surprised by what they don't like and be surprised by what they do like. And I don't know that until I put things online.

How has the response been so far to Rakka? Have you been keeping up with it?

Yeah, it seems good. It's interesting, because it poses this problem of how do you evaluate that? What is the best way to judge whether or not it's doing well? I would say it seems to be positive, overall, which is cool. But I'm curious what people's reaction to Firebase will be. Firebase is a little bit more surreal, a little bit stranger. And that's the point of the whole [thing], to make stuff first and see how people respond to it second.

Personally, Firebase was my favorite of the two.

I really love Firebase, because I really love the retro sci-fi feel to it. It's very appealing to me.

Are there any retro sci-fi films you were pulling from as reference?

Firebase was a weird piece where I was not really pulling mentally from anything, consciously. It's much more initially based on pure conceptual ideas. Simulation hypothesis … the closest thing would probably be The Matrix. That we're looking at a simulation and extrapolating that into someone who has broken through and has the ability to control it and subconsciously manipulate matter and time and space around him. And the story grew out of that.

Obviously, with these short films you're not working with budgets as big as you had with your features. Do you find that those constraints help you at all, creatively?

I don't know if they help me. I would rather make a two-hour film for Firebase than a 25-minute film. My preference would have been to make a feature. Do I want to make short films? No. Do I want to make them at lower budgets? No. But it's the only economic way right now, to just do it. I know the argument that budget limitations bolster creativity and in certain instances can have a positive effect on it, because filmmakers are forced to solve problems in a way that they wouldn't. I think that's probably true, but I think that the budget levels that we are operating at for what we're putting out are probably too low. We could have used another 100%.

What's the next short after Firebase?

The next one after Firebase will be Zygote, [which will come out] on July 12. And we are possibly looking at charging for that, just to see what audiences are willing to pay for it.

Watch Rakka:

Now watch Firebase