Neill Blomkamp's filmmaking career so far has run the gamut in terms of scale, from Hollywood sci-fi spectacles to experimental short films, but there are always new avenues to play with. His latest feature film, the intimate sci-fi horror tale Demonic, grew out of a number of different ideas, but perhaps chief among them was Blomkamp's longstanding desire to work in the realm of low-budget, self-financed scary movies.
"I was always heavily influenced by Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, and I knew — even going back years — I knew that at some point I really wanted to try to self-finance a small horror film to just go through that experience and see what that would be like," Blomkamp tells SYFY WIRE. "I always had that in the back of my head, and then I think of this movie like a whole bunch of puzzle pieces that were all sort of separate elements that came together. So I had the sort of love affair with these low-budget horror films that filmmakers had just shot themselves in locations that they had access to, which I thought was really creative. Then the pandemic happened, and any bigger project was on pause until people knew what was happening."
Because the film that would eventually become Demonic had been developing in Blomkamp's head well before the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to larger projects, the filmmaker behind District 9 and Elysium was able to move rather quickly once he decided his dream self-financed horror film would move to the front of the line. As early as March of 2020, the script was coming together, and by that summer Blomkamp and a small cast and crew were shooting the film in British Columbia with pandemic protocols in place. Everything happened fast, with the shoot unfolding over just three weeks, in part because Blomkamp had designed the film to be an amalgam of various ingredients he'd been toying with for some time.
"I knew there would be something related to demon possession. I knew that there would be this real-time computer graphics element, which was also floating around for a year that we were like 'How do we use real-time graphics in a movie somehow?' The film really is a mixture of using the puzzle pieces in front of us, mixed with older ideas and kind of putting them together in a way that hopefully audiences like," the director explains.
Though Blomkamp's self-financed filmmaking ethos and focus on technology informed much of the story, the core of Demonic is a mother-daughter narrative packed with trauma and terror. The film follows Carly (Carly Pope), a woman still haunted by the past deeds of her estranged mother (Nathalie Boltt). When Carly gets a call from an experimental medical company informing her that her mother is in a coma, she sees an opportunity to reconnect for one last reckoning via a new technology that will essentially allow her to project herself into her mother's head. With the help of a prototype headset and a digital avatar, Carly can beam herself into the mind of a woman she hasn't spoken to in years, but what she finds when she gets inside is something far different than closure.
Even before he'd written the final version of Demonic, Blomkamp had reached out to Pope about the possibility of starring in his eventual horror film. After working with her on both big-budget projects like Elysium and various experimental shorts produced by his company, Oats Studios, he knew he'd found an adaptable creative partner.
"If I'm just speaking about on set, who are people that will be able to deal with the circumstances of low budget production and the hardships of it and rush through pages and make the day, she's a person that you can rely on to do that," Blomkamp says of his star. "So then when you combine it with the fact that she's a really talented actress, I just knew that whatever I was going to write would include her."
For Pope, who'd never worked in the horror genre before, Demonic represented a new acting challenge that led her to marathon as many female-led horror films as she could, then show up ready to access her own past emotional tribulations.
"I mean, my job was to just be kind of as present as possible," Pope says. "I know that might seem like a cop-out, but really, I kind of just had to show up. Begin by understanding trauma, which I've been through, [I have] trauma in my past. I've had PTSD before. So there was a certain amount of that, that was kind of molecularly in my body, which I understood. But really in terms of the story of Demonic, I just had to kind of show up and let it happen, which is intimidating, but it was also very exciting."
Though he's dealt with some dark subjects and creepy visuals in his previous filmography, Blomkamp was, like his star, delving into new territory with his first horror feature. Though he'd long been enamored with the basic idea of working on a low-budget horror film, actually applying his own take on horror to the filmmaking itself was a different kind of challenge. His answer? Tension, and lots of it. Demonic is a film that, even in broad daylight, makes frequent use of long, controlled takes to add a sense of impending doom.
"If there was one thought that ran through my head every single day we were shooting, it was that I wanted to create some kind of tension that was bubbling under the surface of the film the whole time," Blomkamp says. "So every shot choice, every shot selection was based on trying to reinforce that goal. That's all I was really trying to do. So obviously, District 9 is extremely handheld and I do have a sort of history of using that sort of camera technique, but this movie is the most controlled and restrained of anything that I've done."
"What Neill wanted to create was this sense of sort of constant simmering doom, really," Pope adds. "So that was the kind of nugget for me to start from. There's this woman that's in this constant state of low vibration fear, and why? And of course, in this case, it's because of the trauma of her past with regards to her mother's sins that were committed when she was a teenager, and she's been isolated and estranged from her mother for so long. And as a result, she was keeping herself isolated. She was keeping herself estranged from everybody really, I think, out of preservation, self-preservation, but also the preservation of others."
Pope's challenge in bringing the character of Carly to life was compounded by the film's frequent use of volumetric capture technology for the scenes in which Carly visits her mother's mind. To create those sequences, Pope and Boltt had to act in a room full of a framework of 4K cameras, all filming them at once, without actual sets or locations to help inform the performance. The final look of the film is a deeply unsettling, almost glitchy video game atmosphere, but that wasn't what the actors got as they worked.
"The challenge for me as the actor in this environment was that some of those scenes, or all of those scenes, were some of the most emotional content of the film," Pope says. "And being able to access emotion when you're in a very synthetic environment was incredibly disconcerting for me. I had a really hard time kind of finding my emotional center when everything is literally a buzz around you. So that was a challenge, it was really fun. Being able to work with Nathalie Boltt, who's just an exquisite champion of an actor, was entirely helpful too, because we were in it together. We just had to figure out how to ignore the tech vibe that was around us and just focus on what we were trying to say to one another."
The volumetric capture aspect of the filmmaking was just one of many challenges the cast and crew of Demonic had to contend with last summer. It's a film that was made quickly, with a low budget, working with still-evolving pandemic protocols at a time when many other productions simply weren't moving forward, and to make things even more interesting, Blomkamp noted that one of the film's locations was infested with rattlesnakes. Still, despite all of it, and despite the fictional horrors lurking within the film itself, Pope celebrates Demonic now as a film made by a group of people who carried with them an innate sense of trust and belief in each other, something she said might encourage to make more horror films in the future.
"I knew I would have fun with Neill. I knew I would have fun with the cast. I knew I would have fun with our crew, but I didn't expect the experience of shooting the actual, meat and potatoes of horror, to be fun," she says. "I expected it to be excruciating. I expected it to be ruinous. I expected it to be so tiring. I expected all that, and it was none of that. There was so much good energy surrounding us the whole time that it was just really a treat and a treasure of an experience."
Demonic is now in theaters and on VOD platforms.