Peter Jackson on why District 9 breaks the sci-fi mold

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

The last installment of our conversation with producer/director Peter Jackson deals with the upcoming sci-fi action drama District 9, directed by newcomer Neill Blomkamp, in which Jackson details the project's genesis and what sets it apart from other sci-fi movies.

This is part three of our group interview with Jackson from Comic-Con last week; part one, about The Lovely Bones, posted Monday; part two, about The Hobbit, went live yesterday.

District 9 deals with the arrival of a million insectoid aliens, derisively called "Prawns," in a massive ship over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the uneasy co-existence 28 years later between humans and aliens who live in the grinding poverty and violence of a township-like camp. The action is set in motion by a low-level bureaucrat, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, who heads an armed force that enters the slum, District 9, to make way for a forced relocation of the aliens. When things take an unexpected turn, Copley's Wikus van der Merwe finds his life turned upside down, and he is forced to question his assumptions and forge an uneasy alliance with an alien and his young son. The movie opens Aug. 14.

Following is an edited version of our talk with Jackson about District 9. (Spoilers ahead!)

When I talked to Neill a little while ago, he said that after Halo fell apart you guys were looking for something else for him to do.

Jackson: ... We believe strongly in relationships and people, and following on from King Kong, we had a really good relationship with an executive at Universal, Mary Parent. She doesn't work there anymore, but she had Halo, and she was very, very passionate about getting Halo made. ...

Neill Blomkamp

Mary Parent deserves the credit for finding Neill, because she called up one day and said that she's found this young filmmaker, and I should check out his short films and commercials. And I think you can YouTube Neill, and you can see some of his short movies, and I think they're on the 'net, reasonably easy to get. ... Very, very flash. ...

He literally moved down to New Zealand to start work on Halo. ... I think we were working on Halo for maybe three or four months, and then the film died. ...

So we just felt really bad, because we had found this exciting young filmmaker. The idea was to mentor him into a film. And what do we do? Three or four months, and then this hellish experience happens and the film falls over.

So we felt terribly guilty and terribly bad about that. And we came up with the idea, like we were literally in the dying Halo moments, when you're depressed. ... And we just thought, "Well, why don't we actually kind of take control of the situation and try to do something, try to get something good happening?" So the idea, which was an obvious one, actually, in hindsight, was to develop an original film with Neill. ...

One of Neill's short movies is called Alive in Joburg, which is, if you see it or if you have seen it, you know, it's very, it very much inspired District 9. District 9 definitely grew out of Alive in Joburg, except we had to develop characters and a story. ...

We just paid for the script development. We got designs of the alien creatures. We had production art done. We sort of packaged all the production art in a bound book. A really nice, fancy, graphic-novel-style presentation. Neill went to South Africa and shot a little 10-minute test with his friend Sharlto. Because the other thing Neill wanted to do was to cast his old school chum Sharlto Copley in the lead role. Which, we didn't know Sharlto, but we knew that the character of Wikus wanted to be someone who could improvise.

Sharlto Copley as Wikus

Because the whole plan from the very beginning was that Neill didn't want to do a fully scripted film. He wanted it to have a little bit of a [Donnie] Darko feel and be spontaneous and have a kind of something that didn't feel like it was completely ... being read off a page. So we wrote a screenplay that was more of a treatment than a screenplay. We didn't write all the dialogue. We sort of left bits of it, kind of. But we needed some actors who were going to be able to improv, otherwise the whole thing wasn't going to work. And Neill had great faith ... in a guy he met when he was at school in Johannesburg, and Sharlto's not really an actor, but he's sort of worked in various film companies, he's run his own visual-effects company in Johannesburg, he's run a production company, a sort of a grip company. He's been a film guy, and he's directed a film. But he's never really acted before.

But Neill ... said that he was very funny. ... He's done a little bit of stand-up comedy, I think, and so anyway, Neill goes to South Africa. He shoots the test with Sharlto, and then we come back and we package the whole thing together, our script, the graphic novel sort of production design, and the test. And we gave it to a company called QED, who raised finance for films. They went to the American film market, I think about two years ago. And raised the money to make the movie. And ultimately Sony bought the rights to distribute in most of the territories around the world. So it was an independent movie, shot as an independent film, but distributed by Sony now. And Neill went off and shot it.

You talk about it being low-budget. The movie I just saw is astonishing-looking. The effects were incredible. How does a movie that's low-budget sort of end up looking like that?

Jackson: Well, it cost $30 million. Well, I don't know, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It's a good thing.

Jackson: I mean, it's weird. You live in a world where $30 million people say ... is such a small amount of money, isn't it? It's a strange world. But, no, I mean, it cost $30 million. South Africa, I guess, is a reasonably cheap country to shoot in. ... We did all the post in New Zealand with our post-production facilities, so we kept the overheads as low as we could. We tried to put all of the money on the screen. Image Engine, which is a Vancouver-based effects company, did all the alien shots and did a terrific job. Weta Digital were busy on Avatar and ... just didn't have the capacity to be able to do it, but ... they came in towards the end when we wanted to have a lot more shots of the alien spaceship than what we originally thought ... and sort of did a bit of troubleshooting for us and did the spaceship shots. But Image Engine, I thought, did a terrific job on the aliens. On a very low budget, but great-looking aliens. ...

So the politics of the film, were you worried? Because it's an extremely political film, and we're talking about how gorgeous the effects are, but it's undeniable that it's got a political message. Were you guys worried about how that played in a Hollywood climate?

Jackson: We weren't really worried about it, because we weren't necessarily making it as a Hollywood commercial film. I mean, that was the beauty of keeping the budget reasonably low, is that it gives you freedom. ... I did say to Neill at one stage: ... Just enjoy this, because if this film succeeds, you'll be making bigger and bigger movies, and you'll find that your freedom gets less and less. Which is true. Because ... once you're dealing with $100 million or $150 million, you have a sense of responsibility to not lose their money for the people that are putting it into the film, and so you naturally get a little bit more conservative, and you get a little safer, and you start thinking about the demographic, and you start thinking about all those Hollywood things. ...

And the politics. ... What I think's really great about the movie is it reflects very much Neill's life experience. I mean, we often see films made by, particularly young filmmakers, who often base the movie that they're making on somebody else's film or films that they've grown up with and been inspired by. I mean, Neill wasn't basing this movie on any other movie. It was being based on growing up in Johannesburg, looking at the end of the apartheid era, all the ugliness that he witnessed as a kid growing up. And he wanted to put that on film with an alien kind of spin to it, because he's a sci-fi geek. You know, he's a total geek. And I think that's what makes the film special, personally, is I think it's ... based on a life experience rather than homogenized bits of other movies that ... we've seen.

Did you use practical effects to kind of augment the digital effects? Some of the stuff looks so real, you would swear that some of it was actual practical effects.

Jackson: We did try to use an alien costume. We made a rubber alien suit, where we were hoping to use it for some wide shots and over shoulders and various things, but it ended up being cut out of the movie, pretty much. I mean, every alien shot is a CG shot. And I agree, ... some of them look incredibly real. I mean, I'm surprised. Yeah, the close-ups are all CG. CGI. Everything's CGI. I mean, I was pretty blown away. ...

The film takes a while to have the audience become sentimental to the aliens themselves. At first, they're very presented like animals, and it's pretty stark. Is that meant to just tie in with Wikus's own character arc?

Jackson: Yeah. ... At the beginning, they seem to be a little wild, but, yes, that was really the storyline. Following Wikus and maintaining a little bit of his point of view. I mean, I think that Wikus works quite well, too. ...

With Wikus, [Neill]'s created an interesting character. I like his complexity. He's not a stock standard protagonist. He's a kind of a flawed guy, and you get the feeling even by the end, he's still a little bit of a flawed guy. He hasn't totally redeemed himself, ... regardless of whatever's happened to him. ... But ... he has at least ... seen a little bit of the aliens' point of view and come to respect them a little bit more, which is obviously an important aspect of the film.