SDCC: District 9 director on mixing sci-fi, slums and action

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Neill Blomkamp, the fledgling director of the upcoming sci-fi action drama District 9, said the movie is an attempt to do something new: mix a Third-World setting and Hollywood-style action and visual effects.

"I grew up in that Third World environment, and all I wanted was to see those two things combined," the South African filmmaker told SCI FI Wire in an exclusive interview at Comic-Con in San Diego on Thursday. "And so District 9, really, is that. It's I grew up with all that [sci-fi] s--t, and now I'm going to put it in my hometown. And so when you decide to do that, then there's kind of a whole bunch of decisions that have to be made that will, you know, either sort of complement or be destructive to that idea. So, for example, the style of photography, in my mind, needs to be very grounded and feel very real and feel unbeautiful and sort of slightly overexposed or ... sun-bleached and just real. Almost like ... footage coming out of Afghanistan or Iraq or something. And it kind of adds to the realism of it. So it's those two topics merged together, is what the film is. Hollywood meets the real world."

The movie 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 came together after producer Peter Jackson brought Blomkamp in to direct a proposed feature version of the video game Halo based on the strength of Blomkamp's short films, including Alive in JoBurg, the precursor to District 9. When Halo famously fell apart in the development stages, Jackson decided that he and Blomkamp should simply develop an original movie and seized on JoBurg as the kernel of a bigger story.

Following is an edited version of our interview with Blomkamp. District 9 opens on Aug. 14. (Possible spoilers ahead!)

It started out as a short film?

Blomkamp: It started as a short film, I guess in 2005, the end of 2005, and then I just wanted to create it, I guess, for the sake of pure creativity. Like, just do it. And so once I had completed it and it was done, I kind of, I felt that was the end of it, forever. I thought that, you know, that we were finished. And then I guess fast-forward a whole bunch of years until Halo collapsed and, uh, I was getting to leave New Zealand, and Pete Jackson and Fran asked me if I wanted to develop another film with them and just keep, you know, keep the momentum going of all the people we knew down there, and that's what happened. So once the idea was "Let's keep going, let's work on something new, what can we turn to?", Alive in JoBurg ... seemed like a really awesome place to start, yeah.

It seems like the film was maybe a metaphor of apartheid, but clearly there's more going on with the feature film than simply a critique of the South African situation.

Blomkamp: Yeah. Yeah, that's true. I mean, yeah, I was very aware of not being heavy-handed with any sort of allegories or metaphors that were there and present in the foreground. They can be present as much as you want in the background, and provide the structure that the film can be set against, because it's an interesting social dynamic, but to have the story in the foreground be about some sort of really depressing, race-related and segregation-related topic, I thought would probably not be a good idea for my first film. So it's like, ... it sounds really bad to say, I suppose, but it's a Hollywood film, set against a really violent and destructive background.

The marketing of it has been very creative. Last year at Comic-Con they had these bug posters everywhere, "Humans only," and nobody knew what the heck it was for.

Blomkamp: Yeah. But even before you know what it's for, you still instantly recognize the idea of segregation. Which is pretty interesting, you know? ... America has its own batch of that, I suppose. But audiences in America really responded, I think, to that kind of [idea], that instant [sign]: This water fountain is only for humans, this elevator is only for humans. I mean, it's an interesting concept. And it's really interesting if you think those are real.

Americans don't have an experience of townships, like you do in South Africa. And that raises it to a whole new level. I mean, we had internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II and understand what a concentration camp is.

Blomkamp: Yeah, during war.

But this will be new to a lot of Americans.

Blomkamp: Yeah. That's a good point, actually. I've definitely thought about whether Americans will accept the film or not, because obviously I just have no idea how people are going to take it. But the way I've always thought of it is that they're going to see a film that's set in a Third World setting, but I've never really thought of the concept that they're just completely unfamiliar with townships, which I suppose other than news and documentaries and stuff is probably true. But then movies like City of God and, you know ...

I think they understand the idea of a favela, a Brazilian slum, or a barrio.

Blomkamp: Yeah, exactly. And Mexico's next door, you know? So, yeah, the idea, it's just really more extreme poverty is what it is, and then once you grasp that, it's pretty, it just becomes about the story.

Also, it's interesting to me that you describe it as a Hollywood film, and from what little we've seen from the trailer, there is some really pretty fantastic stuff in it, with giant spaceships and robots. Talk about those elements and sort of incorporating those elements into a really gritty-looking movie.

Blomkamp: The two topics that we're talking about bleed together into this one. Like this topic is the melting point, so you have to have the favelas, and you have the sort of slums that Americans may or may not be aware of, and then you have the Hollywood staple science fiction stuff that we all grew up on.

And you just merge them. And that is the genesis of the film. I mean, that's where the idea for the short film came from. ...

What kind of challenges does it present to take these fantastical things, which are obviously computer-generated visual effects, but make them look so real to match?

Blomkamp: We didn't have a massive budget, which is important, but even, ... aside from not having a massive budget, one of the ingredients that probably helps that cause is just sort of an exercise in restraint, really. And if you restrain how many spaceships you're seeing and how many robots are blowing s--t up and ... how many explosions per minute are happening, if you bring that number down, you can either create a kind of more subtle but very real-feeling environment, but if you go too far, it may sort of become boring. ...

For a popcorn audience, yeah. So I was aware of that while I was doing it. But, hopefully, one of the things that makes it feel real, and of course we don't know yet how people are going to take the film, but I'm hoping if it feels like science fiction that they've seen before, but it just feels a little bit more grounded, you know, a little bit more sort of real.

People are going to think of Alien Nation, they're going to think maybe even of RoboCop in some ways.

Blomkamp: Well, RoboCop, I f--king love RoboCop, but what do you mean, though? In terms of what, the satire?

In terms of the satire, in terms of the gritty milieu. I'm talking about the original film, the gritty, urban sort of commentary and this high-tech kind of science fiction stuff, in this slum.

Blomkamp: Well the satire for sure, I mean, just, I love that sort of like black humor, kind of dark, satirical stuff. And there's a lot of that in District 9. There's a hell of a lot of it. RoboCop is still, on a sort of cinematic basis, it's still, you know, it's ...


Blomkamp: Yeah, no, glossy's the wrong word, but you're going in the right direction. Like, ... it's still kind of beautiful in a way, so I'm trying to make this as unbeautiful as possible.