What music works for both aliens and South Africa in District 9

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

It pays to hook up early with major talent.

Clinton Shorter wrote the score for a short called Alive in JoBurg, directed by a neophyte named Neill Blomkamp. Now Alive in JoBurg has been re-invented as the much-hyped sci-fi action movie District 9, Blomkamp is being called a visionary in the making, and Shorter himself is on the verge of something big as well, having composed the District 9 score.

"A friend of mine worked at the same CG facility as Neill," Shorter said during an exclusive conversation in which he recalled how he met Blomkamp. "He had told me about him and how he and others felt Neill was going to be a superstar one day. I went to their office that day and met him. He was only about 21, 22 at the time. I saw his stuff, and it was incredible. I ended up scoring a couple of [Blomkamp-directed] commercials, as well as his short over the years."

When he composed the music for Alive in JoBurg, Shorter had no idea the short would eventually be expanded into the movie that opens today. But the Canadian hoped that might happen. "Well, you always hope that when you work on a short that someday the people involved in it will move on to bigger and better things," Shorter said. "One of those is that perhaps it would become a feature, but personally I've never seen that happen. The scope and magnitude of this is surreal." (The movie is produced by Peter Jackson.)

There are, Shorter acknowledged, few elements of his Alive in JoBurg score that carried over to the film. Key among the carryovers would be the percussion. Meanwhile, the vocals in the short were operatic, and for District 9 they were performed by an African vocalist.

Anyone who's read up on District 9 is aware that it's an ambitious story with a lot going on. There's the pure sci-fi [aliens barely co-existing with humans in South Africa], the "race" allegory, the action and the personal story of Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who is forced to question his assumptions when things go horribly wrong during an armed incursion into an alien refugee camp.

Shorter's score had to embellish each individual story thread while coming together into a cohesive whole. Complicating matters, District 9 starts out almost like a documentary, which brought on another set of circumstances from a scoring perspective.

"I won't lie, the first three weeks were a lot of work and very challenging," Shorter said. "We tried our best to keep an African element to the score, but challenges relating to the region—like how the music sounds both rhythmically and instrumentation-wise—required a lot of thought and experimentation. Most of the music from the southern part of the continent is of a positive nature, and this film is quite dark and gory. I hope we crafted it in a way that works for the film and respects the region."

District 9 is no doubt Shorter's biggest project to date. Shorter says that after all the anticipation, he's excited for the world to see—and hear—it. "I'm having a tough time grasping it all, to be honest," he said. "This is bigger than anyone that was involved thought it would be. I'm extremely proud and excited, but, at the same time, I will probably have my head between my knees during the closing credits [laughs]."

Shorter added, "In the end, all I want to do is work with talented and passionate filmmakers on projects that they're passionate about. This job is a ton of fun when you're in the right environment, and I had a blast on District 9."