" rose up -- as writer and director Neill Blomkamp
likes to say -- from the ashes of the failed "Halo" project that Neill was set to direct. As a result, he was pretty much given carte blanch on what he wanted do with "District 9." The South African native sat down with us in Midtown Manhattan to discuss what some
(Hello!) are calling an instant sci-fi classic and the very real social issues that drive the film.Mike:
Someone asked me what I thought of "District 9" but to only use ten words because they didn't want to know too much. I just used the word "intense" ten times.Neill Blomkamp:
(Laughs) Oh, really? That's cool.Mike:
It is intense, though. It starts a little with the background...Neill Blomkamp:
It builds up.Mike:
Right! Then, bam, it just keeps going.Neill Blomkamp:
That's cool. I'm glad you view it that way.Mike:
If you watch the trailer you look at the aliens and think, "Well, these guys are going to be trouble." They're really not, which makes the movie interesting. They're trouble in the form as refuges...Neill Blomkamp:
Right. And it starts out as a humanitarian effort that just goes wrong.Neill Blomkamp:
Yeah, totally. I mean, I think it's like refugees that bring a hell of a lot of potentially profitable stuff with them. So, it's like worst-case scenario because the humans want whatever the technology may mean for us. And because of that, they're willing to do what they need to do quicker to get there -- it's all about the bottom line. So, I think, yeah, the thing that really interests me about the film is the idea about a whole bunch of refugees that were really novel and amazing when they got here. And then very quickly lose interest with them and put them in their shanty town.Mike:
That's what happens in real life. Something bad will happen and people will say, "Oh, we need to help!" Then, after a few months, it becomes "Eh, who cares?"Neill Blomkamp:
There's some other crises somewhere else. Yeah, I definitely try to capture that. I like the idea that the aliens are a group that they are meant to look a little bit gross. On a physical level you don't want to be next to them on the bus so it makes the personal connection a little more difficult. So, it's easier to just not think about it.Mike:
Someone asked you, "How do you get someone to see this film?" I was asked about this film by someone who's father was with the State Department and spent a lot of time in Africa. In Kenya.Neill Blomkamp:
Yes. She was asking and I said that it was great. I mentioned the director was from South Africa and it takes place in Johannesburg and she was like, "Really, this sounds great." And then I said, "And there's aliens..." and she just said, "Nope." I think she'd like it, though.Neill Blomkamp:
Yeah, that makes sense to me. I can understand that. But, that's also the appeal of it, that's why I wanted to make it. You mention, "Africa. Africa. Africa." And then, "Aliens." And it's like those shouldn't go together. That's what's appealing.Mike:
I like that it takes place in Johannesburg and I'm guessing that where you always wanted to do it there because you're from there...Neill Blomkamp:
Was there any pressure from the studio saying that maybe you should do this in New York or L.A.?Neill Blomkamp:
No, not at all. But the film was also made under different circumstances. Peter Jackson
was really able to... It's because of him the film got made. So, there was never any discussion like that. He was like, "You can make any film you want, we're sorry 'Halo' collapsed. Let's just get a new film going." So, when it was taking the short film I had done and turning it into a feature, there's never one been any discussion of this being anywhere other than Jo'berg.
Image © Columbia Tristar Marketing Group, Inc.
Which, to me, is great. If that ever happened in real life, they're not always going to come to New York or L.A. They could go anywhere in the world.Neill Blomkamp:
I think it makes it feel more real, also.Mike:
I agree 100 percent.Neill Blomkamp:
And as we get more of this global society, the less America-centric everything starts becoming. Already, with "Slumdog Millionaire
" and everything else, cinema is starting to change. It's starting to become a global cinema, as well.Mike:
In the film I sensed a little bit of... Do you remember a film called "Enemy Mine
And also a hint of "Starship Troopers
." The human and Alien teaming up from "Enemy Mine" and the propaganda angle from "Starship Troopers."Neill Blomkamp:
I can see more of an "Enemy Mine" thing in my mind than "Starship Troopers." But, yeah, I know what you mean. "Starship Troopers" has the same satire, I guess.Mike:
A little bit, yeah. I was just referring to the propaganda of "these guys are bad."Neill Blomkamp:
And that's what's so cool about [Paul] Verhoeven. And "Robocop
," also. It has a lot of satire. "Robocop" is awesome.Mike:
Oh, yeah. And now I heard they're re-doing that film, which is weird to me; I don't know why you would remake that.
The hovering spaceship over the city: Was that a homage to "V" or "Independence Day
(Pauses) I don't think so. I think subconsciously it could have been. The way I thought of this whole film was that I wanted to take all the science fiction ideas I had in my mind and make a film. And all of that is influenced by literature and films, really. Like, for instance, the ship is a saucer.
It's interesting: I didn't realize that, but the two films that you just mentioned are both saucers. But, maybe they were doing the same thing. All I wanted to do was a throwback to the fifties. Or even the forties. Where the idea of the saucer U.F.O. is the staple, science fiction, alien shape. So, the sci-fi has a familiarity to it and Africa is the alien part. If you made the science fiction too crazy and then you put it in a crazy setting, you may have a bit of a problem. If the science fiction is recognizable then the Americans are like, "Oh, that's cool." And then you put it somewhere fucked. It's like, OK, it's gone the other way around. So, I don't think I was consciously trying to make it like those films, but I was definitely trying to make it feel familiar.Mike:
You mentioned the United States may not get the whole Nigerian gangsters plot and what that means to someone from South Africa.Neill Blomkamp:
Unfortunately, I think you might be right. It's almost like in a directors cut you should maybe put in a Nigerian prince emailing an American asking if they can hide some money in their bank account. When that's brought up, that's probably what we think of.Neill Blomkamp:
Yeah, the 619 scams...Mike:
But it is an interesting subplot.Neill Blomkamp:
The thing I find interesting about it is witchdoctory is a huge part of African culture whether you like it or not. That just is a huge part of African culture. So, the thing that I liked about it is, on one hand you have the west and you have Multi National United. All they're trying to do is extract or reverse engineer this technology so humans can use it. The Nigerians are doing the exact same thing. There's no difference. The only difference is one approach is scientific and one approach is -- I want to say traditional, because it's culture is traditional medicine in South Africa -- one approach is scientific and one is voodoo. But they want the same thing. So, that's an interesting concept. That's two human groups going about things radically different from one another and they both want the same outcome.Mike:
Some people were asking why there were cannibals. I looked at it, as you just said, they don't have the technology to realize, "Oh, here's how we do it." They just think, "Well, maybe if we eat it, it will happen."Neill Blomkamp:
But, you see, I'm not making that up, though. That's real. Right now, the new fad for traditional medicine is, instead of eating body parts from normal humans, it's eating body parts from albinos. Albinos in Kenya and eastern African countries have to be put into protection camps because the price on albino flesh is higher. I think for anyone that has a problem with it, unfortunately it's real. Where it gets kind of dicey is I'm taking a topic that is clearly not dinner conversation and putting science fiction in it.Mike:
I'm glad you didn't shy away from it. I don't know if you thought about shying away from it, but if that's what's going on...Neill Blomkamp:
Yeah, to make it real.
Image © Columbia Tristar Marketing Group, Inc.
Another thing I thought was really interesting was when it was revealed the main alien's name was Christopher Johnson. At the screening it got a laugh from the audience. I laughed. I thought it was funny because you don't expect his name to be Christopher Johnson. It stuck with me for a little bit and I started thinking that maybe it's not that funny because that's been done before. In this country that's been done before: Taking people from somewhere else and telling them their name is now Ben Smith, or something.Neill Blomkamp:
I tried to use as many pieces of human history that way. And, again, I didn't want to make it too serious and force all these ideas down people's throats. If it was done in a satirical way, then I could get away with it more. It also wasn't like I was being a pretentious filmmaker. There's no question that that kind of stuff is all drawn from reality. I'm not just sitting there making it up. It's like, this is what happened.Mike:
It does set it up at the end for another one. Is that in the realm of possibility if this does well?Neill Blomkamp:
Totally. For me, for a creative standpoint, I'd love to make another film like this, totally. But, it's like you said, it will be determined by whether the audience wants one or not. If they do... I'm there.
"Mike's Pulse" is a column written by transplanted Midwesterner and current New Yorker Mike Ryan. For any compliments or complaints -- preferably the former -- you may contact Mike directly at email@example.com
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