IAR INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Neill Blomkamp Talks 'Elysium,' 'Chappie,' the Unmade 'Halo' Film, and If He Would Consider Directing a 'Star Wars' Movie

Thursday, 08 August 2013 19:53 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Neill Blomkamp Talks 'Elysium,' 'Chappie,' the Unmade 'Halo' Film, and If He Would Consider Directing a 'Star Wars' Movie

South African born writer and director Neill Blomkamp made a name for himself as a visionary filmmaker with his debut feature film District 9, which went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the 2009 Academy Awards. Now he returns with his follow up movie, an equally stunning science fiction masterpiece called Elysium, which opens in theaters on August 9th and stars Oscar-winners Matt Damon and Jodie Foster

The new film is set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station called Elysium, while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth. Damon stars as Max DeCosta, a factory-worker and ex-con who has an industrial accident that leaves him with a deadly cancer virus. DeCosta only has five days to live unless he can find a way to get to Elysium where he can be cured with their advanced medical science. But he will have to strap on a powerful exoskeleton and steal a rich businessman’s (William Fichtner) identity in order to hijack his way on to the outer space satellite. However, when he realizes that the information he takes has the power to free his planet, it pits him against Elysium’s Secretary of Defense – Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and a violent secret police enforcer – Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley). 

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for an intimate conversation, along with a few other members of the press, with writer and director Neill Blomkamp to talk about his work on Elysium, as well as his upcoming projects. The visionary filmmaker spoke candidly about his new film, developing the idea, what has changed for him after the success of District 9, casting movie stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, the rumors that Eminem almost played Damon’s role, if he could ever envision himself directing a Marvel movie of a Star Wars film, what happened to the Halo adaption he was going to do that eventually became District 9, his next film – Chappie, reteaming with Sharlto Copley for Elysium and how the actor has grown since District 9

I began the discussion by asking Blomkamp how he came up with the idea for Elysium and how long he had been thinking about it before he started developing the screenplay. “It’s like one of these organic things that you never really know when they begin or end to a certain degree,” he said. “I got arrested in Tijuana and it wasn’t really fair because I hadn’t done anything. To say I got shaken down would be a better description, I think.  I ended up walking quite close to the U.S. border at night with Black Hawks flying up and down because of the naval base. That was when I was twenty-five, so that was before District 9,” he explained. “I always thought that that image and that concept, and that an hour before I was on the other side of the fence, stuck with me so much that I thought someday that would turn into something. Essentially Elysium really is that.”

The incredible success of District 9 made Blomkamp one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood; so you would think that it would afford him a lot of freedom on his follow up film but he went on to explain that that really wasn’t the case. “You know what’s interesting is I actually feel I’m at that point now after Elysium,” the director explained. “I never actually felt that on Elysium. I feel like it’s been such a fight to get to where I am at now that for the first time I feel like, going forward now, I can actually try to become a better filmmaker. I don’t know if that makes sense, but everything that I’ve done so far is like I’m trying to keep my head above water. There’s political stuff happening but I’m learning which crew members I want to work with, which ones stab you in the back, and which positions work and which ones don’t work. Now for the first time I feel like it’s a flat plateau and if I want to I can actually become a better filmmaker. I can actually get the noise away, like out of my head, from other people, and hone the craft of filmmaking. Hopefully ten years or twenty years from now if I don’t die from Legionnaires' disease, which I thought I had last week, I will be a better filmmaker. “

I followed up by pointing out to Blomkamp that the star of his first movie was Sharlto Copley, his high school friend, and on Elysium he now had the luxury of casting Academy Award-winners like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. So I asked the director if he understood that he must have had more freedom in some ways on his new film. “I definitely did. I love the financier of this film, Modi Wiczyk from Media Rights Capital, and I wrote to him when we were shooting the film. I basically said, thank you for allowing me to be an artist that can stand in a garbage dump in Mexico City shooting exactly what I want to shoot. So yes, you’re right. But the difference is, even though you have political ability to shoot what you want, and the film is what I want, you’re still outside the realm of the film. There’s this static noise of politics and I’m learning as I go.”

“Here’s another way of thinking of it,” he continued. “Ridley Scott on his like 780th film now just arrives at set and it’s like a well oiled machine, with crew members who just know him and know what he wants. Everything just goes smoothly and he leaves. I want to get closer to where it’s just pure artwork and there isn’t any other extraneous force in there that’s making you not focus 100%.”

Blomkamp went on to discuss further the award-winning actors that he was afforded to cast in Elysium. “The actors fit into that very smoothly, actually. It’s more setting up the way that the structure of the film happens. The actors are the good part. I do feel like I was very lucky on Elysium. A big part of it was meeting the actors and making sure that I felt like they were people that are like me. I don’t really want to just go to parties and hang out at red carpets and stuff. It’s about the film, and they all felt that way when I met them. So I feel I kind of lucked out because it was a group of people that wanted to do the same thing and that were just professionals. So we just make film. I think if you can continue to do that as a filmmaker, then you’re in a good place. Every once in a while you can have someone who kind of just fucks the entire process up.”

In addition to being great actors, Foster and Damon are also filmmakers in their own right, so I asked Blomkamp if that made a difference as far as them understanding his vision for the film. “Yeah, totally,” he replied. “It’s not even so much understanding the vision, it’s even beyond that. It’s just the way you work on set. If someone understands that they are part of a cog of a very big machine, that helps, and they are filmmakers. Matt hasn’t directed something yet, but he keeps almost directing something. He knows exactly what it takes, and he’s interested in it. The way he described it to me was, ‘You’re helping the director create this magic trick where you’re basically fooling the audience for two hours into believing something.’ Having an asset in someone who’s trying to help you create that illusion means they’ll do whatever they need them to do to help you create the illusion. If they really understand filmmaking, they know it’s about getting the shot before the sun goes down, and you don’t have time to get your hair done.”

Speaking of casting, there was a rumor that Blomkamp originally wanted rapper/actor Eminem to play Damon’s role, and the director addressed that issue. “Well the fact that that came out was slightly erroneous, only in the sense that the version of Elysium that I wanted Eminem for was not this film,” he explained. “It was a very different version. When I came up with the idea after District 9 I was very much in the sociological mindset of just this entire Tijuana border-fence kind of thing. Growing up in South Africa I was just interested in it and I knew that I wanted to make a science fiction film about the haves and the have-nots. The original script that I had was purposefully much lower budget. The set up was completely different. There was no space habitat. The way that the rich lived was this very cool idea that I, one day, want to turn into something else, because I like it so much. But it was totally different to this film.”  

“In that low budget edgier, stranger film, I wanted an unusual star,” Blomkamp continued. “That’s when he was approached. But then what happened was the concept that I’m talking about that I liked, it never felt right for the story. It wasn’t really designed for a haves, and have-nots kind of story. It kept not feeling right so I shelved that, and then I came up with the idea of a physical ring that you go to and is lined with Beverly Hills mansions. The second that happened was that I jacked the budget up by $60 million. That changed the whole way I thought of it. Then I was still apprehensive to use stars, but I thought if it cost more to get the ring made, it costs more anyway, so why not try to make it more of a cinematic experience rather than some under the radar kind of film. So my whole thinking kind of changed and then I went through a list of people and Matt really was the only guy on this list. Because a lot of other people come with … I’m just fearful of them messing with the script or doing something else, and Damon has such a good reputation that way. So that’s the story.”

Next, I asked Blomkamp if he envisions himself continuing to write and direct his own original science fiction projects in the future or if he would ever consider taking on a known property like helming a Marvel movie or one of the planned Star Wars sequels. “I don’t see myself taking on … I mean, maybe,” he reconsidered. “This is my thought process. My thought process is, I just want to be an artist that’s left alone. That’s really what I want. Films are the only art form that requires commerce so desperately. Any other artist needs a few dollars for a paintbrush, really if you think about it, like musicians or authors. They can be as free as they want. This is the one thing that just needs copious amounts of money. If you imagine a filmmaker trying to just be left alone as much as possible and make Star Wars how does that work? It kind of doesn’t, until you make a shitload of money and can do it yourself.”

It seems to me that after the success of District 9, Blomkamp was basically left alone to make Elysium however he wanted. So I followed up by asking the director if he felt like he had that kind of control on his latest picture. “This is the thing. Let’s say the contract says, ‘Leave Neill alone, you’ll get sued if you don’t.’ Even if you do that, you’ll still have people that say, ‘We know you don’t have to do this, but we really think Darth Vader in this film should be green and not black.’ You know what I mean? I don’t even want to hear that,” he explained. “I just want to hear nothing. So this is my thought process. The process is to have other brains that have thought of and come up with this cannon and literature, which is stacked high of this mythology that’s very cool and super interesting. I can draw from thousands of other minds that have thought of this stuff up. That’s a hyper appealing thing because it’s actually, in a way, more creative. You can already envision everything. It’s been done before you. That is very tempting, but I know the expense that comes with it. Currently at this point I’m not willing to do that. But that doesn’t mean I’m unbelievably yearning to work with some of those franchises, even the ones that affected me as a kid. But it would be so cool to do them.”

As many know, District 9 was originally going to be an adaption of the popular video game Halo, produced by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey director Peter Jackson, but due to cost was eventually scratched and turned into an original project. The filmmaker was next asked if his concerns about creative control are also what caused the Halo movie to not be made. “Imagine someone getting flogged, like some kind of Singapore corporal punishment, that would be me directing Halo,” he joked. “The only thing that made a huge difference to the situation would’ve been Peter Jackson. PJ could’ve been some sort of interference shield that may have made some quite radical difference to the way that I would’ve gone through that particular meat grinder. That is just literally a different scenario. I am just a different filmmaker now. I cannot imagine the shit that would’ve gone down if that production had actually been made. But Peter may have been able to shield me from it … possibly. The world of Halo and the mythology of Halo is still something that I find … it’s like Star Wars, it’s so appealing to me because it’s cool, it’s there, and I can imagine it. But you have to do it in a way that you can do it yourself. “

The structure of Elysium itself, within the film, is one giant ring, and the director was asked if that, or any of the robots in the movie, were leftover ideas from the Halo project. “Consciously no. Subconsciously it’s impossible to know, but consciously it wasn’t meant to be anything, even the ring,” Blomkamp said. “But one thing about Halo was that I always felt the ring was incomprehensibly too big, and it didn’t have any buildings on it, which drove me insane. It was just nature. The only way that you could see something cool was you had to get in the sub-structure of it, and that always used to irk me when I was working on the film. It was like its just nature, it’s like a bunch of dudes in nature the whole time. So yeah, maybe there was a subconscious thing with fleshing out a ring that actually has suburbia on it. But the version that we were making hadn’t gone far enough down the road that I could pull ideas like that. More what I had done were things like fleshing out what all the different creatures looked like, the planets, the tone, and the vibe of it. So it was more just the conceptual ideas.”

Blomkamp has already announced his next project, Chappie, a sci-fi comedy that will once again star his friend and constant collaborator Sharlto Copley. The director was asked about his shooting and release plans for the project. “The release plan is unknowable at the moment, but the schedule is to shoot it the rest of this year and do post next year, most of next year,” he answered. When asked what studio would be producing the film he replied, “I’m about to have a studio behind it, I think soon.” “It will get made,” he continued. “Right after Elysium comes out I’m going to Johannesburg, South Africa to start making film. I absolutely love that film. I’m so excited about it, and it’s going to be insane.”

I followed up by asked the filmmaker if he has completed casting on Chappie yet. “’I’m almost done actually. There’s one more role, which was offered to someone who is very unusual who just turned me down,” he explained. I’m upset about, so I’ve got to find someone for that role.” He was also asked if he could talk about the plot of the film or if he is trying to keep that under wraps for now. “No, I’m trying to keep it under wraps as much as possible. I don’t know if I’d describe it as a comedy. It’s science fiction, and it’s totally different to these two films, but it has funny elements to it.”

Finally, Sharlto Copley’s first major acting role was in District 9, for which he received rave reviews. Since then he has appeared in several high profile movies including the film adaption of The A-Team, and the resent “found footage” science fiction movie Europa Report. So I asked Blomkamp what it was like reteaming with Copley on Elysium and what it has been like for him to see his longtime friend grow as an actor and a Hollywood movie star. “He was the same as District 9. He was exactly the same because whatever traditional shit he learned on other films we didn’t apply,” explained the filmmaker. “It was like wheeling the cage to the edge of the door, then pulling the front of the cage open and releasing it into the room. That was Sharlto, like a wild animal inside every scene. So it was pure improvisation, old school District 9 style.”

Elysium opens in theaters on August 9th.

To watch our video interview with Sharlto Copley from San Diego Comic Con International 2012 about Elysium, please click here

To read what Matt Damon and Jodie Foster had to say at San Diego Comic Con International 2012 about Elysium, please click here

Chappie is currently in pre-production. 

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