In District 9, writer-director and Peter Jackson protégé Neill Blomkamp takes us into a near-future where one million insectoid alien refugees now make their home outside Johannesburg, South Africa, in the squalid, heavily patrolled titular camp. This is what I love about sci-fi, the way that it can take subjects like immigration and racism that don't always make for exciting movies, and turn them into stories that are fresh, disturbing in its social commentary, and, most of all, dramatically powerful. If you're looking for a recommendation, I can't give District 9 high enough marks. Keep your eye on Blomkamp in the next couple of years; he's going to become the next Jackson or Spielberg, capable of packing a surplus of heart into difficult and fantastical scenarios. I sat down with him recently to discuss his directorial debut and the future.
Cole Haddon: Talk about how the unique idea behind District 9 took shape.
Neill Blomkamp: Well, it's a long story. I guess the genesis of the film comes from the short film I did in 2005: Alive in Joburg. At the time, I was directing commercials. But in between commercials, I did these crazy short films to just mess around with ideas. And I had an idea to just put Western sci-fi I'd grown up with into a South African setting. That's what Alive in Joburg was. When it came time to turn that into a feature film, the first thing we had to do was flesh out the world of District 9 and, from there, you could decide what POV you wanted to tell the story from.
CH: Is it too simplistic to look at the aliens segregated into District 9 as a metaphor for blacks under Apartheid?
NB: It's not too simplistic, but I think there are other elements. Another element that should be noted is, with the new black government since probably 1999 onwards, the large number of illegal immigrants in South Africa have become a problem. They're mostly Zimbabweans, because Zimbabwe was collapsing, and they crossed the border into South Africa. So if you forget about Apartheid for a second, if you forget about white oppression, there's a whole other social dynamic going on with impoverished Zimbabweans who have come to South Africa for a richer life by comparative standards. But they've ended up in a lot of the impoverished townships a lot of black South Africans live in. So now black South Africans view these Zimbabweans with animosity because they'll work for less money. The short film has some of that, with these black South Africans wanting the aliens out of their townships. That's a crazy thing, because there aren't many places in the world where that would happen.
CH: You spent several months developing the Halo videogame adaptation as your first feature director's gig, which, by the way, is a hell of a big movie for a virtual rookie to be handed. District 9 is in the same genre, so did Halo have any influence on the project that succeeded it?
NB: The conscious answer is no. Especially because, if you work on something for five months, day in, day out, you want to make sure you're getting as far away from that as possible. But I think what's true about Halo and about District 9 is that Halo is definitely influenced by the sci-fi of James Cameron and Aliens and probably Robert Heinlein and Starship Troopers. District 9 is an amalgamation of other sci-fi as well. So an answer to your question is that we're both drawing from the same 50 years of Western sci-fi. But consciously, there's zero connection between the two.
CH: How did you approach the action in District 9? The in-your-face verité style resulted in a pretty visceral experience.
NB: The way I approached the action is the same way I approached the film. Right from the beginning, it was supposed to be the fantastic and the mundane. Crazy science fiction in an everyday real situation. It's also presented with a very everyday paint brush. It's not Hollywood per se. So what I wanted the action sequences to be was they were just happening right in front of you. I didn't have a lot of crazy camera angles. I think if you mix that with a lot of expensive visual effects, you end up with something that's definitely more grounded.
CH: There are a lot of what I'd call meat explosions. Aliens exploding. Humans exploding. It's friggin' awesome. Can you talk about going to that extreme?
NB: I knew right from the beginning that I wanted it to be violent. Then a few months after we started, I realized a satirical, dark humor direction for the whole film mixed with something that felt real would be the best way to go. Especially with it being my first film; don't make it too serious. Once I knew there was satire and I wanted it to be quite violent, meat explosions seemed the way to go.
CH: Are you up for doing District 10 next?
NB: If the audience wanted another film, yeah, it would be super-cool to go into the backstory of the aliens.
CH: Have you already worked out what it would be about?
NB: Not really. It's been two-and-a-half years solid making this film. Now that I'm at the end of it, I've been caught a little unawares about what I want to do next. I know I'd love to go back to the world of District 9, though, if the audience wants another film.