Q&A: Sci-Fi Director Neill Blomkamp Describes Life in <i>District 9</i> As No Picnic

"I felt like half of my mind wanted to make some serious film about these topics and the other half wanted to make a bloody genre film, "said Blomkamp. "And then I thought maybe I'll be able to do both."
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Who would have thought that this quirky, controversial, though sometimes uneven film, District 9 could knock a tentpole picture like Paramount's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra off the top of the charts after its first week. But besides being a classic science fiction tale in the best sense of the term, it has two other charmed words behind it--Peter Jackson. After complaining that there's a paucity of fresh ideas coming out of Hollywood lately, the Oscar-winning Lord of The Rings mastermind has put his imprimatur on District 9. Nonetheless, this feature is thoroughly the creation of 29-year-old South African-born writer/director Neill Blomkamp, based on his 2005 short.

Twenty eight years before the "now" of this near-future thriller, crustacean-like humanoids inhabit a vast galaxy-spanning spaceship that appears in Earth's atmosphere. Not there to make formal first contact, the "prawns" (as they become labeled) arrive here because of some unexplained (at least to humans) mishap that forces their ship to hover motionless above Johannesburg. After some debate, humans helicopter up to the ship and cut their way in to find thousands of aliens starving and stinking up their vessel.

Relocated to Earth, they are crowded into a small neighborhood called District 9 where, over the ensuing 20 years, it becomes a shunned slum (a clear reference to District 6, the Johannesburg slum created by the once-ruling Afrikaans as a ghetto for its Black population). The obvious metaphor is there, made even moreso, when the South African government of this near-future's present decides to re-locate the one million-plus "prawn" population to a decidedly smaller, more isolated camp -- in tandem with MNU, a corporation running the alien ghetto while secretly trying to tap them for their technology and biology. Though humans and aliens can somehow communicate--humans can sort of decipher their gutteral clicks and snaps (it sounds a bit like the real Xhosa language) -- there's a huge misapprehension and resistance by the aliens to their forced move.

Applying a range of extrapolative techniques to explain this alien society with its heirarchy of common citizens and elite technologists, the film shows how they survive, and hope to cope with a post-20th Century South Africa. Blomkamp does a good job in delineating this complex alien culture as one of its scientists plots to get them off Earth. Thrown into the mix is the Nigerian criminal gang that exploits the perimeter of this ghetto and its denizens--much like it happens in South Africa today.

While the film challenges expectation and grapples with first contact, it humorously exposes human foibles in an oddly skewed mirror-like fashion. It also offers a cool spaceship, funky aliens and great weapons. Loaded with homages to tons of sci-fi movies and ideas, the film breezily makes its mark on this genre.

Q: Why did you chose this direction for your first feature film rather than make a more obvious, socio-political film about the same issues?

NB: I grew up in Johannesburg. The genesis for the idea came out of the fact that I just love science fiction and Johannesburg, so I wanted to see science fiction mixed with Johannesburg. It didn't come about like, "I want to talk about these issues that had an effect on me when I was growing up, like segregation and apartheid and everything else."

The second you put something in Johannesburg, you start raising these issues. Before [I thought of] District 9, I felt like half of my mind wanted to make some serious film about these topics and the other half wanted to make a bloody genre film. And then I thought maybe I'll be able to do both. So there's never been a second in my mind where it might have been set somewhere else, because Joburg came first.

Q: You focused on one character throughout the film -- an MNU field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley). Why did you identify with him; is some part of him, you, or someone you know or were taking the piss out of?

NB: I was definitely taking a piss [British slang for making fun of someone]. Afrikaaners don't occur that often in movies, but when they do, they're usually tough militaristic guys. They are the guys that created the apartheid and stuff. So there's an image of what the Afrikaans male is. The reality in Johannesburg is that lots of those kind of guys work for massive state-owned companies, and are much more bureaucratic, pencil-pushing dudes.

I loved the idea of having a guy who is comfortable in his life and with what his company was doing, who always says "yes" to whatever the company asks for, and genuinely believes it is in the best interest of everyone to do what the company wants. It was awesome to take someone like that, who is comfortable in their position, and have them turn into the thing they are oppressing. It's mostly a satirical take on that kind of character, which is what I like about District 9.

Q: Do you find it amazing how alien South Africa is to most people?

NB: I still don't have a good handle on how alien it is. Johannesburg is weird, because half of it is like Los Angeles. It feels like just wealthy parts of LA. But half of it is severe slummy, something like Rio De Janiero or something. So it's kind of weird, because it's both happening at the same time.

Americans will easily understand the company, the way it's being promoted, and most of the white parts of South African culture. But it's the real bad place, the stricken townships, that I didn't know how they would take. They may take that as being very alien, but in the best-case scenario, they'll be interested to see science fiction occurring in that setting.

Q: How much experience did you have with the townships? Where are you living now?

NB: I left just before I turned 18. I went to Canada in 1987--Vancouver--so up until I moved at the end of grade 12, I had exposure to the townships but it was limited. Maybe once every six months to a year, I would be there for some reason. Then when I went to Canada, I started going back to Johannesburg every year. That's when I got seriously interested in it, and it was a very different type of thing.

I lived there when I was younger, and it was under apartheid; when I was coming back from Canada it wasn't. It was more the stuff you'd see on television, the way blacks were segregated, and you'd see the armored vehicles going in -- this oppressive thing that's happening next door to me. It was almost society from a white kid's point of view when I lived there. From 1997 onwards it was like going in the townships, and then I became more and more interested in it.

I never viewed that interest as connected to science fiction. That was just one part of my mind that was interested in this topic, and the world of films was in another pocket of my mind and very separate.

Q: I see how alien your experiences are from even South Africa so I thought the Nigerians added resonance. And it seems you wanted to give a deeper mythology to all three cultures: the South African, the Alien, and then, adding the Nigerian to bring in a sort of African point of view.

NB: The Nigerian thing is there because I wanted to take as many cues from South Africa as I could. I wanted South Africa to be the inspiration. If I try to keep South Africa as true to South Africa as I could, then, unfortunately, a massive part of the crime that happens in Johannesburg is by the Nigerians there. It's just the way it is. I wanted to have a crime group, and thought the most honest refraction of a crime group would be Nigerians, for one.

And then secondly, the Muti, the African witch doctor, is also a huge part of Africa and many African countries. So I wanted to incorporate that as well. At the time I was writing the movie, there was all these tribal witch doctor attacks on Albinos, because Albino flesh were worth more than normal humans. That was the analogy to a different group or a different race, [with their] traditional medicine, or traditional Muti--even cannibalism, in some instances. I incorporated aliens into that.

Q: In a lot of literary science fiction, it doesn't operate according to obvious, clichéd premises about first contact. By sheer serendipity, a spaceship was damaged and ended up on Earth. I liked that about your premise.You made it feel realistic because you wanted us to accept the realness of it. It doesn't have to be a fantasy.

NB: I wanted to make the most real feeling portrayal of impossible elements that I could make. But it's still different from my actual belief as to how first contact with aliens would go down, because I wanted to make a movie, not a documentary.

Q: Why does first contact have to be in New York or Washington, especially given the circumstances of your film? It doesn't have to occur in obvious places such as Paris, or D.C. Why not come to Johannesburg? Why not stop there by accident? This was more realistic than what we intellectually envision in our head.

NB: Maybe it is more realistic then what we're used to in Hollywood. But still, in my opinion, it's opposed to reality. If some species were able to make some kind of serious interstellar travel like that, or intergalactic travel, they would be at a technological level where there'll be a merging between [them] and [their] technology. It's a lot like what humans will go through as well, provided we don't wipe ourselves out.

Whatever this race is, it would merge with their technology at some point on their planet, and it would be a biological, mechanical crossover, as scientist/writer Ray Kurzweil puts it in The Singularity Is Near--and their society would be altered after that point. There would be a new type of life.

Because they can exist in binary code, as an algorithm, or can download themselves into whatever physical presence they want or exist on computers, they can then determine how they want to travel through space. They could occupy micro-starships and travel just under the speed of light. They may have figured out beyond-speed-of-light travel and gotten around theory of relativity.

And they would come to our planet, for whatever reason, because they chose to come here. There's no way that they would be a destitute refugee group.

The concept of xenophobia and us not being able to accept them is also highly unrealistic, because we can only do that with something that mimics the human form at a similar intelligence level to us. It's difficult to apply racism and xenophobia to a supercomputer. So I think it would be a completely different thing.

Q: What were the greatest challenges you faced in making this film? Obviously the special effects resonates; that's got to be CGI. Was there any time you put people in outfits?

NB: No. It was always digital.

Q: With Peter Jackson on hand were you able to get the special effects more smoothly done?

NB: First of all, visual effects were done in Vancouver, Canada. Weta [Jackson's effects company] did the spaceships. But the aliens were all Canadian.

Q: You must have had fun sketching out what you wanted to the aliens to look like.

NB: It actually wasn't that fun. It was kind of grueling. I had a different design for about six months, and it was the one design that I just didn't feel 100%. Then one day I realized that the ride in reflected this insect hive, and we were really dealing with lots of the drone workers in the hive. So when I figured out that they should reflect this insect biology in a way that they're illustrated, then we went down the road of making them more insect-like.

Q: You got the texture right. That must have made you nervous. Did you test it, or when did you know it worked?

NB: There's two parts to how you pull that stuff off. One part of it is the way that it looks on a frame-by-frame basis, where, hopefully, the goal is that it looks like a photograph and the way it's going to tell what's real and what isn't. That's one part of it.

The second part is, how does that creature interact with the humans? And how do the humans interact with it? That will be the thing that either will make it work or not. So I used an actor who played Christopher to play off Sharlto, and that meant I was filming those scenes a little different to how you film two normal actors. The process was that we would remove Jason Cope and replace him with Christopher, and his performance would be crossed over to the digital aliens, so both performance were organic and real.

Once I figured that process out, and we had this process where we would remove Jason but capture the essence of his performance, I then thought, "Okay, we're in a good place in terms of how these two people are going to interact with one another," and that felt good.

Then, once you go into postproduction, you work with the effects guys to get the most realistic results. I tried to set that up beforehand--like I tried to make sure that the way I photographed them a lot of the time would be in really harsh African sunlight. That would make them feel more real. Then we had the insect-like, hard-shell surfacing which would make it feel real as well.

Q: In writing the story, did you have some science fiction books or films as a reference?

NB: All of the science fiction in the film, the fantasy part of the movie, is a distilled-down, melting pot of all the stuff that I like in these genre movies [we all know]. But [for] the story itself and the arc of Wikus's character and everything, I tried to use some of Africa and Johannesburg for inspiration for a lot of that. It's almost like reality provides the inspiration, so the science fiction, is, in a way, was almost meant to be familiar. [It's] the African setting that's unfamiliar.

Q: Hopefully, when a writer or producer makes a science fiction movie, they map out its internal logic so that things don't appear inconsistent with the storyline.

NB: I figured out their back-story and their way to the world: once they've arrived here, like 28 years later, how that would work, multi-national corporations getting involved, where they're getting segregated off to. How the humans see them, how they see the humans. That's all part of the set in the world, though, before you start writing the story itself.

Q: By locating the moment of first contact in a very specific place it makes the story more resonant. Will audiences grasp the alien-ness of the story and how the alien-ness of its location enhances it?

NB: That was the goal. Set it in an unusual place, and therefore make it feel more real. So time will tell.

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