Interview: Neill Blomkamp, Sharlto Copley Escape From ‘District 9’

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CHICAGO – Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” is easily one of the most daring, inventive, and original films of the year, a thrill ride through a talented new filmmaker’s unique vision of an alternate universe where the aliens haven’t just landed, they’ve been here for years. Blomkamp and star Sharlto Copley recently sat down with to discuss their backgrounds, process, and even the potential for a sequel.

Blomkamp was originally tapped by Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) to work on the adaptation of one of the biggest video games of all time, “Halo”. When that project fell apart, Jackson and his partners, Fran Walsh & Phillipa Boyens, saw the potential in Blomkamp and gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted instead.

Sharlto Copley in TriStar Pictures' sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
Sharlto Copley in TriStar Pictures sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
Photo credit: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

It turns out that what Blomkamp wanted to do was to adapt a short film he had made, “Alive in Jo’burg,” into a feature-length film that would become known as “District 9”. The idea to adapt the short was Walsh’s. Blomkamp describes “Jo’burg,” as “…purely messing around on an artistic level. So, I was aware of the fact that I had worked on it like a piece of artwork and shelved it. Never once did it occur to me that I was doing it to try and make a feature film out of it. I don’t even know why that didn’t occur to me at the time. It just didn’t. So I put it on a shelf.”

Sharlto Copley in TriStar Pictures' sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
Sharlto Copley in TriStar Pictures sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
Photo credit: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

After “Halo” collapsed, “Fran Walsh said, “Why don’t you take Alive in Jo’Burg and make it into a film?” They first said, “We can help you get a film off the ground. It can be a different experience from what you just went through. It can be independent. You can have control.” I knew I wanted it to be sci-fi or horror and she said, “Why not Alive in Jo’Burg?””

The young director recognizes how rare this opportunity has been for him. “When I got Halo and when they helped me make District 9, I was very grateful,” says Blomkamp. “To give a film as big as Halo to a first-time director was a big deal and that hinged on Pete. When that collapsed, they allowed this to happen. When I was making the film, you get lulled into a sense of repetition. You’re existing and not thinking because you’re working like a motherf**ker. At the end, now that the film is done, I’m starting to realize again how appreciative I am. It’s pretty rare for a first time filmmaker to get “go off and make what you want to make”.”

Both Blomkamp and his star Sharlto Copley grew up in South Africa, an upbringing that clearly influenced what they bring to District 9. Copley says, “At the age I am, I’ve lived a very different kind of life to the average North American in some ways and very similar in others. I’ve lived through a time where you’ve got a lot of mixed emotions going in. My parents were in a dilemma as to whether or not to stay in the country or not. My parents were sheltering us from the political stuff very much.

David James (left) and Director Neill Blomkamp on the set of TriStar Pictures' sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
David James (left) and Director Neill Blomkamp on the set of TriStar Pictures sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
Photo credit: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures;

“I was at a private school and my best friends were a black guy and an Indian/Hindu guy. People didn’t know stuff like that - there actually were multi-racial schools in Apartheid South Africa. Then you go through this process of zero national pride at that time. You travel and you feel ashamed that you’re from South Africa. Then going through this peaceful democratic process and feeling proud and then “Are we going to turn into Zimbabwe?””

TriStar Pictures' sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
TriStar Pictures’ sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
Photo credit: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

“We fought for these values. It’s inspirational, but then you start seeing government moves and things that make you ask if you’re losing your way. It’s a lot of mixed emotions. And a level of violence. I’ve had shoot-outs in my building. I helped a security guard who was shot in the back and I’m holding his gun and waiting to see if the shooters are going to come running around the corner. I’ve had a mix of softness and hardness in my upbringing that has made me a bit different.”

Blomkamp both loves and hates Johannesburg and it’s a dichotomy that seems inspired by his love for science fiction. He describes Jo’burg as a futuristic city, “a scaled-down version of Blade Runner”.

Blomkamp says, “You’re driving on the highway and there are choppers going overhead that are owned by private security companies that are tracking GPS signals from hijacked cars. All they do all day is track down hijacked vehicles. Every single house in the suburbs has an electric fence. Every single house. It just feels like this place that is absolutely electric and futuristic. And it’s my version of futuristic. Not Hollywood. It’s where it’s actually going. That’s why I love it.”

“And the reason I hate it is because if I go there with my girlfriend or my daughter and I have family members who still live there…it’s so inhumanly violent that I don’t want to be there, but it’s also what gives it this electricity and this knife-edge situation.”

Both Blomkamp & Copley used their real-life experience in making “District 9”. Copley plays Wikus van der Merwe, an employee of Multi-National United, the company responsible for moving over a million aliens from one encampment to another. When Wikus enters District 9, he finds something completely unexpected.

Director Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley on the set of TriStar Pictures' sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
Director Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley on the set of TriStar Pictures’ sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.
Photo credit: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures;

The film opens with news reel footage about the twenty years since the aliens have landed but Blomkamp purposefully leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the aliens including where they came from, why they’re stranded here, and even the name of their species. But he knows the answers to the detailed universe he’s created. “The back story for [the aliens] was worked out. Going forward, what happens next, I don’t know. I have no idea. But, going backwards I do know.”

What no one knew was exactly what the characters would say from scene to scene. Copley reveals that all of his dialogue was improvised. “There’s a script but Neil works within a structure,” says Copley. “”This is what needs to happen in the scene - go there, evict the guy, pull the guy outside, go inside and see the computers.” And then I’ll work with Jason and improvise and keep throwing stuff, throwing different options. Physically, you’ve got to be aware of where you’re moving for continuity. Once we get something down, then I can change the lines, but try and be IN the shack at this point in the scene so that it will cut with other runs. It was a fascinating filmmaking process. It was very different from the way people normally do it.”

And “District 9” uses no green screen effects. When Copley is acting opposite alien characters, there’s another actor there (usually Jason Cope), who is then painted out in post-production.

Copley never even saw himself as an actor. “District 9” is his debut. Copley says, “I suppose I feel very natural as an actor. It was a very easy, effortless process, if I’m honest about it. But I haven’t done it before. I haven’t acted professionally ever before. I had done…I could do accents. I wasn’t pursuing it as a career in any way but I was comfortable with characters, messing around as a businessman or as a producer. I was always being different characters while I was working. Neil knew. I just didn’t see myself as an actor.”

With offers already rolling in, that seems to have changed for Copley. In fact, both director and star admit interest in a sequel to “District 9”. Copley says “Oh yeah” when asked if he would be interested in another film and Blomkamp goes into more detail, saying, “It’s weird. It didn’t occur to me until just before I left New Zealand. Just before Comic-Con. It hadn’t actually occurred to me. You get into this bunker mentality and you’re just at war until it comes out. Right before I left, I said to Pete, “If the film is successful, would you be up for producing another one?” I’ve had a really awesome time working on it. Of course, you have no idea how it’s going to go. My answer is…there’s two answers - If it’s successful, in other words, the population WANTS one…that needs to happen. If that happens, then I’m FULLY on-board. It’s a rare grouping of creative things that interest me. It’s been an incredibly, creatively fulfilling environment to work in. It’s like a very open, creative world, that District 9 world. I would like to work on it again. You can go off in many different directions.”

“District 9” opens everywhere on August 14th, 2009. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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Neill Blomkamp

According to Wikipedia, Neill Blomkamp is a South African born, Vancouver, BC based director of shorts films and commercials. He apparently utilizes a hand-held documentary style, not unlike the style used in the movie Cloverfield, Cinéma vérité technique.

Anonymous's picture

Ha! For us non-americans,

Ha! For us non-americans, the accents were a highlight - it was nice to have recognition that not everyone in the universe has an american accent ;)

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