They most of the location Earth scenes in Mexico City based in and around the second largest rubbish dump in the world. Director Neill Blomkamp, actors Matt Damon, Alice Braga, Shalto Copley, Wagner Moura and Mexican resident Diego Luna all explain what it was like shooting in the favelas in and around Mexico City and Blomkamp explains why he chose these locations.
As with all the previous Summer of Sony press conferences, each video is followed by the transcript in case you wish to read rather than watch but watch the ‘Poo River’ video below as it’ll have you laughing a lot. Blomkamp also explains in both the first and last segments about the social inequity parts of filming and why they’ve used futuristic Bugatti bikes for the super rich part of the shoot while being in some of the poorest regions in the world.
Elysium hits UK cinemas 21st August and you can see all our coverage of the movie here.
Are there any similar themes in Elysium to that we saw in District 9?
Neill Blomkamp (NB): I wasn’t actually trying to do anything that had exactly the same themes as DISTRICT 9. The themes in this film are about sort of the haves and the have-nots and wealth discrepancy, which is, I guess, in the same vein as DISTRICT 9, but a little bit different. No real race and xenophobia stuff in this film.
Diego Luna (DL): I think this is a celebration of what’s going on today in our countries, in fact, you know, celebrating life. And I believe Neill had this idea of being as authentic as possible because even though it’s a science fiction film, you feel you’re watching something that relates to the world we live in today and this couldn’t be told without people like us, I guess.
Wagner Moura (WM): Yes, and I don’t want to try to answer the question that you make to Neill, but, in my opinion, ELYSIUM is pretty much about social difference and this is something that – it’s a big issue for Brazilians, for Mexicans and for South Africans, as well. So this resonates a lot with me, but in spite of that, it was pretty cool to work with Neill.
NB: There were explosions.
Alice Braga (AB): There were explosions.
WM: I think that this is one of the greatest thing about – I really admire filmmakers that can make attractive films that people can see and have fun. I think there are two dimensions. You can see the film in two ways. It’s pretty cool. I mean, the action things – it’s amazing. But if you want to see the film only with this kind of point of view, it’s cool. It’s okay. It’s great. But there is another dimension. I think it’s a very political film, as well, and I feel very good, I feel very proud to be attached to a project like that, that can combine both things.
AB: Yeah, I think they said exactly what I was going to say, but I agree and I do think it was important, when I first read the script and I started – pardon my language – harassing Neill to do the film. I sent him like a hundred e-mails, saying, “I really want to be a part of it,” especially because of that – exactly what Wagner and Diego said. I think DISTRICT 9 has the quality of having that and I think ELYSIUM brought something else to it and the combination of making a film that can be entertaining and very much of an action, fun story to watch, having that end to it, which is speaking about social problems, speaking about what is happening in the world, is very important. So I think they said and I’m repeating what they just said, but I do believe it was an honor to be part of it, especially that Neill does that really well. He did in DISTRICT 9 and I do believe he did this in ELYSIUM.
On Wearing a sombros and Diego Luna regretting the choice of pigtails in Mexico
NB: When we were filming in – we try to find – like you can see, I guess, in some of the footage, we tried to find some of the worst areas in Mexico City and we were in like hot sunshine shooting in some of the favelas and I didn’t bring a hat and so I asked production if the production could get me a hat ‘cause I was basically dying. And they came back with this massive Mexican sombrero, which I just like wore. And it didn’t actually occur to me. Like I just put it on and the shade was actually amazing. Like my entire body was in shade. And I was busy directing Diego and then he’s like – do you remember this, dude? – and then he’s like, “Yeah, Neill, um, you should probably get rid of that hat, dude.” And I was like, “Really?” And he’s like, “Yeah, it’s kind of – you know, on several levels, it’s a bit weird.” And then I think I got rid of it. I don’t remember how it panned out, but, yeah. And in regards to your question, you know, all of the films he’s been in, I really love him and he also has, for the part in this film, he has this kind of – I knew that the audience would love Diego’s character – they’d get behind him – and then when something terrible happens, they would dislike the villain more.
MD: And also, he wore pigtails.
NB: Yeah, Diego has pigtails.
Matt Damon (MD): Which, you know, like the second week of filming, we’re sitting there in a quiet moment and he goes, “My brother, I’m really re-thinking my decision on the hair.” (LAUGHTER)
Sharlto Copley (SC): I don’t know. I thought it was cute.
On working in the slums of Mexico City (Poo River!)
MD: Yeah, that was the running joke with the crew. It was explained to us that, like any dump anywhere in the world, the dust is actually comprised largely of fecal matter. And so, at the end of every day, as we’d wipe this stuff off, we’d be basically throwing these shitty towels at each other. No, you know, Neill said to me – we shot that section – it was about two weeks – a big action set piece in the second-largest dump in the world. There was evidently a bigger one in Korea somewhere – literally. But Neill said – and we were all kind of preparing for it, you know, we knew that these two weeks were coming and Neill just said, “Look, I wouldn’t do this. I know I can do a lot with a green screen.” You know, nowadays you can kind of go anywhere and shoot anything and make it look like anywhere you want. But he said, “I’ve never seen a giant set piece in a sci-fi film, for that matter, in a setting like that.” And it was a really good idea. And I think everybody on the crew recognized that it was a really good idea and it was going to be worth it. And it was probably, you know, the toughest two weeks of shooting that I’ve ever had, but we all knew it and we all did it together. It wasn’t like anybody chickened out and didn’t go, except for Simon, our producer, who was kind of late to work every day.
NB: He’s also late to Cancun.
MD: Yeah. But, no, it was a really good idea and so when we got there, it wasn’t about grousing about it at all. We just wanted to make sure that we got the work the way we wanted it and it’s really one of the best sequences in the movie and I’m really proud of it. And it helps that Sharl and I and Diego are just in the middle of this. It helped everything. It helped the movie, so it was worth it.
NB: Matt covered a lot of that stuff, which was convincing the crew to go into a location like that. Unfortunately, a lot of the locations in Mexico were in that kind of zone. We specifically looked for some of the worst areas in Mexico City, and we actively stayed away from the really nice looking areas. One thing that helped me was I had done a lot of art work, and I’d done a lot of visual prep so that I could show people what I was going for. If you do that and you have a good argument, or position, on why this is a good idea, and you can back it up with actual imagery and concepts, people will go along with it. But people weren’t happy, though, for sure. Matt was a pro, but there were certain people that were trying to sabotage me behind the scenes. And even on the first day of photography in that sequence I had my own problems too. When you drive in there before dawn it smells terrible; something about the sun coming up kind of burns this layer of humidity out of the sewerage, whatever you want to call it. Coming in there at 5am on Day One, of two weeks.
MD: Yeah, it’s terrible.
NB: I was just like, “Oh my God, I don’t know if I can actually do this!” But I obviously kept that to myself and proceeded to shoot for the next two weeks, and then by the end it was fine.
MD: But the locations were within the dump. We had locations, for instance, one of them was called “Poo River.” Literally, that was, “Okay, can we get everybody down to ‘Poo River?’” “Okay now we’re down there, scene 36!”
SC: It wasn’t everybody, it was really only me at “Poo river!” Sharlto will go, send the African he’ll go to the Poo river!
MD: That’s true.
NB: You’re like “Sharlto will go,” “Send the African, he’ll go to the ‘Poo River!’”. Our first AD is like a Canadian hockey player, he’s a pretty tough guy, and he obviously is not fluent in Spanish because he speaks “Hockey.”
MD: He’s not really fluent in English!
NB: Yeah, his English is a bit tested. We had a Mexican helicopter pilot who was doing some of the aerial photography at “Poo River,” and the photography looked really good, but he was coming in dangerously close to the water. And then when I would relay what I wanted him to do, James would then they relay it to him. That’s how the chain of command works. But because his Spanish was a bit messed up, and we hadn’t really thought that part through, we had some issues, and he kept coming too low, and he was blowing “Poo River” onto people. And James, in English, was like, “I’m going to knock you out if you do not lift that helicopter up!”
MD: Sharlto was actually the only one that was there, for that scene.
NB: You know what was interesting, though, ‘cause you’re asking how. It puts a lot of pressure on the crew if the actors are up for it. So when you’ve got mass, I mean, I’m in the helicopter in one of the scenes, and it was so much fun. We would come down, and he’s in a dusty fecal matter, and the helicopter comes down and obviously the lower it gets, the more dust it’s going to hit. I thought it was a stunt guy, and I’m like, “Oh no, it’s a stunt guy,” they’re like, “No, it’s Matt.” And I’m shouting at the pilot, “Go lower, go lower,” and I just hit him with a wall of dust! It was unbelievable, I was up there just like, “Yeah!” just watching this wall of dust, just watching him eat this dust.
MD: Literally, eat shit. Diego and I covered in. If anyone has ever been in the rotor wash of a helicopter, it can be really severe.
NB: It’s unbelievable!
MD: But we knew what the dust was because we had been told.
DL: They tried to tell us the dust was coming from somewhere else.
MD: No, no, no. After they tell you that the dust is all fecal matter, and then they see what you’re doing and they go, “You know, not your dust. All the other dust!”
NB: I think I was responsible for that.
SC: All the crew are wearing masks.
MD: Gas masks!
SC: But we’re not. That’s what I was saying. What puts the pressure on them is you can’t – but even still, I remember watching one guy going, “I’m never doing this again, I’m never doing this again, I’m never doing it again!” I’m like, “Dude, man up.” “Look at me, I’m spitting it up!”
MD: You have a mask on, how dare you.
On bringing Hollywood to a rubbish dump and bringing those people to the world
NB: Well, the social inequity part of the equation was a big deal when we were in that garbage dump, for sure, because as bad as it sounds, it’s actually a good thing when that happens from a making-film perspective. In DISTRICT 9, the shacks that the aliens lived in, in the movie, they were forcibly being evicted, and their shacks were, you know, the government wanted them. And in the area we filmed that movie in, the exact same thing was happening: residents were being forcibly moved from those shacks, and government RDP housing was going to be put in there. So they were being taken from their homes in a sense, and those themes resonated in DISTRICT 9. And in ELYSIUM, as bad as it is bringing this first world wealth entity into an area that is that impoverished, the good part about that, in terms of theme, is that we had a crashed Bugatti space ship in a slum that tied the themes of the film together in the most visual, real, tangible way that you could. The negative part is that there’s people in there that are living in abject poverty, and we’re walking around living the high life, which isn’t great. But we tried to do a few things for the community in there, and you try to have a good dialogue with them. There are a few charities; one of them was actually started by the security guys to go and give stuff to a lot of the kids that lived in the areas. There is actually two thousand five hundred people that live in the dump, which is pretty bizarre. On films like this it’s a constant battle. This isn’t nearly as important as war journalism, but it’s the same kind of idea. On one hand you could be helping the person, or you could be taking a photo; it’s a similar kind of concept.
MD: The first thing that Neill said to me when we met, years ago, to talk about this movie, he talked about growing up in a third world country and moving to a first world country because he immigrated to Vancouver, to Canada, when he was eighteen. And he said that experience of seeing one way of living and then being exposed to this completely different way, as a young man, completely shaped who he was. And those themes all get worked out in his work. He goes, “I just happen to love science-fiction, so that’s how it gets expressed.” But those ideas are certainly prominent in the first two movies that he’s made, and they’re both really great.
AB: Wagner did ELITE SQUAD, and I did CITY OF GOD, and I think the massive difference about making a film, shooting in places like that, is that I feel the whole crew get an idea of how great it is to tell this story from there, not with a point of view from the outside, but inside. I feel that Neill had that in his mind, and everyone just embraced it, just like you guys embraced getting real shit.
AB: On the face! I feel that going with what Matt said, it brings a lot to the film. It was all made, like DISTRICT 9, inside of a valley in Rio, not in CITY OF GOD, but in a similar one, and on the ELITE SQUAD as well, right?
AB: So I think that brings to the screen, and it brings to the audience how real it is. It’s not a set made in Vancouver trying to match up with Mexico City.
NB: Also, for Wagner, and Alice, it’s Brazil, and for Diego it’s Mexico, and then for Sharl it’s South Africa. They’re all quite particular countries in the sense that they are, other than India, Russia, and China, they’re countries that have extreme wealth discrepancy, and that is important to the theme too. All the three guys at the end of the table will absolutely understand, between Polanco to the dump that we were in, or parts of Rio to the favelas. In my personal opinion, I think you’re going to see that get worse and worse. No matter how hard we seem to try to change it, it just seems to be human nature.
Elysium is released in the UK 21st August.