Blomkamp is no stranger to pushing his talents to the limit as his first feature District 9 proved. We chatted with the director about his career as a whole, where he’s come from and where he sees himself going. He also gave us his honest thoughts on the new Star Wars movies.
Do you always start your movies from a visual standpoint?
Yes, it always starts with visuals for me. My favourite stuff is visual and I always want to work with visual artwork. I think it depends on the person but for me, photographs of an image of something interesting or inspiring is worth a lot more than words to me. I think every concept I’ve come up with and turned into films, or that will be hopefully become a film, comes from images first. Mental images and then you do concept art, see how it feels and see what it means for the themes of the world and if it works, you go from there.
Which other films inspire you?
I never think of an element from another film I like to use in my work, but I think subconsciously all that stuff goes into your mind and naturally works its way out. I think my favourites are the staple of later science fiction films. I really like Metropolis but that’s a weird outside one. The main stuff I like is from the late 60s to the early 90s. That’s the stuff I love. It’s the James Cameron’s and the Paul Verhoven stuff. I guess when I was younger Star Wars had an influence.
How much creative control do you maintain during these films?
Quite a lot. People always seem to think when the budget gets bigger that there’s a pressure from the studio. The contracts and the way the film is structured meant I had a lot of control over the film. The pressure comes when you make a story that’s too esoteric or too unique and strange. The audience can turn their back on it. That’s a biggest pressure than any studio pressure. I want to be a filmmaker that makes a popular summer films – the kind of stuff that I want to go and see. A film that has a layer of intelligence to it which can also satiate that action genre.
What was it like working with the big name actors like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster? Was it intimidating?
Not really initiating. With both of them, they’re very normal and down to earth. The two of them make an effort to not be in that Hollywood mechanism, so that makes them normal. At first I was hyper averse to using movies stars, I really didn’t want to do that. But then creatively, I started realising that the way I was designing Elysium, I wanted it to feel much better. I wanted the shot selections to be quite grand and everything about it to be epic. I woke up one morning and realised that in my opinion it would make the film more grand and more of an event if we had names like that associated to the film. It was the opposite to that star vehicle mentality. All of a sudden I was intrigued by that idea and started going through a list of people that I knew on one hand would execute the role really well, and then on the other hand would be decent people that you could work with in a normal fashion. So I went and met Matt in New York and he was completely normal. He seemed like someone that would actually amplify the film and come up with good ideas. Jodie was exactly the same.
When we were in Mexico filming, Matt was telling me that when he was younger his approach was to be that method actor who got immersed in the character. He thought that if you lived that character that’s how you would find the best performance. Then he said that he got to a point in his career when he realised that making films is the director’s medium, and it’s the director’s palette. He realised it’s the actors job to pull that magic trick, to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. It’s quite interesting because his philosophy helps the director fulfil his goal and I’ve never heard an actor say that before.
What was it about Matt Damon that you wanted in the role?
He’s an everyday guy. The thing that was interesting about the everyday guy was taking a movie star that everyone recognises but then covering him in tattoos and making him look different to how he’d ever been presented before. That part of using Matt was very appealing.
How do you react to internet forums saying they either like or dislike your work?
I think there’s a lot of crazy stuff on the internet. You read stuff that is wild speculation and there’s an element of it that makes me not trust it because there’s this undercurrent of insanity to it sometimes. I think what’s true in any aspect of life is getting an approximation – an algorithm that gives you a general average across millions of things, like a crown-sourcing feeling of how something is working can be very accurate. That means a lot as it’s sort of like a social temperature check and I find that to be very true. The individual stuff is too random and too black and white. It’s always like “I f*ckin’ love it, or it’s absolute dogsh*t!” You can’t listen to that but the averages is probably not a bad thing to look at.
What is it about Sharlto Copley that you love so much?
In my opinion, I think Sharl is one of the most talented actors working today. I’m kind of surprised he’s not been in more films. He has so much untapped crazy potential, just raw insane talent that I think he makes the films that I work on better, and I just want to work with him for that reason. Separate from that I’m friends with him. You always want to be around people that you like.
My director of photography is one of my best friends, too. The first thing I ever shot that was an actual paying job was probably 12 years ago when I did my first really crap music video. It was the worst thing that has ever been shot by the human race. It may or may not be on YouTube, but [DOP] Trent Opaloch shot that and it was the first thing that I ever shot where money ever changed hands. We shot it on 35mm which was unbelievable to me so he’s another one where you want to just work with people who you think are talented and bring something to it all.
Was there ever any talk of making Elysium 3D?
I think way back at the beginning there was, but then I really said “please don’t make me do that – I don’t even talk about that!” I’m a MASSIVE hater of 3D. I don’t like it at all. For me, you go to a movie theatre and you want to be taken to a place and transported to a place and be in that environment and I know 3D is meant to do that, but the effect for me is the reverse. I feel like I’m looking though muddy water and I can’t really see the image. If 3D worked at a much higher frame rate and the luminosity level was ten times what it is and the glasses didn’t exist and there were a million caveats, then I think it would be cool.
What do you think about the Hobbit 48 Frames per second method?
I was really curious to see it. The 3D part of it I kind of knew what to expect, but I had no idea what to expect in terms of 48 fps and I was really interested because it does seem like 24fps is this relic of 100 year-old technology and at some point you do have to evolve forward. I was hyper interested in it but I think there’s a generational issue. For me, I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. It almost has an NTSC kind of quality to it or like a 3:2 interpolation like video. I’ve been psychologically trained by soap operas and stuff that this higher frequency and motion represents something else. I think if you took a one year-old and waited until they were 16 and showed them the film, it would be a totally different experience.
I think Peter Jackson’s mentality is right. I think the technology will go that way but it’s a weird social thing (I’m speaking only for me, I don’t know what other people feel). I feel it just conjures up other media that I don’t want to think about.
When the top selling movies are 3D, do you think you’ll get more pressure to go the 3D route?
Possibly, but I just don’t want to do it. Sony was cool and agreed with me. It goes back to the thing about Matt and Jodie. A lot of the thinking of what I was saying about Elysium when I first wanted to make it was that I wanted the shots to feel like these very well thought-out – very epic, beautiful shots. There’s a lot of handheld shots but when you’re on Elysium, I wanted all the photography to be dolly, steadicam, tecnhocrane so there’s an actual procedural change between photography on Earth and the photography on Elysium. When you’re on Elysium, I wanted it to feel like a big canvas so the movie star part of that works, the canvas works and it was like a throwback to the films I really like. It felt that way. If you make that 3D you take all that and throw it out of the window. That’s what I wanted to hang onto, that slightly older epic feel.
How do you feel about the new Star Wars?
I don’t know how I feel about it. I wish all that time, energy and money was invested in something new. But the way I think of it is that when people were making Star Wars in the 1970s, they didn’t know they were making Star Wars – they just thought they were making something cool. Then you work on something cool and it comes out and you go “oh sh*t, it’s Star Wars!, that’s awesome!”, or you go 20 or 30 years into the future and it’s that amazing cultural thing that everybody loves and we want to make more of that. But meanwhile, there’s some kid in a basement somewhere else making the new Star Wars. I’m more interested in the kid making Star Wars with no funding and I wish more of those resources went that way.
What about sequels to your movies?
I would like to see other versions of District 9 that I think I have in my head. I have one story that I want to make that will be the next District 9. If the franchise thing turns into you’re just doing it because it’s a franchise and another director would be willing to do it which is always the case, then that’s bad. I’ll have to legally lock that up so that can’t happen!
Have you ever been asked to do one of Paul Verhoven’s remakes?
I was asked to do Robocop way back, yeah. Robocop is literally one of my favourite films and I was like “my god I want to do that” and I thought about and realised I couldn’t. That was because it already exists, it’s so good and the feeling that I had was, it’s just so good, why would you do it. I suppose someone could come up with something really cool. The director who’s doing it now [José Padilha] did the Elite Squad films which are really awesome. He could do something really interesting, but every time I get approached about something like that, it’s the same as the Star Wars thing – you’re initially curious and sort of enticed by it because you remember how much you love it. Then you remember you love it because it exists, so why are you getting involved?
What can you tell us about Chappie?
I haven’t decided how much of that I want to give away right now. It’s pretty awesome. It’s a crazy sci-fi that is very different to Elysium and District 9 in that it doesnt have any social-political element to it. It’s about sentience and about consciousness but it has hilarious stuff inside of it. It’s a very cool mixture of things. The South African band Die Antwoord are connected to the project and are pretty interesting and that’s about it for Chappie!
Elysium is released 21st August and we’ll have video interviews with Matt Damon, Shartlo Copley and Neill Blomkamp coming up on the site very soon.