Neill Blomkamp's feature debut "District 9" took plenty of people by surprise. It was tight, taut, clever, hysterically funny science fiction, telling the story of an alien--as in, outer space--refugee camp in the director's native Johannesburg. His leading man, Sharlto Copley, ended up in the reboot of The A-Team, but he has reteamed with Blomkamp for the director's new movie, Elysium, which is slated to come out in 2013. The director has moved up in terms of budget and stars--also on board are Oscar winners Jodie Foster and Matt Damon. All three of the actors joined the director at this year's Comic-Con, to screen footage for fans and to offer up answers for journalists.
Upcoming-Movies.com: Since nobody has a clue what this movie is about, what can you say? Can you just kind of guide us through what the concept and Matt and Jodie's roles?
Neill Blomkamp: Well, the synopsis was alive –
Matt Damon: That's what we want you to say after you see it. I have no idea what that was about. Then we will have done our jobs.
Neill Blomkamp: Well that was strange. Clearly they didn't know what they were doing. No, it's a lot like the synopsis. It's a film about an orbital space station that has the rich living on it. Earth is diseased and has been left behind, with the money and the resources having left. Matt is from Earth and Jodie is from the space station.
What time of themes are running through it? You're saying that the rich – I mean there's a lot of that in the newspaper today, the one percent -- are you reflecting that?
Neill Blomkamp: Yeah, I mean, you know, the film definitely has element of the haves and the have nots and the discrepancy in wealth that seems to be a widening gap. But it hopefully is a film where that's sort of is woven into the tapestry in a way that feels like an organic science fiction thrill ride. So the themes are touched upon, hopefully in a fairly realistic not over the top way.
Jodie, do you care to address the film?
Jodie Foster: I agree with what he said. I mean it's a tough trick to be able to create an intelligent movie that has sci-fi and social commentary, and is also emotional and moving and blow things up at the same time. That is something that Neill does. I think this film is very different than "District 9." It addresses some issues from a very different way but, I think he shared that mixture of sensibilities.
Matt Damon: I agree with everything she just said. Yeah, you know, I think it first and foremost will be really entertaining and really work on that level, but it certainly has a lot of relevance. Funnily enough, you know the kind of whole terminology of the 99 per cent and the 1 per cent wasn't even there when we started. I just remember Neill, the first time I met him, said look, 'I grew up in South Africa and I immigrated to Canada when I was 18, and to go from the third world to the first world at that age absolutely changed the way that I look at the world.' This is the sci-fi world and the gore and all that stuff is the kind of stuff that he loves and so what he is thinking about gets expressed that way.
Matt, your character is trying to find equality in this world, as a celebrity do you find yourself not equal – like people don't treat you equal -- as per the rest of the world?
Matt Damon: No, my character is trying to get to the space station because he is dying and he wants to get there because they have health care. They have these med bays that you just lie in and you get kind of completely healed. So he's on this desperate kind of –
So is he sort of selfish?
Matt Damon: Yeah, I mean, in a way, yeah, in a way. And in terms of being treated equally, I have teams of people that do that for me.
For Mr. Copley, on your Facebook page you have these great behind the scenes photos and stories; will you be preparing anything like for this film?
Sharlto Copley: No. The producer has spoken. I was able to do that on "District 9" because it was a smaller project that I was involved with right from the beginning. This one has teams of people doing the behind the scenes pictures and stuff, so, no.
Neill Blomkamp: But you can do it, once it comes out dude.
Sharlto Copley: Yeah, I suppose I could.
Neill Blomkamp: Yeah, that'd be cool.
Sharlto Copley: Okay, thank you, I can. Our director says yes, the producer says no. I'm in Hollywood as it turns out.
How do you picture the year this takes place in, how do you picture the war that year and how do you picture your life?
Matt Damon: Well, I probably won't be here. I don't even think this would be, necessarily, if you ask Neill what his vision of what the world would really look like in 140 years, if he would say it would look like this. This is kind of a dystopian fantasy, I'd say, or it's kind of a thought exercise I think that he went on where he just kind of looked at where he came from, where he grew up and where he lives now and you know, what's going on now in terms of wealth and the increasing gap. And just like, okay, what if that kept happening for another 140 years, like what would that look like? But, I mean, you could ask him.
Neill Blomkamp: That's completely accurate. I mean, science fiction for the sake of science fiction, if it's about science, is not really what this one is about. It's more using the imagery as an extrapolation of what the idea is, which is what Matt's saying, so does the movie feel entirely realistic? You know, the film as in the year 2154, probably not entirely realistic. It has the elements that may be semi-realistic, but most of it comes from how you turn the theme into visuals, into an idea, so it's somewhat a play on not a perfectly exact representation of the future in my particular book.
And Earth, as represented, is sort of behind in terms of technology.
Neill Blomkamp: Yeah, which may not be exactly correct in the real world. But yeah, it's basically more devoid of technology than it would be in 2154, even if the money was pulled out.
Jodie, what kind of world would you like to have in the year 2154?
Jodie Foster: Wow, I don't know, I mean, this is an extraordinary time and there are a lot of futurists that spend their whole life trying to figure out who we're going to be in 50, 60 or 100 years. It's the great thing about science fiction. You look at "Matrix" 15 years ago, you know, I feel like we're living that now. Obviously it was taken to a different extreme, but we are plugged in and living virtual lives and have all of our connectivity done virtually. You know, we don't have body connectivity anymore. And that's actually true, which I thought was amazing that they came up with that before any of this stuff was really going on. What would I like to have? You know, we all talk about our fears. We talk about fears, mad about water for example, and what's going to happen with that in the next 100 years, and food you know. But there's good things, too, about what the digital age has offered us in terms of connectivity and transparency and all of these people from weird places in the world are all talking to each other at four in the morning and sharing ideas with more openness than has ever been known. So that's a good idea.
Neill, you did "District 9" for a very small budget. This is a much bigger movie. Was that an advantage for you?
Neill Blomkamp: Disadvantaged.
And for Jody and Matt, how was it for you?
Neill Blomkamp: Was that my answer? You're like, 'okay, and now Matt and Jody.' No, no, no wait, so wait --.
So, yeah, for you and Sharlto, this is a big difference.
Sharlto Copley: He means, like how scared I was of Matt Damon for the first week. If I had to psyche myself up to like face him in my character. Well, how is it for you, dude?
Neill Blomkamp: For me, making this film was as enjoyable as making "District 9," maybe fractionally more enjoyable because politically it was more stable. It wasn't exactly scary. Basically, I had an easy time because the performances are just really good. Your job as a director is incredibly limited. You just kind of go to get coffees and stuff and like watch the monitors, while they do all the work.
Sharlto Copley: Which is really all he did.
Neill Blomkamp: Yeah. So, it was easy, was my bottom line. Hanging out with Sharlto again though in a slightly different context was cool. There were moments that it definitely felt like we were doing parts of "District 9" again, when it kind of started for us, I suppose.
For Jodie and Matt, any memories of the shoot?
Jodie Foster: You first.
Matt Damon: Look, a lot of it was really interesting. I learned a lot. Every time I work with a great director, I just learn a lot and so to work with Jodie --. No, every day was just really interesting. The level of detail that Neill had gone into was just really great. I mean, the first time I met him he just gave me this whole graphic novel and a whole different book with weapon systems and vehicles. I looked at that stuff and I went home and told my wife, there's no way I'm going to let this get away, I have to do this. And we planned our whole life around it because of that. I feel really lucky. After I saw "D9," Neill immediately went to the top of the list of people I wanted to work with and I feel lucky that it came around so quickly to me.
Neill, can you talk about the rest of the cast?
Neill Blomkamp: You know, I'd seen "Elite Squad 1" and "2," which even separately from Wagner [Moura], just his movies, I really, really, really, really liked and Wagner seemed incredibly talented and the role that he plays in the film is actually quite a departure from what he appeared to be in "Elite Squad." His range, and also acting in English, it's actually really impressive what he did because is it diametrically opposed to what he was like in "Elite Squad." What we were looking for was someone who English is a second language and they just felt like organically right for the role and so it was like no contest with Wagner. And then Alice Braga, she just felt really perfect. There was a casting session that happened with her and it was like head and shoulders sort of like obviously choice, you're like, she's the person. It didn't' necessarily have to do with the fact that they're both Brazilian, but I really liked the fact that it has this worldly kind of Brazilian or South African or international vibe to it. I mean both on the space station and on earth.
Can the actors talk about the characters?
Matt Damon: I play a guy on earth who is just hoping to someday go to Elysium, kind of like everybody on earth.
Sharlto Copley: I play a guy called Krueger, who actually when I read the script I said, if I could be in this movie this is the guy I'd want to do. He's a Special Forces kind of black ops guy that hides out on earth and essentially works for Jodie's organization and when Jodie and the other politicians can't solve problems by peaceful negotiation and chats, then they call my guy and he deals with the problems. It was something very different for me. I felt with this character there was an opportunity to do something that didn't take itself too seriously. It's still very dark and very intimidating but it has a certain level of charisma and entertainment value. He still presents something that audiences really have never seen, thanks to Neill. Neill sort of let me run, as I do now and then, really getting the chance to do something different.
Jodie Foster: I play a political figure who is very interested in keeping the habitat pure and trying to save Elysium from those pesky earthlings.
Jodie, do you share a lot of scenes with Matt and is he the shy, quiet reserved type that we know him to be?
Jodie Foster: I only have one scene with Matt and in that scene he was very quiet, he was gagged. There's a lot of weird noises, that was about it.
The history of science fiction cinema has evolved as culture has. In the 50s and 60s, the future looked much brighter and the possibilities seemed endless, and as we have become more cynical to society now, science fiction has gotten darker. Will we find any hope in the future?
Neill Blomkamp: No. But also, I don't know, I mean look at "War of the Worlds." Like the debate between Utopias and dystopian science fiction, I think they're pretty evenly balanced. I mean I think there is maybe slightly less utopian stuff now, I agree with that, but the bad versions have been around for a long time too, you know. But, maybe there is a need to inject back some of the Utopia, it's just that people who really are speculative science fiction fans, they want to get it right and it's like, trans humanism and all of the opportunities that we have with technology, like why don't we see more of that in cinema. It's like, it's kind of, it's like boring. It's like there is no conflict, really, so if there was a way to keep the utopian elements and write in the conflict it would be appealing, I just don't know what that is right now.
What would you say are some of the reasons why it took this long to get to this point? Was it there writing? Were there a lot of rewrites? Was it just preproduction and finding the right locations? Could you give us some insight to that?
Neill Blomkamp: Like why it's taken three years instead of two?
And also, for the actors, what was the key to understanding each of your characters emotionally, if you could talk a little bit about that.
Neill Blomkamp: It's kind of a tough one to answer, because on paper, I think that I started writing like a treatment for this at the end of 2009, which by the time that I finished the film, which was in November, is precisely three years. But I've been working solidly all the time, you know. There just seems to be like, it's not a 200 million dollar film or a 300 million dollar film, but it seems to be exponentially greater than "District 9" in terms of just how much stuff there is in the film. There are so many different pieces and elements and ideas and like the amount of stuff we have to decide and the amount of stuff we have to build and the kind of visual effects we're doing. Not necessarily the quantity, but the kind, like bringing it all to life, it's just absolutely relentless. You just have to like bulldoze through it. I've been working – I'm sorry I wasn't quicker – but it's it's just taken that long. There haven't been any road blocks; it just sort of took that long.
You also wrote another a film at the same time. What was that?
Neill Blomkamp: Yeah, in 2010 we wrote another film simultaneously, which just like kind of spontaneously happened. But I don't know how much time it took from "Elysium." I actually think it was a pretty normal period for a writer/director of a complicated movie to go from three years, release of the last film to the release of the next film, that's actually a pretty fast gestation process. And I think why it may feel like it's slightly prolonged is because as opposed to a lot of movies, especially of this size, is that while we were shooting we weren't courting publicity. It was the opposite. So instead of having tons of stuff for the press while we were shooting that would have made you feel like the movie started six months ago or whatever or longer, we actively wanted the movie to feel more serious. We want people to feel like there's a sense of discovery about it, kind of like when you're a kid there was more of a sense of discovery of what you were going to see. So that may be part of why it feels prolonged, but three years for a writer/director of a movie this size is actually – Jim Cameron's you know, 10 to 15 years.
And just really quickly, could you talk about the key to your characters emotionally?
Jodie Foster: Oh boy.
Is she that complicated?
Jodie Foster: That's a tough one. I don't know. Maybe I need to actually see the movie. I haven't seen the movie. None of us have seen the film. Matt and I have seen bits and pieces but none of us have seen it yet, so we're going to be as surprised as you are. And interestingly when you do films, sometimes you have conscious reasons, things that you were looking for and stuff that you were trying to do and you see the film and you're like, 'wow it ended up being something totally different,' and react to that. So, I don't know.
Matt Damon: That's a tough one to answer. Like if I asked you, 'what's the key to you emotionally,' how would you answer that? Well, my character is dying imminently, so that's probably what's driving a lot of what he does.
The acting stems from the imminent death.
Matt Damon: Yes. Mostly. That would be the direction I would get. So what am I thinking here? Well, dude, you're going to die.
What is your character?
Sharlto Copley: You know, the key for me was really to be able to access from two parts of myself because it was very different from roles that I played before. One was kind of growing up in a kind of very hard environment and a very dangerous place, where I'd been involved in violent things happening and there was a lot of violence around me and to be able to be comfortable with the understanding that there is a certain level of violence that exists in the world. Then, secondarily, to almost see the world in quite a black and white way, in a sense that there are people that talk about things and there are people that actually go out and execute the things that all of those people talk about. So the key to my character's emotional state is I'm going to go do things that are not necessarily pleasant, so that you can all live well. Basically, that's his thinking, but doing those things that are unpleasant can sometimes mess with your head a little bit. But you just enjoy those cappuccinos and lattes and we do our thing. That's the way I had to come home to sort of be able to play someone who could do the things that he does.
And Matt, the first picture in this film, you're bald an carrying a gun the size of a small ship, so were you excited about the physical transformation and what the hell is that gun?
Matt Damon: Yeah, Neill, in that graphic novel that he gave me, was a picture of the Max character. He had a very specific look and that was just, you know, like every other piece and detail in the whole kind of world that Neill created. I'm sure if we look back at the graphic novel it's going to look a lot like the movie's eventually going to look, except the movie will obviously be rendered in much greater detail. But, yeah, Max had this certain look. He'd spent time in prison. He's supposed to have a bald shaved head with tattoos, and kind of a be a muscle-bound guy. I'd never done anything like that so it seemed like a good fit, you know.
And the gun?
Matt Damon: And the gun. In the second book that I got, which was the weapons –
Neill Blomkamp: The weapons catalog.
Matt Damon: That was the weapons catalog. And like every other gun in that, it had a whole, you know, Neill and the guys at workshop kind of came up with all of these things and they made sense, all of these guns. They're like, you know you see these guys and some of them have like battery packs on and these really kind of gnarly weapons that obviously don't exist in the world that we live in, but you totally buy them when you see them. Just seeing them on set, you go well, 'that clearly looks like some horrible weapon that someone is going to invent someday.' So yeah, again, it was just that level of detail with all of these guys.
You had said that you took a break from writing this to write something else for a little while in 2010, a lot of writers do that to clear their heads before they return to their original project, what can you tell us about what you took a break to write?
Neill Blomkamp: I didn't actually take a break. That seems to be my style lately. It's just like continuous work, but it wasn't a break. What happened was, I was writing "Elysium" and I had this idea for this film so I wrote it with Terri, who wrote "District 9" with me, and I was writing "Elysium" on my own. So I just came up with the original idea and within like literally, I don't remember exactly, but maybe three weeks, it was like done. And it was simultaneous. It was like I would just write that when I felt like it with her and, then I would write "Elysium" on my own and bounce between them. It was just a fairly fully formed idea so it's quite easy to jot down and it's much more simplistic than "Elysium" in terms of just overall kind of concept. It's a much more simple thing. It's a science fiction comedy thing. That's about as far as I can go with it.
Will that be your next movie?
Neill Blomkamp: It may be.
Does it have a title?
Neill Blomkamp: "Chappie." Yeah.
Is that with a y or an ie?
Neill Blomkamp: ie.
Matt, you had mentioned how much you liked "District 9," but Jodie was that a deciding factor for you once you saw the film?
Jodie Foster: Yeah. I saw "District 9" and I sort of just jumped up and said this is a perfect film and I want to find this guy and I want to work with this guy. That's actually kind of how it happened. And then even a little bit after that, honestly, I saw the script and low and behold there was an older woman, sounded good to me.
When you write the scripts, do you start with characters or do you build the world?
Neill Blomkamp: "District 9,""Elysium" and "Chappie" I think were all born out of – they are always some sort of like visual concept first, all of them. Like "District 9," it was like wanting to see aliens living in Johannesburg. And "Elysium" was the idea of the separation of rich and poor and the images of this kind of space station separate from earth in a thematic separation that was visual. "Chappie" is the imagery – because I think I'm a visual person first – more than anything was the imagery of this ridiculous robot character. It's much more comedy based in an unusual setting, so that's where that came from. They're always like -- they seem to be visual first really -- visuals of ideas.
In "District 9," one of the amazing parts of the story is how real the characters were and how real the aliens look. There has been a lot of talk about 48 fps, what are your thoughts from a director aspect?
Neill Blomkamp: It's a really complex discussion. I mean, I think if you were to show a child who is like six months old right now, a 48 frame per second film when they're 20, it would be as familiar to them as you watching like a 24 frame per second HD I think. So there's very much a generational thing. But for people that are our age, there's a kind of alien quality to 48 or 60 fps that distances you from it in a way. I am waiting to see whether the audience gets behind or rejects it, because it has such a hyper realism about it that the kind of cinema may be taken away a little bit. Like for me, I don't like it. But that's just me personally. I prefer 24 fps. I definitely prefer 2D over 3D, and that's a personal preference thing, but the closer I am to cinema that I grew up with where I feel like now I'm watching a film and I'm in the state of mind that I feel like I want to be in when I'm entering a different world, I feel like some of that really crazy high res high frame rate separates me from it, and 3D sometimes has the safe effect.