‘Elysium’ Interview: Neill Blomkamp’s Team on Creating a New Sci-Fi World
Although 'District 9' highlighted a world that most audiences had never seen – the sociocultural divide in South Africa, writ large as a genre parable -- Neill Blomkamp’s debut film offered them something that was possibly even more unique, and significant: It felt like the first science-fiction movie in a long time that was completely original.
Duncan Jones and Gareth Edwards’ projects, 'Moon' and 'Monsters,' respectively, came soon therafter, but the trio reminded the world – not to mention Hollywood’s money-counters – that it was possible to tell stories that didn’t come from an already-popular book series, toy line or canceled television show. And now, with 'Elysium,' Blomkamp faces the pressure of following through on that promise: working with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster on a big-budget adventure financed by Sony, the filmmaker must demonstrate that his first film was not a fluke, but the future of genre filmmaking.
On Monday, Blomkamp joined producer Simon Kinberg, frequent collaborator Sharlto Copley and from Germany, star Matt Damon to offer fans a first look at the film’s trailer, as well as a 10-minute sizzle reel which set up the world within the film. Following the event, Blomkamp, Copley and Kinberg sat down for a short Q&A with press, where the young filmmaker discussed the challenges of bringing the film to life, provided details about characters and concepts yet unrevealed, and contemplated the parameters of his creative ambition.
Q: How much of the movie takes place on Earth versus on Elysium?
Neill Blomkamp: Definitely the majority of the film takes place on Earth. It’s probably two-thirds Earth, one-third on Elysium. It’s in that kind of zone. The whole aspiration of the protagonist is to get there, so you kind of want to save that for the last third.
Q: Can you talk about how much, if at all, the Occupy movement inspired this film?
Blomkamp: Well, hopefully it didn’t impact it at all. I think that, if there are topics that are just on people’s minds, things manifest into reality out of the sort of global consciousness of being aware of those topics. So, separate from the 99% discussion and the Occupy movement and everything, I was thinking about this and the film kind of grew out of that. I remember reading something about Chris Nolan maybe trying to film some Occupy movement for the end of the 'Dark Knight' series, which could have or might have been bulls--t, I don’t remember. It was the first time that I realized that I was making a film that fit that in terms of the global consciousness. It fit into a CNN soundbite and that upset me a little bit. But they both come from the same place. I just don’t want it to be fast food and just thrown away, if that makes sense.
Q: When it comes to the apparatus that Matt Damon wears, how long did it take to suit him up in that?
Blomkamp: In terms of the story, it’s meant to be -- It’s funny, with product placement this film. I personally wrote e-mails to companies that I wanted to try and get into the film to try and add realism to it. One of my favorite ones is Kawasaki, which is on his suit. The idea was that it was some kind of very low-end, almost dirt bike, like a motocross version of a strength suit that was born out of research that the military is doing now. Like Lockheed and a bunch of companies have HULC suits that are used for enhanced strength. I just wanted it to look really grungy and extremely sort of low-end and kind of real. That was the thinking, and he’s sick in the film, so it makes him stronger, but it doesn’t make him Iron Man strong. It’s trying to do it semi-realistically. And then in the practical application, it’s actually a surprising amount of engineering that Weta has to do. For the range of motions, to actually work correctly, it’s a surprising amount of engineering. Sharl has one in the film later on that’s a bit more advanced than the one Matt has in the film. It's a little bit more complex, a little bit newer. But they’re born out of the same idea.
Q: Can you talk a bit about Kruger's look in the film and the decision to cast Sharlto in the role? Did you want something that was very much the opposite of his character in 'District 9'?
Blomkamp: Well, it was never the idea to go opposite. I never really think of something in terms of what not to do. It’s always what’s appealing or what’s cool. But one thing that Sharl was talking about when we were downstairs, he tried a few different versions of accents and a few different versions of “where does this guy come from?” There was a border war in South Africa in the '70s and '80s where a lot of the special forces guys were truly on their own, and it was a really insane way that they operated. It truly was Black Ops on a different level. The behind-the-scenes photos of those kinds of guys, they’re wearing these terrible shorts, nothing else, and a long beard after they’ve mass-murdered a bunch of people. That served as reference. He tried a bunch of different contacts. I think you just walked into my office with some of them.
Sharlto Copley: With the contacts, yeah, yeah. It was like dark eyes.
Blomkamp: He picked a really dark pair of eyes.
Copley: That unit was called 32 Battalion, and it was guys who could go into the bush and just not come out for like three months. It’s a very specific type of soldier, and it’s not like, “Ooh, I look so cool with my Oakleys.” “I’m gonna blast you!” It’s a different kind of person to deal with.
Q: And what are those little metal things on Kruger's face?
Blomkamp: Later on in the film he has them also on his body. They’re basically like metal implants that are drilled into his bone, so it’s just easy on and off. Like the ones on his face are for night vision, they just click on – and then they’re magnets and you just pull them off. With the suit later it’s just for quick access. There…no, I won’t get into that [laughs].
Copley: I was wondering how much you were going to give away.
Q: How much do you get into the history of how Elysium started and people started going up there?
Blomkamp: The thinking originally was kind of split. Part of me really wanted to just -- I like films that just put you there and you have to deal with it. I really like that. So there was an even more aggressive version of the film where the intro was almost non-existent. The film just starts, and it’s like, “Oh s--t, there’s a space station. Okay.” You try and keep up with it. I shot some footage that explained the intro a little bit more, but I decided not to use it. I would say it’s kind of like halfway. There is some explanation, but it’s definitely not over the top. It kind of just begins.
Q: When it came to building the vision of this futuristic world, did you consult with futurists to try and determine what the world would actually look like 150 years in the future? What research went into that?
Blomkamp: Not really. The thing is, I think that if you really try to make a proper speculative fiction piece of science-fiction it’s a very different product that you end up with. And in this film, and to a certain degree in 'District 9,' both times proper science was thrown out the window a little bit in favor of metaphor or story or plot. Actually less plot. More to make mechanics of what the theme is. So building a space station with marble and slate is semi-not-that-smart [laughs]. It’s not really something that you want to do. But the metaphor of Bel Air in space is correct. You just work towards that. My approach is always to start off with something ridiculous, and then try and use the most realistic portrayal of the ridiculous as you can. For all the visual effects guys, everything was like if they couldn’t show me reference, if it wasn’t from a mega project like the Yangtze River Dam or some ridiculous expansion bridge in Canada, something of that scale, it didn’t belong in the film. So you couldn’t make some s--t up... It had to come from reality. So it’s kind of like I’m painting ridiculous ideas with the brush of reality.
Simon Kinberg: It’s even small details. Like, on Elysium, people use paper. The assumption would be on a space station in 100-plus years there wouldn’t be paper anymore, but it makes it relatable and real and connects to today’s world in a way that’s unconscious.
Q: Simon, I’m curious about your feeling on the Occupy movement. Is that something that’s in the air.
Kinberg: It’s not really something we talked about. I think Neill is very interested in the world, so I think it just sort of seeps into your unconscious, but it’s not something we consciously think about.
Q: As a genre director who makes films with a social message, do you see yourself as a smuggler in that you bring elements of what’s going on in the world presented through a science-fiction lens?
Copley: A smuggler! I like that! That’s the first I’ve ever heard of that!
Blomkamp: Yeah, smuggler is pretty cool. I like that – sort of a filmmaking smuggler. I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. I think that in the realm of commercial, popcorn cinema the amount of message or smuggling of ideas you can get in there is quite limited. Like if you think you’re going to make a difference or change anything you’re on pretty dangerous, thin ice. You can put ideas in there that are real issues that are going on in the world, and particularly for me there’s just a bunch of things that really interest me, and ideas formulate out of them. If I wanted to make something that actually made a difference roughly in this industry, I would make a documentary. That would be the closest I could come to actually try and make a difference. So the film does speak about topics that really have a big impact on me, but I don’t know how much the audience takes away from it. It’s like inspiration for art.
Q: Can you talk about the differences of filming in Mexico versus South Africa? Can you talk about things that you discovered?
Blomkamp: Well, I can summarize it pretty quickly: Mexico is all about kidnappings, and Joburg is all about carjackings [laughs]. The security team that we had, actually, they were doing diamonds being moved from Congo down into South Africa and up on the East Coast of Africa, and they had done two models of research about the two countries, which was pretty interesting because they were with us in Mexico – I’m speaking specifically about crime right now. Mexico, in the areas that we were in, the chance of impulse, random crimes were extremely low, and the chance of a two to three week, premeditated kidnapping was much, much higher. And then in Johannesburg it was like the perfect inverse of that. So the feeling in Mexico City, to me, is quite different than Johannesburg, but the similarities are – and it’s the reason we shot there – extreme wealth (Carlos Slim lives there) and extreme poverty. Obviously we chose extreme poverty because Canada played as the wealth, but there was a surprising amount of similarities in terms of lifestyle and politics, and living that far beneath the poverty band. There’s natural similarities that come out of it.
Copley: There were a lot of similar things. I felt safer in Mexico because if there was a kidnapping thing I was always like, “Well, they’re going to go for Matt Damon before they go for me” [laughs]. I was like, “Hey brothers! I’m from South Africa! I’m a third world guy! I’m on your side! Take the producer! He’s the American!” So I felt okay. The scale of Mexico City surprised me. The sheer size of the place was astounding. I just had no idea how big it was. You'd be flying in a helicopter. It just goes on and on and on in the same type of standard of living. Not as much shacks as you had in South Africa above that really sort of shantytown living. There's just a very consistent level of blocks and blocks and blocks. You'd fly for 20 minutes you're still over the city.
Blomkamp: One of the things that Sharlto is talking about that's very interesting is that in Mexico City, when you look out, it's almost all concrete grey. That entire place is concrete grey as far as you can see. A lot of guys there were telling me that, if you complete your building and it's actually considered complete, all of a sudden you start paying property tax. So you get to the point where it's entirely good to go and you just don't paint it. Then it's never officially completed. The entire place had this really interesting photographic look.
Q: Do the citizens of Earth have the opportunity to apply for space in Elysium?
Blomkamp: It's all money. If you have the money, you can. That was part of a scene we shot that I didn't use. You can get citizenship for, like, a billion dollars. It's pretty self-selecting as far as who goes up.
Q: 'Elysium' is a dystopian future, as is your [Kinberg] upcoming 'X-Men: Days of Future Past.' Is there any kind of dramatic connection between the two?
Kinberg: No, they're such different movies. The things that this touches on like immigration, health care and class issues aren't really things that this superhero movie is going to dive into in the same way. The aesthetic is very different. It's one of the things about Neill's work in general. He had a series of photos that he had done where he sort of took first world and third world images and combined them into one landscape. That combination and collision feels like [it] informed so much of the thematics of the visual storytelling of this movie. Maybe 'District 9,' too, but really this movie. It's really unique. It's not like anything else.
Q: Neill, do you think that you're going to stick with wholly original properties, or would you consider directing a film in a franchise or based on something that you didn't create or, alternately, would you ever want to return to either this world or the world of 'District 9'?
Blomkamp: I don't think I actively sit down and say, "I'm only going to do my own stuff" or that I only want everything to be original. One of the things that I really learned with 'Halo' -- because I still really love the world and the universe and the mythology of 'Halo.' If I was given control, I would really like to do that film. But that's the problem. When something pre-exists, there's this idea of my own interpretation versus 150 other people involved with the film's interpretation of the same intellectual property. Then the entire film-going audience has their interpretation. You can really live up to or fail in their eyes. That part isn't appealing to me, but the original pieces are appealing. As far as sequels to my own stuff, I think a lot of it just comes down to if there's more to say. I think the world of 'District 9' has a lot of race and oppression-based ideas that I would still like to explore in that world. Again, I have no problem remaking my own stuff or whatever you call it. Sequelizing my own stuff. Then there's a few pieces of cinema history that I like so much. I don't know if I could be involved with them, but there's iconic characters out there that I really like and would love to get closer to and make a film about. When I start dipping my toes into it, I get this allergic reaction. Maybe one day I'll end up doing something like that.
Q: When you're designing a sort of world bible, how do you distinguish the vision behind this from the world of 'District 9'?
Blomkamp: I always say that I think I'm a visual artist before anything else. I think that the amount of inspiration that I get from creating images while the script is still being written is such a massive part of the birth of the film. Weta was doing tons of concept art as I was busy bouncing ideas around and writing things. All of the thinking, kind of like I was saying before, is painting this kind of ridiculous concept with a realistic brush. In this case, it's all human Western technology thinking. It's like Western Raytheon kind of Lockheed mind that comes up with the stuff in this film whereas, with 'District 9,' all of the thinking was alien and more of an homage to classic sci-fi that I liked, some of which is in films, like Chris Foss' artwork. It's pretty different in here. It's about what a human mind might lead to rather than an alien one. This film, too, is particularly realistic. The vehicle that Sharlto flies around in, The Raven, is this ridiculous vehicle with plasma engines that flies around. But you try to make that as realistic as possible. It also has camo. I couldn't think of another vehicle that flies around in space with camo. Am I wrong? Can you think of one? The camo is rad. I don't think there's another one.
Q: How much humanity do we get to see in the villains? Are they consciously oppressive or more about being out of sight and out of mind?
Blomkamp: Sharlto can talk about Kruger, but I think that, in terms of Jodie, the idea on Elysium is that it's a slight -- commentary is the wrong word -- It's a mirror of how the West is now with immigration. A lot of people want to help out the rest of the world. They want to take that wealth and pour the glass half out to balance it in the rest of the planet. Other people want to close the borders. The people fit into those two camps. Sharl is just completely indifferent. He's like a soldier on the ground that just executes commands.
Copley: It's more about professional soldier elements. With Kruger, it's an issue for politicians and he's a soldier and he moves amongst what is squalor, from his point of view. He would be on Elysium, but he has to live here. That's not the politics or about if what happens is fair or whatever. It's just soldiering, like its always been. That's a certain type of that being his thing. He's got the camo on because it's cool and that's our colors. What are you going to do? It's that kind of more gung-ho soldiering attitude for my guy, certainly.
Kinberg: They're also not black and white villains. You could say that Wikus, in many ways, is the villain in 'District 9' because he's destroying alien fetuses. Then, obviously, he becomes a hero. Jodie is introduced at home. She's got grandkids and kids around. She wants them to live their life in a very nice suburb and genuinely believes she needs to protect them.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about William Fichtner's character, Carlyle? He seems to have an unusual, almost robotic cadence.
Blomkamp: The cadence is not robotic. There's a little bit of satire throughout the whole film and really, with Carlyle, the volume of the satire is turned up a little bit more. He's basically just a billionaire who's uninterested in small people that get in the way of him making profit. That cadence, a lot of it came from Bill, is because he acts with almost no emotion when he's dealing with people so far beneath him. There are some scenes that are pretty funny that he does that in. He's just rich and he's extremely elitist and he's very separate.
Q: Any comment there on people that you've had to deal with in Hollywood.
Blomkamp: Where's the publicist? [laughs] Yes.
Q: You've said in the past that you're not a big fan of giving any of a movie away beforehand. When it finally comes time to screen footage, how do you decide what you're going to show?
Blomkamp: Yeah, I try to show as little as I can. The thing is, if you're a responsible, functioning filmmaker in the 21st century, you can't spend $100 million and then try to behave as though you're going to wrap it under a blanket and maybe one day play it at one theater in Vancouver. It just doesn't work. Rationally, I understand that people have to get to know about the film and word has to get out there. Personally, I don't really like it. It's part of how the system works. I like the film. One of the reasons that I like Comic-Con as a venue is that I feel like I'm a fan. I feel like I'm the exact same person as people that come and watch the footage. It's a little weird that I made the film, so there's this kind of pedestal, soapbox talking thing element of the marketing that I don't really like. But you have to get it out there. I tried to limit as much as I could. I didn't win, completely.
Q: Would you be interested in one day applying the same sort creative world-building to a project that isn't necessarily action-oriented?
Blomkamp: Like I said about being a fan at Comic-Con, I like films in this genre. My favorite film of all time is 'Aliens.' Period. James Cameron's 'Aliens.' What 'Elysium' doesn't have that I'd like to put into the next film is slime and eggs. It's missing slime and eggs. It's got copious amounts of robotics and guns, so that's cool. It's covered. For me to make a film without any of those elements, including action, is kind of boring to me. Cinema doesn't come out of that stuff. There's versions of that in films from filmmakers that I really like but, for me personally, to get invested and wanting to make it, it has gotta have genre elements. It has to have real -- issues is the wrong word -- but things that I want to explore and talk about also in the film. Not just that the guy has to shoot the other guy because he's got a gun.