Neill Blomkamp on Elysium, District 9, Chappie and more

With his latest film, Elysium, out in the UK soon, we met with director Neill Blomkamp to talk about sci-fi, District 9, and more...

“The best of both worlds,” is perhaps the most concise way of describing Neill Blomkamp’s filmmaking to date. An almost perfectly equal amalgam of dirty, used realism, exotic science fiction, intelligent social comment and visceral action, Blomkamp’s short films and features are full of things to thrill our intellects as well as our eyes and ears.

That blend saw Blomkamp’s first film, District 9, receive Oscar nominations and considerable attention at the box-office, and his latest, Elysium, is no different. Ahead of its UK release, we were lucky enough to chat to the writer and director about his movies, what interests him about science fiction, and what he’s up to next…

Congratulations on the film, first of all.

Oh, thanks –  you’ve seen it. You know, dude, it’s kind of cool, because no one outside of my group of people has seen it. You know what I mean? It’s good to hear people start talking about it. It’s interesting. A few people have told me it’s more cynical than District 9. It’s just interesting, basically, just hearing people talking about it.

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I enjoyed the themes in it. I thought it was a bit like District 9, in that it was a bit of a Trojan horse for your way of thinking. Is that the way you see your films?

Yeah, I think so. Trojan horse is an interesting way of putting it, but the way I think of it more is, like, a film trying to accomplish to films, really. And whether or not it’s disguised isn’t really the point – it’s more observations about living on Earth, and letting those observations flow into the artwork, you know? It doesn’t necessarily have a message about how we can fix the planet – which I don’t think we can do without genetic manipulation.

So if you don’t have a message, it just becomes an observation – or a different lens through which the audience can look at my version of Earth. 

It’s also satirical, isn’t it?

Yeah, there’s satire in there. William Fichtner’s character is probably the most satirical. The scene where he wants to switch out the bed sheets because he’s afraid [Matt Damon’s character] might get blood on them? A lot of that corporate satire, that’s awesome. Like, he’s not worth the money. He’s got to go. We’ve got to get him off the sheets.

I detected a bit of Paul Verhoeven, RoboCop vibe to those scenes.

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Oh really? That’s cool.

Was he an influence?

Yeah, I think so. Less Total Recall, more RoboCop. I love Paul Verhoeven. Satire in general is just rad. One of my favourite films ever is Dr Strangelove. It’s fucking awesome, you know? And Paul Verhoeven knows satire like crazy, so he’s a big influence.

There’s a slight anime influence in your work – the mecha and guns and those sorts of things. In Tetra Vaal, your short film, the robot looks like the one in Appleseed.

It does, it does. It’s true. Briarios, yeah. You know, Tetra Vaal was a good example, because that was 03. I was 23 then, and at that stage I was really into all of that shit – like Masamune Shirow and all of his stuff. But not so much now that I’m older. But that doesn’t mean that all that stuff didn’t psychologically lodge itself in there.

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Now my thing is less about consciously taking influence from somewhere, and more about consciously trying to build what I think is functional technology, whether it’s guns or ships or whatever. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not subconsciously influenced by my period of Ghost In The Shell, going nuts for his stuff.

Although Chappie, the film I’m about to do, is basically based on Tetra Vaal. So you’ll see some more Briarious ears. 

Oh! I didn’t know that. So would that be Sharlto Copley’s character, then? Will he be playing Briarious, essentially?

Maybe. [An enigmatic smile and laugh.]

Ah, okay! Where did the world of Elysium begin? Did it begin with the idea of the torus space station?

What happened was, at the end of District 9… sometimes there are real-life things that I feel would make for interesting science fiction. One of those is class warfareand wealth discrepancy and haves and have-nots. I knew very badly that I wanted to make a film about that. But I knew that if you don’t get it right, it just becomes, like, urgh. There’s no genre, meaty hook you can sink your teeth into.

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The moment Elysium clicked was, I had this image from Syd Mead of the inside of one of those Stanford toruses, which he did for National Geographic. I was just sitting in my office. I’d had the image since I was 11, but in Canada, I’ve had it for a while in my office. All of a sudden, I was like, Jesus, the rich could go to that. They could have physically taken the money and built that.

All of a sudden, it crosses over. Now, that’s a visual concept that’s very self-explanatory, and fuckin’ cool. It’s so easy to understand that the poor are trying to get there. When that clicked,  I knew I wanted to make that film, because that’s the film I wanted to make.

You mentioned the class divide thing, there. That’s something that’s been in science fiction since Metropolis, with the workers and the rich. But it seems to have come back round in science fiction films, with In Time and Looper, and Snowpiercer on the way. Why do you think that is?

Does Looper have that, though?

Perhaps not to the same extent, but it feels like it’s set in the Great Depression, doesn’t it?

I guess. Looper to me was less about that, but In Time definitely was, for sure. I think the global zeitgeist… when things happen like that, and spread around the globe, with the Occupy movement and the 99 percent and the one percent, that all happened during me making Elysium. All of a sudden, this rage against the machine idea came around while I was making a film about it, and I was making the film before that was a soundbite on CNN. So I think that when something’s in the blood like that, it’s just there. Clearly there’s something happening there, and it’s happening every day, more and more.

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The riots in Turkey are about that. So I’m not surprised there have been films about it. And also: dude, it’s never going away. If you could have made films 3000 years ago, you’d have been making films about that. Pharoahs, pyramids: that’s all we’ve done since we’ve been animals, is try to dominate one another, and hoard money for ourselves or for our families. 

Do you think science fiction can deal with things like that better than other genres?

Yes. But I don’t know if ‘deal with it’ is the right term. ‘Deal with it’ insinuates that I have a way of solving it.

Maybe ‘explore’ is a better way of putting it.

Explore is a really good way of saying it, yeah. Anything in the fantasy realm – I like sci-fi, but I also like fantasy – anything that paints the world with a different brush, and at first you don’t know what you’re looking at. It might totally switch your point of view, and then halfway through, you’re like, “Oh shit, I was actually the guy I don’t usually like, but now I see his point of view.”

That’s one of the things that’s most appealing to me about sci-fi. But that only happened when I got older. When I was younger, I didn’t see the subtext in RoboCop. I didn’t see what the hell was going on in a lot of the films I really like. And for that reason, I really liked the genre elements. I really liked ED-209 fuckin’ blowing the guy apart on top of the architectural model. That’s the shit that I liked.

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But then you get older, and I was like, “Oh, Jesus, it’s actually about this…” So for me, I get the best of both worlds. Because if you’ve seen Elysium, you know how much of that sci-fi design shit I love. Guns, vehicles – I don’t want to make a film that doesn’t have that. And if it doesn’t that, it’s got to have dragons or wolves – I’m still in. But the second there’s none of that, I’m not in.

And on top of that, I get to explore those observations that, me passing through life, I just see. So that’s the best of both worlds.

Neill Blomkamp, thank you very much.

Elysium is out on the 21st August in the UK.