‘District 9’ director Neill Blomkamp’s future? Think ‘Black Hawk Down’ and … Monty Python?
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NEILL BLOMKAMP INTERVIEW: PART 2
Neill Blomkamp established himself as a filmmaker to watch in 2009 with “District 9,” a film that wrapped satire, social commentary and gripping action within a sci-fi tale that looked far more expensive than its $30-million budget. I sat down with Blomkamp in downtown Los Angeles recently to talk about his future, both short-term and long-term. It was clear that science fiction is his focus, but he also spoke like a restless director who is also intrigued by films of combat and even comedy. (This is Part 2 of the interview, you can read Part 1 right here. Check back for Part 3 tomorrow.)
GB: What’s next for you?
NB: I know what I’m doing now. QED paid for “District 9” and Bill Block the producer put it together. And now MRC is another finance group and they’re putting together the cash for my next film based on a treatment I wrote. I had the idea in my head for about a year. I wrote it within a month of finishing “District 9,” so July or something I suppose, or May. It was May. So I wrote it in May and I sent it to them and they agreed to do it. So now I’m writing.
GB: What can you tell me about it, if anything?
NB: Not much. I’m trying to keep it to myself at this point. But it is science fiction and it has many sociopolitical ideas that interest me. Those ideas are wrapped up inside something that is like a Hollywood action film,
GB: It’s interesting – most directors in your position would have sought a bigger budget at this point, especially if they wanted their next film to be an action or special-effects film. You have a different plan. Could you talk more about that?
NB: I’ve been offered films – a lot of films, in fact – with seriously high budgets, and I’ve turned them all down. The reason is exactly what you said earlier: Once the budgets get bigger, you can’t do what you want as a director, unless you’re Peter Jackson or James Cameron. And even then, the pressure is still on the filmmaker. Even if the studio isn’t clamping down on you, all the pressure is on the director. And if you screw that up, the jeopardy situation is even worse. The way you don’t get yourself in that jeopardy situation is by making films that aren’t as risky financially. I just want to make films that have enough of a budget to pull off high-level imagery but also have a budget that is low enough that I can do what I want.
GB: So you want the risks to be creative ones, not commercial ones. There are many filmmakers who take a course like that for an entire career – John Sayles springs to mind – but I suppose the interesting thing is that visual effects are reaching a price point where you can make smaller sci-fi movies that look big.
NB: This next movie will cost more than “District 9” but it will cost much, much less than the big summer films. You can do a lot for less now. It’s all about process, too. If go into it knowing what you want to accomplish, you can save money. If you go into it trying to figure out what you want, it’s going to cost a lot of money. The other aspect is trimming it down. It’s like a diet. Instead of 2,000 effects shots, you can probably do with 1,000. Those kinds of sacrifices are worth it if you get to make something that is not in any way generic.
GB: There can be an interesting freedom in the restrictions, too, even though that sounds contradictory. If you look at “Jaws” and “Alien,” the limitations on the visual effects led to ingenuity and better films. And there are many films today that go wild with visual effects and it leads to entirely forgettable films.
NB: It’s so true. From a pure audience perspective, it may yield a more interesting result. Think of “Alien,” if they made it now you would probably get “Alien vs. Predator.”
GB: Do you expect to pursue mostly sci-fi projects as you go forward from here?
NB: Science fiction interests me massively. There are two reasons for that. There are loads of sociopolitical, racial, class and future-planet situations that really interest me, but I’m not really interested in making a film about them in a film that feels like reality because people view that in a different way. I like using science fiction to talk about subjects through the veneer of science fiction. The other reason is I’m like a total visual kid. I grew up as an artist. Science fiction allows for design and creatures and guns and all the stuff that I like as well. So I think most of the films I make, I’m sure, will be in that category. But I can also see myself making a film like “Black Hawk Down” and I could also totally do horror. Science fiction and horror, that right there is my optimum. I can see myself doing out-there comedy like Monty Python, absolutely, I would love that. Seriously.
GB: What films have you liked recently?
NB: My favorite film of the year was “The Hurt Locker.” I really loved it. I really liked “Inglourious Basterds” a lot. One of my favorites recently was “Let the Right One In.” The way it’s put together. I love that film. The fact that they’re making an American version, that’s part of everything I’ve been saying about Hollywood. Why not just watch the real one? Do we need a remake of that film now? They’re remaking “Oldboy” too. I don’t understand it.
GB: Peter Jackson was a key part of your success story to date. How would you describe your relationship with him at this point?
NB: The relationship is a good one but he’s very, very busy. I’ve been in very limited contact with him really. When I was making the film I talked to him all the time, of course, but now it’s hard. The guy has more films on the go than anyone I know. It’s amazing. We do sparse e-mail – it’s a combination of his attention and my attention is going away from “District 9.” Things are good but it’s not easy to keep in touch.
GB: When you reflect on your time working with him, can you point to some things you learned from him, either specific things or perhaps more philosophical things?
NB: He’s a nice person. He’s a generous and very likable guy. I enjoyed working with him. I think I can talk about some of the general, overall things I took away from it. My process, typically, is to work within parameters. I kind of like that. I like knowing what the game is and figuring out moves based on that. What I mean is I like knowing the number of shooting days, I like knowing the script is locked, the budget is set – I like knowing all of those factors aren’t going to change. Peter’s process is the other way around. His process seems like very pure creativity so budgets change and duration of shoots are very fluid and there are rewrites. His mind doesn’t fall into a state of “I’ve been creative and now I’m executing this way.” His mind is in the creative state throughout. It’s constant. His approach is 180 degrees away from mine. What it yields is an environment of hyper-creativity. No matter how much stress it’s going to produce on the production or the crew, if it’s the right idea for the movie he’s going to do it. It can be all of a sudden saying, “I don’t want to film in L.A. Now I want to film in New York.” So if I had to sum up what he taught me it would be that spirit. He taught me not to be so buttoned-down about how to go about making a movie
GB: It sounds like the difference between a marching band and a jazz band.
NB: Totally. It’s very interesting to think about. He’s got a very fluid focus. I actually can’t get away with that right now. You have to be a very successful world-class filmmaker to get away with it, so I can’t get away with that. But it’s a good lesson. I also like that he doesn’t get flustered. I don’t either, really, but he is very, very calm. He doesn’t get worked up about situations. You look for solutions.
Check back for Part 3 of the interview tomorrow.
— Geoff Boucher
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CREDITS: Neill Blomkamp portrait by Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times. “District 9” image from TriStar Pictures. Producer Peter Jackson, actor Sharlto Copley and director Blomkamp at Comic-Con International from Getty Images.