NEILL BLOMKAMP INTERVIEW: PART 3
“District 9” got a best-picture nomination from the Producers Guild Assn., it was announced Tuesday, and the sci-fi film remains a wild card in the awards season. That’s music to the ears of Neill Blomkamp, the director who put himself on the map with the intriguing sci-fi tale based in his native South Africa. Here’s Part 3 of my interview with Blomkamp, whom I sat down with during his recent visit to Los Angeles. We began this segment by talking about casting and Blomkamp’s enthusiasm for using lesser-known actors such as Sharlto Copley, the “District 9″ star photographed below (on the left) with the director. (This Part 3 of the interview; read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)
GB: What did the “District 9″ experience teach you about casting?
NB: I’m not particularly interested in working with movie stars. It depends on where you come from, I suppose. Why are you making films? The reason I want make films is because they convey ideas. I think some directors make films because they want to hang out with movie stars and be part of Hollywood. They want to be a star themselves. I’m not interested in that at all. I think the reason you use an actor is if they are right for the role. Most of the high-profile stars tend to be good actors. That’s probably what led to their fame. So if they are right for the movie, you can certainly use them. But I don’t want to, not at all. Stardom and Hollywood overpower the ideas and the film. That being said, it’s hard finding very good performers who aren’t well-known.
GB: So how do you compensate for that? Will you seek out actors from the stage?
NB: I have thought of that. I have one idea for the lead guy [for the next film] that I actually haven’t told to anybody yet because it’s been brewing in the back of my head. Everybody knows him but not really as a star. I think that would fine. It’s a situation where people are benefiting from an unusual pairing with the material. But I’m not interested in putting big-name movie stars into my movies.
GB: So it’s not the familiarity of the face that bothers you, it’s the physics of stardom and Hollywood.
NB: Yeah exactly. That’s it. I don’t want egos and personalities on the set that make it more difficult to make the film. I don’t want people who take the focus away from the movie and the ideas behind the movie.
GB: Considering that stance and what you’ve said about the Hollywood machine, is it uncomfortable for you to promote your movie with an eye toward it as an awards season contender?
NB: A little bit. Sony has kind of pushed for awards and, really, if I feel like people are watching the film because they are interested in the film, then it’s fine. I’m fine with that. But if I feel even remotely like I’m being asked to be a salesman, I have a problem.
GB: It’s an interesting era right now with Facebook, Twitter and blogs and, more than that, this whole cross-platform approach to public life. There’s an expectation of unfettered promotion and the marketing of self.
NB: I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. I like where we’re going with technology and global integration but the fact that corporations and dollars rule everything in our lives, I don’t like it. This isn’t the Hollywood I wanted to be part of. This isn’t the version of it that I saw when I was a kid…”District 9″ and every other movie is treated like fast food. It’s promoted relentlessly and then it’s gone. Everything is a flamethrower-intensity and milked for everything it can give and then it’s just chucked away. Everything is judged instantly, too. You look back at something like “Blade Runner” and wonder how a film like that, which doesn’t do well at first, would be treated today.
GB: There’s been interest in taking “District 9″ on past the film either as a sequel, a television show or a video game. At this point, what’s your view on those pursuits? You would have a say, yes?
NB: I definitely have input into it. Ultimately the person with the most control is Peter [Jackson, producer of “District 9″], but I for sure would have some influence over whether that happens or not. I play a lot of video games. The idea of “District 9″ as a video game stresses me out a little bit because games based on movies rarely work. And movies based on games don’t work — I don’t know what’s up with that.
GB: Well, wait, if you were going to direct “Halo,” why were you going to make a video-game film if they don’t work? You thought you were the guy that could make it work?
NB: Yeah, totally, that’s exactly why. But anyway, “District 9″ as a game would be fascinating. And I don’t want to see it happen for any sort of corporate reason or profit thing. I used to be involved in computer graphics and I love virtual environments. That’s why I like video games, really. And I think a virtual environment of the slums of Soweto is an appealing idea to me. The weapons are cool, too. I photographed the film in a way that isn’t that different than video-game perspective in some parts. So a game would be interesting to me. There’s nothing happening with it though.
GB: What about a spin-off TV series or a film sequel?
NB: A television show I wouldn’t really want to do. That would be…well, I just don’t want to do that. But a sequel might be interesting. I know what I’m doing next so it wouldn’t be right away. But the concept of aliens in Johannesburg is such an appealing idea to me and the issues of race and how they meet. All of the things that I had going on with it. I wouldn’t mind messing around with it again. I’m open to it if the story works and there’s a reason to do it. And [Copley’s character] Wikus is so funny to me, I’m very interested in a sort of passive racist like that. If you go forward [with his story beyond “District 9″] it’s more of a traditional film but if you go backward I’d be intrigued in that. I’m not so interested in aliens coming back and blowing things up but [a prequel] might be interesting.
GB: “District 9″ was very much of a place. The story and texture of the film were defined by South Africa. For your next film, would go to other locales or would you root the film in your home country again?
NB: The setting for the next film takes place 150 years from now. There are two cities that I’m choosing between. They would play as themselves. They are not in South Africa. The success of “District 9″ has made things a lot easier. I can get other things made. The thing I won’t forget though is that you’re really only as good as your last film. The whole flavor-the-week thing — that’s how Hollywood works. If I screw up the next one it will be like I never made “District 9.” I’m totally aware of that. It can all disappear in 30 seconds.
— Geoff Boucher
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Top photos: Sharlto Copley, left, and director Neil Blomkamp pose on the red carpet for photographers before the screening of the film “District 9″ during the 35th International Film Festival in Deauville, France. Credit: Daniel Joubert / EPA. Middle and bottom photos: Scenes from “District 9.” Credit: TriStar