NEILL BLOMKAMP INTERVIEW: PART 1
The surprise film of 2009 was “District 9,” the $30 million sci-fi tale that was directed by newcomer Neill Blomkamp, the Johannesburg native who celebrated his 30th birthday the month after the movie opened wide. “District 9” met with strong success both critically and commercially and it’s still being discovered after arriving this month on DVD and Blu-ray. I sat down with Blomkamp at Pete’s Cafe in downtown Los Angeles during the filmmaker’s recent visit to Southern California and we talked about the movie and his surprising plans for the future, which, he says, won’t include any big-budget sci-fi epics. This is Part 1 of the interview:
GB: “District 9” arrived at theaters as a rarity among science-fiction and horror films these days for the simple fact that it wasn’t a sequel, a remake of an already-popular film or an adaption of a comic book, novel or television series. That gave it the air of the unexpected.
NB: That’s true, that does make it a bit left of the norm. I think about this a lot – a hell of a lot actually – and how it plays out within the genre of sci-fi and horror. This concept of “Where does that fiction [in its source material form] come from?” If you look at the most meaningful science fiction, it didn’t come from watching other films. We seem to be in a place now where filmmakers make films based on other films because that’s where the stimuli and influence comes from. But go back and look at something like [Joe Haldeman’s 1974 novel] “The Forever War” – that is very much rooted in his experience in Vietnam, that’s where the stimulation comes from. And that’s my goal, really, is not to draw from other films in terms of the overall inspiration and stimuli. You can in terms of design and tone and stuff, certainly, but not in terms of the idea and the genesis of that idea.
GB: It’s an admirable goal but other filmmakers have found that, if they want to make well-budgeted special-effects movies, they have to bend to studio pressure to make films that are remakes, adaptations, sequels, etc. Studios feel far more comfortable with “known quantity” properties when the budgets go north of $100 million.
NB: That’s exactly right and that’s precisely the reason I don’t want to do high-budget films. I’ve said no already to doing the Hollywood movie thing with big budgets. And that is the exact reason.
GB: “District 9” had an interesting journey both before and after it reached the screen in wide release in August. Tell me about some of the memorable points along that journey.
NB: I’d say Comic-Con [International in San Diego 2009] was the big turning point. The whole time I was making the film, the only guiding thing I had was how I felt about it. “Is this a movie I would like to go and see? Is this a movie that resonates with me?” Directors make movies they want to watch, really. So I made it and it felt correct to me. But what was undecided was how people would receive it and whether they would like it. I mean, I knew I loved it. Comic-Con was awesome because there was a whole bunch of guys that love those kinds of movies that I like and they responded to it strongly.
GB: What was your first reaction to that affirmation?
NB: “Thank God.” But that was still only the hard-core, genre group, so we still didn’t know how a wider audience would approach the movie. But it was made for a relatively little money. If a movie was a $170-million film it would still have been stressful after Comic-Con but if it’s a low-enough amount of money you walk out feeling that you’re probably going to be OK just counting on the hard-core group.
GB: What happened after Comic-Con?
NB: Well it’s such a blur now. What happened now, really, is I toured around and showed the film in a bunch of cities all over America, Mexico, Canada and eventually Europe and each time we screened it the reaction seemed very positive and I started feeling like we were definitely going to make the cash back. That was really the only goal. As long as whoever put up the money for it got their money back and a little bit of profit that was good enough. It wasn’t like some completely capitalistic machine – it was “Get a return on your investment and let me be creative.” That was the goal. I never want to be ruled by the size of the profit, that’s not how I approach it.
GB: So for you it’s more like playing on “Jeopardy.” If you win, you get to play again. In your case, if you break even or better, you get to make another movie.
NB: Yes, that’s it exactly! That’s precisely how I approached it. If I don’t win, it’s going to be difficult to get another one.
GB: The film drew on your experiences, observations and insights from growing up in South Africa. After watching the way the film was received and reviewed, do you feel your messages were understood in the way you hoped?
NB: Yeah, I think so. For the most part, “District 9” is absolute popcorn. It’s absolute fluff compared to how serious those real-life topics are. The topics in the film are on my mind all the time and they’re very interesting to me. The bottom line is “District 9” touches on 1% of those topics in terms of how severe they could be portrayed, and I knew that when I made it. But people got the messages. Xenophobia, racism allegories – they got all of it. I don’t think the film was misunderstood. Not everybody loved it. Nigerians weren’t happy. They were pissed. And I suppose that’s fair enough because I directly named them and they don’t come off well in the film. But that was part of the whole satirical nature of the film. And that conflict, well, that’s a South African thing.
— Geoff Boucher
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CREDIT: Blomkamp portrait by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times. “District 9” image from TriStar Pictures.