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Neill Blomkamp's 'District 9' wins over fanboys and Peter Jackson

The science fiction film is about aliens who get stranded in South Africa.

August 02, 2009|Chris Lee

The "Halo" assignment represented the culmination of more than a decade of work for Blomkamp, who heeded his professional calling at an age when most kids are still breaking in baseball mitts. "When I was 14 or 15, I got into 3-D animation on the computer my parents bought me," he said. "I was toying with practical effects. Prosthetics and in-camera effects. Models and photography. I knew I wanted to be involved in all that."

His family relocated to Vancouver when Blomkamp was 18. He enrolled in Vancouver Film School. And after working as an effects artist for a production company and shooting music videos for local bands, he moved into directing TV commercials.

Blomkamp continued to shoot special effects-heavy short films during his off-hours, though, funneling around 40% of his yearly earnings toward paying for them. And after being featured at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase in Cannes in 2004, he decided to break into Hollywood, resulting almost immediately in a fortuitous business union: Blomkamp landed one of Hollywood's preeminent dealmakers, agent Ari Emanuel, to represent him.

But after months of preproduction on "Halo," the project fell apart. "I don't know the specifics -- it was Universal and Fox duking it out," Blomkamp said. (Published reports said Fox and Universal backed out after unsuccessfully trying to renegotiate profit-sharing terms with producers, including Jackson and Halo's manufacturer, Microsoft Corp.)

Blomkamp added: "I put a hell of a lot of effort into that. We had done five months of design and early manufacturing of the soldiers' outfits, the vehicles. Hundreds of people were employed. The upsetting part is when you've done a lot of work and it gets swept under the rug."

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A powerful suggestion

Blomkamp was ready to go home in defeat when a brief conversation with Jackson's partner and frequent collaborator, Fran Walsh, changed the course of Blomkamp's career. Her suggestion to him: "Why don't you stay and work on something with a sci-fi twist? Something that represents you."

"She had the idea to turn 'Alive in Joburg' into a feature," recalled Blomkamp, who lighted up at the memory. "I was like, 'That's awesome!' "

Jackson seized on the idea of putting together a "true independent film" financed outside the studio system. "The very next day, all the artists switched from 'Halo' to 'District 9,' which, we didn't have a name for it at that stage," Jackson said. "We basically supported Neill. We didn't have a studio involved so we funded the development of the movie ourselves."

With his writing partner Terri Tatchell, Blomkamp began drafting the screenplay in 2007. Grappling with the larger social commentary about apartheid and minority rule he wanted to make, however, Blomkamp worried the film would become too serious and oppressive and that it "wouldn't be entertaining on a popcorn level." He tacked the word "SATIRE" in giant letters to his office wall as a kind of working manifesto, to deflate his potentially grandiose sense of self-importance as a filmmaker and remind himself that he was creating entertainment. "I realized I could take all the ideas I had and have them make fun of themselves," Blomkamp said. "At the same time, I could address all of the stuff I wanted to get in there."

He kept costs down, in part, by casting his childhood friend and frequent collaborator Sharlto Copley -- a writer-director-producer with limited experience in front of the camera -- in the film's lead role. He portrays Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling field operative for MNU, a giant corporate conglomerate that wants to relocate the aliens from their shanties to a newly built extraterrestrial ghetto. When the character accidentally contaminates himself with a mysterious alien biological fluid during an MNU sweep, however, his life unravels and his allegiances shift. As such, Wikus finds himself an unlikely catalyst for non-human revolt.

As well, Blomkamp eliminated expensive research and development costs by relying on his technical virtuosity as a visual-effects director. "A hard-shell insect surface on an alien is going to give you a better result than a jellyfish surface," he explained. "My stuff tends to be [computer generated] in some very harsh sunlight. Harsh shadows. Sometimes it's easier to make stuff look real in that environment."

But in mid-2008, as filming commenced in one of Soweto's poorest neighborhoods, reality intervened. "As we started shooting, we woke up to smoke on the horizon with army choppers," Blomkamp said. "South African groups had started to lynch and burn and machete these other groups. Mass murder was happening within a few kilometers of us!"

A decade of animosity between Zimbabwean refugees and impoverished South African blacks had boiled over into rioting, Blomkamp noted, at the moment his movie partially inspired by the same phenomenon, what he terms "black on black xenophobia," was finally taking form.

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