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'District 9's' Neill Blomkamp does more with less

Unknown actors and borrowed vehicles help the director deliver big-screen special effects and a surprise hit.

August 20, 2009|Chris Lee

Over the course of its opening weekend in theaters, the sci-fi thriller "District 9" earned $37 million at the box office, surpassing all commercial expectations and, moreover, hauling in $7 million more than the scrappy quasi-documentary cost to produce. As of Tuesday night, the film had pulled in $10 million more, earning a total $47.1 million domestically en route to its new, unofficial designation: the surprise hit of summer.

For anyone who follows Hollywood's behind the scenes machinations closely, though, "District 9" isn't just a surprisingly thoughtful sci-fi stand-out in a season characterized by big, dumb studio tent-pole movies; it's a revelation.

The movie arrives as a kingmaking debut for its writer-director Neill Blomkamp, who won't turn 30 until next month and who up until its release had no feature film experience, save for a scuttled attempt to adapt the video game Halo to the screen. But "District 9's" wow factor -- quantifiable, among other ways, by its 88% "freshness" rating at rottentomatoes.com -- can be attributed to something other than Blomkamp's pedigree. And it isn't the fact that the movie was executive produced by Oscar-winning writer-director Peter Jackson of the "Lord of the Rings" franchise. His oversight on the project helped ensure that the highly original "District 9" would connect with its crucial fan boy audience at a time when every other successful multiplex offering seems to be based on a toy or comic book character.

Arguably the most startling thing about "District 9" is that it cost only $30 million to produce. That's peanuts in Hollywood, especially when compared to the price of, say, the advertising blitz for "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" or producing Judd Apatow's $75-million comedy miscue "Funny People."

Compared to the bloated price tags on so much Hollywood fare, "District 9's" budget seems almost preposterously low -- especially when you consider the biological makeup of its primary characters: a gasp-inducing species of Bigfoot-sized, exoskeleton-sheathed aliens that are called "prawns" in the film by the disgruntled South Africans among whom they live.

Moreover, none of the panoramic shots of a massive spacecraft stranded above Johannesburg or its impressive array of high-tech extraterrestrial weaponry, platoons of armed soldiers, fleets of helicopters or military vehicles looks particularly cheap.

"For the type of film it is, with 600 CGI shots, every dollar is on the screen," Jackson said.

Speaking to Blomkamp -- an award-winning commercial director and visual effects creator who began making FX-heavy short films as a young teen -- in July, it had to be asked: Just $30 million? Really? How?

"There's a bunch of contributing factors," Blomkamp explained.

First was using the cinema verite quality that propels the movie's fake documentary framing device to his advantage. "Because of my background, I know what I can get away with. If we had done R&D [research and development], it would have been $50 million right there. But we set out to work with digital creatures, lighting and compositing environments that are conducive to something photo real. My stuff tends to be CG in very harsh light, like sunlight. Harsh shadows. It feels real. Sometimes it's easier to make stuff look photo real in that environment," he said.

Then there is the film's absence of marquee names. As his lead, Blomkamp hired Sharlto Copley, a journeyman South African filmmaker and media figure with whom the writer-director has been friends since he was in high school. "We had no $15-million, $20-million star to pay," Blomkamp said. "So that eliminates that expense."

Principal photography largely took place last summer in one of Soweto's poorest neighborhoods, Chiawelo, just kilometers away from where real riots were breaking out at the same time -- violent clashes between impoverished black South Africans and Zimbabwean refugees. Nonetheless, Blomkamp employed locals as extras in an effort to bolster the neighborhood's economy.

"These were seriously impoverished people. Destitute people. The township alone had 70,000 people. But if you hire different groups each day, you get that money into the community," he said.

But Blomkamp admitted the rental of military hardware for the film -- helicopters and armored personnel carriers called Caspers -- accounted for the largest part of the project's overhead. Producers borrowed vehicles from the United Nations that had already been earmarked for humanitarian missions in Africa and South Asia.

"I was very specific about what kind of choppers I wanted and a tank from the apartheid era, which is hands down the craziest looking vehicle known to man," Blomkamp said. "But the military turned us down at the last minute."

"We found a chopper and you'll notice the Caspers are painted white because they were both being used by the U.N. They were in rotation from South Africa to Sudan because they're being used as de-mining vehicles. The choppers were being used for relief from the Pakistan earthquake."

Blomkamp's resourcefulness in keeping his debut feature's price down has made him something of a hero at a time when "under promise and over deliver" has become a kind of mantra in the film industry. As well, it has won him new fans from among the ranks of movie critics.

"I can't wait to see what Blomkamp does next," Scott Foundas wrote in last week's LA Weekly, "and I very much hope he gets even less money to do it."

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chris.lee@latimes.com

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