SAN DIEGO - The first year that HitFix covered Comic-Con, one of the highlights was an early screening of "District 9," which we absolutely adored. Small wonder one of the most anticipated moments of the convention for us came today when director Neill Blomkamp made his triumphant return to the event with seven minutes of next year's science-fiction action film, "Elysium." As a sign of just how far he's come in a mere three years, in addition to Sharlto Copley, he also was joined by Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, both new to Comic-Con this year.
Based on the footage he put together, fans of "District 9" have reason to celebrate.
Blomkamp took the stage first, joining KROQ personality Ralph Garman, who hosted Sony's entire event today. Blomkamp sat down and addressed the audience directly. "I'm here to debut some footage. I have this thing where I try to be as honest as I can. I feel like I belong out there with you guys. I feel like I'm a fan. There's an element of salesmanship that makes me feel a little distanced as a fan. The idea of launching footage here feels honest. I like it because it's fans. I'm okay with it." He paused, looking around at the 6000 people packed into Hall H, and smiled. "You guys want to see it… right?"
It was a resoundingly affirmative roar that blew Blomkamp back in his seat, and he prefaced the screening of the footage with a warning that the effects in what he showed were incredibly rough. "What you are looking at is just footage, the exact footage we captured on the set, but the visual effects are pre-viz level. Gray shaded. You can imagine it will look incredibly cool, but it doesn't yet."
With that, he called for them to roll it, and if this is what he's got to show unfinished, the final film should be an eye-melter. First of all, this is indeed another dystopian vision, with Blomkamp using some real-world settings in a science-fiction context that makes some sharp and painful political points. After the TriStar logo, we see burnt-out land, overcrowded cities, and a few quick titles.
"The year is 2154.
The Earth is diseased
and vastly overpopulated.
The solution is Elysium.
No violence. No disease. No war.
And you are not invited."
The way he's envisioned this off-world space station that is the home to the very wealthy is as a giant 2001-style ringed construct with its own gravity and with the very best of everything. We see a woman in a medical scanner who discovers she has cancer and, while she's laying there, has it completely cured. It looks like a paradise of sorts.
But the Earth is still where most people live, and it's totally dead. Matt Damon's just another poor asshole living in poverty and pain, and working an awful factory job. There's an accident and he's doused with radiation. He's told that based on the dosage he took, he has a life expectancy of about five days.
Furious, he decides that he's going to have to get to Elysium somehow, and he's going to have to get himself cured.
In the footage, it was made clear that any unauthorized flights toward Elysium are blown out of the sky, so you can't just grab a ship and head up there. Instead, Damon is told that he's going to have to go through a pretty elaborate process. There's a citizen of Elysium making a surface visit, played by Bill Fichtner, and Damon's plan is to grab him, then upload the security information that Fichtner carries implanted into himself so that he can fly up to Elysium without being killed.
Before that can happen, some rewiring has to take place on Damon himself, and he ends up with what looks like a neural implant and mechanical improvements to his arms and legs. It's all sort of low-tech and hand-made and salvaged looking, and one gets the feeling it is very, very black market.
It looks like most of the police work on Earth is handled by robots, and once Damon's been modified, he finds himself at odds with all of them. Blomkamp's eye for action seems to have been given room to breathe this time out, with much larger set pieces and much crazier blends of real locations, real stunts, CGI elements, and his actors. When Damon and his team ambush Fichtner, they quickly overpower him and his security team, even as more robots start to arrive. It's hectic, crazy, chaotic, but Blomkamp has such a canny eye for how to stage action that it's never confusing, even in these short clips.
Towards the end of the footage, it looks like Damon finally gets off-planet, and Jodie Foster makes a few quick appearances in the footage as someone in a position of authority onboard Elysium. When Damon downloads Fichtner's security information, it appears he gets more information than he bargained for, and whatever he's carrying around in his head could get him killed, especially with Sharlto Copley on his trail. Copley plays a crazy homeless-looking assassin, with tech that looks about like Damon's, and the two of them look like they're on a collision course in the movie.
Once the footage ended, Blomkamp welcomed producer Simon Kinberg to the stage along with Copley, Foster, and Damon. It makes sense that at Comic-Con, Sharlto Copley gets the same kind of applause that Jodie Foster and Matt Damon do, and once they took their seats, Blomkamp laid out his inspiration for this new film.
"The origin of it was just to try to make… it was the idea of a space station that was separate from Earth. The idea that the wealth of Earth had been separated from it and everything else was left behind." Blomkamp's from that school of science-fiction storytellers who use the fantastic to directly deal with some very common social issues.
Damon talked about why he signed on to do the film. "It was an easy decision for me," he said. "It was all about Neill. After I saw 'District 9,' if he had called me up and offered me anything, I would have said yes. He already had this great script, but even more than that, he had this whole graphic novel he had done in his computer and in such incredible detail. It was so arresting. I'd never seen anything like it, but it seemed familiar right away." Damon said Blomkamp was able to offer him a wealth of information on this fictional world he was inviting him to visit. "There was another book of vehicles, another book of weaponry. There's a lot to go on. Normally, when I'm talking to my friends, if a movie doesn't work, I can say, 'Well, you don't get to see the movie before you make it.' Here, I had so much information that I had to be part of it."
When Garman asked Foster what she brought to the film, Damon laughed. "Jodie does a lot of the acting in the movie."
Foster laughed that off, though, and offered her own explanation. "I saw 'District 9' and thought it was a perfect movie. I wish I'd directed the damn film, and after I got over the jealousy, I knew I wanted to work with him. Luckily, the script had a girl in it, and it's about all sorts of things that are interesting to me, and it's great to see someone mix these big beautiful ideas with the very primitive gut-wrenching violence as well."
If you're Neill Blomkamp, it must be thrilling to have smart actors sign on because they're engaged by the ideas and not just because someone threw a big paycheck at them, and I'm sure people like Damon and Foster bring a very collaborative spirit to the enterprise. Blomkamp talked about the overt nature of the film's message. "There's no question the theme is about the separation between the rich and the poor, and as a setting, it seems like the right place for the story to take place. It became a science-fiction place I wanted to go, and I wanted to see characters in that place." As if to prove that he's not just offering up a thesis paper on poverty, though, he added, "The subtext is important, but layered on top of that are a lot of explosions."
When Copley talked to the crowd, he was almost overcome by emotion. "It's incredible to be back here. I've been telling people how emotional I've been. It was a defining moment of my life when I came here in 2009. I'm not going to cry, because my character is a big badass tough guy, but thank you. Thank you for the support you gave our small film. It was incredible to work with him again."
Copley was one of the first people to read the script, and he talked about how he realized which part he wanted to play. "When I read the first draft Neill showed me, he didn't mention a particular character, but I told him, 'This villain is someone I can do something with.' Neill's allowed me to try something a little different than you might expect."
Garman asked Kinberg which character he played in the film, and Kinberg laughed. "My character was producing the movie. I wanted to work with Neill. It's got politics and rich themes, but it's also a big loud bloody SF action movie. That's as interesting as politics to me." Kinberg is best known as a screenwriter, but it's great to see him bringing his own commercial clout to the table so he can help give freedom to another filmmaker whose work he loves.
Garman threw it out to the audience to ask some questions, and the first person up seemed excited to talk to Foster and Damon, asking them what the hardest role they've ever played was and what one thing got them to rise to that challenge.
Damon answered first as both he and Foster considered the question. "I think the hardest part was probably trying to get a job at the beginning." That got some laughs from the audience, and Damon said he wasn't kidding. "That was the most frustrating part of the entire thing. Listening to [Joseph Gordon-Levitt during the 'Looper' panel] talk a few minutes ago up here… as much as we can bitch and grouse about a certain role, the reality is that we're doing what we love. Even if you have to go on a special diet or train four hours a day, you're still doing what you love to do. Once I got my foot in the door and felt like they couldn't throw me out, it was fine. The years of struggling were the most challenging part." That's Damon in a nutshell, that sort of blunt sincerity. Every interview I've done with him or seen with him has been the same way.
Foster was no less frank with her answer. "Sometimes I feel like I come at this as an impostor. I don't have any of the attributes that great actors have. I'm not the person to climb up on a table and do impressions and get everyone to look at me. I started as a child at age three, and I've always had a very intellectual approach. I am someone who processes things through my head first, and then through my body. There have been roles where I've had to change all that, reverse it completely, like 'Nell,' and it was a challenge because that's not who I am. What I found was that I was so worried about how to figure it out, and I just had to drink coffee and show up. If I'd known that years ago, I would have been drinking coffee and showing up more often."
Damon also talked about how great a resource Blomkamp is for an actor. "There was no question Neill couldn't answer. I'd ask him joke questions, and he'd still have the answer. 'Why is Elysium shaped like that?' 'Well, it's because of the centrifugal gravity and…' It's fun when someone is that prepared."
The next person at the mic asked Sharlto what it's been like over the last three years to go from unknown actor to movie star, and Copley started by dismissing any claim that he's a movie star. "My life is strange. I'm not really sure where I live these days. I move around a lot. I don't know where I live. Right now, I'm in London, and I'm trying to figure out how to play Angelina Jolie's true love. Still don't know how that happened. I just feel so blessed, and I've had a passion for movies my whole life, and it was given to me by the people who saw the film here. To work with actors of this caliber is incredible. I pinch myself every day."
Garman asked about how Blomkamp realizes the environments in his film and how he builds his world. "I use mostly greenscreen and CGI. The film has a lot of greenscreen. I don't think it got in the way… I think Jodie's character experienced it more than anyone else. For the robots and the droids and stuff, there were always stuntmen there in suits for people to bounce off of. I think it's dangerous when actors have to act against a tennis ball, and that's where you can run into trouble. Even in 'District 9,' Sharl almost always had an actor there to act against."
When asked how she responded to working with a lot of greenscreen, Foster seemed confused that it would even be an issue. "It was all fine," she said. "I don't know. I… loved every minute of it."
The next person up talked about how Damon and Foster have worked with some of the greatest directors working, like Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh and Paul Greengrass, and he asked if there was any difference in working with Blomkamp. Damon emphatically shook his head as he answered. "No, I think Neill belongs right next to those names. He's a great director."
Foster elaborated, saying, "There's no difference between bigger films and smaller films. There's just more people. And on larger films, you can procrastinate more. Neill's incredibly prepared He thought of everything beforehand so he can make a movie that looks like it cost $250 million and it did NOT cost that much."
Kinberg explained that continuity is important in running an efficient production. "It was important to bring a lot of people back from 'D9.' A lot of the crew were the same people, working on a larger canvas, and the reality of that film was important to try and capture here. We shot on location in Mexico City. We didn't build the slums of the future in Toronto. We went and found them."
Blomkamp continued, saying, "It's a scaled up version of what we did on 'D9,' trying to push the budget up. The pressure on the crew was still very extreme. You don't comfortably shoot the slums of Mexico. This kind of insane realism only happens if you go there, and the whole crew had to wear masks. In Toronto, we were shooting so fast that the paint would be drying on a set as we were shooting because it was so close. The production crew came back from a Mexican location scout, and the Canadian crew would be complaining about that fresh paint, and you realize they had no idea how bad things were going to get it." Even Blomkamp had moments where he was hesitant to walk into some of these places. "We were at a dump, and our car suddenly smelled like a sewage processing plant, and I wasn't sure I could do it. You have to just put on the mask and go to work, and the photography is awesome, so it's worth it."
Damon started laughing at that. "That's what you told us. At one point… this place where we went, it's the second largest dump in the world. I guess there's one that's bigger somewhere in Korea. But this one, it's huge, and they told us the dust was comprised mostly of fecal matter. Helicopters would come through and Sharl and I would be black with dust, and we'd be like, 'This is fecal matter.' But Neill would tell us, 'The photography looks great!' And I was still happy to be there. I was saying to Jodie earlier, I just tried not to think about it. You have to do it. Once you're there, just do the work and go home."
Kinberg brought up a particular moment and as soon as he mentioned it, Damon started to groan. "There was a great moment where you were under a cart filled with pigs, and you're underneath and the chopper coming in kicks up all this stuff. I came up to you and said, 'Are you okay?' and you said, 'I read the script.'"
Coplely started to cackle and excitedly explain the set-up. "I was in that helicopter. That was so cool. It was incredible. We kept coming in lower, right over where you were."
Blomkamp jumped in. "It got worse. We had to have a professional stunt guy get in there eventually, and by the time he got under, the pigs were so worked up, so upset, that they just basically urinated on him during the entire take. It looked like someone had tarred him."
Damon kept groaning, and he added, "Going back to that earlier question, that may have been the most challenging thing… this is a guy who has been set on fire and crashed cars, and he said that was the worst day he's ever had."
Someone asked Damon if there's any difference between how he prepares for a dramatic role in a film like "Good Will Hunting" and an action role like this one, and he tried to explain. "First, I farmed all my acting out to Jodie on this one. For me, being a writer also, I've come to think of it like a magic trick. You're trying to create an illusion as a group of people. So Neill and I sat down and said, 'What are the things I need to do to accomplish this?' And whether it's work out four hours a day or shave your head, that's all just preparation. It's kind of that way with any role, but the magic trick is different each time. As a moviegoer, little details can pull me out of things, and they can sell it as well. So for me it about the tiny details before I get there so all of that work is done and you can be open to whatever happens."
The next guy started by telling Damon how much he loved his work in "Team America," which got a wave of applause from the audience, but also elicited some surprising reactions from the stage.
Foster emphatically said, "'Team America' is my favorite movie of all time."
Damon explained that people often offer him pictures of the Damon puppet to sign. "Some people would say that's my best work," he said, laughing, adding "I would totally love to work with those guys. They're geniuses."
The panel concluded after the last guy admitted he didn't really have a question and he had stood in line just so he could talk to Matt Damon. Garman asked Damon about what drives his character in the film, and Damon said that the entire film is about desperation.
"It's pretty clear what's driving him after that accident at the factory. He has to go back to this criminal past he's been trying to leave behind, and he realizes, 'I have to get up there or I'll die.'"
That's pretty much how I feel about seeing "Elysium" now that I've had this seven-minute hit. Obviously, there's no telling how the final film will turn out, but it certainly looks like the same things that worked in "District 9" will play into this movie, and I'm excited to see the finished work.
"Elysium" will kick unholy ass starting March 1, 2013.
Everything: Comic-Con 2013
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