Neill Blomkamp unveils new footage from the Matt Damon science-fiction film 'Elysium'
The 'District 9' director discusses his new big idea and how he put it together
Blomkamp talked about how hard he worked to explain just a hint of the history without doing a huge info dump at the start of the film. They've been fine-tuning it, putting more material in, then taking some of it out, and I'm curious to see how much of the history of the great Elysian emigration they have in the final film. "Part of me wanted to just put you there so you have to deal with it. There was a more aggressive version of the film where it just starts. I also shot some footage that explained the intro a little more. It's about halfway. There's some introduction, but not too much," he said.
When asked about the research he did into real-world trends and technology, Blomkamp was quick to say that this is not meant as a prediction. "If you try to make a speculative piece of science-fiction, that's a very different product. Proper science was thrown out the window in favor of metaphor and plot. Building a space station out of marble and slate is not that smart, but the metaphor of Bel Air in space works. Try to make the most realistic version of ridiculous that you can. You have to come from reality on some level, though." That's something I like about Blomkamp's work. He wants to make these movies thrilling, and he wants to create a world that illustrates an idea, a world that plays out the drama from the moment you see the setting.
Damon Houx asked Blomkamp if he sees himself as a smuggler, hiding ideas in big mainstream packages. I don't think Copley and Blomkamp knew the term "smuggler," and they seemed delighted by it. "In terms of a commercial film, the amount of smuggling you get to do is limited. You're on thin ice. You can put ideas in there that are real issues. There are ideas that interest me, and the film formulates out of that. If I wanted to make a real difference, I'd make a documentary. The film does talk about topics that have a big impact on me."
He talked about the experience of shooting in Mexican shantytowns and how overwhelming it is. Obviously, they shot "District 9" in a very difficult part of the world. Asked what the comparisons were between the two, Blomkamp said, "Mexico is all about kidnappings and South Africa is all about carjacking. In the areas where we were, the random violence was very low and carefully planned kidnappings are very common. In Johannesburg, it's the inverse of that. There are many similarities between Mexico and South Africa."
Copley said, "I felt fairly safe in Mexico. I figured they'd go for Matt Damon before they'd go for me. The scale of Mexico City surprised me. The size of the place was astounding. I had no idea how big it was. We'd be flying in a helicopter, and it just goes on and on."
Still laughing about Copley throwing Damon into harm's way, Blomkamp said, "In Mexico, when you look out, it's all concrete grey. If you complete a building, you have to start paying property tax, so people leave things unfinished. It gives the entire city a very strange cinematic look."
Blomkamp told us that there is a way for people to join Elysium, that it's not an impossible dream, but that it's all based on wealth. "You can get citizenship for a certain amount of money. It's very self-selecting."
One of the most important questions for Blomkamp had to do with how both of these films have been original material that he's generated. I know every single time we talk about existing franchises that are looking for new filmmakers, and I get it. I know why everyone says they want to see him do a "Star Wars" film or whatever, but I think Blomkamp elegantly addressed the question. "I don't think I actively sit down and think I'm only going to do my own stuff. I still really like the universe of 'Halo,' and if I was given control, I'd like to do that film. The problem is when things pre-exist, there's my interpretation, but there are 150 other people involved who all have their own interpretation, and the audience brings in theirs, as well. It really comes down to what I have to say, and these worlds give me a chance to say those things. I'll sequelize my own stuff, and there are some pieces of cinema history that I'd love to be involved with. There are some characters I'd love to play with." Since he mentioned that he loves "Alien," someone asked if he'd be willing to make an "Alien" sequel if it was offered, and he nodded, serious as a heart attack. It really does come down to giving him something he can't resist, and until that happens, I'm perfectly fine seeing him do his own thing.
During the footage presentation, Matt Damon talked about how he signed on because he loved "District 9," and during his first meeting with Blomkamp, he was impressed by how much visual work Blomkamp had already done. A year out from the start of production, he had a huge book full of designs and visual ideas. Asked what was in that book, Blomkamp said, "I'm a visual artist before anything, and the amount of inspiration I get from the images is a massive part of the birth of the film. WETA was doing designs while I was writing. It's all about painting a ridiculous image with a realistic brush. This is all industrial Lockheed type stuff, while 'District 9' was all based on alien designs. This film is particularly realistic. There's a vehicle here that flies around on plasma energy, but we wanted it to look real."
This isn't a case of a movie with obvious villains. Kinberg pointed out that there is no simple black and white in terms of good guys and bad guys. The first scene for Jodie Foster's character is her at home with her grandkids, and while her job is to make sure no one from Earth is able to access Elysium, she doesn't relish those moments she has to do it. Blomkamp said, "It's a mirror of how the West is now with immigration. Some people want to help the world, while other people want to close the walls. Sharl is a soldier on the ground who is does what he's told."
Copley added, "He's not about politics. It's just soldiering."
Blomkamp described the character that Fichtner is playing, talking first about the sort of stilted manner of speech we heard in the scene we saw. Someone asked if Fichtner is playing a robot because of how he sounded. "The cadence is not robotic. There's some satire in terms of his character, and he's just a billionaire who is uninterested in small people who get in the way of him making a profit. That cadence, a lot of it came from Bill. He has no emotion when dealing with people who are below him. He's rich and elitist."
Blomkamp was asked if the character is based on people he's dealt with in Hollywood, and Copley started laughing and looking around the room. "Where's the publicist?"
Also laughing, Neill considered his answer. "Ummm… yes."
Blomkamp talked about how hard it is for him to give anything about his film away ahead of time, but how he also understands the balance that must be struck. "I try to show as little as I can. But if you're a responsible filmmaker in the 21st century, you can't spend $100 million and then act like you're going to keep something wrapped up completely. It's part of how the system works. I like the film. I liked Comic-Con with 'District 9.' It fit. I feel like I'm the same as the people who will watch the film. You have to get the movie out there. I tried to limit this as much as I could."
Finally, since Blomkamp was talking about the business of things, someone asked him if he views the action sequences in his films as what he has to do so he can make films about big ideas, and Blomkamp made it clear that he loves the set pieces and the action. "To me, I like films in this genre. My favorite film of all time is 'Aliens.' What 'Elysium' doesn't have that I'd like to put in the next film is slime and eggs. It does have robots and suits and action, though. Cinema without those things, for me personally to be invested in it, it has to have that stuff in it. It also has to have things that interest me. I have to be engaged."
It's obvious that he's engaged fully, and I look forward to seeing how Blomkamp brings it all together when "Elysium" opens on August 9, 2013.