Director of 'District 9' brings S. Africa roots to surprise summer hit

by Cary Darling

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

12 August 2009


DALLAS — Neill Blomkamp’s directorial career seemed to be over before it began.

Three years ago, the South African-born/Canadian-based director known mostly for commercials was plucked from semi-obscurity by producer Peter Jackson (director of “The Lord of the Rings” movies) to helm the $145 million film based on the popular video game, “Halo.” He moved his family to New Zealand, to be close to Jackson and the location where the film was going to be shot.

But the studios handling the mega-project, Fox and Universal, couldn’t come to terms and pulled the plug. Blomkamp found himself far from home and back in the metaphorical breadline.

It may have been the best thing that could have happened to him.

“Peter said, ‘We’re really sorry. You’ve moved down to New Zealand with your family. We can help you get another film,’” remembers Blomkamp, who turns 30 in September.

Jackson’s promise flowered into the $30 million “District 9,” the science-fiction film that may become the surprise hit of the season. Featuring an unknown South African cast and trafficking in such issues as racism and xenophobia, “District 9” — in which aliens stranded in a decrepit ship above Johannesburg are rounded up and put in camps — hardly seems the stuff of summertime cinematic escape.

But word-of-mouth has been building for months, culminating in a rapturously received screening at the influential Comic-Con pop-culture convention in San Diego last month.

“The ideas of segregation, racism and the history of apartheid are a big part of my mind,” says Blomkamp, who immigrated with his family to Vancouver at the age of 18 but initially broached the topic of aliens coming to South Africa in his 2005 documentary-style short, “Alive in Joburg.” “I always think about those issues.”

Yet he didn’t want the fleshed-out version of his short to become a political treatise. “I made the mistake of starting to think about this really serious, ponderous movie,” he recalls. “I woke up one morning and realized there’s a way to put all those ideas in the movie without beating the audience over the head.”

That’s when he decided to set the film around an Everyman character — corporate sad-sack middle-manager Wikus van de Merwe of Multi-National United, the company in charge of housing the aliens — who accidentally becomes a hero.

“The idea of satire and being a little freer with (the story) came into it,” Blomkamp says. “In South Africa, you get this particular kind of white Afrikaans guy. Afrikaners are portrayed as militaristic and quite tough but you also get this hilarious group, which is what Wikus is, a total bureaucrat kind of guy. ... He’s a passive racist. He may be aware of it, he may not. It doesn’t matter. The point is he does what the company says and abuses all the aliens.”

To portray put-upon Wikus, he turned to his friend Sharlto Copley, a South African filmmaker/producer who had given Blomkamp a job as a computer-graphics designer when the director was only 14.

“I went to South Africa to produce some test footage and I got him to act in it,” Blomkamp says. “I knew that he’s like Borat. He can just become different characters like Sacha Baron Cohen. I said, ‘put this (MNU) vest on, and think of a guy from Boksburg, which is a suburb in Joburg, who works for this state-owned company. Instantly, he became the guy.”

Blomkamp and Jackson agreed that Copley was the man for the job. Copley turns in a remarkable performance, becoming more palpably human at heart as — thanks to a major plot turning point — he becomes less outwardly so.

As “District 9” moves from a stark, semi-documentary vision of racism to one involving chases and explosions at the climax, Blomkamp acknowledges some viewers might have trouble making the leap. But he chalks it up to Hollywood realities.

“I wrestled with that a lot at the beginning,” he concedes. “You could make a documentary about science fiction, which would be interesting and have more interesting ideas in it. ... (But) at some point, there’s a toss-up where audiences have to want to see it and, unfortunately, you need the three-act structure and some violence.

“It goes back to what I was saying about making something too serious and ponderous. It’s my first film, and I want the audience to go on a thrill ride set against a more serious background. Then, I became more OK with it.”

While the “Halo” movie doesn’t look like it will ever get off the ground (for a taste of what his “Halo” might’ve looked like, go to YouTube and check out the online trailers he shot for the video game’s manufacturer), Blomkamp is already working on his next film which he says, like “District 9,” will reflect his South African sensibilities.

“The idea of South Africa had a massive effect on me,” he says. “My next film has nothing to do with South Africa on the surface — it’s a very futuristic science-fiction film — but it works its way into everything.”

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