Director gives conflict between races a sci-fi spin

[17 August 2009]

By Duane Dudek

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

Neill Blomkamp knows what it’s like to feel like a brother from another planet.

When he was a teenager, his family moved from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Vancouver, British Columbia. And while at first he felt “a little bit” like an alien, “ultimately I started to fit in.”

But then “this very real fascination with Johannesburg started to grow,” he said during a telephone interview.

His feature directorial debut, “District 9,” grew out of this sense of displacement. The film, which has generated some of the strongest buzz of any movie this summer, is about space aliens that land in Johannesburg — where it was also filmed — and are treated very much like the black citizens of South Africa during apartheid.

“District 9,” however, “is not about the science fiction,” Blomkamp said.

“It’s about South Africa. I wanted the science fiction to feel vaguely familiar. But what we’re not familiar with is this screwed-up Johannesburg setting. Everybody in North America thinks of South Africa for white oppression of the black majority.”

But contemporary South Africa is dealing with millions of illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, Blomkamp said.

“It’s a weird social setup that hasn’t occurred anywhere else,” he said. “America has illegal immigrants from Mexico, but most Americans are wealthy, proportionally speaking. In South Africa, you’re talking about a slum that now has refugees from another collapsing African nation in their slum.”

Blomkamp reimagined this racial infighting in his film as conflicts between black people and the space aliens — “I wanted these impoverished black citizens of South Africa to have this disdain for another group” — only to see the metaphor “blow up in our face” when the chaotic real-life situation resulted in violence against black Zimbabweans on the eve of filming.

Blomkamp has a mild Afrikaans accent, but ends his sentences with “eh?,” the Canadian national verbal tic. His film has Canadian DNA as well: The digital effects were created by three Vancouver firms, including Image Engine, which created the aliens in the image of “worker ants that have lost their queen.”

But the alien mothership that hovers over Johannesburg is by New Zealand-based WETA Digital and reflects Blomkamp’s relationship with Peter Jackson, director of the “Lord of the Rings” films, who had hired Blomkamp to direct a film of the video game “Halo.”

“He’s this incredibly warm, gentle guy,” Blomkamp said of Jackson. “And he’s very funny as well. I instantly liked him, and there was something in my work he liked.”

Blomkamp spent six months in New Zealand working on a “Halo” story — about a man unaware he is “the victim of a military industrial complex” — before the plug was pulled on the project. Blomkamp said rumors of a runaway budget were false, “since we had never been greenlit and no budget had been turned over.”

So instead, Jackson advised him to elaborate on an earlier short film about aliens, and that became “District 9,” which Jackson produced.

The film’s $30 million budget is modest by summer blockbuster standards. Blomkamp is a former visual effects artist — he was hired for his first job by his “District 9” star, Sharlto Copley — who learned a simple fact: “less time with fewer artists is going to cost less than a long, drawn-out process with many artists.”

Unlike his idol, James Cameron, whose film “Aliens” made him want to get into filmmaking, Blomkamp “didn’t have money for R&D, or testing or for pushing the envelope.” But what he could do is “be very precise” using existing technologies “to get the best result in the quickest amount of time.”

The result speaks with the digital authority of veterans such as Cameron and Jackson, but in the original voice of a brother from another planet.

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