He’s a new hope for sci-fi cinema. But can Elysium writer/director Neill Blomkamp survive inside the Hollywood system?
"Dude, I fucking love Michael Bay." Oh dear. The interview has not started well. And Neill Blomkamp, the new hope for smart sci-fi cinema, is not backing down. "Seriously. Dude, I’m not kidding. I like Bay."
That said, Blomkamp and Bay have unfinished business. When the South African director was 18 years old, he phoned Michael Bay’s assistant and asked to meet him. "Oh yeah, he loves to meet fans!" came the chirpy reply. But Bay’s assistant didn’t understand. This was not some courtesy call. Hell no. "I was like, 'I'm not a fucking fan!'" he remembers. "'I’m gonna come down there and I’m gonna own Hollywood. And Bay’s gonna help me!'"
And with that, the plucky teenager booked himself a flight from Vancouver to LA to do just that. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out. "When I got there I had no money, so I phoned [Bay’s assistant] from a pay phone," recalls Blomkamp. "She was like, 'Oh, no, he’s kinda busy now...’ And I was like, 'What the fuck? I flew all the way here...'"
So it goes on Hollywood’s boulevard of broken dreams. But of course, Blomkamp’s story had barely begun. Already a master of visual-effects technology by his early twenties, Blomkamp proved that a live-action Transformers movie was possible three years before Michael Bay’s blockbuster crashed on to the big screen.
That famous Citroen 'Alive With Technology' commercial — featuring a body-popping C4 — was just one in a string of sensational robo-themed TV ads that Blomkamp shot to blast a pathway to his first feature. "I didn’t really want to be in commercials," he says. "I was trying to get better and better commercials that would get me closer to my first feature. That Citroen ad allowed me to get represented by Ridley Scott’s production company RSA and through RSA I started to get into film."
So did Blomkamp ever get a call about... "Transformers? No." Never? "Never. Nothing. Nothing! But I didn’t have any aspiration to direct the film, so I didn’t really feel that hurt. Truth be told, I really like the first one. It had that boyhood wonder to it, that Amblin/Spielberg touch to it. Then it just went away. I hated the second one."
Blomkamp got something better: a call from Peter Jackson. You have to credit Jackson’s eye for talent. After their planned adaptation of videogame Halo crashed and burned in a twisted salad of Hollywood studio politics, Blomkamp went back to his own workshop. He emerged with what was arguably the best sci-fi actioner of 2009. And yes, that includes Avatar.
In fact, the contrast with James Cameron’s synthetic 3D opus proved an even greater highlight for the brilliance of Blomkamp’s debut. Urgent faux-vérité realism and social satire fused seamlessly with convincing visual-effects and ripsnorting action. But it was the organic human heart pumping under District 9’s sensational technology really left an impression.
Hollywood came calling. Blomkamp didn’t pick up. Why? "Imagine the learning process," he explains. "You get Halo. Then you start feeling how the studios are gonna mess with you — Halo collapses. You get given your chance to make your own film — your own film is received well. Why would I go back into discussions about other people’s ideas where the studio’s gonna mess with me? You see what I mean? So I very quickly just shut down all of those offers that were coming in."
The Halo saga still stings Blomkamp. "Basically, I just don’t want to have anything to do with it now,” he says. “I still love the world of Halo, I love Master Chief, I love everything about the way those two cultures are clashing with one another. But I don’t want to get back into that political boxing ring. Ever again.”
District 9 was a $30m movie that looked like it cost $90m. Elysium does cost $90m. So does three times the budget equal three times the pressure? One-third the creative control? Do you feel a heavier hand — or a series of heavy hands — on your shoulder? “Not really,” shrugs Blomkamp. “But the pressure I felt to a much greater degree than District 9 is pressure I put on myself. If the film fails, a) you’ve let the audience down, which is not cool; and b) it’s going to be much more difficult to get another film. The best thing to do, just make it for yourself. But I want the audience to like it, on a global level, otherwise why am I making it?”
That’s the question. Unlike so many directors of fantastic spectacles — and those from the snap-crackle world of advertising and visual-effects — Blomkamp really cares about his characters. “It’s totally true,” he says, “I’ve surprised myself with how much thought I give to what the emotional connection for the audience is — to the point where it’s overpowering things like what the film looks like and the visual-effects. Sometimes I feel like the character stuff is taking CPU cycles away from what I thought would be my staple, the pure eye-candy. Sometimes I think I could have done those action sequence better!”
CPU cycles, indeed. Constructing those incredible robots, aliens and space stations while keeping fleshy, feeling organisms at the centre of his movies is a big ask. But Blomkamp seems acutely aware of the pitfalls — commercials, of course, aren’t a training ground for working with actors or understanding emotional storytelling.
“Totally. Absolutely,” nods Blomkamp. “Prometheus was the same thing. I watched it and I was so enamoured with the visuals — it’s so expertly made, he’s such a consummate filmmaker — that I was kind of drawn in by that. I thought I loved it. And then, very quickly, as days went by, it started to unravel for me in a pretty drastic way.”
So since we’re on Prometheus... How about a sequel? “I just don’t know if I want to get involved in that hornet’s nest of politics,” he says slowly. “But that would be my favourite franchise to do,” he admits. “I would really like to. At some point, I’ll have to make a film that someone else has come up with. It’s like, with Alien, 100,000 people know what it looks like, so they’re like, ’You should do this, you should do this...’ With my stuff, only I know what it looks like.”
Alien was a formative experience (“I was literally transfixed to the television”) as was RoboCop (“I remember it hyper-clearly, like, fucking vivid”). But Blomkamp’s cineureka happened when he was 10 years old, when he saw the trailer for Tim Burton’s Batman ahead of Home Alone. As the Batmobile burst through the flames towards the camera at the end of that trailer, Blomkamp’s life changed forever. “Literally, from that second, I was like, ‘That’s what I’m fucking doing.’ Literally. I even remember clearly now, sitting in the theatre: ‘I want to direct films.’”
One hairy hand on his shoulder that Blomkamp did miss on Elysium belonged to a certain New Zealander. How much did he feel it? “Yeah, a little bit. Meaning, I felt incredibly shielded on D9. He really was such a shield that when you remove him, he’s replaced by like 15 people. And then it’s like you’re fighting from multiple angles, and there are much more notes coming at you. So yeah, I do miss him. Politically, Elysium was very well set up. But I just never heard any extraneous noise at all on District 9. Like, nothing.”
Film is a collaborative medium; even when you stand alone, you never really stand alone. Case in point? “There was one scene in the movie which I took out,” reveals Blomkamp. “It was something Damon’s character did that was just too extreme for the audience. I was like, ‘Fuck it! I want it in there.’ And even Matt was like, ’Dude, you’re fucking insane. This has to go.’ And then my editor is like, ‘This is fucking ridiculous, man. You’ve got to lose this. Why are you keeping this?’ And I said, ‘Because that’s what I think he would do,’” Blomkamp laughs. “And also I was just being stubborn. Because I hate, hate, films that are made by committees. I didn’t want to have one choice in the film that wasn’t mine. But when I pulled it out, I thought the movie was better.”
That’s the other great thing about Blomkamp. He knows he still has a lot to learn. “Yeah. Fuck yeah. I feel like I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to get to where I am now. And now I can spend the next decade trying to become a better filmmaker. That’s the cool thing about filmmaking – it’s like a martial art. You can do that for 90 years and just keep getting better at it. That’s kinda rad