Inside Elysium with Director Neill Blomkamp
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : Inside Elysium with Director Neill Blomkamp
"We were walking through these totally impoverished, insane areas with feral dogs and crying babies and people making fires, and on the horizon I could see the floodlights from the U.S. shining into Mexico, and there were multiple Black Hawks flying the perimeter, and it was like science fiction on Earth," he told Entertainment Weekly magazine. "Nothing has changed, but now you're on the other side of the border."
Elysium depicts a dilapidated, impoverished Earth in 2154, in which the wealthy have decamped for a luxurious restricted space station hovering above.
Blomkamp is currently at work on Chappie, a lower-budget movie set to shoot in Johannesburg in September, starring South African band Die Antwoord ("The Answer").
Creative COW's Debra Kaufman was part of a round-table of five journalists with Neil Blomkamp a week before the movie opened.
Creative COW: Coming out of District 9, there are expectations for Elysium. As a filmmaker, did you feel that pressure of those expectations – not budget-wise – but quality-wise?
The pressure that I felt – which was very different than the artistic pressure of District 9 – is that I was aware this time that if it didn't do well financially, directors can get themselves in trouble. I didn't feel that on on District 9, because I wasn't fully aware of how the [film] business worked. I was a novice at that stage. I'm still in the novice stage in terms of looking at previous films and worrying myself that this one won't live up to it. I know some directors that second-guess themselves who have done many more films than me. It's lame, because then you don't take risks.
And yet, similar to District 9, you've used the sci-fi genre to approach a social justice issue. Do you see yourself in a line of people who have done that, such as Ray Bradbury or H.G. Welles?
Not really. It's much more organic for me. I can see why people think that you choose this topic that is very relevant and contemporary and make a film about it. But it doesn't work that way. It's a more organic, artistic approach. Over years, you become interested in topics. It's like a painting on the wall; you're just interested in the painting and all of a sudden you realize your influences. The authors are much more like that. Yes, I'm an author of this as well, but films carry no intellectual weight. They don't. They're fluff. The authors do that much better.
I thought District 9 did it well.
It was marginal. It's not going to change anything.
Can we talk about science and design? You project some ideas into the future and everyone takes a risk doing that because your film will eventually seen in that year.
The key is to go far out enough so you're dead by the time that year appears! The difference with Elysium is that it's not speculative sci-fi. If you really get into speculative sci-fi – what life in the torus would be like, for example – you start to lose the metaphors. It's meant to be about the rich and poor. If you start to really think about how technology has changed and become part of the society, you're now making speculative sci-fi. It's not a group of rich people with swimming pools but something else. I'm interested in speculative sci-fi, but in this film it was difficult to do. I had to constantly monitor not ever making a decision for a science fiction choice but for reinforcing metaphor or allegory.
Was setting it in 2154 an intuitive thing? Or did you research and extrapolate how far you could go?
It was a mixture of those things. Because metaphor comes first, it was how do I go far out enough that you can reasonably believe the torus could have been built but close enough in time that humans are still humans, that there are rich people up there and poor people down here. Our guess was that it took 30 to 40 years to build it, which means a generation or two. I wanted to have a few generations on the torus once it was built, and that put it roughly at this arbitrary year that seemed believable to me. You didn't want earth to be too far gone either. So coming to that date was less science and more holding on to metaphor.
The visual aspect of this movie sucks you right into this world. Can you talk about how your process, in terms of fleshing out what this world is going to feel like in terms of the environment?
That's some of my favorite aspects of filmmaking, I think. I'm not sure I'm a director, to be honest, but I am a visual artist. That's my favorite thing. I also like mixing visual arts with sound and motion and, by doing that, creating an atmosphere and a place that the audience can go to. All my favorite films are those classics that transport the audience somewhere, like going to Blade Runner's Los Angeles. Making those worlds feel real is a hugely entertaining part of the filmmaking process to me, and that's where I will get hyper-specific.
Blomkamp is a visual artist, seeking to transport the audience. Above, looking on to a small part of Elysium from space.
The cool thing about this movie was that we got to flesh out what future Elysium and Earth look like, which made editing of the beginning of the movie extremely difficult. It you have a movie just set up on a futuristic space station, you'd have to set that up; to set that up and a dilapidated earth in the start of the movie was very difficult. There were so many different cuts; it was a nightmare.
Director Neill Blomkamp (left) and Matt Damon on the set of ELYSIUM. Photo By: Kimberley French.
Because I hate writing – writing for me is like having root canal surgery – I would think of visual ideas that could reinforce the story or plot or theme or character, write descriptions or sketch them and sent them to WETA, which would realistically sketch them out. That was really inspiring. Sometimes I got them to render something I'd written; sometimes something that is not yet in the script. Then I see it and incorporate it because I like it so much. At the end of the writing process, I had a stack of 60 or 70 images that, from beginning to end, told the story of the script. I bound those and gave them to Matt [Damon] and Jodie [Foster]. It explained the feel and look of the film.
The film does an efficient job of setting up the world. How much back and forth was there about how much the audience needs to know versus doesn't need to know in the writing process?
You never really get to the bottom of that. All you can do is use gut instinct. I feel I'm a slightly more extreme audience member, but I think I'm still the core audience. I try to make a film I want to watch. But when I say I'm more extreme, I like to be thrown in the deep end. You're just thrown into future LA and there's this huge silver disk floating above you. I gave the audience a bit more than that because I want them to understand. Is it too much? You never know; that's the thing with films. You don't know until the audience tells you. You don't even know if the film is even going to work until the audience tells you they like it or they don't.
Coming from a VFX background, how did that inform how you handled VFX in this movie, with regard to making it more efficient and working with the various houses and making sure you got what you wanted in a timely fashion?
There were multiple houses but my job was easier because I only worked with one house, Image Engine in Vancouver. Peter Muyzers, the VFX supervisor who also owns part of the company, was the VFX supervisor on Elysium and he was my only point of contact. He really gets exactly what I'm going for creatively. The process was, I'd walk from my office to their theatre, sit there with Pete, look at the shots and talk about them. When I'm looking at the shots, I don't know which house worked on which shot. He's using my direction and being the umbrella oversight on all those houses so you get the unified look. That's when you're in post.
Matt Damon. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp.
I think the set-up really is the most beneficial place for the director to have a history in VFX. There are many negatives to a director having that history – they don't know story, they don't know how to work with actors – some of which I'm guilty, but the positives are also many. Elysium should have cost more and the savings is decisions made in prep: No, that shouldn't be VFX, it's a waste of money, it should be old school practical effects. Also, my background influences me aesthetically; I'll make decisions that a director without a VFX background won't make. If I did fantasy or something otherworldly, I could become more painterly, more Frank Frazetta, but in sci-fi, the thing that resonates with me is making it feel real. That's my driving goal, so I make decisions that reinforce that. If you know how VFX work, you can help those effects feel embedded in the photography.
The only element in the movie that was wildly different from the approach to everything else in the film was the torus itself because it's a singular digital entity that had to be built out of nothing, whereas all the other photography was live action photography with digital put into it. Those are two different things. Bringing the torus to light was insanely difficult.
You mentioned before that the torus was a nightmare to create. What aspect of it was so difficult?
It was a rewarding nightmare. It was simultaneously more difficult than I expected and, when it was done, more rewarding. The conceptualization is never a nightmare. There are no constraints on you, and it's always one of my favorite parts. What is difficult is in executing something like that. If you look at me now, you can tell there's light on this side of my face. When you shoot through live action cameras, all this inherent data is being captured in the frame.
So if I want to put an alien from District 9 here, the artists know where the light is coming from, where the shadows fall. They know the ambient feeling of the room. The moment you cross over into something entirely computer-generated, there is no reference. The level of complexity squares itself. If you create a room that wasn't here before, it may not look real. Does it not look real because the light outside isn't right? You attack that problem and find out the light was never the problem...the surface wasn't made correctly. You're doing that with trillions of polygons, and making decisions every day. Several hundred thousand decisions and, a year later, you arrive at something. In my opinion, Elysium is a photoreal space station with Beverly Hills mansions on it. That is satisfying to me.
Elysium is a photoreal space station with Beverly Hills mansions on it.
Some of the most successful sci-fi films resonate with audiences because you love the main characters. In Elysium, you're working with some of the top talent in the industry and you need to make sure we care about these characters. How does that challenge you to get subtlety you need?
Jodie's character particularly, in my opinion, didn't require subtlety. She's just blowing shit up, and you haven't seen her do that before, which is cool. Matt's a little different. One of the reasons I wanted to get Matt is that I like the idea that they come with an inherent currency with the audience, positive or negative. The audience already knows this person. What I wanted with him was a guy that I felt the audience would already like and then build on top of that. But in terms of people eventually loving a Deckard or Ripley or whoever – how are you going to do that? How are you going to ensure that's going to happen? All you can do is try...time will tell.
You were saying earlier you're not sure you're actually a director but you had to work with the actors. How do you feel in working with actors? How much guidance do you give them?
I'm getting a lot better. I think that the brain structures of people who get into VFX are artistic at their core. They're much more solitary people who are quiet and put on headphones and do intricate work. They're not gregarious directors on set, commanding 1,000 people. You have to be like the admiral of a ship. That's one part of it. The other part of it is, is that guy doing VFX interested in a theatre play with actors and spoken word? Usually he isn't, and I'm very much cut from that cloth. As I get older, now character and theatre are becoming interesting to me. But I'm learning. In working with actors, I think I'm leaps and bounds better than I was on District 9 in terms of giving notes and direction. But I'm still far behind a director on his first film who comes from a literary or theatrical background.
Matt Damon (right) and Jose Pablo Cantillo. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp.
Regarding weapons and vehicles, you've delivered an extrapolation of a drone, you've got cool vehicles, a bullet that finds its own target. Talk about specifying how you wanted those to come out.
Normally, when I write the script, I will know what that technology is that I want to include and be very specific in the script. When the film is greenlit and we start making it, I have this process down and it's seamless. Take the Raven that Kruger flies around in. I know what it does, it's a vertical take off and landing vehicle roughly so big. I'll write a few paragraphs to WETA about what it does, and 50 percent of the time I'll sketch what I think in my head. I'll have a call with the artists and in a few days or weeks, I'll receive back many versions of that. Usually what happens is that I'll take that and sketch on top of it.
With the Raven, I added a white painted oryx on the outside. The backstory is that Kruger works for a mercenary company sub-contracted by Elysium's version of the CIA. I modeled it a little off of Blackwater, which has a bear paw logo that all the mercenaries in Iraq self-identify with. This is a weird South African group of mercenaries, and one of them spray-painted an oryx on the side of the army vehicle, which is their identifier. Those kinds of details are what I go mental over. We ended up with 3,700 distinct pieces of perfectly illustrated design concepts for Elysium.
In District 9, there were the aliens, their weapons and the spaceship they came on. You'd think that would account for the same amount of design. But Elysium felt like an order of magnitude greater in terms of what had to be created. It was notes after notes after notes and thoughts after thoughts.
Matt Damon. Photo by Kimberley French.
Unlike a lot of blockbusters this summer, you don't have $200 million to tell the story. [The budget was $98 million]. What were some of the challenges you ran into technically and story-telling wise, and why did you want to stick with the R rating? You probably could have got more money with a PG rating.
It's like this weird feedback loop. I would rather work on a $2 million film where I'm allowed to do what I want than a $700 million film that has to be not what I want. The most difficult thing with filmmaking is, because it's an artistic process, it'll always go above and beyond the budget you've got. You'll have ideas when you're making the film and it will kill you to not be able to implement those ideas. But you're going to have them once the budget is set and the financier isn't going to give you more money.
One example of this is where Max is fighting Kruger on that gantry, and they're covered in water because the sprinklers went on. I came up with the idea of having them covered in water late in shooting. I thought, that's not hard: Just wet the actors. They're telling me, No, that'll cost $300,000. Why is it $300,000? The gantry we built that looks like metal is actually wood painted to look like metal. With all that water – including water moving through the air with fans for that atmosphere – the wood will become waterlogged. In the two weeks it took to shoot that sequence, the set would have collapsed under its own weight. We never built it to support 500 kilograms of waterlogged wood. It cost $300,000 because crews have to work at night in setting it up, painting it with water-resistant paint on top of the paint they've already painted it with.
Max (Matt Damon, left) and Kruger (Sharlto Copley) battle it out. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp.
This is one example of a million examples of where if you have more money or make films with a studio like Spider-Man, you can go $30 or $80 million over. On this kind of film, the way it's set up, if you spend that $300,000, it comes from somewhere else. So I've just lost a visual effect elsewhere.
What were your influences when you were a kid in South Africa? What filtered through to you when you were 10, 12, 15 years old?
Directing almost puts you on the psychologist's couch. You never self-analyze unless people ask you questions. But what I've started to notice that I think is true is the ingestion of things that I found stimulating as a kid would be no different to a kid in Los Angeles. There were sanctions but you could get stuff, it was just difficult. There was a bookstore downtown that my dad used to go to that was the nucleus for everything that I liked. They had everything from Fangoria to books on the art of Blade Runner. I'd watch the same films that a California kid would watch. I was really into Judge Dredd, too, big-time.
But now that I'm older, I realize that when I closed the book or turned off the television, outside was Johannesburg. I'd leave my friends house and get on the highway and there are burning shacks and South African Air Force helicopters are flying around shantytowns all day. That's how you arrive at District 9. That's the weird part: the South African apartheid childhood mixed with an interest in sci-fi.
Producer Simon Kinberg (left) and writer/director Neill Blomkamp. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp.
There have been comments on various blogs attacking the film as socialist propaganda. What's your response?
I haven't read that yet but it makes a lot of sense. It's sort of a two-fold answer. On one hand, to a certain extent, it doesn't matter what I think. The film is out there and it's for each person to decide what he or she thinks. What I can say is the thought process that led to making it.
The way I made it was less of putting any socialist agenda forward and more about raising questions. We've had a pyramid structure in society as long as we've been human beings. This top-down of the hyper-rich to poverty is now at the point where countries can be put in the top of the triangle and others fill in the bottom. With 7.5 billion people, most living in poverty and a percentage of them living in abject poverty, and a much smaller of those living in the first world and a much smaller percentage in hyper-wealth, how do you change the situation? To bring the 75 percent living in poverty to a humane level, because their numbers are so much greater than the first world, the rich world would decline. Because the numbers are out of whack, and have been since Mesopotamia, the decline in wealth will only result in a 1 percent increase in the plight of the poor. So, you've thrown away any advantage of shifting wealth.
There's always a finite amount of wealth because our DNA seems to make us hoard wealth. You want to be altruistic, but the situation we have, in my opinion, is impossible to fix. The question is, if you open Elysium up, what happens? You're on the side of Matt Damon's character; you want it to happen. But it doesn't compute. Both versions are unsustainable.
I could be wrong, but I think unless we get into genetic manipulation and start weeding out things that were very advantageous to us when we were roaming the savannah – staying in caves, hoarding and killing anybody near what we protected – we will just keep being the same. That helped us for the last 200,000 years of being Homo sapiens, but it just doesn't apply now. But how will you get it out? Have an operation to remove it? Maybe that's a topic for another film: what happens after Elysium is opened up.
Director Neill Blomkamp on the set of TriStar Pictures' ELYSIUM. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp. Copyright: © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Looking at a part of Elysium as shown in TriStar Pictures' ELYSIUM. Photo By: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures. Copyright: © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Director Neill Blomkamp (left) and Matt Damon on the set of TriStar Pictures' ELYSIUM. Photo By: Kimberley French. Copyright: © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Matt Damon stars as Max in TriStar Pictures' ELYSIUM. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp. Copyright: © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Matt Damon stars in Columbia Pictures' ELYSIUM. Photo By: Kimberley French. Copyright: © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Matt Damon (right) and Jose Pablo Cantillo in Columbia Pictures' ELYSIUM. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp. Copyright: © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Max (Matt Damon, left) and Kruger (Sharlto Copley) battle it out in TriStar Pictures' ELYSIUM. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp. Copyright: © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.