'District 9' director talks shop with <i>Variety</i>

Neill Blomkamp, director of Sony/TriStar Pictures’ “District 9″ and one-time would-be director of Fox/Universal’s “HALO,” talks aliens, working with Peter Jackson and why his first feature won’t have a Hollywood premiere.

“District 9″ is based on your short film “Alive in Joberg.” Can you tell us about that project?

I think it was borne out of the idea that I wanted to see Western science fiction in South Africa. Ya know — take one of the staples of science fiction, aliens coming to earth, and place it in the area that I grew up in. So I went to my producer in Toronto with this treatment that I wrote and asked him to put up the cash, which he did.

How did you and Peter Jackson (producer) hook up?

I was directing commercials at the time when my agent sent my stuff to [then-Universal exec] Mary Parent, who was responsible for putting “HALO” together and Peter was already on board producing it. After some discussion, she needed me to meet him. And so I flew down to New Zealand and we met and he and I really got along. And to be honest, it wasn’t fake or business-like because I was so creatively interested in “HALO.” It has all of the ingredients of science fiction that I love; like, all of them. So I was just in my element with this project. Like I’ve been given a massive, awesome huge film and was absolutely elated at the thought of bringing it to life.

Were you into “HALO,” the videogame?

I was into the game, but that’s not why I wanted to do it. There’s other videogames that I play as well that I wouldn’t want to make a film out of. It’s just the all-encompassing universe of “HALO,” this human-industrial military complex that can either be viewed as the aggressor or the victim of this covenant onslaught. Anyhow, I worked on it for five months down there and we were developing the script, we were designing everything, thousands of designs that we actually began to manufacture. Then they pulled the plug on this thing and the whole thing imploded.

What did you manufacture?

All of the weaponry; all of the outfits for the soldiers. We built and actually finished one of the warthogs. We were really underway.

Is there any chance that “HALO” the movie can still happen?

I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of different components to it. Microsoft has retained control of the project, so it’s gone away from Fox and Universal. That means any construct to make the film would be automatically different, for one. And for me, it’s difficult to spend five months pouring yourself into a project and having the rug pulled out from underneath you. I love “HALO” and I love the world, but it would be really difficult for me to get back into that.

Back to “District 9.” This “Humans Only” marketing campaign is really unique.

It’s very emotive, having these segregated billboards in America.

Were you involved at all in the design or conception of this campaign?

A lot of those billboards came from signs that were supposed to appear in the movie, which are, in fact, in the movie. But Sony’s marketing team deserves all of the credit. They did an awesome job. What happened was they went back and saw the film, saw the artwork and came back to Pete and I with this idea. And they automatically got the essence of the movie. I was really happy.

You have a lot of experience in visual effects and animation. How involved were you in the design of the aliens of “District 9?”

I was very involved. The aliens are designed by one person at Weta Workshop in New Zealand and they’re executed by Image Engine in Vancouver, who brought them to life. And there were a few criteria that needed to be met: I wanted them to be insects, but I wanted them to be bipedal. And unfortunately, they had to be human-esque because our psychology doesn’t allow us to really empathize with something unless it has a face and an anthropomorphic shape. Like if you see something that’s four-legged, you think it’s a dog; that’s just how we’re wired. So that drove me mental because I felt like I had to give in to this Hollywood cliché. But that’s just the way it goes. If you make a film about an alien force, which is the oppressor or aggressor, and you don’t want to empathize with them, you can go to town. So creatively that’s what I wanted to do but story-wise, I just couldn’t.

What were your biggest sci-fi influences growing up?

It was really just Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and [James] Cameron’s “Aliens.” I was literally obsessed as a kid. But all of those sci-fi films, the whole spectrum that fits into that group. I just love science fiction and I love creature films.

Is there any overall message you were going for with “District 9?”

Yes and no. Overall, I just want to make a film that audiences would find compelling and I think if you’re making a film that’s political and you’re taking a stand, then you’re running the risk of turning a lot of people off. So I wanted to take the structure of this apartheid society but also just deliver a very cool sci-fi film on top of that.

Has there been any kind of reaction in South Africa to the project?

Not really. It hasn’t come out there yet, so I don’t know how they’re going to react. We shot the whole thing in Johannesburg, so hopefully they’ll take some pride in it.

There’s no Hollywood premiere for this film. Any guesses why?

I don’t know. Probably because Tom Cruise isn’t in it.

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