South African director Neill Blomkamp helped put that country’s largest city on the radar of the entertainment industry with 2009’s hit “District 9,” and since then, Johannesburg has become an increasingly popular city for foreign productions.
Blomkamp’s new film, “Chappie,” which begins its worldwide rollout March 4, shows off a different side of the city, and spotlights more South African talent, both below- and above-the-line.
“Johannesburg can be both township and completely urban and almost American,” Blomkamp says. “You can choose the Johannesburg you want, so I made (“Chappie”) exclusively urban.”
“Chappie,” in which a droid is reprogrammed to think and feel for itself, shot in Johannesburg during the second part of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 with South African rap group Die Antwoord in starring roles.
“Because Die Antwoord is native to South Africa, I felt the film had to be set there,” Blomkamp says. “However, I started to feel that I was treading too close to ‘District 9,’ so I moved the second draft to America. But moving the story to America felt like it created a fish-out-of-water feeling for Die Antwoord, so I set it back in Joburg, but with South Africa as the backdrop but not the star.”
Like any modern city, Johannesburg is home to expats from around the world, so Blomkamp embraced a diversity of accents and styles for the film. According to costume designer Diana Cilliers, the villain, played by Hugh Jackman, is styled on a small-time farmer from Australia; and Brandon Auret’s Hippo has a distinct African rebel soldier touch.
Blomkamp largely cast the film himself, bringing on Sigourney Weaver, Dev Patel and “District 9” actors Eugene Khumbanyiwa and Robert Hobbs.
South African actors aren’t usually trotted out as selling points for filming in the country as often as its locations, crew, exchange rate or financial incentives, but they’re starting to gain higher profiles, especially Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley who plays Chappie in a motion-capture performance.
“Think of the animation like really, really expensive makeup,” says Blomkamp. “The actor drives the performance: they are completely and utterly captured in the process of rotomation.”
While Blomkamp used his regular cinematographer, Canadian Trent Opaloch, and imported other department heads, “Everyone else was South African,” says Steven St. Arnaud, founder of South African service company Uncle Morris. “The special effects, mechanical effects and stunt teams are 100% South African.”
Blomkamp says the big advantage of shooting in Johannesburg was not just its “amazing locations” but also “the ability to actually get them.”
For example, “Chappie” was able to close two major freeways for a shoot on the weekend before Christmas, peak shopping season.
“Cape Town is super slick, but there’s no way we could have done that there,” says St. Arnaud. “In Johannesburg, it was a fairly simple process, with great support from the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Dept., the film commission and emergency services.”
“Chappie” also shot inside the aerospace and aviation division of conglomerate Denel. “A lot of what they do there is top secret, so it took months of discussions and courting,” says St. Arnaud. “Shooting there made a $60 million film look like a $100 million film — you can’t buy that level of authenticity and production value.”
The film’s producers also were able to access the 25% rebate on the Dept. of Trade and Industry’s Foreign Film and Television Production and Post-Production Incentive. “The rebates helped us hugely,” says co-producer Victoria Burkhart.
Like anywhere, Burkhart says, Johannesburg has its irritations. While she loved that “Joburg has such a wide variety of locations all within an hour drive,” she warns that traffic can be a nightmare, so it’s worth scheduling your shooting calls outside rush hours. She also warns the Internet can be spotty and flights from other countries are long.
“But that’s small stuff. I love shooting there. South Africa not only was the perfect setting for the film, it just happens to also be very cost-effective and have world-class film crews.”