Neill Blomkamp, Sharlto Copley and producer Simon Kinberg talk ELYSIUM, HALO and more

16 min read
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So the big news yesterday was obviously the amazing first trailer for writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (If you haven’t seen it yet, consider yourself shunned). A lucky few press members were given a glimpse of the trailer and more a day before already, and to sweeten the deal, they were even treated to a Q&A with the very men behind it, covering everything from Elysium to Blomkamp’s aborted Halo adaptation.

Comingsoon.net‘s Silas Lesnick spoke to Blomkamp and star and fellow saffer Sharlto Copley (District 9, The A-Team), as well producer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Sherlock Holmes) and here’s what they learned.

With Elysium‘s story of the have-not’s all living in squalor on Earth while the have’s live in a shiny space station in the sky, many people immediately latched onto the similarities of the Occupy movement, and how the Earthbound were the 99%. Although the film does play out that way, it wasn’t intentional.

BLOMKAMP: “I think that, if there are topics that are just on people’s minds, things manifest into reality out of the sort of global consciousness of being aware of those topics. So, separate from the 99% discussion and the Occupy movement and everything, I was thinking about this and the film kind of grew out of that. I remember reading something about Chris Nolan maybe trying to film some Occupy movement for the end of the “Dark Knight” series, which could have or might have been bulls–t, I don’t remember. It was the first time that I realized that I was making a film that fit that in terms of the global consciousness. It fit into a CNN soundbite and that upset me a little bit. But they both come from the same place. I just don’t want it to be fast food and just thrown away, if that makes sense.”

KINBERG: “It’s not really something we talked about. I think Neill is very interested in the world, so I think it just sort of seeps into your unconscious, but it’s not something we consciously think about.”

Easily the film’s most catching visual thus far is the poster of Matt Damon wearing that almost cobbled together looking exo-skeleton. That exo-skeleton also features quite a bit in the story overall.

BLOMKAMP: “The idea was that it was some kind of very low-end, almost dirt bike, like a motocross version of a strength suit that was born out of research that the military is doing now. Like Lockheed and a bunch of companies have HULC suits that are used for enhanced strength. I just wanted it to look really grungy and extremely sort of low-end and kind of real. That was the thinking, and he’s sick in the film, so it makes him stronger, but it doesn’t make him Iron Man strong. It’s trying to do it semi-realistically. And then in the practical application, it’s actually a surprising amount of engineering that WETA has to do. For the range of motions, to actually work correctly, it’s a surprising amount of engineering. Sharl has one in the film later on that’s a bit more advanced than the one Matt has in the film. It’s a little bit more complex, a little bit newer. But they’re born out of the same idea.”

You can see snippets of the exo-skeleton that Sharlto Copley’s character Kruger is wearing in the trailer, but its a small design element in a overall rather interesting looking character.

BLOMKAMP: “…one thing that Sharl was talking about when we were downstairs, he tried a few different versions of accents and a few different versions of “where does this guy come from?” There was a border war in South Africa in the ’70s and ’80s where a lot of the special forces guys were truly on their own, and it was a really insane way that they operated. It truly was Black Ops on a different level. The behind-the-scenes photos of those kinds of guys, they’re wearing these terrible shorts, nothing else, and a long beard after they’ve mass-murdered a bunch of people. That served as reference.”

COPLEY: “That unit was called 32 Battalion, and it was guys who could go into the bush and just not come out for like three months. It’s a very specific type of soldier, and it’s not like, “Ooh, I look so cool with my Oakleys.” “I’m gonna blast you!” It’s a different kind of person to deal with.”

That difference is also a lot more than just having a scruffy beard and metal bit stuck on your face, as the villains of Elysium are not that cut and dry.

BLOMKAMP: “Sharlto can talk about Kruger, but I think that, in terms of Jodie, the idea on Elysium is that it’s a slight — commentary is the wrong word — It’s a mirror of how the West is now with immigration. A lot of people want to help out the rest of the world. They want to take that wealth and pour the glass half out to balance it in the rest of the planet. Other people want to close the borders. The people fit into those two camps. Sharl is just completely indifferent. He’s like a soldier on the ground that just executes commands.”

COPLEY: “It’s more about professional soldier elements. With Kruger, it’s an issue for politicians and he’s a soldier and he moves amongst what is squalor, from his point of view. He would be on Elysium, but he has to live here. That’s not the politics or about if what happens is fair or whatever. It’s just soldiering, like its always been. That’s a certain type of that being his thing. He’s got the camo on because it’s cool and that’s our colors. What are you going to do? It’s that kind of more gung-ho soldiering attitude for my guy, certainly.”

KINBERG: “They’re also not black and white villains. You could say that Wikus, in many ways, is the villain in “District 9″ because he’s destroying alien fetuses. Then, obviously, he becomes a hero. Jodie is introduced at home. She’s got grandkids and kids around. She wants them to live their life in a very nice suburb and genuinely believes she needs to protect them.”

With Elysium, Blomkamp has clearly built up a living breathing world, but don’t expect to be given a history lesson about it any time soon.

BLOMKAMP: “I like films that just put you there and you have to deal with it. I really like that. So there was an even more aggressive version of the film where the intro was almost non-existent. The film just starts, and it’s like, “Oh s–t, there’s a space station. Okay.” You try and keep up with it. I shot some footage that explained the intro a little bit more, but I decided not to use it. I would say it’s kind of like halfway. There is some explanation, but it’s definitely not over the top. It kind of just begins.”

Blomkamp has an incredible ability, through a very smart blending of real world locations and visual effects, to create worlds that feel 100% real. That being said though, just like he’s is not too worried about showing the complete the history of this world, he’s also not that worried about making sure that this future version of our world ticks all the scientifically plausible futurist checkboxes.

BLOMKAMP: “The thing is, I think that if you really try to make a proper speculative fiction piece of science fiction it’s a very different product that you end up with. And in this film, and to a certain degree in “District 9,” both times proper science was thrown out the window a little bit in favor of metaphor or story or plot. Actually less plot. More to make mechanics of what the theme is. So building a space station with marble and slate is semi not-that-smart [laughs]. It’s not really something that you want to do. But the metaphor of Bel Air in space is correct. You just work towards that. My approach is always to start off with something ridiculous, and then try and use the most realistic portrayal of the ridiculous as you can. For all the visual effects guys, everything was like if they couldn’t show me reference, if it wasn’t from a mega project like the Yangtze River Dam or some ridiculous expansion bridge in Canada, something of that scale, it didn’t belong in the film. So you couldn’t make some s–t up… It had to come from reality. So it’s kind of like I’m painting ridiculous ideas with the brush of reality.”

KINBERG: “It’s even small details. Like on Elysium people use paper. The assumption would be on a space station in 100-plus years there wouldn’t be paper anymore, but it makes it relatable and real and connects to today’s world in a way that’s unconscious.”

A lot of that “real world” feel was provided by shooting in Mexico City, and you’d think that after shooting District 9 in the shantytowns of Johannesburg that this would just be par for the course now, but apparently the two locations are worlds apart, not just geographically and culturally, but also logistically.

BLOMKAMP: “Well, I can summarize it pretty quickly: Mexico is all about kidnappings, and Joburg is all about carjackings [laughs]. The security team that we had, actually, they were doing diamonds being moved from Congo down into South Africa and up on the east coast of Africa, and they had done two models of research about the two countries, which was pretty interesting because they were with us in Mexico – I’m speaking specifically about crime right now. Mexico, in the areas that we were in the chance of impulse, random crimes were extremely low, and the chance of a two to three week, premeditated kidnapping was much, much higher. And then in Johannesburg it was like the perfect inverse of that. So the feeling in Mexico City, to me, is quite different than Johannesburg, but the similarities are – and it’s the reason we shot there – extreme wealth – Carlos Slim lives there – and extreme poverty. Obviously we chose extreme poverty because Canada played as the wealth, but there was a surprising amount of similarities in terms of lifestyle and politics, and living that far beneath the poverty band. There’s natural similarities that come out of it.”

COPLEY: “There were a lot of similar things. I felt safer in Mexico because if there was a kidnapping thing I was always like, “Well, they’re going to go for Matt Damon before they go for me” [laughs]. I was like, “Hey brothers! I’m from South Africa! I’m a third world guy! I’m on your side! Take the producer! He’s the American!” So I felt okay. The scale of Mexico City surprised me. The sheer size of the place was astounding. I just had no idea how big it was. You’d be flying in a helicopter. It just goes on and on and on in the same type of standard of living. Not as much shacks as you had in South Africa above that really sort of shantytown living. There’s just a very consistent level of blocks and blocks and blocks. You’d fly for 20 minutes you’re still over the city.”

BLOMKAMP: “One of the things that Sharlto is talking about that’s very interesting is that in Mexico City, when you look out, it’s almost all concrete grey. That entire place is concrete grey as far as you can see. A lot of guys there were telling me that, if you complete your building and it’s actually considered complete, all of a sudden you start paying property tax. So you get to the point where it’s entirely good to go and you just don’t paint it. Then it’s never officially completed. The entire place had this really interesting photographic look.”

I’ve been privileged enough to enough to visit Egypt a few years back, and in Cairo they have the same system of property tax, and I can vouch for that “interesting photographic look” that Blomkamp mentions. It will certainly be interesting to see how he’s manipulated that visage to create his future Earth.

Now before Elysium or District 9 came along, Blomkamp was being set up by Peter Jackson to direct an adaptation of popular videogame franchise, Halo. That project infamously collapsed, which freed Blomkamp up to pursue his own ideas with D9. Elysium marks his second self-written work, so we should we expect to continue seeing him doing original work, or could a Halo like adaptation still be in his future?

BLOMKAMP: “I don’t think I actively sit down and say, “I’m only going to do my own stuff” or that I only want everything to be original. One of the things that I really learned with “Halo” — because I still really love the world and the universe and the mythology of “Halo.” If I was given control, I would really like to do that film. But that’s the problem. When something pre-exists, there’s this idea of my own interpretation versus 150 other people involved with the film’s interpretation of the same intellectual property. Then the entire film-going audience has their interpretation. You can really live up to or fail in their eyes. That part isn’t appealing to me, but the original pieces are appealing. As far as sequels to my own stuff, I think a lot of it just comes down to if there’s more to say. I think the world of “District 9″ has a lot of race and oppression-based ideas that I would still like to explore in that world. Again, I have no problem remaking my own stuff or whatever you call it. Sequelizing my own stuff. Then there’s a few pieces of cinema history that I like so much. I don’t know if I could be involved with them, but there’s iconic characters out there that I really like and would love to get closer to and make a film about. When I start dipping my toes into it, I get this allergic reaction. Maybe one day I’ll end up doing something like that.”

Whatever those “few pieces of cinema history” are that Blomkamp’s talking about, if he ever does end up tackling any of them, there’s a pretty good chance that what he does will be pretty action packed.

BLOMKAMP: “Like I said about being a fan at Comic-Con, I like films in this genre. My favorite film of all time is “Aliens.” Period. James Cameron’s “Aliens.” What “Elysium” doesn’t have that I’d like to put into the next film is slime and eggs. It’s missing slime and eggs. It’s got copious amounts of robotics and guns, so that’s cool. It’s covered. For me to make a film without any of those elements, including action, is kind of boring to me. Cinema doesn’t come out of that stuff. There’s versions of that in films from filmmakers that I really like but, for me personally, to get invested and wanting to make it, it has gotta have genre elements. It has to have real — issues is the wrong word — but things that I want to explore and talk about also in the film. Not just that the guy has to shoot the other guy because he’s got a gun.”

Now as impressive looking as the trailer for Elysium was, you will notice that it actually only touched on the slightest est of suggestions about the film’s plot. This was a very conscious decision that Blomkamp made, and something that you will probably see happening in his future endeavours.

BLOMKAMP: “Yeah, I try to show as little as I can. The thing is, if you’re a responsible, functioning filmmaker in the 21st century, you can’t spend $100 million and then try to behave as though you’re going to wrap it under a blanket and maybe one day play it at one theater in Vancouver. It just doesn’t work. Rationally, I understand that people have to get to know about the film and word has to get out there. Personally, I don’t really like it. It’s part of how the system works. I like the film. One of the reasons that I like Comic-Con as a venue is that I feel like I’m a fan. I feel like I’m the exact same person as people that come and watch the footage. It’s a little weird that I made the film, so there’s this kind of pedestal, soapbox talking thing element of the marketing that I don’t really like. But you have to get it out there. I tried to limit as much as I could. I didn’t win, completely.”

Oh trust me, Mr Blomkamp, thus far you are very much winning.

Last Updated: April 11, 2013

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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