ELYSIUM Interview with director Neill Blomkamp

We chat with director Neill Blomkamp about his latest film, ELYSIUM

Neill Blomkamp came to the world’s attention in 2009, when his first feature film DISTRICT 9 earned over $200 million at the international box office and snapped up four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay.

His follow-up film ELYSIUM is even more ambitious in scope, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster as two opposing forces, each battling for what they believe in.

The film is set in the year 2154, where two classes of people exist. There are the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station, Elysium, and then there is the rest, who are left to scratch a living on an overpopulated, resourcedrained planet below.

In our interview Neill Blomkamp gives a behind the scenes glimpse into his thought process behind making the film.

Many major action and sci-fi blockbusters are based on a franchise, while that is not the case with ELYSIUM…
Neill Blomkamp: One thing I should say, in terms of the rest of Hollywood, is that I am very disconnected. I just work on my own stuff and I don’t really know what they are thinking or what they are doing. But in terms of ELYSIUM, it wasn’t actually that difficult to get made because the financier believed in it. I gave him a treatment of what I thought the movie was and he really liked it. He got it to Sony, and they really believed in me. I’ve been really lucky.

Why do you think that science-fiction movies often present such a dark future?
NB: I can’t speak for other people who make them. For me, my version of the future is dark. My version of the future is not good so I am just making a film that verbalizes my version of where I think we are going. I think if other people are making films that have a similar ‘dystopic’ point of view, my feeling is that they probably think that, but I am not sure.

Did you grow up as a bit of a sci-fi geek?
NB: I love the idea of me growing up as a geek. I think to a lot of my friends, they didn’t actually know that I was a geek, which is quite weird. I was really into sport when I was younger. So I was kind of like a geek-jock. The geek was hidden. I had a group of really good friends who knew I was into this stuff but the peripheral friends truly had no idea. They just didn’t know. And it was pretty interesting speaking to them about that when I bumped into some old friends from South Africa recently. All the stuff, the parties that I didn’t go to because I was doing my own crazy home filmmaking or whatever, they just hadn’t a clue. I was like a hidden geek. I like that.

The role that Jodie Foster plays in ELYSIUM wasn’t originally written for a woman, right?
NB: Right. But all of a sudden one night I woke up and I was, ‘If this were a woman it would be more interesting.’ And then I started going through a list of who could play it and when I thought of Jodie, I thought that was the coolest person ever to play that role, assuming she would be interested. I spoke to her and she was interested and she seemed to come on board. It was effortless. It happened very easily. She was also one of the easiest, most professional and cool people to work with. She has extreme talent and is very professional. She arrives on set at the exact time, does exactly what you ask her to do, no problems, very cool. She was late for our first meeting, however. She profusely, continually, apologized and she told me that she had never been late in her life. I thought ‘Hmmm’, but then on set she was never actually late so I do believe her now!

What do you think the message of ELYSIUM is?
NB: The way I think of it is that the movie is a different way of looking at living on earth in the year 2013. So, it is like: here is a snapshot of today. There is mass poverty, the rich seem to call all of the shots and there is no outcome, no resolution. No one knows how to solve the problems that earth has today. If there is no way to solve it, then you don’t have a message and you are just saying here is a different way to look at today.

Were you motivated into shooting in real locations because you wanted to avoid green screen as much as possible?
NB: Absolutely. Shooting green screen is terrible. It is awful. I come from the world of visual effects as well and the worst thing you can do is to shoot an actor over a green screen. It is just a terrible result. You always want to get it more real and try to get it as close to what the actor believes he is in as you can. This movie has a lot of robot characters. The old version of that is the guy speaks into a tennis ball or a fishing rod with something hanging at the end and that is not good, so the better version is that you have another actor play the robot and then you paint the actor out and replace him. We tried to make everything that we did feel as close to normal as we could. We specifically looked for some of the worst areas in Mexico City to shoot, and we actively stayed away from the really nicelooking areas.

You must have done an enormous amount of visual preparation for the film…?
NB: I had done a lot of art work and I’d done a lot of visual prep so I could show people what I was going for. If you do that and you have a good argument, or position, on why this is a good idea, and you can back it up with actual imagery and concepts, people will go along with it. That applied to shooting in the garbage dump. Matt Damon was a pro, but it was difficult work. When you drive into that dump before dawn it smells terrible; something about the sun coming up kind of burns this layer of humidity out of the sewerage.

What did you use as inspiration for the world that you created in ELYSIUM?
NB: Anything that influenced the imagery in there is subconscious. Every conscious decision is: I want to make a space station in space and it is 150 years from now and on earth everything is dilapidated. Literally, every dollar resource has been extracted and pulled away so that it’s like the most impoverished parts of Africa today. So I am going to go about designing future earth and I am going to go about designing Elysium. And everything about those two places should feel as real and believable to the audience as I can make them feel. So the influence that I use is reality. I want to build the space station so with any structure, if you can’t show me a reference for what that is based on, it means it came from the artist’s mind – which means it’s wrong, because it is going to look like some science fiction rubbish. If you can show me something like the Yangtze River dam or another mega-engineering project, then I will believe it. I don’t know if that answers your question but any subconscious influence of other filmmakers or artists, I am unaware of but I am sure they are in there. Everything that was conscious was pure realism, on every level.

ELYSIUM is at Irish cinemas from August 21st