‘Elysium’ Director Neill Blomkamp: “I’m Not Even Sure I’m A Director”

By  · Published on August 8th, 2013

Neill Blomkamp became kind of a big deal after District 9. That film was the surprise hit of 2009, and it showed why Blomkamp was initially tapped to helm Halo. After a debut film makes that much coin, a director is fielding offers left and right, and Blomkamp was no different except that instead of jumping into bed with a big studio franchise-starter he took another risk with Elysium: an original 98 million dollar R-rated action movie.

The movie plays with a relevant allegory, but for writer/director Blomkamp that’s just the sprinkles on top of his sci-fi actioner. The movie doesn’t dwell too much on its allegory or exposition, and for Blomkamp, it was important to give the audience just enough information to throw them into the deep end.

Blomkamp had to plenty more to say in a roundtable interview about his specific approach to Elysium.

FSR: District 9 came out of nowhere for some audiences. With Elysium, there are more expectations because of the high bar that film set. Did you feel more pressure on Elysium because of that?

Luckily, no, because I’m still early in my career. I seem to keep thinking of each film on its own, living and dying by their own merit. The pressure that I felt, which is very different from the artistic pressure of District 9, is that if it doesn’t do well financially I could get in trouble. I didn’t fully get how the business worked on District 9, so I didn’t have that feeling then. I’m still not in the stage of looking at previous films and worrying the next one won’t live up to that. I know some directors that have done much more films than me who behave that way: second-guessing themselves against other work they’ve done. That’s just lame, because then you won’t take risks.

You’re using genre to approach a social justice issue. Do you see yourself in line with other people who have done that?

Not really. I can see why people think you choose this relevant topic and make a film about it, but it doesn’t really work that way. It’s a much more organic and artistic approach, you know? Over the years you become interested in topics. Like a painter, you’re just busy painting and all of the sudden you start realizing the influences. Science-fiction authors are much more like that, because most films don’t carry much intellectual weight. They’re, like, fluff. The authors do it much better. With these two films, it’s pretty marginal.

There’s a risk making a futuristic film, because eventually your film will be seen in that year and it may prove funny or accurate.

The key is to go far out enough so you’re dead by that time. The difference with Elysium is, it’s not speculative sci-fi. If you get into speculative sci-fi with what life will look like in 2154, you start to lose the metaphors: it’s meant to be rich and poor. If you start to really think about technology and how it’s become a part of society, then you’re making speculative sci-fi; it wouldn’t be a large group of rich people with swimming pools. I’m interested in speculative science-fiction, but on this film I was constantly monitoring not making choices for science-fiction, but reinforcing metaphor or allegory.

Can you talk about your process of figuring out how this environment should feel?

That’s some of my favorite aspects of filmmaking. I’m not even sure I’m a director, to be honest. I am a visual artist, though. I like mixing visual arts with sound and motion, and by doing that, creating an atmosphere and place for the audience to go to. All my favorite films are the ones that are classic cinema that transport an audience, like, Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. Making those worlds feel real is a hugely entertaining part of the film process, and that’s where I get hyper-specific. We got to flesh out what future Elysium and Earth looks like on this movie, which made the beginning of the film extremely difficult, editing-wise. If you just have a movie on a futuristic space station, you have to set that up. To set up a futuristic space station and a futuristic Earth, it’s difficult. There was so many different cuts for the beginning, it was a nightmare.

Writing is the worst thing in a world for me. Writing a script is root canal surgery, so I would think of visual ideas that would reinforce the story, plot, theme, or character. Then I would write descriptions of them and send them to WETA, who did photo-realistic sketches. Those inspired me, not the words. Sometimes I’d get them to render something in the world of Elysium that I hadn’t written yet, and then when I see it and like it, I’d incorporate it into the script. At the end of the writing process, I had a stack of 60 or 70 images that told the story.

FSR: When it comes to setting up these two worlds, how much back and forth is there over how much an audience needs to know and doesn’t need to know?

Well, you never really get to the bottom of that. All you can do is use gut instinct. The problem is, I feel like I’m a slightly more extreme audience member, but I still think I’m the core audience. I’m trying to make a film I want to watch. When I say I’m more extreme, I mean I like to be thrown into the deep end. I want to be standing in LA and see this weird floating disc above me. I gave the audience a little bit more than that, because I’m trying to make sure they understand, but is that too much? You never know. I don’t even know if the film works. I don’t know until the audience tells me they like it or not.

Dealing with the hardware of it all, how do you make sure you get the subtlety with the performance?

Jodie’s character, in particular, didn’t require subtlety. She’s a nod to the genre we’re in just blowing shit up, and we haven’t really seen her do that. Matt [Damon] is a little different. One of the reasons I wanted to get Matt is I like the idea of his inherent currency with the audience. A movie star comes with baggage or currency, and that’s an interesting thing. I wanted a guy I felt the audience would always like, and then build on top of that by making him a bit of a thug.

How do you feel you are with actors?

I’m getting a lot better, for sure. I think the brain structure of effects are artists at their core and much more solitary people who do intricate work with headphones on. They’re not, like, gregarious directors commanding 1,000 people. Another part is the guy sitting at ILM interested in a play, with just the actors and spoken words? Usually it doesn’t, because they’re all visual. I’m very much cut from that cloth. As I get older, now character and theater is becoming interesting for me. 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. Still, I’m far behind from a first-time director with a theatrical or literary background.

Can you talk about specifying the smaller details of this world?

Normally when I write the script, I’ll know what that technology is I want to include. I have this process down now because of Halo and District 9. For example, take Sharlto’s flying vehicle, Raven, I know exactly what it does: it’s a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. I’ll write a few paragraphs to WETA about what it does and what I think it should look like. Then 50% of the time I’ll sketch it and send that to WETA. I’ll talk through the notes with the artists and within a few weeks I’ll get different versions, and then I’ll sketch on top of those versions.

The Mercenaries Sharlto is a part of is modeled a little bit after Black Water. Black Water has this bear paw the mercenaries self-indentifiy with, so because this film deals with this weird group of South American mercenaries, I wanted this identifier they are proud to be a part of. In the film, one of them has spray painted this animal on the side of the vehicle.

We ended up with over 3,000 distinctly done pieces of artwork for this film.The movie felt exponentially greater than District 9. In that film there was the aliens, the ship they came from, and the weaponry, but they don’t count for as much as Elysium. There was so much stuff on this movie.

FSR: Unlike a lot of blockbusters we’ve seen this summer, you don’t have 200 million dollars to build this world.

It was more like 98 million [Laughs].

FSR: [Laughs] Exactly. What type of technical and storytelling challenges did that create? And following up on that, why not make the PG-13 version of this story to obtain a higher budget?

Yes, you can make it PG-13, but it’s not the film you want to make. I’d rather work on a two million dollar film where I can do what I want instead of a 700 million dollar film that’s not what I want. It does make it more difficult, though. Because it’s an artistic process, filmmaking is always going to go above what the budget is. You’re going to have ideas when making a film, and it’ll kill you not being able to implement those ideas. The financier isn’t going to give you that money.

For example, when Max is fighting Kruger on that gantry, they’re covered in water. They could be dry, but I came up with that aesthetic choice later on. In my mind, it’s not hard: you just put some water on the actors. Then they say, “No, no, it’s $300,000. The gantry we built, which looks like metal, is wood that looks like metal. When you dump water on them, you’ll wet all the wood and overnight the set will collapse under its own weight. We never built it to support 500 kilograms of water. It costs that much money because the crew has to set it up over night and paint it with water resistant paint on top of the paint that already looks metallic.” That’s one example of a million examples. If you make a movie like Spider-Man, your budget is locked but it’s not actually locked. You can go 30 million dollars over on a film like that. On this kind of film, with my R-rating and doing what I want, those are the negatives: I can’t go 30 million dollars over budget.

Elysium opens in theaters August 9th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.