It all started at Comic-Con in 2008, with a viral marketing campaign that featured signs and benches stating “For Humans Only.” The ads were for a film coming out in 2009 called “District 9″ — a film that, at the time, nobody knew about. One year later, that had all changed. When “District 9″ director Neill Blomkamp returned to the Con with a print of the movie, fans were practically frothing at the mouth.
After a very successful box-office run — along with an Oscar nod for Best Picture — “District 9″ developed a devoted fan base, one that’s now on pins and needles waiting for Blomkamp’s follow-up flick, “Elysium.” Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and “District 9″ star Sharlto Copley, the movie is set in the year 2159. Here, the human race has been split into two: the rich, who stay on a luxurious space station called Elysium, and the poor, who are left to fend for themselves on the now-ruined planet Earth.
Just as he did with “District 9,” Blomkamp is once again bringing his projet to Comic-Con. I spoke with the director before the “Elysium” panel in Hall H, about his new movie, viral marketing campaigns, his interest in science fiction and what he hates about filmmaking.
So have you been back to Comic-Con since “District 9” premiered in 2009?
No. I wanted to get back. I love the insanity of this place.
Comic-Con was such an integral part of the marketing for “District 9.” Was that one of the main reasons you did that with “Elysium”?
The overall marketing plan definitely isn’t going to be generated by the director. Marketing will say, “Comic-Con is a venue where you’re going to want to release X.” And then you get into discussions about where or what or how much. But this venue feels very honest to me. I really hate the salesman element of filmmaking, which I really never try to be a part of. And I feel like if it’s earnest, genuine interviews like this, or even better, a genuine crowd of actual fans, I don’t feel like a salesman, because I would be in the crowd waiting to see a film that I was anticipating. So there’s an honesty to this environment that I like. It’s true fans for films of the genre.
Yeah, in a place like Comic-Con, I feel like you have a much better chance of a fan coming up and telling you exactly what they think of the idea of your film or of the footage they saw — even if it’s bad.
And that’s OK, too. Because the point is, they want good films. The bad version would be some industry-related thing where you have to go and sell a film. I just won’t do it… The bad part is if I have to get up in front of people and be some sort of car salesman with smoke and mirrors and am like “Here’s the show motherf*ckers!” That’s not for me.
Have you found that honesty anywhere else besides here?
Well, I am relatively inexperienced. This is only my second film.
“District 9″ has a big following, particularly here at this event. How much pressure do you feel working on a film that’s a follow-up to that?
It’s interesting, I don’t know if all directors are like that or it’s just me, but I feel very insular and isolated. I don’t put any pressure on myself in terms of what people or fans do or don’t want. It really just doesn’t occur to me. I honestly just want to make the films I want to see as a fan. The film will survive or fail in my mind by how much I like it. Having said that, everyone wants their films to do well and to be well-received. But until the moment it comes out, it doesn’t occur to me. I feel no obligation to other people.
When did you start brainstorming the idea behind “Elysium”?
It was like 2010, fairly soon after “District 9” ended. [The inspiration] was a combination of being a massive science-fiction fan, and I generally have a lot of ideas, I think, because there are parts of the real world and society that interest me [then] I start applying the science-fiction filter. [For “Elysium”] I had this idea of a space station that had the rich living on it, and Earth being kind of dilapidated, and that concept is just inherently interesting, and the second that you make that connection, the idea of those visuals — of that space station hovering above Earth — become real, [and] now I am invested and now I want to write a script.
It appears this film follows a similar theme to “District 9″: class warfare. What about that topic interests you?
A lot of that [interest] is not conscious, it’s just a cerebral thing. I think that over the course of any filmmaker’s lifespan, there will be similarities and symmetry and ideas of [their films]. So it’s something to do with growing up in South Africa attracts me to discrepancies in society. There’s something inherently interesting about it.
Were there any mistakes you made or lessons you learned on your first film that you wanted to completely avoid while shooting this one?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think there’s anything that I had to actively avoid. The energy required for making a film is so f*cking ridiculous — I was just saying to my editor the other day, it would take an entire lifetime to hone the craft, because there are so many different elements to it and you learn so much as you go. So there wasn’t really anything about “District 9” that I wanted to not repeat. But there were things where I was like, “Remember to do this better.” And now on “Elysium,” I feel like there’s more things that I need to learn to do better on my third film. But the process felt very similar to “District 9”: relatively skimpy budget for what we were trying to achieve, which puts a lot of pressure on the crew, and a similar environment.
What does Earth look like during this film?
If you went to a third-world country now, that’s what all of earth is like [in this movie]. So it’s like the bad parts of [any] country; the bad parts of Cuba, the bad parts of Haiti, the bad parts of South Africa. It’s like all of the wealth got pulled out — all of the structure and the first-world elements imploded because they were pulled off onto a space station, so you’re left with a lot of people [who] are slightly desperate and things don’t really work.
Do you ever reveal how those people ended up on the space station to begin with?
No. That’s one of the things I like about sci-fi, that you don’t really spoon feed the audience. It’s Here’s the world, deal with motherf*ckers.
All of the aliens in “District 9” were CGI. How much did you use in this film?
A lot. By far the biggest challenge is the space station itself. There was a sh*tload of robotics and aircrafts and weapons. It looks cool, though. We have been working on the effects for a year, and we’re just starting to see the images of the space station now.
Do you want to continue doing science fiction after this?
I don’t know. Again, if it’s just a natural artistic process, it’s whatever feels right in the moment. I have zero strategy for my career — like, zero. I could get as much satisfaction about doing a $20,000 shot film the same way I could do a $100 million film with a bunch of effects.