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A fresh new filmmaking talent, Neill Blomkamp, emerges in the sci-fi/horror genre, District 9 – shepherded by Peter Jackson, once a fresh new talent himself, making his debut in the splatter genre.

“Neill Blomkamp is a terrifically exciting young director,” says producer Peter Jackson, who shepherds Blomkamp’s debut feature film, District 9. “We were considering a production of Halo, based on the video game. That movie never happened, but we loved working with Neill so much that when he pitched us District 9, we decided it would be fun to turn his idea into a feature film.”

After cutting his teeth as a visual effects artist and director of music videos and commercials, Blomkamp makes his feature film directorial debut, drawing inspiration from classic science fiction films as well as the Johannesburg of his youth (Blomkamp was born and raised there before relocating to Canada).

"bizarrely real"

From the very beginning, Blomkamp intended District 9 to be unconventional and to blur the lines between filmmaking styles. “Essentially, the film bounces from our story, which is obviously fictional, to a sort of ultra real mode,” explains Blomkamp. Dramatic scenes, mockumentary footage, real news video obtained from the South African Broadcasting Corporation – “it’s all part of the same story,” Blomkamp continues. “The movie fluctuates between something that feels like a film and something that feels bizarrely real.”

“District 9 is set in an alternate history,” says Jackson. “Imagine over 20 years ago, over a million alien refugees arrived on earth in a derelict spaceship. They are benign – more than that, they are helpless. They can’t even feed themselves and have no particular desire to do anything. They come to Johannesburg, of all places, and the government doesn’t know what to do with them, so the aliens end up in a township very similar to Soweto. And for over 20 years, humans have been trying to solve the alien problem.”

Blomkamp says the film mimics the 24-hour news feed that cable channels, the internet, and other news sources feed us every day. “It used to be that you would pick up a single newspaper story. Now, the imagery is always there and we have become used to it,” says Blomkamp. He also points out that the advent of reality television blurs the lines between reality and entertainment even further.

The genesis of District 9 lies in a short, low budget mockumentary called Alive in Jo’burg that Blomkamp shot in a Johannesburg shantytown a few years ago. In the short film, Blomkamp introduces intergalactic aliens to the cultural mix of Johannesburg, one of Africa’s most dynamic cities.

"blurring the line between fiction and reality"

For that film, Blomkamp hit the streets with a camera crew, looking to capture reactions from real people. He soon discovered that his idea of intergalactic refugees suddenly arriving on the city’s doorstep dovetailed with the real conflict and xenophobia prevalent amongst the citizens of Johannesburg towards the influx of illegal aliens from neighbouring countries. The honest reactions he captured on camera brought a vitality to the short film, blurring the line between fiction and reality. Of the short, Blomkamp says, “I was not intentionally trying to deceive the people we interviewed. I was just trying to get the most completely real and genuine answers. In essence, there is no difference except that in my film we had a group of intergalactic aliens as opposed to illegal aliens.”

Because District 9 is set in South Africa, some may suggest that the film is a direct metaphor for the many problems that country has faced over the years. The filmmakers say that although it’s impossible to divorce the film from its setting, no direct metaphor is intended. “In South Africa, we have to deal with issues that generally people around the world try to sweep under the rug,” says Sharlto Copley, who plays the lead character, Wikus.

Working with the thematic and visual ingredients of the short film as a springboard, Blomkamp and his writing partner Terri Tatchell fleshed out the character of Wikus, and introduced two central alien characters, Christopher Johnson and his son, Little C.J. (The writers gave the aliens human names, imagining the re-naming humans would do when admitting the aliens to our planet). It was important to the writers that all of the characters, even and especially the aliens, were believable, recognizable – with basic human characetristics. Drawing on people they knew or were familiar with, the writers created a cast of characters who are an amalgamation of many people.

Blomkamp’s childhood friend and collaborator, Sharlto Copley, takes on the role of Wikus van der Merwe, the MNU official charged with removing the non-humans from District 9 and moving them to the concentration camp of District 10. Copley had also worked on the short film Alive in Jo’Burg, producing that film.

"a very soulful way of approaching science fiction"

“Neill has found a very soulful way of approaching science fiction,” says Copley, who has known Blomkamp for over 12 years. “The genre can be clinical, even cold and unemotional. But in Neill’s hands, it resonates quite deeply. There’s no particular message or big moral of the story – it’s just a melting pot of emotions that comes out.”

Copley says that he was thrilled to continue working with Blomkamp. “There is a very small film industry in South Africa,” he says. “So even if you meet someone else who wants to work in film, it’s not necessarily a person that you can resonate with or gets your creative point of view. So I feel very fortunate that Neill’s one of those people that I always got what he was trying to accomplish, and he saw things in me, too.”

“A small amount of power goes a long way with Wikus – he’s an ordinary guy who likes to wield power in a bureaucratic way,” says Copley. “That’s why MNU promotes him – they want a guy who will do things in an orderly, proper way.”

“Wikus has a very bad day,” says Peter Jackson. “Not only does he contract a mysterious disease that starts changing his DNA, but what makes it worse is that he becomes the key to unlocking the alien weaponry. For a moment in time, Wikus becomes the most important person on the planet.”

David James plays Koobus, MNU’s chief enforcer, who becomes a bounty hunter of sorts when MNU’s chiefs order Wikus to be brought in – dead or alive. “Koobus is the dark side of MNU,” says James. “If you need something done legally, you get Wikus, and if you need it done even if it’s not legal, you get Koobus. Everyone at MNU know that Koobus is not somebody you mess with.”

"psychopathic edge"

“I think Neill liked the psychopathic edge I gave to Koobus in my audition,” says James. “He can lie so convincingly to everyone around him – he’s operating with his own agenda. Whenever I was in doubt about what my character would do in a situation, I went back to that.”

Another subtle clue to character might go over the heads of some audiences, but plays into a kind of bigotry that South Africans would know. “Wikus is Afrikaaner, which is perceived by some in South Africa as a kind of a redneck,” says James. “I decided that I would play Koobus as English, a man who has spent his military service out of the country. Even at the outset, in every way, he sees himself as being superior to Wikus.”

Jason Cope, who had served as Blomkamp’s production manager on Alive in Jo’burg, plays the non-human Christopher Johnson. “Actually, I play about ten different characters,” says Cope. “It was quite a thing to wake up and say, ‘Which creature will I be today?’ My mom was very excited when I got the part. She asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m playing a community of intergalactic beings in the townships.’ She couldn’t quite get her head around it.”

"freedom within certain boundaries"

“Neill had a very clear idea about what he wanted from the non-humans,” Cope continues. “During the rehearsal process, we got a feel for what he liked, but he also gave me a lot of freedom, within certain boundaries. I wouldn’t act too much like an animal or an insect, but I’m definitely not acting human, either.”

“Jason is a terrific actor to play off of,” says Copley. “Those were some of the best scenes in the film, for me.”

Published August 13, 2009

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