The movie that may well prove the summer’s biggest surprise—in all the best senses—was largely an accidental result of studio politics. Director Neill Blomkamp was chosen by producer Peter Jackson to helm the feature he was making from the smash video game “Halo,” and it was only when that project fell through as a result of bureaucratic wrangling between Universal, Fox and Microsoft that “District 9,” about a group of shipwrecked aliens that settle in a Johannesburg township, came about as an expansion of a short film he’d previously made.
“It was actually Fran Walsh, [Jackson’s] partner, who suggested turning my short film into a movie. She’s really responsible for ‘District 9,’” Blomkamp explained during an interview in Dallas. “Before that, I used to direct TV commercials and music videos, and I was way into the point where I felt I could get into feature films. That’s what I always wanted to do, but I wanted to learn a bit more. Then, in about 2005, I got an agent in Hollywood and gave him all my stuff, and then in ’06 he gave them to Mary Parent at Universal, who was putting the ‘Halo’ movie together, and they needed a director. Peter was already the producer of that film. And so she sent him all of my stuff that she’d received from my agent, and he liked it, and I flew down to New Zealand to meet him. They were taking a gamble on the fact that I was young and hadn’t done a feature film before, but I sat down with him and we both liked one another, and he gave me the job.
“Then five months later the film collapsed. When it collapsed, I’d moved down to New Zealand to work with his production company and all of his people to make ‘Halo.’ So when I was getting ready to go back to Vancouver, he said, ‘Look, this is a bad situation, and we want to see you make a film. We’ll produce it for you and get it green-lit, just let you make a film you want to make—take this bad situation and turn it into something positive.’ So right from the beginning they were incredibly protective of the fact that ‘Halo’ was a bad experience and this should be a very creative, free kind of film at a lower budget level where I’d just be able to do what I want, really. And when I started thinking science-fiction and new ideas, then Fran Walsh said, why don’t you take ‘Alive in Jo’burg,’ which was the short, and just turn it into a film? And that made more sense than anything.”
“I grew up in Jo’Burg, and I left in 1997 and went to Canada,” Blomkamp said. “And the older I got, after being there until I was seventeen, the further away I got from it the more interested I became in it. And then one day, because the other side of my mind was just a complete sci-fi nerd, I just wanted to put sci-fi with Jo-Burg, together. And that was the short film. And the feature just grew out of that. “
Discussing the influences on him as he wrote “District 9,” Blomkamp said, “I have a set list of my favorite science-fiction genre movies that had a huge effect on me. But the way I think of ‘District 9’ is, definitely when I was making it there was no one conscious film. It was more that all of the science-fiction that had an effect on me kind of got congealed into this nugget of sci-fi and then got put into Jo’Burg. It wasn’t any one particular thing, it was kind of everything that I liked. But… ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’ would probably be the two highest, and then ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘2001’ and ‘Robocop.’ Those are probably the staples.”
Starring in “District 9” as Wikus van der Merwe, the mid-level bureaucrat assigned by his multinational corporation to direct the transport of the aliens from the township to a more distant location, is Sharlto Copley, a South African producer who’d never been in a feature film before.
“This is my first professional acting job,” Copley, who accompanied Blomkamp on the tour, added a bit sheepishly. “I was in a two-minute short film once.”
“I knew Sharl from Johannesburg,” Blomkamp explained, “and for the decades I was away, we always stayed in contact with one another. I never thought of him as an actor, ever, because he wasn’t an actor. But he does have an unbelievable ability to just become characters and mess around and do accents—he can sell you on whatever character he feels like becoming. He’s a South African Sascha Baron Cohen sort of guy.
“So when this film came up and we were writing it, I wanted to do a kind of graphic novel presentation of the treatment we’d written and then also video footage. So I went to South Africa to shoot pure test footage with a very limited budget. And because of his background as a producer I was like, can you throw this little shoot together for me when I come over for this film I want to make? And he’s was like, ‘Yeah, cool.’ And then we went over there to film, and he was producing it, and I had this very limited idea of this bureaucrat kind of character, in a very general sense…. And I was like, ‘Can you just put this vest on, which has the MNU [Multi-National United] logo on it, and just for the test footage become this character?’ Then he did it, and I shot the test footage, and then I was like, ‘Holy s**t!’ Then I gave the test footage to Peter and I was like, ‘Can I just use him as the main guy in the film?’ And Pete said, ‘Yeah, go with it.’
“Not only does the movie exist because he said, go out and make this film because Fran and I want to see you make something off the ‘Halo’ collapse, but I think his biggest involvement is that he allowed the creative decisions in the film that I wanted to make, to happen. In other words, there’s no way I could have cast Sharl if it was a big studio, and he was an unknown actor and they were spending that amount of money on it. I just wouldn’t have been able to do it. And then they have thick South African accents, and it’s set in Johannesburg, and there are a lot of allegories and metaphors to apartheid—it’s got a lot of crazy stuff in it, [and] there’s every reason to say no. That’s his biggest involvement—allowing all of that to happen.
“And then on a day-to-day basis, he would also be involved. When Terri [Tatchell] and I were writing the script, we would go over to his house with Fran and Philippa and him, and they would give us notes on what we were writing and help streamline things. And he wasn’t with us when we were shooting, but in the editing process he’d come into the bay and check stuff out. He’d say, ‘Here’s a bunch of ideas. You can take them if you want, or throw them out if you want.’ If I said no, he’d say, ‘It’s your movie.’”
Copley might not have been a professional actor before “District 9,” but he had ideas about acting. “When I was growing up I was always interested in character guys,” he said. “Eddie Murphy was always one of my favorite actors—a lot of movies that he did at the beginning of his career. And people like Robin Williams, who could pull off comedy but with emotion as well—a thing like ‘Good Morning, Vietnam,’ a serious thing that also had heart and humor. [There are] a lot of influences you get that subconsciously affect you.
“I didn’t have the entire script [before agreeing to take the part],” he added. “But I had the concept of what was going to happen to [the character], which just blew me away. We both knew the character from the beginning, because that test that we discussed—that was where Wikus at the beginning of the movie was born, shooting that test. Literally just shooting for two or three hours in the township, letting this character go along. But the real journey was, what was going to happen to him, how was he going to change [in the movie]?”
The answer involves him becoming a target of his own company, for reasons that won’t be revealed here. “The oppressor becoming the oppressed—just that story had me,” Copley said. “The whole world from ‘Alive in Jo’burg’ was an absolutely intriguing world, and obviously really resonated with me as a South African. But I was very curious to see, well, what’s the story going to be? What are you going to do in this world? And I thought Neill just totally nailed that as the pivotal thing for the character.”
As to the actual shoot, Blomkamp simply said, “It was pretty grueling, but it was rewarding”—something that proves as true for the audience as it was for the filmmakers.