Friday, Neill Blomkamp will debut his highly-anticipated film, Elysium. It follows in the footsteps of his previous feature District 9, and stars Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley. The director recently spoke to ScreenCrave about the ins and outs of his latest project. We discussed Hollywood’s obsession with sequels, R vs. PG-13 ratings and the sci-fi logic behind Elysium.
Why haven’t you done any sequels?
Neill Blomkamp: One of my favorite parts of filmmaking is just conceptualizing ideas. That’s my favorite part. Executing them is very different to conceptualizing them. Because I like conceptualization so much I tend to come up with a lot of ideas. I get attached to a lot of them and so because of that— if you imagine that’s the situation — it creates a different mindset. It’s like I want to see this get executed. I want to see that executed. As opposed to that I want to return back to this world from this film. So it’s really just a mindset like that… I have a few other ideas for films that I want to make currently that I want to see get made that may influence that.
Do you get a lot of pressure to do sequels?
Neill Blomkamp: It came up once or twice with Elysium. Could we make a sequel out of it? It was extremely minor though. It was as fleeting as the discussion of could the film be 3D. It was the same thing. Very minor.
How interesting for you was it to design the world of Elysium and the torus?
Neill Blomkamp: It was incredibly difficult but also really, really rewarding. That was probably the main reason I wanted to make the film actually, was the satirical nature of putting rich people in space with a torus that has Beverily Hills houses and swimming pools. I just wanted to see that get realized. I was really devoted to the idea of that. I love visuals. I love computer graphics. I just wanted to bring that to life. But doing it was more difficult than I expected. The visual effects in District 9 are very similar to the robotics in this film and the vehicles. They’re all of the same genre, the same way that you do them. But the torus is a whole other ballpark. It’s like Pandora in Avatar. It’s a different kind of way of doing things where you’re building that asset from scratch. It’s a bunch of black pixels if you look at the screen prior to building the thing.
A rendering nightmare?
Neill Blomkamp: Yeah. Actually, it was a rendering nightmare. We had four trillion triangles in some of the scenes, which kept crashing a lot of the servers.
With Elysium’s med bays, how did you know where to draw the line as to how far they could go? They can cure diseases, injuries at what point is it immortality?
Neill Blomkamp: I don’t think the film is speculative science-fiction. It’s so much more a metaphor for today in my mind. One of the most difficult things for me in making the film and I don’t know if I got this right or wrong, is balancing metaphor against science-fiction. So, I want to use sci-fi to say ‘this the rich, this is the poor,’ but I’m showing it to you through a different lens. The way I always described the movie was, ‘It’s like being American but looking over the wall at Mexico longingly.’ That was the idea. That’s why it’s future L.A. On Elysium, you can imagine if you went totally speculative sci-fi in the year 2154, the film becomes different. Then you’re making a film about speculative ideas of what society might be like then. And what will happen is they’re no longer rich. Now it’s like Star Trek. There’s something else and the link between the rich people with pools has been lost. So the med pods weren’t there for science-fiction reasons they were there to represent the poverty-striken person from El Salvador going to parts of L.A. [so they] can get better medical attention or better care for their kids. Medical aid is one of the things that the first world has and longevity if you look at the stats —so it was more a metaphor tool. But you are right in the sense that it was like, ‘Well, how far do they go?’ At one point is it just immortality? I think they probably live like a few hundred years and then they die in the construct of the film.
What was the timeline you established for how long the torus has been there?
Neill Blomkamp: Well the idea was, again, it was divided between reality and metaphor. So to keep the metaphor, if it went beyond 2150, the society would become too alien. But at the same time, if it was not far enough it wouldn’t be believable they could’ve built the torus. I thought it would take a long time, a generation, to build the thing. So if they built it kind of around 2050 to 2080, you could have a generation or two live on it by the time the film began. And that was the idea.
Where did you guys shoot?
Neill Blomkamp: Mexico City. It was the outskirts. The way it worked was Elysium was Vancouver. Future Earth was the outskirts of Mexico City. So thematically, it made sense for the movie. Even for the crew, you’d be in the serene cleanliness of Vancouver and taken into the dumps of Mexico City. That is exactly what we did. It took a really long time actually to find the city that I thought could play future L.A. It was actually quite difficult. But Mexico City was an awesome location.
Why was it so difficult to find a replica for Los Angeles?
Neill Blomkamp: Because there’s a lot of factors. It has to be North American to some degree. Even just the way the cars drive on the road. The kind of derelict cars you’d see lying around. The people, ’cause I wanted it to be Hispanic, I couldn’t have shot it in Eastern Europe, for example. Then you get into like topography and weather. It’s sprawling and flat but there’s mountains on the outlying areas. It’s almost always sunny. It’s always covered in smog. When you start going through all of those things it’s actually incredible how much it narrows, until eventually it was only Mexico City.
How did you balance all the performances? For example, Sharlto’s Kruger is high-energy, while Jodie’s Delacourt treads the line of campiness.
Neill Blomkamp: There was the very very subtle nods to the genre that the film is in. Having this kind of ice queen, head of secretary of defense was part of that. You want to have that in there… there is an inherent genre quality to what this film is when you do that. I was totally aware of that kind of thing. But overall, I wanted Sharlto to be unpredictable and nuts. That was important. He was going to do that anyway. That’s why you use him I suppose. Matt was exactly — he was better than what I was expecting — but that was what he was designed to do, which is exactly what he did. I wanted a guy who was going to be a movie star, but also who had a built in currency with the audience that they already knew how they felt about this actor. It means he’s always going to be likable. I didn’t have him do like terrible things but he also wasn’t just a straight up nice guy. So that was important. In certain cases, you want to try and balance that and try to make them authentic to where they’re from. Like Matt feeling somewhat believable in the barrios of future L.A. or being believable against Diego [Luna] that kind of thing.
Did you always have Sharlto in mind for Kruger?
Neill Blomkamp: Initially, not really. What happened was, after District 9, I just wanted to not work with him. Even though he’s so talented, it was like let me just go do something else. And I sent him the script and he loved Kruger and he was like, ‘Let me play Kruger. Just let me play Kruger.’ I think I wrote him originally — he was British I think. They’re all cut from the same cloth. It’s like British, SIS, South African mercenaries, some Australian mercenaries, SASR, they’re all the same kind of dudes that are in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re a little bit different to American mercenaries but they’re all kind of similar. So I wrote this British guy, when Sharl read it he was like, ‘He could be South African, he could be this, he could be that.’ I started to think it was a really good idea. I always want to work with Sharl because he’s so talented but what I didn’t want to do was just have a situation where it’s like his energy is the front and center thing of the film, in multiple films that I’m doing. Directors can get themselves in that loop. He put himself on tape with a bunch of tests of what the character could be like, and I liked it so much I was like, ‘Dude, you have to be in it.’
Elysium is a summer sci-fi film, attached to a major studio, but it’s rated R. Were you always going for that?
Neill Blomkamp: Yeah. Totally.
Were you ever asked to pull back on the graphic content?
Neill Blomkamp: Not really… If the film is preconceived and it’s explained, it’s like you know what you’re getting into. It’s not like, ‘Ooh, the edits come back and it’s R, you have to make it PG’ and it surprises everyone. It’s not that. There were very very mild, gentle discussions about do you want to make it PG-13 like The Dark Knight or something. I was like, ‘No, I just want to leave it like how it was written’ and then we made that.
When you’re writing do you ever thing about the possible rating?
Neill Blomkamp: Again, I don’t because I think that’s more of the businessman than filmmaker. It just never happens to me like that. It’s like you write the story you want to tell. I think people like [Paul] Verhoeven did influence me so it’s like you just end up at a place where it’s like, ‘OK, now this is the script.’ The only real changing of the script now is because of budget. ‘You’ve written something, which we can’t afford. So what are you going to do here? Or you can leave it the way you wrote it but it has to be PG-13.’ That will happen a lot. It’s $190 million, it’s gotta be PG-13.
Elysium opens in theaters August 9.