Q&A: Director Neill Blomkamp on Halo Shorts, Film

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Neill Blomkamp
Neill Blomkamp
Well, gaming fans, it turns out the live action promos for Halo 3 are everything you hoped—they are indeed the way the movie looks. Trouble is, according to RSA's Neill Blomkamp, the movie is stuck in a locker somewhere. Read on for details on the shorts and what goes into Blomkamp's brain before rendering into his style, just how dead the Halo movie project is and the secret mission he's on in Wellington, New Zealand, where he's remained ever since.

Where, in the grand scheme of what you had done so far on the Halo film, did these shorts stack up? Where did they come from?

This is the first I've really spoken about those pieces. There's such a massive misconception about what those are. In essence, those pieces have zero to do with the film. Like less than zero. I worked on the film for a few months and we developed a lot of things during that time, and none of that has anything to do with the shorts. Long, long long after the film died, Bungie and Microsoft asked me if I wanted to be involved in the Halo 3 promotional stuff, just because I knew all of the guys at Bungie, and I was like Yeah, sure, that sounds like fun. I went about starting to make those three pieces back with a lot of the guys from Weta who had made the original film. All of the design and everything that we'd made for the film is just locked up in some locker somewhere, so all of the stuff for the shorts is specifically for the short films, from scratch. It's basically, I guess, viral advertising for Halo 3, it's one of the many different promotional pieces you find out there.

Where were those shot? Someone said they were shot in a dump?

Yeah, that's true, it's a landfill, in Wellington. Wellington has a very mountainous terrain, it's difficult to find open space here. There's a lot of films happening right here so a lot of the studios and the areas that people usually use for filming have been taken up. So I just needed a chunk of land with some architecture that we could film a miniature action sequence in. So it ended up being the most open land, this chunk of landfill, which is what it was. We were standing on top of a landfill.

Are there any more components?

There are three, one quick promotional piece for E3 and two pieces that are like little action sequences, that's it.

We've seen a lot of your work before that features shots with different types of vision, like CCTV and grainy readouts. This sequence was great in part because of the mix of different feeds, it's like that's become your style.

I have an interest in degraded, screwed-up looking footage as opposed to beautiful, well set up picturesque imagery. So, and I think, once you resign yourself to being OK with lo-fi, degraded images, then you can start to pull imagery from a lot of different places. Like that overhead infra-red photography, that idea just came from looking at military footage that you see where they're dealing with quite chunky, compressed 640x480 video that's coming off the battlefield, and unmanned aerial vehicles that photograph that stuff in infra-red. I just wanted to mimic that. But you have to be OK with saying I'm not going to go out there and make something that looks like a Darius Khondji, kind of lit, beautiful piece. You have to be OK with saying "Yeah, it's going to look like shit, but it's going to feel a little bit more real."

Was that how the movie would look?

Yeah, I was going to push that as far as [I could] until the studios kind of threw a noose around me. I was going to go as far with that as I possibly could. I wanted it to feel like the most brutal, real version of science fiction in a war environment that you've seen in a while. And Universal was on board with that. I don't really remember what Fox thought about it, but Universal seemed down with it. It would have been cool, it would have been a unique take on things, science fiction in a dirty, organic way.

What do you draw on for that sort of thing? Lots of sci-fi is super stylized and meticulous.

It's an interesting question; it depends on where you're coming from. I'm really, really interested in science fiction, but I'm not interested in the way science fiction is being portrayed, definitely over the last ten years. For me it's more like reality, a lot of the stuff comes from imagery, even just coming out of Iraq. That's, to some extent, the most technologically advanced war that's been fought so far, if you can call it a war. And the reality of some of the footage you get out of there I find quiet amazing, it looks very real, very organic and real and all of the light is always overexposed, and the way the vehicles look, I want to try and mimic that. So I guess that's my inspiration right now. I don't really want to call war inspiration, that's really fucked up, but you know what I mean.

That's been one of the things to think about with all the Halo stuff, here's a mythologized space war, when there's a really big war already going on.

Oh man, I couldn't agree with you more, I've spent long hours thinking about that, and it's absolutely true. There's a very strange fine line that exists there that you've got to be very careful that you don't step over. I'm very, very aware of that. I'm not making the film anymore so it doesn't matter, but yeah, I was definitely aware of that, and I wanted to be respectful of that. The thing I was going to do was pull it more towards that mythology and more towards the science fiction. I wasn't trying to have any moral or ethic point of view pushed through me, through the film, I was just going to keep it pure entertainment.

We heard you were off the film and it was surprising. How did that happen?

The film is entirely dead. In the configuration it was in. Whatever happens with that movie, assuming that movie gets made, will be a totally different configuration. It's not so much me as the entire vessel sank. Basically, it was a combination of; there were two studios involved that weren't getting along in the process of making it, Universal and Fox. That kind of stuff happens, it's a fragile industry. So the film collapsed at the end of last year, and it's been dead, ever since then. I'll be curious to see what happens.

Well, the game's come out and it's outsold everything. You have to have some sort of hope. Peter Jackson said something like,"We'll see what happens when the game comes out."

There was not even one percent of my mind in doing those short pieces to try and resurrect the film. And I think maybe that's because I'm closer to the film, I know how hard it fell, and I know that doing things like that was not how you're going to get it back on its feet. I never went about making those little pieces like I was trying to resurrect the film. If you're spending that much money there's too many different items that have to align themselves in order for things to work out. And if that happens, that happens. But those shorts certainly aren't going to be what leads it on.

But you're a filmmaker, you can't even worry about the little details that have to align themselves.

Yeah, you're right. What happened once it collapsed is it made me turn inward and figure out what exactly I felt like doing. In other words, That film is gone, what do I feel like doing? And I realized what I felt like doing pretty quickly, like within thirty seconds. And promptly moved on to that. So you're right, I guess if the film collapsed and I was hell-bent on wanting to do whatever I could to try and get it back up I probably would have done something different than what I did, but I moved in a different direction, and no one knows what that is because I've never spoken about it before, and it's taken eight months or ten months to get to where it is now, sooner or later I'll start revealing in piece what I've been doing.

Why not reveal it now?

It's still a few months off I think before anything gets ironed out. A lot of stuff still has to be signed and sealed, so I can't say yet.

But you've remained in New Zealand so that leads me to believe you're still close with Jackson and Weta.

Yeah, but I could just like surfing at Lyle Bay. But I am close with Weta, that's true. There's a lot of really cool people in there, a lot of likeminded guys.

Jackson's comments, he seems to play this dual role where he's a great creator and he also has the Hollywood, business clout. Does any part of you hold out for reconciliation and getting the Halo movie back on track or is it over and done?

As I'm getting older one of the things I've realized most about this industry is never say never. That's the first thing. Right now, I can't see myself doing that film. But I'm not going to say that I'm not going to do it. So in the present moment, right now, I could take it or leave it. It doesn't matter to me anymore. There's too much interesting shit out there. The film has the capacity, if things line up correctly, to be, I think, really cool. But it ended up collapsing, and things happen for a reason.

Was it difficult for you to go back and do the shorts after you'd resigned yourself to the film project not working out?

Not at all. It was a completely different process. Those were just a lot of fun. Essentially I shot a commercial. Those were made with the same budget as a lot of commercials I did. I did a lot of ads that actually had a higher budget than those pieces. There was nothing in those pieces that were related, in any form, to how a feature film would have been made. It was a totally different process. I was off doing something else and it was like Oh, shit, cool, let me go do that for a couple of days. Trent Opaloch, who's my buddy from Vancouver, a DP from Vancouver, he flew down here and we shot it on HVX handheld video cameras. One of my other friends in L.A., Oliver, he did all the VFX, like out of his house. Weta didn't do any of the digital stuff. Weta Workshop, which is actually very sepearte from Weta Digital, was heavily involved. They built all of the Marines and the Warthog and that stuff, but Weta Digital didn't do a single thing. An entirely separate company. When I was in Wellington I just used to communicate with Oliver in L.A. and check on how the spots were coming while he was working on them. It was pretty fun, actually.

That was a cool way to work?

So cool. It was awesome. Compared to most commercials I've done that was a great amount of fun. It was just so, so loose. All of the producers and all of the people that were involved in the film just threw those pieces together because they were so connected to everything; that was the way it made the most sense.

I'd imagine you had to play the game a bit for research, are you a video gamer?

I've only really been into video games for like two years. I totally didn't grow up playing videogames, people always think I did. But about a year before I started doing the film I started getting into that stuff, the late-night LAN parties.

What else are you digging on right now? What's most exciting?

Like I said, I've been working on this new project right now for months, Literally, I can't say anything about it, but that's the only thing I've been doing. My head's just been in that for quite a long time now. The shorts were done at the same time that all of this other stuff has been going on, so that's all I've been doing. That's why I haven't been going outdoors enough.

You're the least outdoorsy person in New Zealand.

No, there's a few more, there's a couple. I've seen a few of the guys at Weta where it's like, you need to get out maybe a little more.

So when does this mystery project wrap up?

It's tough to tell, it's not a case of wrapping up as much as entering the next phase. But I don't know, maybe within a few months is when it'll go into another gear.

Is it the sort of thing you can leave behind and do spots or is it 100 percent attention?

Probably 100 percent attention. But it depends on what kind of spots you're talking about. More stuff like what I did with Bungie, if you can call those spots, maybe they're not, really, that kind of thing is really just awesome, it's so loose and creative and totally fun. I'd always have time for that kind of thing. I kind of feel this massive urge right now to do a music video, I've felt that for a few years. I've always wanted to sync something up to a really awesome electronic track. I've never done that. I'm not planning on it right now but I always feel that, whenever I hear something that I really like, I always feel like I wish I could spend a good few months on a really awesome video.

Like what sort of artist?

I'd have to do exactly what I want, it could never be a performance piece, it'd have to be something like a bizarre short film. Hmm, what do I like right now...there's a new Prefuse 73 track that's pretty cool, but there's a whole different range of things I can't think of right now.

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