Neill Blomkamp looks back on District 9 and reveals his future with Halo

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The first thing on many people's to-do lists last weekend was to go see District 9, the much anticipated first feature from Neill Blomkamp, the director/VFX dynamo who has already impressed the spots world with his original aesthetic of combining high end effects and real world grit.

The $30 million film, about outer space refugees ghettoed in a section of Johannesburg called District 9, is an expansion of Blomkamp's Spy Films-produced short Alive in Joburg. The director had launched into the project after spending nearly half a year trying to bring the popular Halo franchise to the big screen with producer Peter Jackson, only to be booted off the project by the film studios. Now it looks like the young talent's naysayers should be eating huge heaps of humble pie. D9 crushed the competitors at the box office, earning $37 million during its opening weekend and drawing raves from the critics, some who have even called it the next "sci-fi classic."

Blomkamp, who's repped out of Spy Films in Canada, RSA in the States, and who just signed to Stink in the U.K., took some time with Creativity to reflect on his big screen debut and talk about where he has his camera aimed next.

You've said in the past that your goal was always to do features. Was District 9 what you imagined your first film to be? Also, if you can imagine, how does it stack up to what you had in mind for the Halo film?
Well, yes my goal was always to do features. I think D9 is very much what I had imaged it to be, a science fiction film set in an unusual city. I think from a style point of view it also reflects what I had in my mind. The Halo film would have been very different. The documentary/news part of District 9 gives it a gritty realism that Halo would not have contained. Halo would have been more cinematic and grander. D9 has a much more raw and untreated style.

That gritty, raw—what you called "degraded, screwed-up" look is the signature of your past shorts and commercials. Why are you drawn to this style? Do you believe the style lends itself better to effects work?
I think it makes the vfx feel more real, but its getting old now. It's been done over and over. My initial thinking was that vfx are always treated with such a golden shining light by directors, put into gorgeous shiny shots and I think it makes it feel fake.

There's an apocalyptic feel/theme running through much of your work—why are you drawn to this?
I am not really sure. I have a pretty bleak outlook on the world over the next 80 - 100 years, and I think my own personal thoughts on that just work their way into the pieces.

You started writing the film in 2007 with Terri Tatchell, and it's an expansion on the story of Alive in Joburg, right? Was a feature what you had in mind when you made the short?
No, I don't think so. Carlo [Trulli, executive producer] at Spy Films was cool enough to put up the cash for me to go and shoot that piece, but it was simply an exercise in wanting to see sci-fi in Johannesburg. So it never occurred to me back then to turn it into a feature. Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson's wife recommended turning it into a film when Halo collapsed.

At our roundtable that you attended a few years back you actually said, "The irony is that I loathe the visual effects process." How did that sentiment play out when you were doing the film?
Haahahaha, thats very funny. Did I say that? I guess I did. District 9 was a bit different, I think the fact that each shot helped the story get closer to being told, and I was watching the aliens come to life, made the vfx process very enjoyable.

What were the best lessons you learned from making District 9, in terms of storytelling and moviemaking in general? ?
It's hard to distill down into individual lessons what I learnt. I can say that the learning curve was so steep and so much more intense than I was expecting. People always say the only way to learn how to make films is to go out and make them, and nothing could be more true. I guess I would say, if I had to pick one thing, it would be how my ability to get what I was looking for in actors got better as the filming went along.

What's your favorite part of the film?
I think my favorite part is when the convoy of armoured vehicles heads into District 9. Only because it's the closest thing to what I had in my head that actually ended up on film. Most of the film is closer to what I had imagined than I would have expected to get.

How have you been dealing with all the media attention? The reviews are calling District 9 the next great sci-fi film, or the next Blade Runner.
Hahaha, man that is a serious quote. I don't feel 100% comfortable about quotes like that. I think once a few years have passed then it's OK to make statements on that level, but the film needs to stand the test of time and not be forgotten in the disposable world of summer films.

If the film is a success - and all signs seem to indicate that it will be - do you think there's any chance that the Halo project will be revived, with you in the director's chair?
I think that Halo certainly might come back one day because it's such a valuable piece of IP. I don't think it will be me in the director's chair. I gave five months of hard work to that project and the studios pulled the rug out from under me, so I am not really interested in getting back on that horse. It's unfortunate because the universe of Halo is one that I find extremely creatively interesting, I would love to work on it, but I would say no.

What are you working on now? Are you still going to be available for spots?
I am writing a new sci-fi idea that I want to make in 2010. I think I will be available for spots. There's lots of cool work out there.

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