Coverage by Nobuhiro Hosoki
Photo by Sony Pictures
Story : Aliens become refugees in South Africa where they are kept isolated from any human contact. While being contained in the refuge being ignored of their welfare, their weapons become the sole interest of Multi-National United (MNU). But only one man , Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), can activate these weapons. He becomes hunted for and only one place can give him refuge, District 9.
Interview with director Neill Blomkamp, actor Sharlto Copley
Q: How old are you both now?
(Neil Blomkamp): I’m 29
(Sharlto Copley): and I’m 35. I was ahead of him, we didn’t go to school together which is—
(Neil Blomkamp): We went to the same high school but as I was going into high school he was leaving I guess and as I got older in high school he was doing a lot of cool stuff in the film industry and because I wanted to be working in film we just became better and better friends and then as I got older the age got close? Now, I’m his senior. Yeah, so that’s our background and then I moved to Van Couver in 1997 which was at the same time ended high school so Sharlton and I just stayed in contact for I guess a decade until I started doing this.
Q: Why did you cast him?
(Neil Blomkamp): The reason for casting him was because when the concept of the film was kind of galvanized like the idea of the science fiction film that needed to feel as real as possible which meant that I felt that who ever was playing this lead character needed to like engage the camera which he does a lot of the time, engage the camera if the camera occurs within the context of the film and be able to sell this authenticity to like a very serious degree and then also incorporate the satirical kind of dark humor and everything else.
That was the one side of the requirements and then the other side of the requirement was someone who very seriously understood the sort of history of South Africa and could draw from all of that experience and also make the character more authentic that way, you know, as opposed to someone who wasn’t South African. And he hasn’t really acted in anything before but he’s so talented at this kind of improv, you know, South African Borat kind of approach to everything that I went to South Africa and filmed test footage and showed it to Pete Jackson and said like, this is the guy I want to put in the lead role and stuff and Pete also ? Then said yes.
Q: Where did this concept come from?
(Neil Blomkamp): Well the concept comes from, I did a short film in 2005 which is where this film kind of grew out of that short film and the idea for the short film was just that I was a science fiction nut growing up in Johannesburg. And I think as I became older I realized because I wanted to be you know working in the film industry and I wanted to be a science fiction filmmaker I realized that I hadn’t scene science fiction in Africa before or in South Africa.
So I just wanted to combine those two and thenm in combining those two, which is almost like, almost on a visually basis like just to see science fiction in a South African setting. So once that was the genesis for it then because South Africa is like very you know complex racial and segregated history, a whole other bunch of concepts grew out of it.
Q: The production notes quote you as saying, “In South Africa, we have to deal with issues that generally people around the world try to sweep under the rug.” What are those issues?
(Sharlto Copley): Well, definitely cultural differences and value differences I think are one of the biggest challenges that people face and you know you can, I think it’s in any country. You try not to talk about the things that you really differ on.
You know, if you believe that it’s fine to have 10 wives and I believe that it isn’t, we try to sort of not talk about that one because it just creates tension so I don’t think people necessarily are trying to sweep them under the rug but also you just I on the positive side of that people are also trying to focus on the common values and that’s certainly what South Africa was able to do to allow that kind of decision to happen in 1994.
The kind of peaceful transition to democracy was about focusing a little bit more and also creating a space for the painful stuff to come out and things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Q: What do the locals think of the film?
(Neil Blomkamp): There’s a very weird sort of crossover between the film and the reality of filming. We filmed it in an areas Shiwello which is kind of a suburb of Soweto, which is sort of a suburb of Johannesburg and there’s a thing in South Africa called RDP housing which is like government subsidized housing where they will build a brick house in a different area of the city and you get put on a waiting list for South African impoverished residents and you will eventually be able to get one of these houses.
So the area we filmed the movie in, every single resident in that area was being removed to be put into RDP housing although not all of them had actually been given the greenlight on RDP housing. It was a combination of, most of them had and the ones that hadn’t were still going to be moved whether they liked it or not.
So we ended up with this open piece of land that had all these shacks on it and the shacks would’ve been stripped away very quickly if we hadn’t put up a fence to try and preserve them.
Because in that part the city everything just gets reused all the time so we were in contact with locals quite a lot because there were many still living there as we were filming, and they were being moved out like each day we would come to the set. There would be fewer and fewer people and I think overall it was a good experience.
I think they were very warm. I mean people in that area tend to be very warm and the only kind of trouble was right at the end of filming when they started to realize that if they kind of shut down the filmmaking process, if they were making to much noise if they were getting into some of the shots, when they started to realize that the power was actually in their hands as opposed to ours, then things started to shift.
It was only right at the end of the filming process and I don’t really know how it resolved itself. I think we were paying them to allow us to finish the final few shots in the film. But for the most part it was great.
Q: Was the South African government open with the idea of the project?
(Neil Blomkamp): One of the things, I mean it’s kind of weird like I’ve been asked lately about the process of shooting in South Africa and how that went and I put it down to the immediate people around us like, the South African crew and everything were outstanding and then when it comes to the higher level of elements of making the film. It was like a lot more difficult than I expected to be so things like the police would kind of say yes.
They would be involved and they would drop out and we weren’t able to use a South African police service or any of their logos or any of their vehicles. And the military would string us along for six months and then the military would pull out.
So I think they received a treatment, it wasn’t a full script, they received something that gave a pretty good idea of what the film was and in their defense, I mean it is a sort of very topical kind of film. I guess it ties into the history of South African and I think they didn’t really know what to make of it. But ultimately I wouldn’t say that the South African Authorities were open to this. I’d say that it was kind of on the fence leaning towards not being open to it.
Q: How much was that you on the spot and how much was that role playing?
(Sharlto Copley): Well, Neill built a very kind of define world, and obviously we had the same frame of reference to that world the parts of having grown up in South Africa so we had a lot of common references.
Basically, him and Terri had a script that structured story that within that so a scene would take place by sort of sitting and Neill going ok these are the two, three, four things that have to happen. These are the beats? In the scene and then I would improv around that.
So there were searching constraints as we went along there were you know, continuity would become an issue, physical continuity, one side? sort of committed to a decision like I’m gonna move here if we wanted to inter-cut around that there would be certain commitments that I would’ve made continuity wise. But there’s stuff like—
(Neil Blomkamp): You’re referencing like when he walks up to the shack and says, this is a gang sign, we’re in a gang area, yeah, that was him. I mean we would draw the sign on the wall and he ran? and said it was a gang area.
And for me, cause I’m directing it, he’s walking up to a shack that has an alien in it with a whole story that we’ve written with those guys distilling?
Fluid and I’m like, that’s interesting he just said that the supporting alien character is a gangster but then if it works, we keep going and if it doesn’t work, we’ll do that again like he said but so a lot of the film? that really was him just saying that it was a gangster shack.
(Sharlto Copley): Especially that pre-transformation stuff was incredibly loose, you know, it was just go there and evict the guy—
(Neil Blomkamp): The eviction sequence was probably loosest I think above everything.
Q: Could you talk about the arc of your character?
(Sharlto Copley): It was an amazing experience. It sort of leads to your question earlier of the expanse of a character who is doing what he thinks and believes is the right thing and as an actor l really believe everybody does that.
It doesn’t matter if the guy’s a hero, a villain, whatever he is, you act on your conditioning as a child, your religious conditioning, your experiences in life.
What your parents have told you and this was an experience of this character going through having all his conditioning stripped away and all the things that he believed in and his support structure and being forced basically to question his values and to question the decisions that he had made and not necessarily having a perfect answer or a perfect solution at the end of the movie but certainly the bear essence of the man.
I think people as human beings we separate ourselves from life. I didn’t play as a character point of view I think the racial thing is pretty obvious as you can draw a metaphor to that, but in the experiences of the character I really saw that that’s what human beings do to life in general. We separate ourselves from animals.
We separate ourselves from the planet, religion and science tells you it’s all one, you know, but we don’t have that experience. We have the experience of it’s just little me and little you over there and you know, we have a couple of years and then we die and we try and do the right thing on earth, you know. So it was an amazing experience. It was quite profound actually being in that situation as well surrounded by that kind of poverty.
Q: About prejudice and blacks?
(Neil Blomkamp): Sorry? Oh wait, you’re talking about the onscreen black population? Right, ok, the Nigerians.
Q: Well, it was really everybody? It was the entire black population?
(Neil Blomkamp): Right. Well, there’s two parts to South Africa’s history. There’s the part that everybody knows which is, you know, the white oppression over the black majority.
But then there’s the second thing that’s happening now which I wanted to include in the film which something that happened and actually reached its kind of critical mass almost on the day that we started filming the movie which is hundreds of thousands and now millions of Zimbabwean immigrants from the collapse of Zimbabwe have been crossing the border into South Africa and living in predominantly the impoverished areas of South Africa with the impoverished blacks citizens of South Africa.
So they’ve come in looking for a better life because their country is collapsing and what’s happening now is that the poverty stricken black residents in South Africa have lashed out against these poverty stricken black citizens of Zimbabwe and it was like a powder keg kind of situation that was on everybody’s mind but in 2008 when started filming, everything went south and they actually started like, I don’t know if you saw the news stories about the lynching and the burning and the machete attacks.
I mean it was like seriously violent stuff that happened and it happened as we were shooting. So when the film was conceived I wanted to incorporate the idea of impoverished South Africans who wanted another impoverished group out because that’s a very big part of South Africa’s fabric right now.
But unfortunately it became a more, a much more serious topic while we were filming and I didn’t have a way out of it because our script was written. So that’s the black impoverished residents wanting other residents out. That’s where that idea comes from and then in terms of the Nigerians, I kept asking myself this thing the whole time while we were making the film about how, where you draw the line between stuff that South Africans would understand and appreciate vs the rest of the world may watch and not appreciate or they may also appreciate it and get it.
I didn’t really know. So I have to kind of monitor that. But in South Africa, putting Nigerians into a setting where they are involved in a crime syndicate, South Africans would instantly think that was absolutely accurate and completely hilarious. That is exactly how South Africa is.
For all of downtown Johannesburg it’s Nigerian like occupied really and most of the violent crime in Johannesburg stems from the central area around Hillbra(sp) where huge Nigerian gangs own and control a lot of the ins and outs of how the city works and there’s lots of African witch doctory and voodoo. In South Africa it’s called mozoo(sp) but the idea of, you know, the consuming of body parts and stuff.
So it’s something that I put in there because it is African and it is part of South Africa’s makeup but I walk that fine line knowing that a North American population may or may not get it. So it’s authentic to South Africa and it’s authentic to West Africa but the audiences are going to take from it what they will I guess.
Q: Neill, you mentioned that you are a huge sci-fi fan. Who/what are some of your influences?
(Neil Blomkamp): Well, the books and the authors. Science fiction being an allegory or a metaphor from something, my favorite stuff is War of the Worlds and the idea of the imperial group going into another area and decimating and burning.
So I’d have to say "War of the Worlds". There’s science fiction which is the allegorical stuff, and then there’s the science fiction which is just the sci-fi/geek/genre stuff. "Aliens", for example, is right up there for me. 'Alien" and "Aliens" are probably the two highest ones, and neither of those speaks to any one particular topic, I don’t think as much as "2001" or "War of the Worlds", but they have all of the elements of science fiction that I love.
And (James) Cameron, he used a scientifically described creature to scare the hell out of you. So I’d say from a filmmaking standpoint it’s "Alien, Aliens", "2001" and "Blade Runner" that had a huge effect on me. 'RoboCop", weirdly enough, had a massive effect on me, too, but that’s just because – I don’t know – I was a young kid who liked that kind of rust-belt.
Q: How many designs did you go through for the Prawns before arriving at the final look?
(Neil Blomkamp): Many. There were hundreds and hundreds of designs. The way Weta Workshop works in New Zealand, they’ve kind of been brought up to speed, I think, by how Pete Jackson works, and what he does is he’ll have a room this big with just artwork.
The artists will prepare 700, 800, 900 – on King Kong I think it was 1,000 – pieces of artwork, and he’ll come in and isolated what he wants. And then they’ll use those to spawn more. I did less of that, but I still did more than I think I would have naturally because the artists are so good at providing you with ideas.
So, what I wanted to do was take one part of the concept of the aliens from a writing and conceptual standpoint, which was that they were insects. Again, this is where the film gets dicey, because the metaphors and the allegories breakdown, and you enter pure science fiction and pure fantasy. And I liked the idea of an insect hive that’s lost its queen and that’s got a whole bunch that are aimless, really, and their queen is gone.
It’s an interesting, it’s a different social construct to what we have. So I wanted that, and once I knew I wanted that – and that represented insect hives – I thought, ‘OK, we should design them so they look like insects.’ And then because of Sharlto’s arc and the fact that eventually we were going to empathize with the creatures, it meant that we needed some sort of geometric facial structure, like eyes, something that human psychologically could connect with.
Unfortunately, because that drove me crazy. I thought it was really cliché and sort of Hollywood, but you have to do that because a human isn’t going to empathize with H.R. Giger’s alien from Ridley Scott’s "Alien".
Q: How about the alien language and who’s understanding who?
(Neil Blomkamp): Well, Sharlto’s character, he’s the character in the film that you realize is speaking to the aliens. He’s speaking English to them and they’re speaking their language to him. I didn’t know how the audience would take that, but I knew that was accurate to much of South Africa. You actually see that.
South Africa has what, 11 official languages. That’s how many different groups there are. So very often you’ll people doing exactly what happens in the movie. I speak English, you speak Sesotho. I speak Xhosa, he speaks Afrikaans. They do that. It’s very strange. So the idea was he’s one of the only humans.
Subconsciously, I think it’s good on his part because he’s one of the only humans who’s actually taken the time to understand how they speak, even though he’s this indirect racist.
But they can all understand English because they’re forced to. If you’re not home by this curfew (time) you’ll be shot or whatever. So they have the unfortunate side of needing to learn English and they do, but then they don’t speak it because they physically can’t.
Q: How did you do so much on such a modest budget, and how did Peter Jackson get involved?
(Neil Blomkamp): I hooked up with Pete Jackson because of Halo. I was directing commercials and I got offered Halo, and he was the producer on Halo. Mary Parent offered me Halo assuming that Pete signed off on me. In other words, I had to fly to New Zealand and meet him, because he was the producer.
Once I met him and we got along he did sign off on me, and I started working on Halo. And then Halo collapsed and this film was sort of born out of the ashes of Halo collapsing.
Q: Did it collapse over budget?
(Neil Blomkamp): No. I like that one, though. I read a few things with Fox saying that I turned in the GDP of equatorial Guinea or something as the budget for Halo, which I thought was profoundly hilarious considering that this film is $30 million and that kind of efficiency is what I was applying to Halo. So it was Universal and Fox fighting with one another is what killed Halo.
Q: Sharlto, how has your background as a filmmaker impacted you as an actor?
(Sharlto Copley): It’s really a separate thing with the acting. The way that I act is really simplistic, actually. It’s sort of by osmosis. I take in information and then find a voice and get a character.
There’s no real thought or conscious effort going into that process. It’s just I either am that character or I’m not. The technical understanding of filmmaking, I think, was relatively useful in this situation in that I was obviously aware of certain restraints with continuity, with effects, with things like that, almost subconsciously, if you will.
Going into it I would obviously be aware of camera angles or certain things, when I was left in an improv situation, where I was going to move, where I was going to go. There was kind of a subconscious awareness of, ‘There’s a camera there.
There’s this, Once I’ve done a scene a certain way I was committed to a certain continuity block. I could change the line, but had to be at that side of the room at the same time. So it was kind of useful for this form.
I hopefully made it a bit easier on Neill and the DOP and the continuity people and the visual effects guys. But they are very separate. Once I’m in that character I’m really not involved in any of that. I’m just trying not trying. I’m just doing what I believe he would do in that moment.
Q: The film has TV broadcasts, the documentary crew and then the omniscient camera. Can you talk about the balances of perspectives?
(Neil Blomkamp): I was aware of that when we started shooting, that there was going to be a percentage of the film that needed to be just a cinematic camera, a traditional camera, because if I didn’t have that I wouldn’t be able to get up close to the characters and really be able to tell the story the way that I wanted to tell it.
The thing that I liked about the film is that, because in some instances there were no examples that I could look at, that were, ‘Oh, that’s how they did that in this particular film.’… I didn’t really have that. I knew that I wanted a hell of a lot of real-life footage. The way I defined that is when the characters, Sharlto and everybody, are aware of the camera in the scene.
The camera exists within the reality of the film, like news cameras or security cameras or documentary cameras. So I knew I wanted that to be the predominant basis for the film. And the interesting that happened when we were filming is that I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it unless I increased the ratio of just pure, traditional filmmaking, which, of course, is why traditional filmmaking is the way that it is, because that’s how you tell stories.
So, I think that where the film ended up, both because I started altering my shooting style and then, of course, in the edit room you have all the time in the world to play the story out the way that you want, I think it ended up at the place it should have been. I think it feels right to me, which is that it introduces you to a world that feels real and slowly this ratio kind of dies off and the new, pure cinematic stuff starts to take over until about two-thirds of the way through, it’s just pure cinematic.
Then the cool thing is that at the end it kind of starts crossing over again and then it goes into documentary. So I was really, really aware of that. It was a difficult thing to balance, but once we got the handle on trying to make the audience feel that it’s real and getting up close to the actors, it sort of found its own feet.
Q: Sharlto, can you talk about taking Wikus from dork to tragic hero?
(Sharlto Copley): I can see that people would see it that way. I certainly didn’t consciously think about it like that. I approached it from the perspective of a very insecure person who’s trying to hide those insecurities, trying to look like he’s in control of everything, thinks he’s more popular than he really is, and then goes through the process of all of that being stripped away from him. He’s a bureaucrat.
He’s got his very safe world that he lives in. He doesn’t like this part of having to go and deal with these creatures, particularly. It’s something that he just wants to get by and hopefully he’s not going to have to do for too much longer. I think you start seeing what characters are when you start putting them through stuff. And I think if there is any sort of heroic side of him that obviously comes out, but it’s almost forced out, if you will.
(Neil Blomkamp): It’s also a question of whether his brain architecture is changing into an insect and he’s actually just looking out for his own on a biological level. It’s not a conscious thing.
(Sharlto Copley): The emotional aspects, just going through that process of losing everything that you rely on, everything that you trust, both in the external world and in yourself, in your own mind, it was brutal. It was a brutal experience, even as an actor, to go through that, but also quite a profound experience because you’re left with the essence of humanity.
Once I’ve stripped away all of that I can connect with you or an animal or another life-form in a way that all of this is stopping me from connecting, if that makes sense.