If District 9 director Neill Blomkamp's face carries that startled-but-elated, is-this-really-happening-to-me expression common to lottery winners, he comes by the look honestly. Given the recent trajectory of his movie-making career, the only thing missing is the giant cardboard cheque.
Already a well-established visual effects creator ( Smallville , Stargate SG-1 ), the 29-year-old Blomkamp has also directed a handful of acclaimed short films, both in North America (he moved to Vancouver when he was 18 and studied at Vancouver Film School) and in his native South Africa. One of them, a six-minute gem from 2005 titled Alive In Joburg (South African slang for Johannesburg) caught the attention of Peter Jackson - yes, that Peter Jackson, the lord of The Lord of the Rings. It has now become, with the help of a rumoured 35 million Jackson-backed dollars, District 9 , the summer's most anticipated grown-up fantasy feature.
So, who is this Blomkamp guy? And how dare he release District 9 , a dark and deeply political film, when lollipop movies such as Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe are sucking all the brain-feeding oxygen out of the science-fiction genre?
After chatting with Blomkamp, I'm undecided - he's either a confident career builder with a solid life plan or just insanely lucky. Or both.
In District 9 , aliens land in Johannesburg and are forced to live in a filthy shanty town, segregated from human society. Can we get the giant apartheid metaphor out of the way first?
It isn't necessarily just a metaphor for apartheid. It's not. … What it is meant to be is a whole bunch of topics that had an effect on me when I was living there. Topics I became more interested in once I left.
Just everything that goes on in that country - xenophobia, the collapse of Zimbabwe and the flood of illegal immigrants into South Africa, and then how you have impoverished black South Africans in conflict with the immigrants. All that amounts to a very unusual situation. And South Africa is kind of the birthplace of the modern private military contractor … so there's a lot of other things besides apartheid that I wanted to touch on, such as segregation in general.
And the second thing is, when I was coming up with the movie, I was designing it to be the wrong movie, because all of those topics were suddenly becoming too serious in the way the movie was being constructed. And that's not something you want to do with your first film, make this very self-important, ponderous film. So once I realized that was an epic mistake, the film shifted - it started with satire, then it just turned into a popcorn thrill ride. But what I really like is that it allows me to put all these touchstones in there.
How the world mistreats the helpless aliens struck me as very probable, sadly. Did you research histories of displaced peoples?
Not actively. But, because I grew up in South Africa, the topics I'm interested in tend to be that kind of thing. Israel and Palestine, I'm really interested in, displaced people wherever. The left side of my brain is very interested in these things that I, at the time, felt were unrelated to filmmaking. I just wanted to be a filmmaker - I like design, science fiction, weapons, I like the geekery of it. And this was separate; I read all of those world topics separately. So, at some subconscious level, it [refugee history]worked its way in.
You come from a visual effects background, but District 9 is not reliant on visual effects the way most summer popcorn movies are. You've kept the effects quite simple, even discreet.
Yeah, the film's not meant to rely on visual effects. The ideas, what we just talked about, are woven into the story, and the setting informed the narrative. The special effects are made to feel as real as possible so the audience will buy into the world, but it's not about the spectacle of effects.
District 9 inverts the "alien invasion" formula. The humans are the problem, not the aliens. It's a very cynical perspective.
Well, my outlook on the planet for the next 100 years is not good. Not good at all. But that doesn't necessarily tie directly into this movie. I think maybe it does on a subconscious level, because I do think we will crash and burn.
That's the second time you've mentioned your subconscious processes. What were your conscious choices?
My conscious choices were - because I'm such a science fiction geek, and because Johannesburg interests me so much - I was 400 per cent aware that I wanted to combine those two - that's the genesis for this movie, to see science fiction in a Third World, African setting.
Has the film played in South Africa?
Not yet. It's about a week after Canada and the U.S.
What reaction are you expecting?
I think it will be well received. For a lot of the impoverished citizens who live in areas like District 9 represents, they're going to love having an American popcorn movie take place in their backyard; it's like they're participating. They're going to love that. But there's a possibility that South Africans will take the particular refugee metaphor [poor people suddenly confronted with waves of even poorer refugees, paralleling the situation of Zimbabwean refugees flooding South Africa]and they'll think I wasn't dealing with it as the serious topic it actually is, that could turn on me.
Um, District 9 is not a documentary.
Yeah, Ha! I know! But I do actually feel bad about that situation. I know the film is inspiration, not realism, but still, it is a serious topic.
Your career is about to take a huge leap. Are you nervous?
No. This is what I wanted to be doing. All the stuff that I was directing up until now was to get into feature films. So now I'm in features.
Not even a little bit nervous?
No, no, not at all. The only thing I'm nervous about is whether the film tanks, because that will harm my ability to make more films. But this is exactly what I've wanted.