“District 9” director Neill Blomkamp on his chilling foray into VR horror and America’s inspired “District 10”

Ot over the past six years, famous filmmaker Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) was attached to the suites of Aliens and RoboCop, two of the most beloved series in modern science fiction. Yet despite considerable online interest in both projects – which allegedly ignored subsequent installments and resumed immediately after 1986 Aliens and 1987 RoboCop, respectively, neither looks likely to take off in the foreseeable future, thanks to conflicting visions and studio priorities. Nevertheless, on the eve of the debut of his new thriller Demonic, the Oscar-nominated South African writer / director remains optimistic about the possibility of working again at established franchises, provided the opportunity presents itself.

“I wouldn’t be against looking at other big pieces of IP that belong to the studio. You just have to do it very carefully, I think, ”he remarks. “There is certainly no reason not to work with big studios on films. It’s actually a very good process. The only thing you really have to be aware of is that with a very well-known piece of intellectual property, what does that mean? Just be aware of the things related to it. “

While Extraterrestrial and RoboCop didn’t work, Blomkamp has another high-profile venture in the works: a sequel to its 2009 breakthrough District 9, the science-fiction allegory of apartheid that won four Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay). The writer / director recently said his planned follow-up will be rooted in American history, although when squeezed directly onto the film, he’s reluctant to reveal many details. Still, he discloses that making a sequel has never been a fixed goal; rather, it was born out of a natural moment of inspiration.

“I never wanted to force a sequel. It was just one day, I was struck by something, and I realized that there might be a really cool way to make a sequel that suddenly made sense to me. That’s really all it is, right? You don’t force creativity like that. And if it takes more than a decade, that’s fine. It could take forever, and there is never a follow-up. It does not matter. That said, if Blomkamp is not ready to provide a timeline for Ward 10upon completion, it verifies that it is currently on its pre-burner. “I’m actively working on it. I just don’t know when it will be right and perfect.

As he prepares a return trip to this futuristic world, Blomkamp has already blazed a whole new path with his latest. Premiere on August 20 in theaters and on VOD, Demonic, his first feature film since the 2015 underperformance Chappie, is a low budget horror film that was produced during the pandemic in 24 days. The story of a young woman named Carly (Carly Pope) who is invited by shady clerics to participate in a cutting-edge technological trial that involves sending her into the comatose mind of her mother (Nathalie Boltt) – where, it turns out, an evil the entity is hiding – it’s a VR variation on a demonic possession thriller. Think of it like Lawn mower man meets The Exorcist, shot in a clean, claustrophobic style with plenty of volumetric capture effects.

Although he shares a love of sci-fi tech with his previous production, Demonic is Blomkamp’s first real foray into horror, and the 41-year-old director confirms he has long wanted to do something like this. “I’ve always been interested in horror, and I’ve always been particularly interested in wanting to make a little self-funded horror movie, almost like a challenge, like The Blair Witch Project Where Paranormal activity. I never knew when I would do that; I just knew what I wanted at some point. So when the pandemic hit I felt like everything else was slowing down, now would be a good time to try this idea. I think horror is very conducive to a low budget environment, and you can do things like that that aren’t very expensive.

Demonic features various touches that are reminiscent of works by James Cameron and David Cronenberg (among others), but the director claims there were no specific creative models for the film, saying, “I’m not very good at watching on the outside what other films are doing. It is much more of an island process. Rather than channeling illustrious ancestors, what appealed to him was the opportunity to generate the type of low-fi terror that made The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal activity such cultural phenomena. “Beyond even trying to scare, the main objective was to create a feeling of tension and terror. I just wanted that surface tension that was there all the time. These films were inspirational because they were on a low budget, the filmmakers just shot them and they got a visceral response from the audience. I thought it was a really interesting thing.

COVID-19 may have impacted logistics components of Demonic, but the genesis of the film came from two separate creative impulses, both of which have seamlessly merged here. “I think the idea was a bunch of separate ideas that I had for things that I wanted to work on at some point, like volumetric capture, which ended up being virtual reality, and the idea of ​​the Vatican acting in more than a 21st century, buying technology companies, ”he said. “So I just mixed them up, really.”

Above even trying to scare, the main objective was to create a feeling of tension and dread.

As Carly eventually finds out, the brains behind her predicament are church officials with a decidedly contemporary method of fighting Satan’s henchmen. In terms of the film’s development, “the exorcism part was more crucial, just because it’s one of the horror tropes that it’s easy to get into. It was built around the idea of, we know we want to do something on a low budget with demonic possessions and exorcisms, so what would that be like? Involving volumetric capture in that – which was a separate idea I had – started to convey this idea of ​​virtual reality in a way that you can have a demon existing in the minds of someone and people who are looking for it. It was really about merging things that we wanted to put in the jar, while also figuring out what to shoot during COVID. “

As with so many film companies over the past 18 months, DemonicCompletion of has been complicated by the pandemic, thanks to numerous operational protocols that have put additional burden on production. “It doesn’t make it easier to shoot something that’s already on a low budget when you have extra costs due to what’s required for an item that normally, before the pandemic, wouldn’t be there,” he says. . “But at the same time, you want to make sure the crew is safe.” Thankfully, Blomkamp and his company came out of the process largely unscathed, with just one close call threatening to derail the film. “We only had one potential COVID alert with a crew member, and we had to pull back and sort of cover everything up until we got the COVID results. Due to the way the locations worked, it actually rocked everything for about two weeks. But it turned out he didn’t have it.

Neill Blomkamp and Carly Pope on the set of Demonic

IFC Films

Even though such issues resulted in inevitable slowdowns – Blomkamp estimates that COVID security measures resulted in a 20-25% loss of effectiveness – they had little effect on the finished product, which stands out from its brethren horror via Carly’s VR journeys inside her mother. digitized dream consciousness. According to Blomkamp, ​​creating this surreal environment wasn’t a walk in the park, especially for its actors. “They are in this incredibly restrictive cage of cameras, like 260 cameras, very close to them,” he explains. “But Carly and Natalie were great in this environment. It was just very difficult, because there’s the acting part, the emotional part, but you also try to make sure that technically they get through the set correctly, which isn’t there, because all you have is a bunch of cameras. it’s about measurements and making sure they reach certain exact positions. Super mathematical. It was not easy, “he laughs.

This techno-reality seems intricately tied to video games, which isn’t surprising considering that Blomkamp is currently collaborating with Gunzilla Games on an AAA multiplayer shooter. Pressed on the relation between Demonic and games, he explains, “I think the part that makes it look gamey is just the fact that the technology is, in fact, running on a video game engine. It runs on Unity, so it’s a game engine. As for his approach to designing these disturbing sequences, “Not everything that was live action was 100% portable. Everything was Steadicam and very controlled. So when we were in VR I wanted it to be portable, to feel free and like a massive environmental change for the audience, so they felt like in VR with the actresses.

A volumetric capture sequence in Demonic

IFC Films

Demonic proves that Blomkamp remains committed to the making of feature films, although since Chappie, he also worked with Oats Studios, an independent company he founded in 2017 for which he directed numerous short films starring Pope, Sigourney Weaver, Dakota Fanning and his favorite actor, Sharlto Copley. Oats has been an outlet for both narrative and technological experimentation for Blomkamp, ​​and he says “there’s also a third component at Oats, which is trying to build something outside of the film industry that actually does movies, which is an interesting idea. ” Realizing that dream, he laughs, requires doing something extremely nasty: “Losing a lot of money. I think you would need to waste a lot of money to get there, and then it might work. And he hastens to add, “At this point other people must be losing money.”

Blomkamp concedes that he does not know the ultimate fate of Oats, nor his own cinematic future, except for the fact that a sequel to Chappie is definitely not in the cards (“I don’t think so. I don’t think this universe can be revisited. I don’t see how it’s going to turn out one day”). What he can to imagine doing, however, is striking a new balance between the epic sci-fi action of Elysium and the confined and claustrophobic suspense of Demonic. “I think I’ll probably do something [next] it’s bigger, ”he reveals. “I think I’ll go back to a larger cinematic scale. But I wouldn’t mind going back to something this size at all. I think just fluctuating between budget levels and using different skills isn’t a bad thing. “

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