Jackson's new sci-fi film a return to his origins

By Russell Baillie

Ahead of presenting their film at Comic Con in San Diego this week, producer Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp talk about the making of aliens-in-Africa movie District 9

Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp movie District 9 opens at cinemas on August 13. Photo / Supplied
Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp movie District 9 opens at cinemas on August 13. Photo / Supplied

In 1987 a young Kiwi film director got his career off to a spectacular splattery start with a low-budget alien movie made in his backyard.

Twenty-two years after his DIY splatter sci-fi comedy Bad Taste announced Peter Jackson as a film-maker to watch, he's delivering another one.

Only it's in someone else's backyard, its "low" budget is beyond the wildest dreams of most first-time directors and Jackson has got his now very famous name on the poster as producer, not director.

District 9 is set in director Neill Blomkamp's native South Africa where insectoid aliens have landed in a giant ship.

Only instead of invaders they arrive as refugees and are forced to live in Johannesburg shanty towns, their presence raising the hackles of the city's human residents .

It's been made with a relatively tiny budget of US$30 million ($46 million), though the helicopter shots and impressive computer-generated special effects apparent on its trailer suggest it's not exactly Bad Taste II.

It's the first movie, since his success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson has produced but not directed. He and partner Fran Walsh initiated the project, which is based on an earlier short film by Blomkamp entitled Alive in Joburg.

That short, which displayed Blomkamp's skills as a visual effects artist, as well as a CV of music videos and high-budget, big-brand television commercials, had got him the job of directing Halo, the movie of the hit sci-fi videogame which was being produced by Jackson.

Video - Alive in Joburg

When Halo's financing collapsed in a stand-off betweens studios Fox and Universal, Blomkamp had been in Wellington for four months working on the film.

After the bad news arrived, he was preparing to head back to Canada where he had lived since immigrating from South Africa as a teenager.

"It is a horrible experience when your movie collapses around your ears," says Jackson taking a break from Hobbit scriptwriting sessions to talk to TimeOut. "It's pretty depressing. Fran and I were going to be okay but we really felt sorry for Neill. He's a clever film-maker."

Walsh suggested they try to get something else happening : Why not expand Alive in Joburg into a feature?

"I was standing in their kitchen and it was like 'yeah, that sounds like a pretty awesome idea actually'," says Blomkamp on the line from Vancouver a few days after finally finishing post-production on District 9 before its release next month.

As Jackson and Walsh arranged the finance, Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell formulated a screenplay, which has a multinational corporation, MNU, charged with policing the aliens while trying to find out their technological secrets.

When an MNU agent is accidentally exposed to a mysterious alien substance, he finds himself a hunted man. But set against the South African background, the film was always going to be about more than giant bugs from outer space.

Jackson: "It's difficult for a young film-maker to do anything that is based on life experience to some degree because if you are in your 20s you haven't had much life experience. You sometimes feel that there is some kid making a film and it is just based on some other movies that he has seen.

"But Neill grew up in the dying days of apartheid in South Africa and he saw all the ugliness and all the brutality and how it affects people in different ways and all that is in the movie.

"You just totally understand how he was approaching it from an authentic place - from a real South African perspective. He really loves Africa and he's tried to put a lot of it into the movie."

Blomkamp had been back to South Africa often since leaving in 1997. He returned to live for six months to work on the film, which used the Soweto squatter camp area of Chiawelo as its backdrop.

The director says he has a love/hate relationship with the city where he was born and he thinks that may come through in the film. "On the one hand the thing that gives Joburg its edge is its crime level, really. It's on a knife edge the whole time and because of that it has this electricity about it. It has a vibe and an electric energy that you find in very few cities. It feels like you are on steroids or adrenalin the whole time you are there."

And while he was already nervous enough with the daily commute to the set, Blomkamp says the film shoot coincided with attacks and killings of Zimbabwean refugees living in the shanty towns.

"It was completely barbaric what happened and that was the same day we started rolling cameras on a film that was about the residents of Joburg wanting a foreign race out. So all of a sudden I am making a film which within South African has this massive political point of view but really that isn't what we set out to do. So I hope that the residents of Joburg don't take it the wrong way."

District 9 - official trailer

From what can be gleaned from Alive in Joburg, as well as the District 9 trailer, the film resembles Robocop as well as having a visual style - with its handheld faux-documentary style - reminiscent of J.J. Abrams' 2008 alien monster move Cloverfield. "Weirdly enough, J.J. Abrams tried to get hold of me for Cloverfield just after Halo collapsed," says Blomkamp, "but I didn't want to do something that was entirely found footage - the whole piece was from a single point of view, single-camera perspective.

"[District 9] is a film that has documentary and found-footage elements integrated into more of a cinematic style. You kind of get this hybrid."

And the possible result is - like Bad Taste was in its day - the least Hollywood alien movie in an age. Although, it is one using three special effects houses stretching from Wellington to Canada, as well as a viral marketing campaign using the movie's "humans only" signage in some US cities there are websites for both MNU and its detractors.

Having set up the movie, Jackson says he pretty much left Blomkamp to it. He was busy shooting The Lovely Bones in the United States so he didn't venture to South Africa.

"I was able to be the Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda sort of guru and say 'Grasshopper, if you want to do this, then you must do this'.

"I wanted to keep well away and let Neill make the film he wanted to make. I tried to be a facilitator for him and not put my stamp on it really. If I had made District 9 it would be a much different film to what he has made. That is a good thing. It is a good little movie. It is just a down-and-dirty, low-budget science fiction thriller. It's got all the things that low-budget movies should have.

"I kept saying to Neill: go crazy with the film ... you have got incredible freedom and you have got what money can't buy, which is you can just go crazy with your ideas with the action, with the gore.

"It made me want to make low-budget movies again. I am sort of jealous really.

With a low-budget film you have to be responsible to a certain budget level but you can be irresponsible to some degree and have fun."

Blomkamp says Jackson "kept him on the rails" and told him where his ideas might not work from an audience perspective. "He kept saying 'just make the film you want to make'. So he was really quite awesome that way. "I was probably in the best position you could be in for a first film. I was allowed to make something that was unique because of him and a brighter light would be shone on the film because he is attached to it. You get the best of both worlds really.

"I am very fortunate."

When and where: Opens at cinemas on August 13

Official website: www.d-9.com

Associated websites

www.multinationalunited.com

www.mnuspreadslies.com

- NZ Herald

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