District 9: Interview with Director Neill Blomkamp


In “District 9,” the superb sci-fi thriller produced by Peter Jackson, Neill Blomkamp creates a film with an original vision and unique method of telling its story.  After cutting his teeth as a visual effects artist and director of music videos and commercials, Blomkamp makes his feature film debut that draws inspiration from classic sci-fin films as well as the Johannesburg of his youth, where he was born and raised.


From the very beginning, Blomkamp intended District 9 to be unconventional and to blur the lines between filmmaking styles. “Essentially, the film bounces from our story, which is obviously fictional, to a sort of ultra-real mode,” explains Blomkamp.  Dramatic scenes, mockumentary footage, real news video obtained from the South African Broadcasting Corporation – “it’s all part of the same story,” Blomkamp continues.  “The movie fluctuates between something that feels like a film and something that feels bizarrely real.”




Blomkamp says the film mimics the 24-hour news feed that cable channels, the internet, and other news sources feed us every day.  “It used to be that you would pick up a single newspaper story.  Now, the imagery is always there and we have become used to it,” says Blomkamp.  He also points out that the advent of reality television blurs the lines between reality and entertainment even further.


The genesis of District 9 lies in a short, low-budget mockumentary called Alive in Jo’burg that Blomkamp shot in a Johannesburg shantytown a few years ago.  In the short film, Blomkamp introduces intergalactic aliens to the cultural mix of Johannesburg, one of Africa’s most dynamic cities.  For that film, Blomkamp hit the streets with a camera crew, looking to capture reactions from real people.  Blomkamp soon discovered that his idea of intergalactic refugees suddenly arriving on the city’s doorstep dovetailed with the real conflict and xenophobia prevalent amongst the citizens of Johannesburg towards the influx of illegal aliens from neighboring countries.  The honest reactions he captured on camera brought a vitality to the short film, blurring the line between fiction and reality. 

Of the short, Blomkamp says, “I was not intentionally trying to deceive the people we interviewed.  I was just trying to get the most completely real and genuine answers.  In essence, there is no difference except that in my film we had a group of intergalactic aliens as opposed to illegal aliens.”  


Believable and Recognizable Aliens


Working with the thematic and visual ingredients of the short film as a springboard, Blomkamp and writing partner Terri Tatchell fleshed out the character of Wikus, and introduced two central alien characters, Christopher Johnson and his son, Little C.J. (The writers gave the aliens human names, imagining the re-naming humans would do when admitting the aliens to our planet).  It was important to the writers that all of the characters, even and especially the aliens, were believable and recognizable. Drawing on people they knew or were familiar with, the writers created a cast of characters who are an amalgamation of many people. 


Blomkamp’s childhood friend and collaborator, Sharlto Copley, takes on the role of Wikus van der Merwe, the MNU official charged with removing the non-humans from District 9 and moving them to the concentration camp of District 10.  Copley had also worked on the short film Alive in Jo’Burg, producing that film.


“Neill has found a very soulful way of approaching science fiction,” says Copley, who has known Blomkamp for over 12 years.  “The genre can be clinical, even cold and unemotional.  But in Neill’s hands, it resonates quite deeply.  There’s no particular message or big moral of the story–it’s just a melting pot of emotions that comes out.”


David James plays Koobus, MNU’s chief enforcer, who becomes a bounty hunter of sorts when MNU’s chiefs order Wikus to be brought in – dead or alive.  “Koobus is the dark side of MNU,” says James.  “If you need something done legally, you get Wikus, and if you need it done even if it’s not legal, you get Koobus.  Everyone at MNU know that Koobus is not somebody you mess with.” 


“I think Neill liked the psychopathic edge I gave to Koobus in my audition,” says James.  “He can lie so convincingly to everyone around him – he’s operating with his own agenda.  Whenever I was in doubt about what my character would do in a situation, I went back to that.”


Another subtle clue to character might go over the heads of most Americans, but plays into a kind of bigotry that South Africans would know.  “Wikus is Afrikaaner, which is perceived by some in South Africa as a kind of a redneck,” says James.  “I decided that I would play Koobus as English, a man who has spent his military service out of country.  Even at the outset, in every way, he sees himself as being superior to Wikus.”


Jason Cope, who had served as Blomkamp’s production manager on Alive in Jo’burg, plays the non-human Christopher Johnson.  “Actually, I play about ten different characters,” says Cope.  “It was quite a thing to wake up and say, ‘Which creature will I be today?’  My mom was very excited when I got the part.  She asked, ‘What are you doing?’  I said, ‘I’m playing a community of intergalactic beings in the townships.’  She couldn’t quite get her head around it.”


“Neill had a very clear idea about what he wanted from the non-humans,” Cope continues.  “During the rehearsal process, we got a feel for what he liked, but he also gave me a lot of freedom, within certain boundaries.  I wouldn’t act too much like an animal or an insect, but I’m definitely not acting human, either.”


From the very beginning, Blomkamp intended that District 9 would stand on its own, influenced by the great science fiction films that came before it, but unique in vision and groundbreaking in method.


Breaking the Rules


District 9 breaks the rules most effectively in its style of shooting, which, by the end of the film, has audiences wondering what’s real and what’s entirely imagined.  Blomkamp’s longtime friend, cinematographer Trent Opaloch, shared the director’s instinctive understanding of the trip he intended for moviegoers.  “Trent is perfect in this ultra?real, run?and?gun type of situation,” says Blomkamp.  “We didn’t spend too much time painting a beautiful picture – we just got in there and captured a raw, authentic feel.” 


Blomkamp uses three different components to tell his story.  First, of course, are the dramatic scenes encompassing Wikus’s story.  With handheld cameras and other techniques, Blomkamp and Opaloch sought raw, brutal, and authentic-looking images.  For example, Opaloch mounted dozens of mini-cameras on every set, which captured both the action as well as the filming process.  The filmmakers also shot a “corporate video” for MNU, with Copley as Wikus speaking directly to the camera.  “That was the very first test we did,” says Copley.  “It adds an extra layer to the film, showing how the character is ‘on-camera’ vs. ‘off’ – he’s trying to make himself seem impressive, show off a bit.  When you get a little bit of the character when he thinks no one’s watching, it’s disarming – it fits right into the style of the film that Neill created – in the audience, you just believe it.”


The second component is the mockumentary footage.  The filmmakers worked independently from the main unit, interviewing dozens of people, some actors and some not, to get the desired, off?the?cuff responses to the situation presented in the film. 


The third component is real, existing footage sourced from the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Reuters, and other news agencies.  This is mostly archival news footage used to help flesh out the world that Blomkamp has created.  “A lot of films will reference footage that they claim is existing footage, where you see a famous news presenter or a snippet from CNN, so what I am doing is not uncommon,” explains Blomkamp.  “The only difference is that there is a greater amount of it in this film.”