Neill Blomkamp discusses his new film, ‘Chappie’
Before he ever thought of being a movie director, Neill Blomkamp was pretty handy with a pencil and a pad of paper. Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, he was, as he puts it, “unbelievably visually-oriented. I would draw relentlessly. Then I began sculpting.” He eventually did start thinking of making movies, but South Africa in the late-1980s was not the place to be to launch a film career. It wasn’t until his family moved to Vancouver when he was 18 that he acted on it. Blomkamp, 35 — to this day still obsessed with model-making, prosthetics, special effects and computer graphics — studied 3D animation and visual effects in Vancouver, broke into directing TV commercials and music videos, wrote and directed a few short films, and launched his feature directing career with the surprise science fiction hit “District 9.” He followed that with another sci-fier, “Elysium,” and he’s sticking with the genre in his newest, “Chappie,” which opens on March 6. He recently spoke about “Chappie,” the story of a police robot who begins to think and act like a human, in New York.
Q: You’ve said that your first two films were born out of a visual concept first. Was it the same thing with “Chappie?”
A: Visuals hold my interest a lot more, and they explain concepts and ideas to me in a way that words don’t. I’m good at extrapolating ideas and stories out of images. “Elysium” had a lot of problems with it, and it didn’t feel it was as honest a film to me as “District 9” or “Chappie” does. But the idea of a satirical space station, as an image, as a sort of Prada diamond-encased space station of wealth hovering over an impoverished Earth in “Elysium,” that concept to me still is an awesome one, and I still love that idea. That image could lead to a lot of things. “Chappie” started with “Tetra Vaal,” the short film I did in 2003. When you look at it, it’s extremely content-less. It looks like a police robot patrolling South Africa. But often those kinds of images are saying more than I’m aware of at the time. Now I’m starting to realize the amount of effort and thought that went into certain ideas that lie in waiting, and later can be resurrected because of some other idea that I had, and they can live together. And all of a sudden the idea is more powerful. That’s exactly what happened with “Chappie.”
Q: You’ve had Sharlto Copley, who does a motion capture performance of Chappie, in all of your films, and he’s been an amazing improviser. Was there a different approach to directing him in this one?
A: At the beginning of the production, I had told him I wanted the movie to be improvved and loose and more like “District 9.” But then I felt that the script on this one was really good. There was something about it where I wanted the script to stay the script and I wanted the scenes to remain the scenes that were written. I decided that I didn’t want improvisation. So within the first couple of days of shooting, I was forcing that, and Sharl was resistant to it. But when he saw where I was coming from he made it even better than I expected him to. He kind of turned all of what he brought into the physicality of the robot, and still conveyed the lines that were there. Ultimately, everything in the film was premeditated. The script wasn’t deviated from, though he still did a little bit of improvisation, and that was fine. Everything was much more by the numbers than I’ve done before.
Q: Why are advance articles about the film referring to it as a science fiction comedy? It’s an action film, not a comedy.
A: Right, that was so screwed up. When I was doing press for “Elysium,” people were asking me what I was doing next, and there is a project, which is a comedy, that I wanted to make then. And I still want to make it. But I think people heard me say that back then and they assigned it to “Chappie.”
Q: At the end of “District 9,” there was a broad hint that the story would be picked up again three years in the future. Are there actually plans for a sequel?
A: I don’t know. I would like to. It’s just a timing thing. These projects are so difficult to make, and they take so long. The equation goes: Is it really worth taking that amount of time to do something that you’ve already done, or is it worth taking time to experiment with something new that you haven’t done? I have a really awesome idea that I wrote for a sequel to “District 9” that I love, and I would genuinely like to make. But the pieces have to fall into place in the right way.
Q: Someone mentioned to me earlier that “Chappie” is very Blomkampian.
A: What? Well, that’s interesting.
Q: Are you OK with that?
A: Yeah. That’s cool! I like that.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.