Trouble in Mexico inspired making of Elysium

When he looks back at District 9, the 2009 science-fiction indie that put him on the map as a director, Neill Blomkamp cannot believe that it ever got off the ground.

"Every day that goes by, and the more experience I've had with Hollywood, the thing that astounds me is the fact that the film got made," says the 33-year-old South African writer-director, whose second big-screen outing is Elysium, a science-fiction blockbuster starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.

Blomkamp was still 29 and wet behind the ears when The Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson took him under his wing and helped produce his debut feature.

It was based on a story that Blomkamp co-wrote about aliens landing on Earth, and then being persecuted by humans and forced to live in a refugee camp in Johannesburg.

With its unusual mockumentary style and politically charged, apartheid-inspired subtext - a commentary on modern-day xenophobia, racism and ghettos - the film wowed audiences and critics, scooping up four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Visual Effects.

Blomkamp points out that "there is no version of that film that could have been made in Hollywood without someone like Peter". Speaking to Life! and other reporters at a recent Beverly Hills press event for Elysium, he says: "I thought the concept was cool and that people would pay me to make it, but I had no clue.

"I also didn't realise how lucky I was that people liked it, because if it doesn't go that way, it makes it that much more difficult to get another film made."

He did, of course, get another film made, and with an estimated price tag of US$115 million (S$145 million), Elysium has three times the budget of the US$37 million District 9.

And instead of an unknown actor - South African Sharlto Copley, the District 9 star who also features in Elysium - Blomkamp found himself directing two megastars, Damon and Foster, whose characters find themselves on opposing ends of a polarised world: The richest people live on Elysium, a giant luxury space station, while the poor languish on a ravaged, overcrowded Earth.

Despite some lukewarm reviews and accusations that it is too similar to, but not as compelling as, District 9, the film topped the box office in the United States, with more than US$30 million in takings when it debuted last weekend.

Blomkamp has denied that his film has a political message, but the director, who also wrote the story, says it was partly inspired by his impressions of the vast socio-economic gulf between the US and Mexico, and by an incident where he ended up being lost on the Mexican side of the border eight years ago.

"I was about 25 and my friends and I were arrested for drinking on the street in Tijuana, and the federales (Mexican federal police) threw us in the back of a car and spent about 30 minutes driving out of the city.

"We started rolling up money and putting it through the grate in the car until it was enough and they let us out near the border.

"When we walked back, we were in areas with feral dogs and babies crying and fires - it was like in a movie.

"And on the horizon there was the US border, with Black Hawks flying because of the army base. And that is sciencefiction imagery. There's no difference between that and Elysium."

Still, Blomkamp says he deliberately set out to make more of a popcorn movie than anything truly thought-provoking.

"I feel like it may not go deep enough to be considered true science fiction - it's probably more blockbuster material.

"But the truth is that I actually like Robocop as much as I like 2001: A Space Odyssey," he says, contrasting the popular 1987 cyborg-cop movie with the 1968 sci-fi classic.

"So things exploding and people getting shot - I actually like putting that into films. The blockbuster part of it is a lot greater with this one (than District 9), which may have a dumbing-down effect on the science-fiction part."

Making Elysium also helped him overcome his innate distrust of working with big Hollywood stars and big-budget Hollywood movies - which a few years ago he swore he wanted nothing to do with.

"The most terrifying thing to me is some other person or force messing with what I think is my artwork. And I've heard so many stories of very powerful actors doing that, so I had a distinct aversion to going down that road."

But Damon and Foster, neither of whom had done a big-budget sciencefiction film such as this one before, impressed him with their professionalism and technical mastery.

"I hadn't worked with very experienced, high-end actors before and I was amazed - there's a reason they're that famous." For instance, he would give Damon, the star of the Bourne films, an instruction, and the actor would carry out it exactly as requested "50 times in a row, like a machine".

"And whereas more junior actors would get louder to feel like they owned a scene, he has this ability to get quieter and quieter and yet say more," adds Blomkamp.

It was also a coup to cast Foster, a two-time Best Actress Oscar winner for The Accused (1988) and The Silence Of The Lambs (1991). She rarely appears in front of the camera these days, but signed on for Elysium because "she liked District 9", he says.

Like Damon, she "was all about the work - not red carpets and Hollywood stuff".

"Jodie doesn't even go into her trailer in between takes, which is very unusual - she's just part of the crew and there's no bullshit with her, it's just 'go'."


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