‘District 9’ Director Neill Blomkamp on His Chilling Foray into VR Horror and America-Inspired ‘District 10’

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Over the last six years, acclaimed filmmaker Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) has been attached to sequels to Aliens and RoboCop, two of modern science-fiction’s most beloved series. Yet despite considerable online interest for both projects—which would have ignored later installments and picked up immediately after 1986’s Aliens and 1987’s RoboCop, respectively—neither appears likely to get off the ground in the foreseeable future, courtesy of clashing visions and studio priorities. Nonetheless, on the eve of the debut of his new thriller Demonic, the Academy Award-nominated South African writer/director remains upbeat about the possibility of again working in established franchises, provided the opportunity is right.

“I wouldn’t be averse to looking at other large pieces of IP that are owned by the studio. You just have to do it very cautiously, I think,” he remarks. “There’s certainly no reason to not be working with big studios on movies. It’s actually a pretty good process. The only thing to really be aware of is, with a very well-known piece of IP, what does that mean? Just be aware of the elements that are riding on it.”

While Alien and RoboCop didn’t pan out, Blomkamp has another high-profile venture in the pipeline: a sequel to his 2009 breakthrough District 9, the sci-fi apartheid allegory that earned four Oscar nods (including for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay). The writer/director has recently stated that his planned follow-up will be rooted in American history, although when pressed directly about the film, he’s reticent to reveal many details. Still, he does divulge that making a sequel in the first place was never a set-in-stone goal; rather, it simply sprang from a natural moment of inspiration.

“I never wanted to force a sequel to it. It was just one day, I was struck by something, and I realized there could be a very cool way to do 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 over a decade, that’s fine. It could take forever, and there’s never a sequel. It doesn’t matter.” That said, if Blomkamp isn’t ready to provide a timetable for District 10’s completion, he does verify that it’s currently on his front-burner. “I’m actively working on it. I’m just unsure of when it’ll be right, and perfect.”

As he plots a return trip to that futuristic world, Blomkamp has already charted a totally new course with his latest. Premiering Aug. 20 in theaters and on VOD, Demonic, his first feature since 2015’s underperforming 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’s invited by shady religious types to participate in a cutting-edge technological trial that involves sending her inside her estranged mother’s (Nathalie Boltt) comatose mind—where, it turns out, an evil entity lurks—it’s a VR variation on a demonic-possession thriller. Think of it as The Lawnmower Man meets The Exorcist, shot in stripped-down claustrophobic fashion and embellished with plenty of volumetric-capture effects.

Though it shares with his prior output a love of sci-fi tech, Demonic is Blomkamp’s first genuine foray into horror, and the 41-year-old director confirms that he’s long had the urge to do something in the genre. “I’ve always been interested in horror, and I was always particularly interested in wanting to do a tiny self-financed horror film, almost like a challenge, like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. I never knew when I would do that; I just knew that I wanted to at some point. So when the pandemic hit, it felt like with everything else slowing down, it would be a good time to try that idea. I think horror is very conducive to a low-budget environment, and you can do stuff in that genre that isn’t very expensive.”

Demonic boasts various touches that recall the works of James Cameron and David Cronenberg (among others), but the director asserts that there were no specific creative templates for the film, saying, “I’m not very good at looking outside at what other films are doing. It’s much more of an insular process.” Rather than channeling illustrious forebears, 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 phenomenons. “Above even trying to be scary, the main objective was to create a sense of tension and dread. I just wanted this surface tension that was there the whole time. Those movies were inspirational because they were low budget, the filmmakers just went out and shot them, and they got a visceral audience response from them. I thought that was a really interesting thing.”

COVID-19 may have impacted the logistical components of Demonic, but the genesis of the film came from two distinct creative impulses, both of which happened to merge seamlessly here. “I think the idea for it 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 VR, and the idea of the Vatican acting in more of a 21st-century way, buying up tech companies,” he says. “So, I just blended them, really.”

Above even trying to be scary, the main objective was to create a sense of tension and dread.

As Carly eventually discovers, the masterminds behind her predicament are church officials with a decidedly contemporary method of combatting Satan’s minions. In terms of developing the film, “the exorcism part was more crucial, just because it’s one of the horror tropes that’s easy to get into. It was built around the idea of, we know we want to do something low budget with demonic possession and exorcisms, so what would that look like? Getting volumetric capture involved with that—which was a separate idea that I had—started yielding this VR idea in a way that you could have a demon existing in someone’s mind, and people going in looking for it. It really was a case of merging elements that we wanted to put into the pot, while figuring out what to shoot during COVID.”

As with so many cinematic undertakings during the past 18 months, Demonic’s completion was complicated by the pandemic, thanks to numerous operational protocols that put an additional burden on the production. “It doesn’t make it easier to shoot something that’s already low budget when you have additional costs because of what is required for an element that normally, pre-pandemic, wouldn’t be there,” he states. “But then at the same time, you want to make sure that the crew is safe.” Fortunately, Blomkamp and company emerged largely unscathed from the process, with only one close call threatening to derail the film. “We only had one potential COVID scare with a crew member, and we had to stand down and just sort of dissemble everything until we got the COVID results. Because of the way locations worked, it actually knocked everything for like two weeks. But it turned out he didn’t have it.”

Neill Blomkamp and Carly Pope on the set of Demonic

IFC Films

Even if such issues led to inevitable slowdowns—Blomkamp estimates that COVID safety measures led to a 20-25 percent loss of efficiency—they had little effect on the finished product, which sets itself apart from its horror brethren via Carly’s VR trips inside her mom’s digitized dream consciousness. According to Blomkamp, creating that unreal environment wasn’t a walk in the park—especially for his actors. “They’re in this insanely restrictive cage of cameras—like, 260 cameras, very close to them,” he explains. “But Carly and Natalie were great in that environment. It was just very hard, because there’s the acting part of it, the emotional part of it, but then you’re also trying to make sure that, on a technical level, they’re actually walking 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 hit certain exact positions. Super mathematical. It was not easy,” he laughs.

That techno-reality feels intimately connected to video games, which is no surprise in light of the fact that Blomkamp is currently collaborating with Gunzilla Games on a AAA multiplayer shooter. Pressed on the relationship between Demonic and games, he explains, “I think the element that makes it feel gamey is just the fact that the technology is, in fact, running on a video game engine. It’s running on Unity, so it is a game engine.” As for his approach to designing those unsettling sequences, “Everything that was live action was 100 percent not handheld. It was all Steadicam and very controlled. So when we were in VR, I wanted it to be handheld, to feel loose and like a massive environmental shift for the audience, so they felt like they were in VR with the actresses.”

A volumetric capture sequence in Demonic

IFC Films

Demonic proves that Blomkamp remains committed to feature directing, although since Chappie, he’s also kept busy with Oats Studios, an independent outfit he founded in 2017 for which he’s directed numerous short films starring the likes of Pope, Sigourney Weaver, Dakota Fanning, and his favorite leading man, Sharlto Copley. Oats has been an outlet for both narrative and technological experimentation for Blomkamp, and he says “there’s also a third component to Oats, which is trying to build something outside of the film industry that is actually making films, which is an interesting idea.” Achieving that dream, he chuckles, requires doing something exceedingly unpleasant: “Losing a lot of money. I think you would need to lose a lot of money in order to get there, and then it may work.” And he’s quick to add, “At this point, other people have to lose the money.”

Blomkamp concedes that he doesn’t know Oats’ ultimate fate, nor his own cinematic future, save for the fact that a sequel to Chappie is definitely not in the cards (“I don’t think so. I don’t think that universe can be revisited. I don’t see how that’s ever going to happen”). What he can envision himself doing, however, is striking a newfound balance between the epic sci-fi action of Elysium and the confined, claustrophobic suspense of Demonic. “I think I’m going to probably make something [next] that’s bigger,” he reveals. “I think I’m going back to a larger filmmaking scale. But I would not mind at all going back to something of this size again. I think just fluctuating between budget levels, and using different skills, is not a bad thing.”

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