The Story Behind District 9

From South Africa to space for one of summer’s big surprises

After months of anticipation, District 9 is finally about to explode into our cinemas.

Yet even a year ago, it was flying so far under the radar that the first thing most people knew about it was a viral poster campaign at Comic-Con 2008.

So how exactly did the low-budget sci-fi blockbuster emerge as one of the better films of the year?

At this year's San Diego event, Total Film got a chance to ask co-writer/director Neil Blomkamp, producer Peter Jackson and star Sharlto Copley just that.

Warning: there are possible (mild) spoilers for anyone who wants to see the movie pure...
 

 

1. Some Blomkamp background

While many worked on – and, in the case of producer Peter Jackson – shepherded District 9 to our screens, Neill Blomkamp is unquestionably the man behind the movie.

And in a weird way, Blomkamp owes a lot of his career to his eventual D9 star, Sharlto Copley.

For Copley, six years older than his director, actually put Blomkamp on the road to filmmaking.

''I gave Neill his first job,'' Copley laughs. ''And he's certainly returned the favour.''

Yes, back when the 35-year-old producer/director/writer/actor was just 20, he gave a fresh-faced, 14-year-old Blomkamp a gig in South Africa, creating computer graphics for TV shows.

He would continue to ply his trade in the TV and film worlds – after moving with his family to Canada at the age of 18, he found more work as a visual effects artist, nabbing an Emmy nomination for outstanding VFX at 21.

Shortly thereafter, he got his first job as a music video director and, after proving himself there, started winning work as an advert helmer.

With commissions from the likes of Nike, Citroen (you might recognise his “dancing robot” spot from a year or so before Transformers arrived in cinemas, below), Gatorade and Panasonic in his portfolio, Blomkamp decided to diversify and make his own short films.



Among them were Tempbot (about an office droid whose tenure goes spectacularly wrong) and Alive In Joburg, about which we’ll say more shortly.

It was his work on the shorts and the ads that first drew Peter Jackson’s attention.

The prolific director/producer saw Blomkamp as a rising talent and the perfect man to handle a little project he was overseeing.

A film based on the wildly successful video game franchise Halo…

Next: The Rise And Fall Of Halo

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2. The rise and fall of Halo


It was supposed to be a dream teaming – Peter Jackson bringing his clout and film expertise, plus an inspired new talent to a film based on one of the biggest video game sensations of all time: Halo.

But while the idea of turning humanity’s battle with nasty aliens The Covenant had been a hot script all over town, it didn’t quite make it to the screen.

Fox and Universal picked up the rights from game makers Bungie and Microsoft, and quickly set Jackson and Blomkamp to work making it happen.

Months later, however, none of the parties seemed to be in agreement over what it should be, and, more importantly, how much it should cost.

As the budget began to soar, the studios’ feet got colder and colder. Until…

"What happened was this: Universal, on behalf of both studios, asked for a meeting with the filmmakers just prior to the due date of a significant payment," says Peter Jackson’s development executive, Ken Kamins.

"Basically, they said that in order to move forward with the film, the filmmakers had to significantly reduce their deals.

They waited until the last minute to have this conversation. Peter and Fran, after speaking with their producing partners and with Microsoft and Bungie, respectfully declined."

So the months of development that Blomkamp and his team poured into Halo seemed to be wasted.

Well, not entirely wasted… We can thank the ultimate failure of the Halo movie for the birth of District 9.



Neill Blomkamp still credits some elements of the abortive Halo film with District 9’s final look.

“There could have been some stuff that was subconsciously there, but Halo was a very different thing.

“The one thing they have in common was I wanted Halo to be extremely real, like Black Hawk Down meets science fiction.”

Like a phoenix, the new, smaller sci-fi pic burst from the bloated flames of the downed movie.

And it’s all because of Joburg…

Next: Any other ideas?

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3. Any other ideas?

Nursing their wounds from the collapse of the Halo film, Jackson and partner/wife Fran Walsh decided they didn’t want to lose the young talent they’d been nurturing.

“HALO collapsed and this film was born out of that,” reveals Blomkamp.

“It's really Peter and Fran Walsh's idea. They said, 'We like you being down in New Zealand, you know everyone at Weta so let us get another film going for you and we'll protect you and shield you.'

Fran said, 'What about Alive In Jo’burg as your first feature?' And I went, 'Yeah!'"

Shot a few years ago, the original short Joburg was filmed on the run by the director as a faux style look at aliens landing in South Africa.

While he didn’t tell his interviewees that he was making a piece about actual aliens, the helmer wasn’t out to fool people, just get honest reactions.

“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.”   



The plot, which sees the creatures’ ship arrive powerless on Earth, holding thousands of starving drones, became the basis for District 9, which Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell began scripting.

They latched on to the idea of Wikus Van De Merwe, a lowly employee of the corporation assigned to manage (and ultimately evict) the alien refugees.

And as the story developed, the pair needed a focus among the creatures, too, fleshing out Christopher Johnson – their conceit is that MNU gave all the drones a human name to help them assimilate – and his son, little CJ.

But while they had Joburg as a major selling point, Blomkamp and his team still needed a proof of concept…

Next: Testing times

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4. Testing times

Getting District 9 moving was partly thanks to Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, partly to Alive In Joburg’s existence as proof Blomkamp could make it work… And a lot of experimentation and brainstorming to find the right ideas for every part of the film.

For a start, the director wanted to blend Joburg’s docu-style with cinematic gloss, switching from the mockumentary footage to the narrative story mid-film.

“There was no precedent for that and I didn't know if it would work,” he told us.

“But I definitely wanted the feeling of real footage - news feed and documentary cameras.

“And I knew I wanted a story as compelling as I could make it, which meant I needed traditional filmmaking techniques to shoot the more emotional parts, so I just decided that it's going to be both.

“It seems to work, though - if you don't pay attention, you don't really realise it. By the end of the film it was all cinematic.

“But getting that to work freaked me out, I had a few panic attacks over if it was going to work.”

For the central role of Wikus, a favour was returned as Blomkamp hired Sharlto Copley to play the lead.

As a test, the two shot some of the opening scenes of the film with Copley finding the character.

“A small amount of power goes a long way with Wikus – he’s an ordinary guy who likes to wield power in a bureaucratic way,” says Copley.  

“That’s why MNU promotes him – they want a guy who will do things in an orderly, proper way.”

It was originally only supposed to be a simple test, but Jackson sparked to Copley’s performance so much that he insisted he be the star.



And the creatures? Though they were almost entirely CG, Blomkamp knew he needed a focus for the rest of the cast.

The job of “playing” the aliens went to his Alive In Joburg production designer Jason Cope.

 “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.”

But they – and their ship – still needed a style…

Next: The look of District 9

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5. The look of District 9


The film gets its distinctive, original feel and style from a variety of fronts, not least of which is Blomkamp’s love of sci-fi from Asimov to xenomorphs.

“Two very separate things that are in the DNA of D9. On one side a whole bunch of science fiction,” he told Total Film.

“It's not specific science fiction - though I could name 50 different particular things - but ultimately it's just a blender of all of those themes and ideas and concepts that interest me. There are about half of them in District 9!

“So that's on the one side, and one the other is Johannesburg, which to me is its own crazy science fiction thing. It's those two merged together.

“This is fantasy; it's almost not science fiction. This is totally unrealistic. It feels like crazy science fiction that is being presented sort of realistically, in a mundane way. So it feels grounded.

“That's the thing that made me want to work on it, trying to make science fiction feel like an everyday occurrence and to film it through news cameras and video cameras and stuff.”

Even the aliens – nicknamed “Prawns” for obvious reasons by the hateful humans around them – have a clear basis for their appearance.

“The idea for the creatures, which ties into the ship, is that they look like insects because I very much wanted the creatures on Earth to be aimless and unguided,” explain Blomkamp.

“So I wanted them to have a hive structure where there's a queen and the upper echelons of society and then the drones. 90% of the pyramid is the drones and the higher orders died, and the ship auto piloted to Earth.

“There's all this technology, which they're happy to use, because they like being given instruction.”



But while they’re directionless, they’re by no means ET-like toy-magnets.

“In designing the aliens, Neill didn’t go for the easy out,” says co-writer Tatchell.
 
“They are not appealing, they are not cute, and they don’t tug at our heartstrings.  He went for a scary, hard, warrior-looking alien, which is much more of a challenge.”

And Blomkamp knows what their huge, hovering vessel is all about, too. “Their ship was designed to look like what it is - a mining ship. It's a huge barge, with drone quarters making up most of it.

“A lot of the tech is that hard '70s and '80s, straight line sci-fi stuff that I really like.

“And I worked with one artist at Weta to figure all that stuff out because he was into it too. I wanted it to feel like metal and heavy with oxidisation and rust.”

The creatures and their surfaces were created in the computer.

Shooting the rest would be just as much of a challenge…

Next: Shooting in the slums

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6. Shooting in the slums


The director is very specific about why he chose to shoot in Johannesburg and not try to recreate it elsewhere.

“I think it would be incredibly difficult to replicate what we have in Johannesburg anywhere else,” says Blomkamp.  

“There is so much visual detail here, the dirt or barbed wire or weeds, it’s incredibly rich visually.  

“For the film to work, I think you need this level of reality and this level of pollution and realness.”

The production arrived in 2008 and filmed for three months.

Fortunately, they found the perfect location in Tshiawelo, on the outskirts of Soweto, a landfill dotted with shacks.

Weirdly mirroring the film’s plot, local authorities were moving them to state subsidized housing some 20km away and tearing down the shacks.  

The production bought up the shacks that remained, fenced off the area, and created a controlled environment in which to shoot.

“We completely lucked out,” says Blomkamp.  “The location had the exact look that I had in my head.”  

But that was the end of the luck.

“We filmed in winter because I wanted the city in the film to look like a scorched earth, urban wasteland,” comments Blomkamp.

“Filming in the dead of winter, and wherever you looked, there were fires and ash and pollution dotting the horizon, just what I wanted.”



It was a tough time for all involved, not least Copley, who had the most screen time and the most difficult job: “scrounging through real trash to find a prop sandwich strategically placed in the middle of the stuff — it was brutal.”

''They'd have to comb the area before shooting just to pull the nails out.''

Blomkamp also found filming a hassle. ''The shoot was incredibly difficult, gruelling as hell,'' he says.

“Johannesburg is just concrete and dust and burning fires and barbed wires and pollution. Even for the South Africans on the crew, it was seriously eye-opening.''

With the film shot, the production could work with Weta on getting the visual effects complete.

And, thus far, no one had leaked information about the movie.

It was time to tell the world. Slowly…

Next: Viral awareness

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7. Viral awareness


Back in July 2008, very few people outside of the inner circle had heard of District 9 beyond a tiny press release that Sony had picked up the film with Blomkamp helming and Jackson producing.

Which was going to be a problem if it were to arrive the following year and make any impact at the box office.

But modelled on Warner Bros’ viral campaign for The Dark Knight (albeit on a much smaller scale), plans were already afoot to raise awareness.

At Comic-Con last year, the first signs began to crop up – literally. Banners at the event warned that certain areas were “For Humans Only” and toilets were littered with the signs.

In the Internet age, of course, nothing stays just on the page, and the studio’s marketing bods has already built several websites (with one including an alien language) to begin the trickle of information.

There was some thought at the time that it might all be a big ruse; that District 9 was actually a code name for a secretly-shot Halo film itself.

More posters, signs, websites and videos followed, which Blomkamp and his producer heartily supported.



“It's definitely Sony whose come up with the whole presentation of the show,” says the director.

I think we both just liked that and it really touched on the essence of the film which is about segregation and it felt like something, like for me that I would respond to well if I saw that on a bus stop it would really interest me, I'd want to know what that was about.

“So yeah, I think it's their creative mind and us signing off on ideas that are cool and us giving input in certain places, but it's mostly them.”

“We didn't make any effort to promote the film, we just did it quietly and so when the viral campaign began and the first teaser came out, I think there was a really nice sense of surprise, which is fun,” laughs Jackson.

“I think it's always neat when it happens when it was a film that wasn't really in anybody's mind and suddenly you've got a trailer and everyone is going, ‘What the hell is this thing?’

“And there was a lovely sense of surprise about it, which doesn't happen very much in the film industry because everyone seems to be so aware of what's happening, somehow we'd fallen through the cracks a little bit, which I think it's made it a fun process.”

Talking of the trailer…
 

Next: Trailer time

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8. Trailer time

The first trailer for District 9 finally arrived in March, bringing with it a proper look at the aliens (once some pesky blurring had been removed) and a real feel for what the film would be about.

Which is to say, a bigger budget version of Alive In Joburg, with all the political implications that brings.

Blomkamp is quick to point out, however, that the film is not designed to pummel audiences with the anti-Apartheid message.

“I grew up in South Africa during Apartheid and I very actively wanted to make a film that had science fiction placed in that African setting, specifically that South African setting,” he explains.

“There’s no question that there’s many, many, many elements of Apartheid and segregation and now xenophobia in South Africa that have made their way into the film but they provide the sort of foundation that the film rests on top of.

“It’s like a framework that’s there and it provides a very strange alternate reality because there’s aliens involved, but it doesn’t beat you over the head.

“So if you see the film, it’s like I’m not trying to force those kind of soapbox beliefs of mine onto you.

“I’m simply saying this is all stuff that affected me when I was a kid and I put science fiction into it. Now you can take from it what you want within a sort of satirical, dark humour kind of backdrop.”

And finally, we get to see the movie itself…
 

 

Next: The Prawns have landed

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9. The Prawns have landed

Yes, District 9 is well and truly here.

At this year’s Comic-Con, the movie’s presence was clear – from armoured, gun-toting trucks warning us to be on the lookout for non-humans (no easy job to tell them apart at the con) and the film’s now signature anti-ET posters everywhere.

Jackson made his first pilgrimage to the event, bringing Blomkamp and Copley with him, and was greeted like a hero by the throngs of Hall H.

The studio organised a screening, introduced by Jackson, and lit up Twitter with positive reviews.

Still, though, the director had some understandable nerves: “I’m excited. I’m nervous as hell though because I just hope it does well,” Blomkamp told us at the Con.

“Obviously, I guess every director just wants their film to be received well but I’m anxious and I want it to get out there and I just want to see how people respond to it, but the good news is I’m really proud of it which is as much as you can ask for.”

He didn’t need to worry. The pic opened to $37 million in the US and we predict it’ll do rather well over here too.

Now, who’s up for District 10?

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