Writer-director Neill Blomkamp is back with another future-set thriller loaded with curious characters, fascinating technology and loads of heart and emotion. Chappie features Sharlto Copley as the title character, the first robot with the ability to think and feel. His maker, Dev Patel’s Deon, is determined to raise him right and nurture his impressionable mind, but when Chappie falls into the hands of a group of gangsters (Ninja and ¥o-Landi Vi$$er, Jose Pablo Cantillo), he starts to pick up their delinquent habits.
With Chappie due to make its big debut on March 6th, I got the opportunity to sit down with Blomkamp to discuss the unique tone of the film, casting the band Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi), the VFX technique used, why we won’t get any deleted scenes on the DVD, the important quality that makes Chappie more like District 9 than Elysium, his Alien concept art and loads more. You can check it all out in the interview below.
NEILL BLOMKAMP: Well, I actually wrote it while making Elysium, so I had it ready and then while I was finishing Elysium, I showed it to the same financiers that did Elysium and I was like, “This is what I want to make,’ and Modi [Wiczyk of MRC], who paid for it along with Sony, loved it so I didn’t need to convince them. He felt like it was some kind of child-like, coming-of-age film that he thought would resonate with people. Yeah, there was no selling of it, which was cool.
Was there ever any concern about tone? You’ve got a character who can turn into a kid’s action figure but then there’s also some really R-rated adult humor and gore.
BLOMKAMP: Yeah, there were a lot of discussions about tone. The biggest discussion in the whole movie was Die Antwoord. Putting them in the film, that was difficult. The script was easy. ‘Here’s the script,’ you know, ‘What budget can I have with that script?’ ‘You can have this budget.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ And then I was like, ‘This is Ninja and Yolandi.’ That’s when things went off the rails a little bit. But when we saw that through – because I was like, I didn’t want to make the film unless they were in it – it kind of allowed for the weirdness of the tone of the movie to be okay. But we all knew that. You summed up what the tone is, or what the theme is actually. The theme is innocent, blank slate being in a violent, non-caring environment, and that’s how I view the world. So that’s the theme of the film and that theme naturally means you have childlike elements with adult elements. What is that as a movie? It’s a weird concept.
BLOMKAMP: What I was aware of that I knew I was gonna come out on top no matter what was not so much acting, it was that they are naturally people that have some weird magnetism about them. They draw people in, like you’re interested in them, and I thought that it didn’t really matter whether they were good or not. The magnetic weirdness of them being on screen would overshadow everything else. And then, as it turned out, they could actually do it, so it was the best of both worlds.
Can you talk about setting it in South Africa? And I guess this can go back to including Ninja and Yolandi. I didn’t even know who they were before I found out they were in this movie.
BLOMKAMP: Oh, really? I’m curious about who knows them and who doesn’t know them.
Did you consider that at all? Using Ninja and Yolandi as an example, this is totally the wrong way to describe it, but it’s almost like an inside joke. Moviegoers who are familiar with them and South African culture know they fit naturally into that environment, but others might not.
BLOMKAMP: First of all, there’s no one in the world like them. You can’t get that same result with some other rapper, I don’t think. Knowing that I couldn’t replace them with someone, it had to be them. And then, like I was saying in the press conference, I actually did a version where I wrote a script in America and it just felt like, now I have to explain their back story. Why are they in America? Because they got ran out of South Africa or whatever. I was like, it just feels innately wrong, and it really bothered me that I had to go back to South Africa after District 9. I really didn’t want to so I did everything I could to make this city feel different. In terms of an inside joke, I know what you’re saying. I know what you mean. Like, is it too esoteric?
It’s probably the worst phrase I could have come up with.
BLOMKAMP: No, I know what you mean. Ultimately, I think it comes back to that magnetism thing that I was talking about. I think that even if you don’t know them, you’re intrigued by them, and being intrigued by them means that they work for the film. I never think of things rationally or intellectually like that. I swear, every single decision I make is just instinct and my instincts tend to be accurate. So, it’s like, ‘This is wrong. This feels bad,’ or, ‘This feels good,’ and Ninja and Yolandi always felt like the right choice to make. I’ll see what happens when the film comes out, but I think audiences will be intrigued by them.
How about including their music? Yolandi’s voice is very distinct so you can hear her loud and clear in the songs. Was it tough to make sure the dialogue and score flowed well together?
BLOMKAMP: The concept was pretty fully formed. In that time that I was making Elysium and I came up with Chappie, it was like, they were in it, the music was in it, it’s a few years from now when their career is dying off and so they are very narcissistic and they would wear their own t-shirts with their faces on it and they would listen to their own music, so it had to work.
How about the choice to set the film just a couple of years from now? I don’t think it explicitly says it in the film, but then I read it in the notes. Is there any reason you chose that and not well into the future?
BLOMKAMP: I guess there’s two answers to that. There’s the thematic answer, which is that, how I view the world is when some child or animal is born into the world, it is a blank slate and it doesn’t have any preconceived idea about what good and evil is. It doesn’t know how to manipulate people or deceive people, but the world will do that to it, and if someone isn’t looking out for it, it will be manipulated and horrible things could happen to it until it gets old enough that it can protect itself. I always think of this idea of innocence born into violence and born into chaos. If that is the theme that you’re trying to convey, if you put it far in the future, you’re undoing the theme. You’re not undoing it, but you’re making it cloudy and difficult to see because now people are looking at spaceships and vehicles and stuff. They’re not looking at contemporary life. So that’s the thematic reason. On a technical level, I think we need a couple of years. We probably need five years to build robots like that. Like, Boston Dynamics – I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the military stuff that they have – they’re close, but they’re not there yet. So probably like five years to a decade away.
BLOMKAMP: Those were really easy to do actually. I always loved those though. I didn’t know how the audience would respond to those, but I always thought that those would make for such a – it has like an 80’s film vibe about it. There’s something about it that I love, but they were really easy. WETA just designed them based on off-the-shelf stuff. I don’t know if you actually saw the PS4. He’s using like, radar tech, it’s like Xbox Connect. That’s on his head, on Dexter’s head, so he knows where he is in 3D space. The artists at WETA just sketched him up quickly, I approved it quickly and then they built him really quickly and then he arrived in South Africa and he was remote control and everyone loved him.
Did you work with WETA when you did the test footage for this at all?
BLOMKAMP: Which test footage?
I read in the notes that after you came up with the idea, you had to shoot some test footage to make sure that the plan for Chappie worked.
BLOMKAMP: I should read those notes. I’m really curious about that. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You said some great stuff in there!
BLOMKAMP: I should check that out. I’m gonna have to look at that. I did shoot test footage. I almost always do something like that, but I think of that as more for me.
BLOMKAMP: No, you don’t need to prove it to the studio. It lets me get stuff right in my head. And actually, it evolved because the way that I shot it was, photographically, it was like District 9, which was a complete screw-up, which I shouldn’t have done and I didn’t do, and the movie that I shot was much more stable camera, dolly, technocrane stuff. That’s why I did it. I learned from it. WETA didn’t do the test footage. All of the robot in the movie is Image Engine in Vancouver. They also did the test stuff. It was a good learning curve for them.
How about going from the way you did VFX in District 9 to this?
BLOMKAMP: It’s the same system.
Has there been any growth?
BLOMKAMP: Yeah, there’s a lot of advancements, but they’re behind-the-scenes. So, to production and to making the film, there’s no change. You just put the actor in the room. The difference is, when you’re dealing with very expensive films like Planet of the Apes or Avatar or Pirates of the Caribbean – although, I don’t think Avatar needed to do this. The other films did – when you have computer generated characters in live-action, like Chappie, normally what happens is the VFX company puts up motion capture cameras in a real life setting.
Like, say we’re in a hotel room and you have a robot, you put them up here but now after lunch, we’re gonna move to the stadium in New York. So, all of these motion capture set-ups have to be moved across there and recalibrated. Your schedule gets elongated because of that, right? And then, to make matters worse, when you take this footage that these cameras gathered – so now, I shot it on a RED camera or an Alexa as my film camera – these out of frame cameras capture the motion of the actor. When they load that motion into the computers to do VFX later, that motion isn’t perfect. It’s very jittery and it’s not totally dialed in. So then you spend a lot of clean-up time and a lot of animation time to get it to the point where it looks smooth and it looks good. So with District 9 and with Chappie, it’s like, why not just skip that phase? Because you’re gonna be doing animation anyway, and just shoot the actor knowing that you’re going to basically trace animate on top of them. So the process is the same for both films.
How about deleted scenes? Is there anything we can look forward to seeing on a DVD?
BLOMKAMP: No, there’s nothing, really. No. See, the thing is, I don’t believe in director’s cuts and I also don’t really believe in deleted scenes because the movie that is in theaters, that’s what the director made. If you didn’t get it right and then you have to release a director’s cut to undo what the studio made you release, I don’t know, either it’s some marketing thing for them to get more money or the director didn’t do his job. I don’t know which is which. Deleted scenes are like in a middle gray zone. It’s like, well, they’re deleted because they’re not good or you lost the battle and you couldn’t put them in the movie. Both of them feel weird to me, but in Chappie there was one shot in the entire movie that I struggled with massively. I won’t give away when it is. I guess it will just be on the Blu-ray. But ultimately what it’s about is this, it’s about how given Chappie’s character and what he does to Vincent, how far should he go? Because at a certain point, he’ll lose the audience. And so it was like a debate where it’s like, ‘Is that too much? Should it be in?’ And ultimately, it was like, ‘Let him be the innocent character. Let him not go too far.’ But I really struggled with that, so that’s the only single thing that will be in the Blu-ray.
Can you tell me about making the transition from Elysium to this? Elysium did well, but when you start with something as incredible as District 9, it’s almost inevitable that many will say, ‘Well, it’s not as good as the other one.’ Did you feel any pressure to return to particular things like the feeling and the characters you delivered in District 9 that viewers loved so much?
BLOMKAMP: I don’t feel it in the way that you’re describing it. The way I think of it is, as an artist, you either get it right or you get it wrong. My own standards that I’ll hold myself to is if the product that I’m making feels honest and it feels like I didn’t compromise and it just came from an honest, correct place, right? Whether the audience likes it or not is out of my control. I think Chappie feels honest to me. It feels like I just made the film that I should make. I think that Elysium didn’t have that honesty. There were a lot of complexities to it, which I hold myself accountable for but you have to learn. You have to grow as an artist, right? So where that takes you is like two or three films from now, I could make something that feels totally honest that audiences hate. But that’s the only compass that you have is to make stuff that you feel is the best representation of you and your ideas and that there’s no bullshit. It’s just an honest portrayal of what you wanted out there. So, in that sense, Chappie is closer to District 9 because it feels that way.
Before we have to wrap up, I wanted to ask you about the Alien concept art because it seems like the stuff you have in mind is what I’d want from a new Alien movie. Did you just do that for fun or was there any specific reason for you to be doing that?
BLOMKAMP: No, no, no. There was a reason. I wanted to make that film. I still may make that film. [Laughs] It may happen. But I did it on my own time. Like when Chappie was winding down in post and I had available time, I started to work on it. It was also from talking to Sigourney during the making of this. I mean, I asked her about Alien all the time. Alien and Aliens are my favorite films. So I genuinely wanted to make that film, I came up with the story, I came up with way more art than I put out and I never officially spoke to Fox about it, but Fox wanted to make it. So, I kind of touched on it and I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know if I was just gonna go leave directing for a whole bunch of time and then I was like, ‘I might as well put some art out.’ But I may make it. I don’t know. That’s where it stands.*
*NOTE: This interview was conducted before the Alien project was announced as Blomkamp’s next film.