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It’s been 12 years since Neill Blomkamp made one of the splashiest feature film debuts ever by way of District 9. The South African-Canadian director’s sci-fi action film garnered four Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and made seven times its production budget at the box office, tallying $212 million. As a protege of Peter Jackson, Blomkamp has since released 2013’s Elysium and 2015’s Chappie, and he’s also had brushes with several franchises including Alien, RoboCop and Halo at various points. But as of now, Blomkamp recognizes that original storytelling is where he’s best suited.
“I think I feel more at home with ideas that are not based on large IP. Just fresh stuff, basically,” Blomkamp tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s probably wise because there’s less pre-existing knowledge of what people think the IP should be.”
Blomkamp is certainly willing to expand on his own IP as he’s currently hard at work on the long-awaited District 9 sequel, District 10. While the script is still being written, Blomkamp already knows that he won’t make the mistake that so many past sequels have made in terms of upping the scale too much.
“I think the approach of the first film is correct; it’s just really a question of the script,” Blomkamp shares. “If there’s slightly more stuff happening in the script, then you need slightly more money. But I think it would still be as stripped-down and bare bones as we could make it. That becomes more nimble and more creative, and personally, I like that.”
Blomkamp has always wanted to self-finance a horror movie, and 2020 finally allowed him the time and opportunity to do so in the form of IFC Midnight’s Demonic. The film, which stars long-time collaborator Carly Pope, centers around Carly, who reconnects with her estranged, comatose mother via a virtual mindscape. While Carly seeks answers for their lifelong rift, she ends up releasing supernatural forces that alter her perspective on her relationship with her mother. To illustrate the simulation scenes, Blomkamp utilized volumetric capture technology, which he expects to grow in popularity.
“Volumetric capture is a process that is almost like a three-dimensional stage play,” Blomkamp explains. “Volumetric capture is really insane because you’re capturing [the actor’s] motion, but you’re also capturing them in hair/makeup and wardrobe. It’s like a hologram. It’s a three-dimensional piece of video. It’s very new technology, which is why the resolution isn’t great, but over time, I think it’s going to become very mainstream. You can capture your actors in 3D and then drop them into completely computer-generated environments, seamlessly, and I think many directors are going to be doing that.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Blomkamp also discusses his short films made under his Oats Studios banner, and given his background in VFX and 3D animation, he assesses the state of VFX in major studio films.
So what sparked the idea for Demonic?
I’m not really sure. I think it was a case of wanting to shoot a self-financed, small horror film at some point in my career, and the pandemic just provided the right timing for that to happen.
What were you referencing as you developed this movie?
Weirdly, I wasn’t really referencing anything. I can’t remember anything that I was looking at as reference, but I was using a bunch of separate, disparate ideas that were brought together for the film. I wanted to use volumetric capture, and I wanted to have demonic possession as a horror trope. So they just all went into a melting pot.
You first worked with your lead actor, Carly Pope, on Elysium. Did the two of you hit it off on that set, thus explaining your four other collaborations together?
Yeah, all of the Oats [Studios] stuff and all of the short films is really where I spent a lot of time with Carly. I really liked working with her and I knew that she was really talented. And I also knew that she would have the right mentality for something that would be low budget and difficult to film. So I knew that she’d be a real team player, and as I was putting it together in a paranormal activity kind of sense, I went in knowing that she should be the lead. I was just speaking to her about this the other day. There was this insane costume session that happened for the Oats stuff, and it was all crazy improv. So I think it was in that that she came into everything that we did with Oats. I knew immediately that I really liked her on Elysium and that I’d probably work with her in the future, but I think it was all of the improv stuff that she was doing in the Oats’ casting session that drove me to want to work with her some more. And then we just went from there.
For the simulation scenes, I’ve seen some people compare the volumetric capture technology to rotoscope animation, but I get the impression that they’re at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
Yeah, rotoscoping is totally separate from this. Volumetric capture is a process that is almost like a three-dimensional stage play. If you think of motion capture, that assigns the actor’s motion to another avatar that’s built in 3D — maybe it looks like the actor, or a werewolf, or a dinosaur. Whatever that CG object is, you take their motion and you apply it, but you’re capturing their motion in motion capture. Volumetric capture is really insane because you’re capturing their motion, but you’re also capturing them in hair/makeup and wardrobe. It’s like a hologram. It’s a three-dimensional piece of video. And once you have that, you can drop it into any environment you want. It’s very new technology, which is why the resolution isn’t great, but over time, I think it’s going to become very mainstream. You can capture your actors in 3D and then drop them into completely computer-generated environments, seamlessly, and I think many directors are going to be doing that.
Did you end up with a lot of ideas for the black-ops exorcists beyond just this movie?
Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. If we were to make more movies in this world at higher budget levels — not necessarily a sequel — you could do really interesting stuff. If you imagine mass murderers or people who are, in fact, demonically possessed and are operating at very high political levels, the Vatican would have to scale up their priest black ops to be able to get to those people who are heavily defended. So you could go in some pretty interesting ways, for sure.
You’ve spent time with some beloved properties like Alien, RoboCop and Halo, but it seems like they led to a lot of hurdles and headaches. Thus, as alluring as franchises are, do you feel more at home in the indie space?
I don’t think I feel more at home in the indie space. I think I feel more at home with ideas that are not based on large IP. Just fresh stuff, basically. It’s probably wise because there’s less pre-existing knowledge of what people think the IP should be.
As referenced earlier, you make a lot of short films via your studio, Oats. According to the Internet, these shorts are meant to test the waters for what you could expand into a feature. Is this true?
No, not at all. Nothing from Oats should ever find itself in Hollywood — in any way, shape or form.
People still talk about the VFX in District 9, especially when you consider the budget, and the way you shot the movie certainly played a key role, as did the creature design. With that in mind, what’s your impression of VFX in most major studio movies these days? Do VFX budgets need to be as big as they are? Could things be more efficient like you achieved in District 9?
That’s an interesting question. You could definitely make things more efficiently. There’s no question that you don’t need the expenditure that the big franchise movies use. But as everything shifts towards at-home streaming with fewer and fewer theatrical releases, I think that the theatrical releases that happen are probably going to be more event-driven, giant spectacles to get people to go to theaters. So I think it actually is economically justifiable to go really big on the stuff that people are going to watch in movie theaters, as a reason to differentiate it from what you’re getting at home. So, yes, it could be more efficient, but I also understand why it’s happening, economically.
So I’ve read some of your recent quotes about District 10 and how the script is coming along nicely. Out of curiosity, would you opt for the same scope and scale as the first film?
I think the approach of the first film is correct; it’s just really a question of the script. If there’s slightly more stuff happening in the script, then you need slightly more money. But I think it would still be as stripped-down and bare bones as we could make it. That becomes more nimble and more creative, and personally, I like that.
What constitutes a good day for you on set? Is it more than just making your days?
Yeah, for sure. Shooting is a constant state of compromise. You have a psychological construct of what you think you’re trying to get, and through the chaos of reality where time is stripping away, lighting is changing, the sun is moving and the weather is changing, you’re rushed in and out of scenes because you are trying to make the day. So as you are compromising through that, maybe once a day there’s stuff where you go, “I got that really close to what I had in my head,” and it’s satisfying. So you’re just aiming for a preconceived idea and you try to get as close to it as you can. And sometimes, you do.
What was one of those days on the Demonic set?
My primary goal for the movie was to create this feeling of dread and a sense of brooding tension. And there were moments where some of the slow push-ins on Carly were achieving that. They just felt good.
There’s a scene where Carly meets up with Martin (Chris William Martin) for a beer and a coke, and the wind was quite strong that day. Are you the kind of director who embraces the elements no matter what they are on the day?
Definitely. It just makes it feel more real to me. It’s the same thing as people not really eating in movies; it drives me insane. You just want a level of realism, and realism comes from things like uncontrollable gusts of wind. It just makes it feel more real to me.
Empty coffee cups still drive me crazy. You can always tell when an actor is carrying an empty cup because it moves in a way that a full cup wouldn’t allow. You can also tell by the sound it makes when they set it down on something. At least put some water or a weight in the cup.
(Laughs.) Yeah, there’s less inertia, and the fluid would also be sloshing out of it. It’s a two-pronged physics error, basically. That’s hilarious.
So was there a contortionist on set at one point, or was that some kind of CG trickery?
(Laughs.) There was zero CG there. That was entirely in-camera. He’s an awesome performer named Troy James and he’s from Toronto. I just love that guy, and he did everything in-camera.
It’s one thing for Warner Bros. to shoot during the pandemic, but it’s a totally different ballgame for an indie like Demonic. Can you speak to those challenges?
One of the challenges was just the fact that we’d never gone through it before. I don’t think there was any production that we could reference. It was so early that it wasn’t clear about exactly the most efficient way to do things. So we got a list of protocols and requirements from the unions, we stuck to them, and we figured it out as we went. We also had union reps who came on set to make sure things were okay, but it was pretty early on and we definitely felt like we were trying to figure it out as we were going.
So do you have several projects in the works at the moment? Is there one that’s in the lead right now?
Both of those statements are true. There’s a bunch that I’m working on, but there’s one that’s hopefully quite close to happening. I just can’t really talk about it.
Demonic is available in theaters and on digital Aug. 20 from IFC Midnight.
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