‘District 9’ director Neill Blomkamp: “At its height, COVID felt like science fiction”

The master of social sci-fi is back with a lockdown-shot possession horror – he takes us inside his virtual reality

If anyone was prepared for 2020, it was Neill Blomkamp. Having spent his career building dystopian worlds and alt-reality futures with landmark sci-fi like District 9, Elysium and Chappie, the sudden global sweep of a pandemic that put everyone at the end of a webcam must have seemed like just another day at the office.

“It’s so hilarious, people always describe Chappie as a dystopian film but that was literally just Johannesburg!” laughs the South African director, Zooming in from his studio workshop in Canada, surrounded by models of gunships, helmets and weapons. “But yeah, this last year has been interesting. When we were in the height of it, it felt like we were in some sort of science fictionalised version of reality that was just tilted a bit off to the side. And I’m definitely used to that!”

With just three films under his belt, Blomkamp’s name has been synonymous with sci-fi since before he even started making films. Tipped to direct an adaptation of video game blockbuster Halo after getting the attention of Peter Jackson with nothing but his commercial reel, Blomkamp made District 9 in 2009 instead – following it up with two more original sci-fis of his own while high-profile scripts for Halo, Alien and RoboCop reboots famously came and went.

“There’s no way I would have made ‘Demonic’ if it wasn’t for COVID”

Now returning after a hiatus in which he set up his own production company, the director is finally releasing his long-awaited fourth film, taking a side-step into horror for the first time with Demonic. Not that it was ever planned that way…

“There’s just no way I would have made this film if it wasn’t for COVID,” says Blomkamp, talking about his latest film like other people talk about their new lockdown hobbies. “With other stuff not happening, for one reason or another, I wanted to make a smaller horror film during the pandemic and I hit on this idea of glitchy virtual reality technology being used by coma patients. What would happen if you put a demon into that? Would the coma patient be possessed or not? Where’s the demon in relation to them, inside of their mind? Is it in the simulation?”

Sure enough, Demonic is a very Neill Blomkamp horror movie – as obsessed with weird tech, shadowy corporate conspiracies and future war ethics as his other films, only this time he has the opportunity to poke into some far darker corners. Called to a private hospital to coax her estranged mother through a trial coma treatment, Carly (Elysium, Suits) reluctantly agrees to strap herself into an experimental machine that lets her step into a virtual world inside her mum’s head. The only problem? Her mum is possessed by an evil, soul-sucking demon.

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Behind-the-scenes on Blomkamp’s new horror ‘Demonic’. CREDIT: Signature Entertainment

“You know I actually really enjoyed it,” laughs Blomkamp, happy to flex his horror muscles on a film he planned, shot and edited under the radar in the middle of lockdown. “I wasn’t sure whether I would be successful or not. But every single choice that I made was based on trying to create something that had this layer of dread running underneath the imagery the whole time. I knew if I could make the audience feel unsettled, it would be a win, so that’s what I was going for. There’s no quirkiness or sassy, satirical nature to it. It’s much more straightforward than the other films that I’ve done. It’s a much more restrained form of filmmaking, and I really enjoyed it.”

Of course, Blomkamp’s definition of “restrained” is very different than most – and the film still contains 12-15 minutes of uninterrupted digital effects, with Carly’s scenes inside the psychological simulation staged using more CGI than the director’s other three films combined.

“It cracks me up every time I think about it!” laughs Blomkamp. “For a super low-budget horror film we have some of the most cutting edge VFX in the business. But the process we used for the simulation scenes is this relatively new process called ‘volumetric capture’, based on an age-old computer graphics technique called ‘photogrammetry’.” Trying to make us understand how it all works using his webcam, a marker pen and a coffee cup, Blomkamp explains how objects are photographed from different angles, at 24 frames a second, to create a digital rendition of a real set.

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Blomkamp hasn’t released a film since 2015’s critically mauled ‘Chappie’. CREDIT: Signature Entertainment

“With motion capture and performance capture, like we see in Avatar, you capture your actor’s facial and body movements and assign them to an object that an animator has designed, like a Na’vi creature [the blue extraterrestrials which populate the world of Avatar],” he explains. “But in this volumetric capture you bring your actor in, in full hair and makeup and costume, just like a stage play, and then you capture the play in three dimensions so it’s like a piece of holographic video, all built in a video game engine.”

Embracing the “glitchy-ness” that’s found in the raw data that’s spat straight out of the computer, Blomkamp was keen to keep as many imperfections in place as possible to add to the feeling of uneasiness you get when you watch it. “I love all weird holes, all those times where you can see through the actors, with their hair popping all over the place,” he laughs. “Sometimes I moved the camera to make sure the audience could really see just how fucked up it was. It [was another way] to unsettle the audience.”

Stepping into her mother’s virtual mind, Carly uncovers a labyrinth of dark secrets inside the simulation before encountering the terrifying demon that’s keeping her chained to the past – a chance for Blomkamp to build a creature that combined old-fashioned practical puppet effects and future-tech experimentation.

“I wanted to unsettle as many people as possible”

“The demon was by far the easiest creature design that I’ve been involved with,” he says, speaking about a monster that resembles a giant evil bird – part Dark Crystal muppet, part Silent Hill nightmare. “On some sort of deep psychological level I just knew I wanted it to be a raven, like a two-legged humanoid bird. I was also looking at a lot of those plague masks with the long noses.

“We built a real suit for the very tall actor [who plays the demon], and then we took that into the volume capture hub with our super high-tech 260 camera setup. It felt like a lo-fi 1980s approach but with 3D geometry – and that was pretty satisfying and cool. I kind of love that creature… Part of me thinks the audience might reject the beak and think it looks kind of goofy, but then I also think it stands a chance of being properly terrifying.”

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‘Demonic’ sees a woman battle terrifying supernatural forces. CREDIT: Signature Entertainment

For Blomkamp, second-guessing the audience has always been the toughest part of his job. He exploded onto the scene with District 9 and Elysium before crashing back down to Earth with Chappie, a film that got dragged through the critical mill with a lead CGI robot star compared to Star Wars pariah Jar Jar Binks in a dozen different reviews. Ending with a tease for a second film, it’s a sequel Blomkamp doesn’t want anything to do with.

“You know, honestly, everything to do with Chappie is so negative to me that it’s hard to describe how little I would want to ever make a sequel to it or do anything else in that world,” he says. “But what is interesting is that I saw it again a few months ago and I totally loved it. It’s a strange movie. It’s weird on all levels. It shouldn’t exist. But it was exactly what I wanted to make, and I love that about Chappie. But I don’t want to go anywhere near it again. Ever!”

Spending the last few years setting up Oats Studios, the independent film production company headquartered in Canada that specialises in experimental sci-fi shorts (think Black Mirror with more edge), Blomkamp has always seen himself as a Hollywood outsider – even when he’s being courted by producers for some of the biggest franchises around. Famously attached to many major titles that have all fallen through, including an Alien sequel that was officially green-lit before being shelved again, Blomkamp now sees his future resting firmly in his own hands – with original properties and unique scripts that aren’t tied up in the mess of existing franchises and audience expectations.

“‘District 10’ is far into the writing stage”

“I’m in a relatively good headspace about all that now,” he smiles. “I don’t know if [other projects falling through] has soured my perception of the big studios, but it has made me weary of IP that isn’t controlled by me. It’s hard to say it, but I’m pretty sure Alien is just a distant memory now. But I mean, who knows? The longer I’m in this industry, and the older I get, the more I realise that these things can take decades. But at the moment I have zero expectations that Alien will ever turn into anything. Fox had no interest in making that version, so despite James Cameron loving the script, and despite Sigourney Weaver wanting to do it, it didn’t make sense to them. I think it was a symptom of a whole bunch of different things that were happening simultaneously.”

Next up for Blomkamp is Inferno, the extra-terrestrial murder mystery that would have been shot in place of Demonic if COVID hadn’t got in the way. After that, he’s onto the only sequel he is interested in making, District 10.

“For a decade there never really seemed to be a good reason to make a sequel,” he says. “It just didn’t feel like there was a justifiable reason to go back to that world in a way where there was something to actually say. All of the experience of my adolescence growing up in South Africa was defined by what District 9 said, and that was the end of it. But I saw a documentary about a well-known socio-political topic two years ago and that had a massive effect on me – it made me understand how this sequel could have a real reason for existing. The second that clicked, I just began working. It’s far into the writing stage now, and it’s going pretty well, but I’m just super creatively into what we’ve come up with and I just want to throw everything into it.”

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‘District 9’ was nominated for four Oscars in 2009. CREDIT: Signature Entertainment

In the meantime, Blomkamp’s biggest worry is what audiences are going to make of Demonic. Still burnt by his experience on Chappie, and knowing that every review is going to end up comparing anything he ever makes to District 9, Blomkamp has given up predicting what works and what doesn’t.

“I haven’t really seen it yet with anyone except friends and family so, to be honest, I have fuck all idea how it’s going to be received!” he laughs. “I’d love to watch it with people and actually see how it all goes, but COVID has made that super hard – I couldn’t even do a cast and crew screening. But I also think maybe I’m tainted now… I have to accept that it could just completely bomb. But I know that the goal was clear, and that was just to have this continuously dark brooding energy underneath the whole film. I wanted to unsettle as many people as possible. And it’s like… I tried. I tried really hard to do that!”

Demonic arrives in UK cinemas and on Premium Digital on August 27