Neill Blomkamp was a movie-effects obsessed high school kid when he started working for Sharlto Copley's South African production company. Years later, when it came time to direct his first feature, "District 9," Blomkamp made the unusual but inspired decision to cast Copley in the lead role of what became a science fiction classic.
Now the two are back with Blomkamp's second feature, "Elysium," which stars Matt Damon as a troubled parolee on a ruined future Earth who fights his way up to the title space station where the privileged Point One Percent live idyllic lives in McMansions with high tech health care. Copley plays a depraved enforcer named Kruger employed by the Elysians to keep the Earthian masses in line and far, far away from outer space.
Copley, who has gone on to a thriving acting career in such films as "The A-Team," the current release "Europa Report" and the upcoming "Oldboy" and "Maleficent," will be back for more in Blomkamp's next feature, "Chappie." They discuss their unique collaboration below.
Q Neill, what did you see in Sharlto that you thought made him right for movies?
Blomkamp: In real life, he's always doing different personalities. He's extremely charismatic and boisterous.
Q Did you enjoy playing such a flat-out horrible person in "Elysium"?
Copley: I've heard so many actors say that it's more fun to play villains, but it definitely wasn't for me. That may be because I've played fun characters before, so this one was the hardest of them. A couple of things were a little bit difficult for me to go there, as it were. But I'm glad that people seem intimidated and sort of creeped-out by him.
Q In "District 9," your character painfully mutated into a giant alien cockroach. In "Elysium," you get banged around in an uncomfortable-looking exoskeleton and we won't even mention what happens to your face. Ever wonder why Neill keeps doing all these terrible things to you?
Copley: Please ask him! I think he takes a kind of warped satisfaction in it. This time, it was relatively mild, actually, compared to what happened to me on "District 9." But there was a place that was affectionately named Poo River down in Mexico, which was the worst part of the dump possible. And I'm the only one that he actually took there; I think he thought taking Matt there might make him quit. It was horrendous. We couldn't be there for too long. But it's where you see Kruger in the beginning, shooting the rocket launcher.
Q Why shoot at a Mexican landfill?
Blomkamp: What I was trying to do was, basically, put America on the other side of the fence. Have America dilapidated and reduced to the same level as parts of Tijuana. So Mexico City just made a lot of sense. It's closest to future L.A., I think. We looked at thousands of cities and took a long time to decide on it.
Q Do you think there will be complaints that the movie's dystopian future L.A. is primarily Spanish-speaking?
Blomkamp: It's meant to be the inverse. Statistically, if you look at numbers of where people come from, it would be predominantly Spanish (here). It was more like attacking it from a perspective of how you present a world that feels real.
I get what you're saying, that it's like "Neill is saying that future L.A., which is damaged and dystopian, is Spanish, which is bad." But it's more this is my version of flipping the lens, where now this is what it feels like to be in Mexico, looking at the border.
Q What do you think of these underlying ideas in Neill's work?
Copley: It's sort of refreshing in an environment where everything now that's a big spectacle film has to be based on some sort of existing franchise. I can understand it, sort of, on one level, but I do find it immensely frustrating as just a viewer and lover of movies. So I find Neill's work extremely refreshing, and it's intelligent. The layer of intelligence and depth to his stuff, I appreciate.
And he's an artist. He can design any of those spaceships or any of those robots or any of those things entirely by himself. He's a very ingenious visual effects artist. And in his earliest design work, there was kind of a soulfulness that's very hard to explain, but that's the only way I can phrase it, like soulful science fiction.
Q Do you consider yourself an artist or a social commentator first?
Blomkamp: Design is probably my favorite part of filmmaking. And I'm a pretty staunch believer that films don't really change anything whatsoever. Any ideas you put in there, anything that could be considered political or not of the typical Hollywood blockbuster fare ,is really still going to have no effect. If you're OK with that, then you can use interesting topics as a basis for building entertainment on top of. These topics just interest me, and it's a very organic thing.
Q Obviously, "District 9" was a metaphor for apartheid. How would you describe "Elysium's" sociopolitical symbolism?
Blomkamp: "District 9" was very directly a metaphor. "Elysium" is a metaphor for many different things that are happening on Earth right now. It was meant to raise questions more than "District 9." Like, if you have finite resources and most of the world's population doesn't have access to them but wants them, how do you deal with that? Do you allow the resources to be dispersed, because that equal dispersion will result in a huge drop from where they came from. The film doesn't pose any answer to that huge question; I don't think any Hollywood summer film in history has given an answer to that.