Both Jodie Foster and Matt Damon said that upon seeing writer/director Neill Blomkamp's first film, District 9, they immediately knew they wanted to work with this new filmmaker. However, the opportunity arose sooner than either anticipated with Elysium, Neill Blomkamp's second sci-fi film.
"I saw District 9 and I jumped up and said, 'This is a perfect film. I want to find this guy.' That’s actually what happened," explained Foster. "A little bit after that, I saw the script for Elysium and, lo and behold, there was a role for a woman. I was like, 'It sounds good to me!'"
Neill Blomkamp, Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley Elysium Press Conference
You been so secretive about this film, Neill. What can you say about it now?
Neill Blomkamp: "It’s a film about an orbital space station that has the rich living on it, and Earth is diseased and has been left behind with the money and the resources having left. Matt is from Earth and Jodie is from the space station."
What sort of themes are you addressing with the rich versus the poor storyline?
Neill Blomkamp: "The film definitely has elements of the haves and the have nots, and the discrepancy in wealth that seems to be a widening gap. But, hopefully it is a film where that is woven into the tapestry of the story in a way that feels like an organic science fiction thrill ride. The themes are touched upon, hopefully in a fairly realistic, not over-the-top way."
Jodie Foster: "It’s a tough trick to be able to create an intelligent movie that has socio-political commentary and also has the emotional and moving stuff at the same time. That’s something that Neill does. This film is very different than District 9 and addresses some of those issues in a very different way, but they share that mixture of sensibilities."
Matt Damon: "I think it, first and foremost, will be really entertaining and really work on that level. It certainly has a lot of relevance. Funnily enough, the whole terminology of the 99% and the 1% wasn’t even there when we started. I just remember Neill, the first time I met him, said, 'I grew up in South Africa and I immigrated to Canada when I was 18. And to go from the third world to the first world, at that age, absolutely changed the way that I look at the world.' The sci-fi world and the gore is all the stuff that he loves, so what he’s thinking about gets expressed that way."
Can you make any comparisons between the statement this film is making with the rich and the poor, and how celebrities are treated different from regular people?
Jodie Foster: "I don’t know if there’s much to compare. I think celebrity culture and social commentary with disparate wealth can be compared."
Matt Damon: "My character is trying to get to the space station because he’s dying and he wants to get there because they have health care. They have these med bays that you lie in and get completely healed. So, he’s desperate."
Sharlto, you did various updates on your Facebook page during District 9. Will you be doing anything like that for this film?
Sharlto Copley: "No. I was able to do that on District 9 just because it was a smaller project that I was involved with right from the beginning. This one was teams of people doing the behind-the-scenes pictures and stuff."
Neill Blomkamp: "But you can do it, once it comes out, dude. That would be cool."
What do you think the world will really be like in 2154?
Matt Damon: "Well, I probably won’t be here. But I don’t even think this would be, necessarily, Neill’s vision of what the world would really look like in 140 years. This is just a dystopian fantasy. It’s a thought exercise that he went on where he just looked at where he grew up and where he lives now and what’s going on now, in terms of disparate wealth and the increasing gap. What if that kept happening for another 140 years? What would that look like?"
Neill Blomkamp: "That’s completely accurate. Science fiction for the sake of science fiction, if it’s about science, is not really what this film is about. It’s more about using the imagery as an extrapolation of what the idea is. Does Elysium feel entirely realistic as the year 2154? It’s probably not entirely realistic. It has elements that may be semi-realistic, but most of it comes from how you turn theme into visuals and into an idea. It’s somewhat a play on not a perfectly exact representation of the future, in my particular book. It’s more devoid of technology than it would be in 2154, even if the money was pulled out."
Jodie Foster: "There are lots of futurists that spend their whole life trying to figure out who we’re going to be in 40, 50, 60, 100 years. That’s the great thing about science fiction. When you look at The Matrix, 15 years ago, I feel like we’re living that now. Obviously, it’s allegorical so they took it to a different extreme, but we are plugged in and living virtual lives and have all of our connectivity done virtually. We don’t have body connectivity anymore. That actually came true, which I thought was amazing that they came up with that before any of that stuff was really around."
"What would I like to happen? We all talk about our fears and what’s going to happen, but there are good things, too. What the digital age has offered us, in terms of connectivity and transparency, is that all of these people from weird places in the world are all talking to each other at four in the morning, and are sharing ideas. There’s more openness than has ever been known, so that’s a good thing."
Neill, what was it like to work with a bigger budget this time around?
Neill Blomkamp: "Making this film was as enjoyable as making District 9. Maybe fractionally more enjoyable because politically it was more stable. It wasn’t scary. Basically, I had an easy time because the performances are just really good. Your job, as a director, is incredibly limited. You just go to get coffee and watch the video assist monitors while other people work. It was easy is my bottom line. Hanging out with Sharlto [Copley] in a slightly different context was cool. There were moments when it definitely felt like we were doing parts of District 9 again."
Matt, what did you learn from making this film?
Matt Damon: "A lot of it was really interesting. I learned a lot. Every time I work with a great director, I just learn a lot. Every day was really interesting. The level of detail that Neill had gone into was just really great. The first time I met him, he gave me this whole graphic novel, and a different book with weapons systems and vehicles. I looked at that stuff and went home and told my wife, 'There is no way I’m going to let this get away. I have to do this!' And we planned our whole life around it because of it."
"I feel really lucky. After I saw D9, Neill immediately went to the top of the list of people that I wanted to work with. I feel lucky that it came around so quickly to me."
What can you say about the characters you play in this?
Matt Damon: "I play a guy on Earth who’s just hoping to some day go to Elysium, like everybody on Earth."
Sharlto Copley: "I play a guy called Krueger. When I read the script, I said to Neill, 'If I could be in this movie, this is the guy that I would want to do.' He’s a special forces/black ops guy that hides out on Earth and essentially works for Jodie’s organization. When Jodie and the other politicians can’t solve problems by peaceful negotiation and chats, they call my guy on Earth and he deals with the problems. It was something very different for me. The last time I had seen a really entertaining villain that I liked was Heath Ledger’s Joker. I thought with this character that there was the opportunity to do something that didn’t take itself too seriously. He’s still very dark and very intimidating, but hopefully has a certain level of charisma. I wanted to present something that audiences really have never seen, thanks to Neill. Neill let me do my improv thing, as I do every now and then, and really gave me a chance to do something different. Hopefully, people will enjoy it."
Jodie Foster: "I play a political figure who is very interested in keeping the habitat pure and trying to save it from those pesky earthlings."
Neill, will audiences find hope in the future you’re presenting?
Neill Blomkamp: "No. Look at War of the Worlds. The debate between utopias and dystopic science fiction is pretty evenly balanced. Maybe there is slightly less utopian stuff now, but the bad versions have been around for a long time, too. Maybe there is a need to inject back some of the utopia. People that really are speculative science fiction fans want to get it right. Why don’t we see more of trans-humanism and all of the opportunities that we have with technology in cinema? It’s boring because there’s no conflict, really. If there was a way to keep the utopian element and write in conflict, it would be appealing. I just don’t know what that is right now."
Neill, why did it take three years for you to finish this film after doing District 9?
Neill Blomkamp: "That’s tough to answer. I think I started writing a treatment for this at the end of 2009 and by the time I finish the film, which is in November, it’s precisely three years. But, I’ve been working solidly, all the time. It’s not a $200 million film or a $300 million film, but it seems to be exponentially greater than District 9, in terms of just how much stuff there is in the film. There are so many different pieces and elements and ideas, and the amount of stuff we had to design and build, and the kind of visual effects we’re doing, is just this absolutely relentless process. You just have to bulldoze through it. So, I’ve been working. I’m sorry it wasn’t quicker, but it’s just taken that long. There hasn’t been any roadblocks. It just took that long."
Sharlto Copley: "He also wrote another film at the same time."
Neill Blomkamp: "Yeah, in 2010 we wrote another film simultaneously. That just spontaneously happened, but I don’t know how much time it took away from Elysium."
What was that other film you wrote in 2010?
Neill Blomkamp: "I was writing Elysium and I had this idea for this film, so I wrote it with Terri [Tatchell], who wrote District 9 with me. I was writing Elysium on my own, and I came up with this original idea. Within literally about three weeks, it was done. It was simultaneous. I would just write that with her when I felt like it, and then I would write Elysium on my own, and bounce between them. It was a fairly full-formed idea, so it was quite easy to jot down. It’s much more simplistic than Elysium, in terms of concept. It’s just a much more simple thing. It’s a science fiction comedy thing. That’s about as far as I can go with it. "
For the actors, what was the key to finding your characters?
Jodie Foster: "That’s a tough one. I don’t know. I haven’t seen the movie. None of us have seen the film. Matt may have seen bits and pieces, but none of us have seen it so we’re going to be as surprised as you are. Interestingly, when you do films, sometimes you have conscious reasons, things that you were looking for or stuff that you were trying to do. And then you see the film and you think, 'Wow, it ended up being something totally different!'"
Matt Damon: "That’s a tough one to answer. My character is dying, imminently, so that’s probably what’s driving a lot of what he does. The acting stems from the imminent death. That was most of the direction I would get. 'So, what am I thinking here?' 'Well, dude, you’re gonna die!'"
Sharlto Copley: "The key for me with playing a villain was being able to access two parts of myself, because it was very different from roles that I’ve played before. One was growing up in a very hard environment, in a very dangerous place, where I’d been involved in violent things happening and seen a lot of violence happening around me, and to be able to be comfortable with the understanding that there is a certain level of violence that exists in the world. And then, secondarily, I had to see the world in a black and white way in the sense that there are people that talk about things, and there are people that actually have to go an execute all of the things that those people talk about. So, the key to my character’s emotional state is that he’s got to go do things that are not necessarily pleasant so that you can all have nicer and safer lives. That’s his thinking. Doing those things that aren’t pleasant can also sometimes mess with your head a little bit. That’s where I had to come from, to be able to play someone that can do the things that he does."
Matt, what did you think when you found out about the look for your character?
Matt Damon: "In that graphic novel that he gave me was a picture of the Max character and he had a very specific look, like every other piece and detail of the whole world that Neill created. If you look at the graphic novel, it’s going to look a lot like the movie is eventually going to look, except the movie will obviously be rendered in much greater detail. But, Max had this certain look. He spent time in prison. He was supposed to have a bald, shaved head with tattoos and he was a muscle-bound guy. I had never really done anything like that, so it seemed like a good fit. And the gun was in the weapons catalog that I got. Like every other gun, Neill and the guys at WETA workshop came up with all these things. They made sense, all of these guns. Some of them have battery packs on and these gnarly weapons that obviously don’t exist in the world that we live in, but you totally buy them when you see them. Just seeing them on set, you’d go, 'That looks like some horrible weapon that someone’s going to invent someday.' It was just that level of detail."
Neill, as a writer, do your films start with the characters or do you create the worlds first?
Neill Blomkamp: "District 9, Elysium and Chappie were all born out of a visual concept first. With District 9, it was wanting to see aliens living in Johannesburg. With Elysium, it was the idea of the separation of rich and poor, and the images of this space station separate from Earth. It was a thematic separation that was visual. With Chappie, it was the imagery of this ridiculous robot character. It’s much more comedy based, in an unusual setting. I think I’m a visual person first, more than anything. They seem to be visual first, really. It’s visuals of ideas."
How to you feel about the higher frame rates and 2D versus 3D?
Neill Blomkamp: "It’s a really complex discussion. If you were to show a child who’s six months old right now a 48 fps film, when they’re 20 it would be as familiar to them as you watching 24 fps HD. It’s very much a generational thing. But, for people that are our age, there may be an alien quality to 48 or 60 fps that distances you from it in a way that I’m waiting to see if the audience gets behind or rejects. It has such a hyper-realism about it that the cinema may be taken away, a little bit. For me, I don’t like it. But, that’s just me, personally. I prefer 24 fps. I definitely prefer 2D over 3D, and that’s a personal preference thing. But, the closer I am to cinema that I grew up with, where I feel like I’m watching a film and I’m in the state of mind that I want to be in when I’m entering a different world, I feel like some of that really crazy hi-res, high frame rate stuff separates me from it. And 3D sometimes has the same affect."
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Elysium hits theaters on August 9, 2013.