Last night Ain't It Cool News held a screening of the much anticipated District 9 in Austin, TX followed by a Q&A with Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp and D9's charismatic star/first time actor Sharlto Copley. It was a tremendous film in its own right, but hearing the behind-the-scenes devotion that went into even the smallest of details made me fall farther in love with this special brand of Peter Jackson produced sci-fi adrenaline that Sony will be releasing in the US on August 14th.
The hour long probing covered everything from what was shot that didn't end up in the film (a 900lb pig launched from a gas powered cannon), to what was written but never shot (including creatures not seen in the film), to what was in the film but never written (the majority of the dialog). I think it's all must-know stuff about what I'm sure will end up being one of the geek community's most talked about films of 2009.
Oh, and don't worry, I've kept the following spoiler free:
On acting and improv versus scripting:
Not only is the star of the film, Sharlto Copley, not a trained actor, but the majority of all the dialog was unscripted improvisation. Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell had certain narrative beats in mind but it was up to Copley and his co-stars to organically meet those beats. A scene would often be run through several takes until Blomkamp was satisfied with the efficiency with which said narrative beats were met.
As a first time actor, Copley felt this progressive rehearsal style was a perfect fit for him, A film producer and director himself, Copley feels too many actors take the job too seriously, which explains why he was willing and eager to do all of the strenuous things Blomkamp kept forcing him to do.
It was at this point that Harry Knowles pointed out that District 9 was like watching a modern day (though more talented) Bruce Campbell come into being. I don't think a better comparison exists. [For those who aren't superfans of the Chin, Harry was referencing how Campbell never set out to be an actor, instead he just wanted to help his best friend Sam Raimi make movies. More often than not that meant stepping in front of the camera and doing all the zany things the 'proper' actors would never do. The result is that gung-ho fearlessness found in some of the most memorable genre films ever made.]
On how a man with no acting experience became the star of a $30 million movie:
Copley became involved with D9 after meeting Blomkamp years prior when he was heavily integrated into the South African entertainment community. When Blomkamp decided to make and set his short film in South Africa, he knew Copley was the first person to call for help as a producer. It was that film, Alive in Joburg, that put Blomkamp on Peter Jackson's radar for the live-action adaptation of the ludicrously popular game Halo.
After Halo fell through due to studio in-fighting, Jackson asked Blomkamp to make another short film so that Jackson could convince others of his faith in the newcomer. No one other than those involved with D9's financing have seen the film, but it was that short (and a graphic novel made by the artists at WETA Workshop, also never seen by the public) that cemented the world of District 9. When Blomkamp arrived in Johannesburg to film the mystery short, Sharlto Copley filled the dual role of producer and star, the latter bit being more a matter of necessity than actual desires to act.
Blomkamp never told his friend that Peter Jackson loved him in the role, so months later it hit Copley completely out of the blue when he was to be the star of District 9.
On launching a 900lb pig with a gas cannon:
There's a sequence in the film involving a particularly badass piece of alien technology, one component of which is a gravity gun put to humorous effect when it's used to launch a normal-sized dead pig into an attacking soldier. What you won't see in the movie is even more bizarre: a 900lb giant pig rocketed into the side of an armored car.
And that gag wasn't just a hypothetical on the page that got cut from the shooting script. The pig was very real and it was very much so shot into an armored car. The production designer for the film found a massive dead sow that was to be used as food for lions at a nearby safari. They bought it, brought it in with a crane, rigged it with a high powered gas cannon and filmed it as scripted.
It was obvious how much Blomkamp reveled in the size of the practical effect, but reluctantly it just didn't cut together well enough in the editing room to end up in the movie. Which is a shame considering it sounded like a total riot, not to mention something one could expect to see on an episode of Mythbusters (according to the director, the enormous pig shattered the bullet proof glass on the poor car it crushed).
On Blomkamp's favorite part of the film:
His favorite part about making the movie was fleshing out the tiny details that are visible in every scene, but that aren't important enough to be a centerpiece for the audience. There exists on a shelf at WETA an encyclopedia of all the props, costume details and general minutia that went into defining the hypothetical universe of District 9 and how each correlates to the next. One example being the barcode every MNU issued firearm (which are painted white so as to appear more PR friendly for the giant corporation) has to keep track of its use in the field.
On what we didn't see from the graphic novel:
The aliens in D9 are actually from a hierarchal caste system, though all we ever see are the worker drones. There was never any design done for what the higher castes look like (or if they're even different), but there was a creature designed from another planet that was supposed to be kept at the center of the ship for entertainment.
Originally there was an extension of the sequence in which MNU first drills into the ship. The idea was that all the big-wig corporate suites would be on board for this triumphant domination of alien technology, only to all be slaughtered on live television when the engineers unexpectedly core their way into the creature's hold. It was in the investor's pitch graphic novel but was never filmed.
On how the aliens were visually created:
Much to my astonishment, every single Prawn (as they're called) was computer generated. There are some that are obviously a digital creation, but there were often times I was convinced that one of the Prawns was a man in a suit. My jaw dropped a little when Blomkamp explained that not only were they all digital, but that 90% of the time each one was portrayed by the same actor (a man by the name of Jason Cope).
Motion capture was not the key technique used. Instead, the effects team employed a variation on rotoscoping to essentially animate over the actions of Cope.
Also, the look of the aliens did change from the early stages. The main evolution of the design was a homo sapien facial geometry for the Prawns, the most important aspect of which would be the human-like eyes. They were, however, always intended to be insect bipeds so as to keep things efficient for the visual effects team. It's a lot easier (and cheaper) to render hard exoskeleton than, say, tentacles.
On alternate endings:
Yes, there was a different ending originally planned but it was wisely abandoned. Apparently it was so embarrassing Blomkamp and Copley wouldn't explain a thing about it except that Copley got very, very dirty in the process. I believe Blomkamp's exact words were, "No one will ever see that ending."
On the alien language and why humans can understand it:
Blomkamp explained that South Africa has 11 official languages and that it is not uncommon for two locals to carry on a conversation in two different languages, each understanding the other. The logic is that after being in Johannesburg for over twenty years, the clicking language of the Prawns is no different than say English, Setswana or Afrikaans. Humans, particularly those with a job like Wikus', can understand the clicking, they just can't reproduce it with their own vocal chords (and vice-versa).
On why the aliens came to Earth:
It's only mentioned once in the film that all of the aliens are worker drones stranded on earth when a part falls off their ship upon arrival. That's the extent of back story we get, which is okay because Blomkamp's agenda isn't to explain every bit of mythos behind the species and why they came to earth. Going into those details would grind the film to a halt, but that doesn't mean that Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell didn't conceptualize the unseen.
The idea is that the home planet sends out these motherships on autopilot stocked with worker drones. The drones arrive at a planet chosen by the elite caste and begin harvesting its resources and sending them back to the home world. When the planet is dried up, the elite remotely autopilot it to a new system to begin anew.
On why the aliens love cat food:
Growing up in the area D9 is set in, Blomkamp was fascinated by the way people in the slums would cherish one particular food item. In real life this was a giant bag of cheese puffs. For the aliens in District 9 , it's cat food. However that decision wasn't made for the comedy factor, rather because co-writer Terri Tatchell would fish for actual prawns with cat food as the bait.
On the misleading marketing of the film:
Neill Blomkamp had nothing to do with District 9's marketing plan. The now very familiar signs for "For Humans Only" do not appear anywhere in the film. What can be seen are signs banning "Non-Human Loitering". A small but interesting distinction considering that propaganda is Sony's doing and was intentionally left out of the film.
Also the most memorable moment of the first two trailers does not appear anywhere in the film. There is no sequence in which a government official interrogates a scared Prawn and there is never, ever any implication in the film that humans are preventing the Prawns from returning to their home world. The footage (seen here) of the captured Prawn pleading, "How can we leave if you have our ship?" was invented by Sony solely for promotion.
On what's next for Neill Blomkamp, Sharlto Copley and District 9:
Blomkamp would love to revisit the world he created, but that's contingent on the success of D9. Until that pans out, he will be returning to Vancouver (where he now lives) to write a new, wholly original science fiction film set entirely on another planet. While no other details were given, Blomkamp did make it clear that for this next project (and for a hypothetical D9 sequel), he would never want to go over a maximum budget of $45 million. Once you start working with numbers larger than that it becomes a studio film and not a Neill Blomkamp film.
Copley has no second project lined up, but the rapid praise for District 9 has accelerated all of his plans. He's already got an agent and has been reading for parts in Hollywood, but has not found a role he feels is worthy enough to be a follow up to D9; a sentiment I believe every single person in attendance last night shared deeply.