If you’ve seen the trailers for District 9, with its insectlike aliens (“prawns”), massive spaceships residing over Johannesburg, South Africa, and heavy apartheid allegory, you understand why it’s this year’s top candidate for sci-fi-fan orgy sleeper-hit status. Director, Neill Blomkamp, a 29-year-old South African–Canadian, is a favorite of Lord of the Nerds Peter Jackson, who produced District 9. Blomkamp talked to Will Leitch.
You were originally picked to direct the movie version of Halo by Peter Jackson, before the project suddenly fell apart. Were you heartbroken?
Even besides the fact that it would have been such a cool first film for a director to do—and how creatively invested I was in the world of Halo—to work on anything for five months, 24 hours a day, and then have the rug pulled out from under you is going to be devastating.
District 9 was based on a short you made [Alive In Joburg] that Jackson loved. Did you ever anticipate it would become a feature film?
It never occurred to me. The genesis of the short was that I wanted to see the kind of sci-fi I grew up loving in the actual place where I grew up. When I finished it I sort of forgot about it until I needed an idea for Peter.
The film has real-life parallels. The aliens in the film are invaded by Johannesburg residents, which is similar to what happened with Zimbabwean migrant workers last year. Are you worried an action movie with explosions and cool robots might trivialize the issue?
Within days of us rolling film in Johannesburg in 2008, we woke up to headlines of attacks—something similar to genocide, with Zimbabweans being lynched, burned, and macheted to death. It was no longer that the poorer residents of Johannesburg had issues with illegal immigrants, which is how it had been for years, including when I did the short film. I hope the people of South Africa understand that we set out to make something based on an earlier piece of history. But, yes, the film is about issues I grew up with—like segregation and xenophobia. I’m proud of the fact that we deal with those issues without beating you over the head with it.
Are you ready for filmmaking without Peter Jackson as your protector?
Having Peter was a godsend—artistically, with the budget, everything. The lead actor in District Nine [Sharlto Copley] is a longtime friend who had never acted in a film before. I knew how authentic he would make the role. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten away with that if it hadn’t been for Mr. Jackson. I am aware of how much of a barrier he provided, and that I might not be as lucky in the future.