Four year ago, Neill Blomkamp directed the surprise hit District 9, a speculative sci-fi film about the integration of aliens into human culture. Based in his home country of South Africa, District 9 was embraced by critics and audiences, earning three somewhat expected technical Academy Award nomination and a completely unexpected Best Picture nod.
However, before the film was released anywhere, Blomkamp recorded his commentary on the film, giving a unique insight into its production with no knowledge of its eventual success.
At the time of recording, Blomkamp had been present to show the film in public once, at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Com, and he was feeling pretty good about the movie based on the audience reaction. At least this time, the Comic-Con love translated into box office success and critical acclaim.
District 9 (2009)
Commentator: Neill Blomkamp (writer and director)
1. Sharlto Copley and Blomkamp were high school friends in Johannesburg, South Africa. Copley, who was getting out of high school while Blomkamp was just entering, was the closest connection Blomkamp had to the film industry in his country.
2. District 9 is an “extrapolated, feature-length version” of Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg (2005). The film was set into production after Peter Jackson’s Halo collapsed in pre-production. Producer Fran Walsh pushed for the adaptation because they were given the green light to develop anything they wanted in return for the loss of Halo.
3. The aliens in the film, created by Image Engine, were shot with a level of disregard, often appearing in “dirty handheld” shots and in the background. Blomkamp did this to avoid putting them on a pedestal and drawing attention to them as visual effects.
4. Blomkamp wrote the story to show the xenophobic attitudes the South Africans in the slums of Alexandra and Soweto had against the Zimbabweans who had came to the country for a better life. Within a week of principle photography, there was an incident of mass murder in which South Africans slaughtered Zimbabwean refugees, making the film more political in the country than Blomkamp originally intended. He officially apologizes in the commentary for unintentionally offending anyone in South Africa.
5. The MNU transports are Casspirs, which were developed for the South African military in the 1970s to fight a border war with Angola. They are designed as anti-mine vehicles, which can have their suspension and wheels blown off and later reattached, returning them to the field within a matter of hours.
6. The scenes in District 9 were filmed in Tshiawelo, an impoverished area built on an old landfill. Before filming, the government moved people out of the shacks where they lived and relocated them to government-subsidized brick housing. The production was given the leftover shacks, offering an authentic look of a South African slum.
7. The dead cow that Wikus (Copley) finds in the shack, incubating alien eggs, was a real dead cow that the production found. Dead animals are common on the streets of Soweto, and on-set art director Emelia Weavind was known as “the queen of death” because she would routinely find dead animals on the street to be used on the set.
8. Blomkamp made one of the antagonists a mercenary because he considers South Africa to be the birthplace of the modern private military. This resulted from the white apartheid government releasing thousands of high-caliber soldiers from duty when the black government took over. Some South African mercenary groups are famous, such as Executive Outcomes which helped overthrow rebels in Sierra Leone, but it is now illegal to run them based in the country.
9. Originally, Blomkamp did not want to use Christopher Johnson’s child (which the production referred to as “Little CJ”) because he feared it would be too cutesy and typical Hollywood. However, he kept the character in so the audience would sympathize more with Christopher Johnson’s desire to return home.
10. Jason Cope, who plays the journalist Grey Bradnam interviewed throughout the film, is an improv actor used to play all the aliens in the movie (except for the child alien, which was completely animated). Cope would act in the scenes with the other actors, and digital effects artist would paint him out while rotoscoping the aliens over him.
11. Blomkamp included Nigerians in the film because South Africans have such a negative view of them. Ironically, most of the actors playing Nigerians were South Africans, and none of them spoke Nigerian dialects. The actor playing the leader is Malawian and spoke improvised Nyanja. His underlings spoke a mixture of the South African languages of Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho, leading to utter gibberish in the scenes with Blomkamp describing everyone “equally sort of misrepresented.”
12. Originally, two days of evictions were filmed. The first day ends with Wikus’ party at home, and the second day ends with him in the hospital. The second day was cut for time, which is why Wikus’ condition with his mutated hand seems to have escalated so quickly.
13. Copley said that the hardest scene to shoot was when he was shoved into a body bag because he got claustrophobic. The second hardest scene to shoot was when he was pulling his teeth.
14. Blomkamp set the film in Johannesburg because he felt it is already a science fiction city. There’s widespread poverty among the masses, with pockets of wealth protected by high-tech gates with biometric fingerprinting devices. He considers modern Los Angeles (which he refers to as “diet Joburg” or “Joburg lite”) to be on its way towards this level of inequality that is only seen in Africa and India now.
15. The sheep’s head cut in half is a real South African dish known as a “smiley” (because by cutting the head in half, it appears to smile), which is sold as a real snack in the region.
16. The location where Wikus cuts part of his hand off with the axe is next to a sewage pipe dumping into a river, which was also filled with dead cow skulls. At night, cat-sized rats would come out to feed on the skulls.
17. The “real footage” of the documentary and news clips were shot with the prosumer Sony EX1 and EX3 cameras. The cinematic scenes were filmed with a Red One camera.
18. Blomkamp expresses concern with how western audiences will receive the concept of “muti,” which actually means “traditional medicine.” The most extreme versions of muti involves the ingesting of body parts, and ritual killings are known to happen in South Africa where body parts are cut off and used. Blomkamp figured that, while this isn’t voodoo, it was a similar enough concept that audiences would understand.
19. The MNU headquarters were filmed in the Carlton Center, which is the tallest building in Africa. An abandoned hotel next door was used for the entrance to the building, which was damaged during the explosion Wikus and Christopher Johnson use to infiltrate the headquarters.
20. Many people understood the parallels the Nazis and Japanese in World War II when Christopher Johnson discovers the dead alien that had been the subject of experiments. However, this is also a reference to experiments conducted by the apartheid government to develop pathogens and poisons that would only affect the black population.
21. When the helicopter lands and allows Wikus to escape the Nigerians, the wind from the blades was so powerful that it kicked up clouds of dirt, garbage, and feces all over the crew. This is one of the dangers of shooting in a location built on a polluted landfill.
22. Blomkamp suggests that the mother ship would have thousands of exo-suits on hand for warfare purposes as well as to be used to take measurements of hostile locations. He further suggests that a full one-quarter of the ship housed weapons of some sort.
23. Blomkamp was inspired to go into visual effects filmmaking when he saw Jurassic Park at the age of 13. He heard about how Spielberg resisted having to lock down all the shots of the dinosaurs, requiring a huge number of man-hours to track the effects in various shots. In District 9, almost every shot of the aliens was done with a handheld camera with the visual effects tracked, showing the incredible advancement of the technology.
24. When Wikus throws a dead pig at one of the mercenaries, Blomkamp did not put that in for comedy. He put that in because dead animals are so common in the slums that it would make sense for Wikus to pick one up. Originally, Wikus throws two pigs, but neither was shot for humor’s sake, but rather for authenticity’s sake.
25. The shot of the crowd waving away the mother ship as it takes off was not planned. During a shoot of the downtown, the production happened upon a trade union demonstration, and the protestors were waving away the helicopter. Blomkamp grabbed the shot to use for the ending of the film.
Best in Commentary
- “[Tshiawelo] is just the most caustic, violent place you can possibly be. And then after a while, you shoot enough days there, it becomes normal.”
- “I’m not sure about the bra on this alien. I’m on the fence about that. I almost cut that. But it makes them kind of funny. I was trying to make them feel individual and unique, and I thought it would make sense. They’re kind of like magpies. They find stuff that interests them. They could decorate their whole shack with a bunch of plastic spoons because that particular alien was into it. And that guy maybe was into bras.”
- “So here’s one of those situations in a movie where you’re like, ‘Oh, those are the worst mercenaries I’ve ever seen in my life. They can’t hit a target for the life of them,’ you know. But this is how filmmaking goes sometimes when your protagonist gets stuck somewhere and he has to get out and you still have to make it interesting with bullets flying. You just have to have four really highly trained mercenaries have a hit ratio of zero, but that’s life.”
- “At his core, [Wikus] is kind of a dick.”
I was a huge fan of District 9 when it hit theaters. It represented such raw, independent, and authentic filmmaking, but with a big budget feel to it. It also managed to drive home some political points without being too preachy.
It’s easy to see the seeds of Blomkamp’s follow-up film Elysium, with his comments about Los Angeles being Joburg Lite, as well as his similar themes of oppression and injustice. However, with the restricted budget of District 9, which Blomkamp notes several times throughout the commentary, he made a far superior film.
Hearing the gritty stories from the dirt and filth of the South African slums shows how this nugget of greatness grew from such humble beginnings. At the very least, what I heard in this commentary reinforces my belief that throwing money at a movie doesn’t necessarily make it better. Sometimes restrictions can make all the difference in artistic integrity.