Check the Gate is a reoccurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Neill Blomkamp and discuss how he sneakily constructed Demonic during lockdown.
Horror thrives on the run-and-gun approach. Money and time get in the way. Stress, speed, and desperation are the keys to achieving nightmarish excitement.
While the world grappled with COVID-19, Neill Blomkamp (District 9) charged into filmmaking combat and made Demonic. It was an idea bubbling in his brain for some time. Rather than obsessing over the infinite questions facing the world, the filmmaker propelled himself into making the horror tale on the sly and cheaply. If not now, when?
Demonic delights in recognizable tropes, but like all Blomkamp ventures, it uniquely mixes them. Religious horror is usually told in the dark. He wanted to embrace daylight and find scares in the sunshine. And as grotesque and spooky as he wanted Demonic to be, Blomkamp also wanted the movie to live very much within the science fiction genre. Pinning it to one realm or the other isn’t a tricky endeavor; it’s just semantics.
Getting Demonic up and moving was not terribly difficult. Yes, lockdown presented complications, but there are always complications on a film set. Creating solutions for the unimaginable is as much a part of filmmaking as writing, directing, cinematography, and the rest.
“I was able to do [Demonic] because I already wanted to shoot a small, self-financed, horror film,” says Blomkamp. “That was already in the back of my mind. Then there were the other elements, like the idea of the simulation stuff and using volumetric capture, that was also lying around in my head.”
Volumetric capture records video in 3D, “capturing” the object and environment three-dimensionally in real-time. For Demonic, it’s used to recreate the landscape experienced by Carly Pope‘s character as she interacts digitally with her comatose mother. It’s in this world where demons reside, and dark forces threaten to puncture our reality.
“We did camera tests where we just went out into the woods and shot stuff,” says Blomkamp. “It was [cinematographer Byron Kopman’s] job to make sure that the image is exposed correctly, so you’re not in trouble when you’re in post because it’s too dark. He was constantly trying to elevate the light levels, and I was constantly trying to drop them. I would shoot stuff on my iPhone, and I’d use flashlights and send it to him. But I would constantly go in and darken things, and if there was any synthetic light, I’d pull it out. I just wanted it to feel real.”
Not to downplay the pandemic, but it was the excuse Neill Blomkamp needed — as other distractions receded, Demonic became his primary focus. The movie was a mission requiring necessary obsession. The problem solving of a film set and its precarious lighting being much more manageable than everything else going on in the world.
“When everything got put on pause,” he continues, “it was easy to dig up this idea. Let’s figure out how to do a self-financed small film. What do we have access to? Where can we shoot around here? Which actors have I really liked working with that I feel like they could carry this? And it just built from there pretty quickly.”
The very normal hells of making a movie were a great relief.
“It was awesome to have something to work on,” Blomkamp emphatically states.
Making a movie in 2020 forced extreme creativity from the director. While he could rely on old ideas and old tricks, he had to cobble it all together quickly. There was no time for the usual narrative safety net.
“There was no script,” he says. “I mean, there were all of these separate elements. I think of the movie as a bunch of puzzle pieces. There’s the ‘Let’s get together and do something since the world is shut down.’ The ideas were quite old — the Vatican thing, the idea of a simulation — but you put them together in a melting pot, and you mix that with what locations do we have access to? Demonic is what came out of it.”
Comparing Demonic to his previous features, Blomkamp feels like he has broken into a new realm. Maybe he can sense the threads that connect this one to Elysium or District 9, but he has to strain pretty hard to do so.
“The movie is very much unlike the other things that I’ve done,” says Blomkamp. “In the sense that it’s much more intimate and it’s not talking about anything global. It’s doing that on purpose. Everything relates to the characters, and there is no sociopolitical, geopolitical, larger worldview.”
No? What about Vatican exorcist soldiers? Or giving up our physical bodies for their digital doubles? There’s nothing political there?
“I think the sci-fi stuff is operating on the same intimate level,” he says. “The most worldly elements would be a discussion about the Vatican, but I mean, all of that is just fiction. I’m not riffing on anything particular. This is not what I think about organized religion.”
With Demonic, Blomkamp wanted to pull back on the crazy and zero in on character. Based on how many people viewed his last feature, he wanted to make the emotional experience more obvious and less cluttered.
“I think the reason the audience rejected Chappie is that there was too much [genre-blending],” says Blomkamp. “I was trying to bring these huge philosophical questions. It’s almost an antinatalist, pessimistic philosophy riff on the meaning of existence.”
Blomkamp receives a charge when worlds collide as they do in Chappie, but he also recognizes that such juxtapositions might confuse the message for some. He considers his audience, and he has adjusted with Demonic.
“Those are the biggest questions that you can ask,” he continues. “But [in Chappie], it’s wrapped up in the most absolutely ridiculous, bubblegum pop lunacy that I could come up with. And when you combine those two things, it’s incredibly satisfying to me, but I think people read that as two things that should not be combined, or it creates a tone they don’t understand. ‘I don’t know why they’re mixed, and it makes me uncomfortable.'”
Demonic is no pleasant stay at the spa. The movie traverses in a hatred that can only be summoned through family. And while he does smoosh religious terror with sci-fi possibilities, Neill Blomkamp stresses recognizable human worries. There should be little confusion regarding purpose. He’s here to scare. And scare you quickly.
Neill Blomkamp’s Demonic hits theaters and everywhere you rent movies on August 20th.