We’ve been waiting a very, very long time for writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, but these past two days its been coming in full force. Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a special footage presentation for the film in Los Angeles, where an audience filled with both press and fans got an exclusive look at 10 minutes of the new movie, and just a little while ago the first theatrical trailer arrived online. But we’re not done yet.

Following yesterday’s footage reveal, Blomkamp, star Sharlto Copley, and producer Simon Kinberg were kind enough to sit down with film journalists, including myself, and discuss the upcoming sci-fi blockbuster, the footage we had seen. It was an incredibly informative conversation that covered everything from the details of the future world to the exoskeleton that Matt Damon’s character wears, and you can read all of the highlights below!

Elysium actually makes product placement work for it instead of against it
It may be a necessary evil in the world of Hollywood economics, but let’s be real: product placement sucks. Nothing will take you out of a movie or television show quicker than seeing the hand of the studio reaching in and prominently showing soda can labels and fast food chain logos so that some of the blockbuster budget can be alleviated. But in the case of Elysium, it actually wasn’t the studio reaching out to companies for sponsorship, but rather the director.

Talking about the construction of the exoskeleton suit that Matt Damon’s character wears in the film, Blomkamp said that he actually talked to tech and engineering brands about using their names in order to lend his movie a more real feel. “I personally wrote emails to companies that I wanted to try and get into the film to try and add realism to it, and one of my favorite ones is Kawasaki, which is on his suit,” the filmmaker said. “So the idea was it was some kind of very low-end, almost dirt bike, like a motocross version of a strength suit that was born out of research that the military is doing now. Like Lockheed and a bunch of companies have HULC suits that are used for enhanced strength, and I just wanted it to look really grungy and extremely sort of low end and kind of real.”

Sharlto Copley’s character is inspired by some really bad dudes
Matt Damon’s character was certainly the central focus of the extended footage that was shown yesterday, but we did a brief look at Sharlto Copley’s character as well – and he looks like one seriously bad dude. Named Kruger, the villain is a soldier who works for Elysium on the Earth’s surface and tries to maintain order and protect the space station. And for his inspiration both the director and the star looked to some very hardcore individuals, namely Black Ops soldiers who served during the South African border wars of the 70s and 80s. “That unit was called 32 Battalion, and it was guys who could go into the bush and just not come out for like three months,” Copley told us. “It’s a very specific type of soldier, and it’s not like, ‘Ooh, I look so cool with my Oakleys. I’m gonna blast you!’ It’s a different kind of person to deal with.”

It also served as an inspiration for the accent as well, as it was what Blomkamp and Copley eventually landed on when trying to figure out where the character was from. Looking at the character’s scraggly beard, and metal face implants, and sensing his angry demeanor, it’s easy to tell that he is a much different kind of person than District 9’s Wikus van der Merwe.

The film won’t be spelled out for you
One of the biggest traps for filmmakers in science-fiction filmmaking and world building is the exposition dump that comes at the very beginning that sets the audience up with every little bit of information that they need in order to perfectly understand the story. While it’s very possible to handle it artfully, there are more than a few examples in cinema history of how it can go extremely wrong. There’s also the option of putting all of the trust in the hands of the audience and letting them sink or swim. It was certainly a debate within Blomkamp’s mind when he was approaching Elysium.

“I like films that just put you there and you have to deal with it,” the filmmaker began. “So there was an even more aggressive version of the film where the intro was almost non-existent – the film just starts, and it’s like, ‘Oh shit, there’s a space station. Okay,’ and you try and keep up with it. I shot some footage that explained the intro a little bit more, but I decided not to use it.” Part of that was a scene that spelled out how a citizen of Earth would make it to Elysium (noting that it’s “pretty self-selecting”), but at the end of the day that was nixed. “I would say it’s kind of like halfway. There is some explanation, but it’s definitely not over the top. It kind of just begins.”
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Don’t expect it to look exactly like District 9
Looking at the sci-fi worlds created in both District 9 and Elysium there is one very important difference: the presence of aliens. The proven existence of extraterrestrials – known as prawns – had a significant effect on Blomkamp’s first feature film, not just in terms of character and story, but on visual aesthetic as well. The presence of otherworldly technology changed how things looked and operated – and its absence in the director’s second effort has helped allow the movie to develop its own look. Similar to how Damon’s character’s exoskeleton was created by Kawasaki, the appearance of today’s world and realistic advances in science had a major effect on the new movie.

“In this case, it's all human western technology thinking,” Blomkamp said. “It's like western Raytheon kind of Lockheed mind that comes up with the stuff in this film whereas, with District 9, all of the thinking was alien and more of an homage to classic sci-fi that I liked, some of which is in films, like Chris Foss' artwork. It's pretty different in here. It's about what a human mind might lead to rather than an alien one.” The same idea extended to approaching Kruger’s ship, which is called The Raven – though he took some liberties with realism in terms of tackling the paint job. “It also has camo. I couldn't think of another vehicle that flies around in space with camo. Am I wrong? Can you think of one? The camo is rad. I don't think there's another one.”

It’s all about blending the ridiculous with reality
Blomkamp certainly kept realism in mind when he was approaching the visual aspects of Elysium, but he also didn’t ignore that sometimes reality includes the absolutely ridiculous. Asked if he actually reached out to any futurists to determine the film’s look he said no, citing that approaching the style in that way would have drastically altered what he was going for. Instead, they approached it so that the visuals would match the themes of the story, notably the opulence of the beautiful, paradise-like space station. “Building a space station with marble and slate is semi not-that-smart,” Blomkamp said laughing. “It’s not really something that you want to do. But the metaphor of Bel Air in space is correct, so you just work towards that.”

Taking a different approach – which he coined as “painting ridiculous ideas with the brush of reality” – he and his team instead chose to take inspiration from the biggest and bizarre elements that actually exist in our world today and build from there using a real world-minded approach. “All the visual effects guys, everything was like if they couldn’t show me reference, if it wasn’t from a mega project like the Yangtze River Dam or some ridiculous expansion bridge in Canada, something of that scale, it didn’t belong in the film.”

There’s a very modest approach to the antagonists
Much like how District 9 served as a metaphor for the horrific apartheid past in South Africa, Blomkamp’s new film also wears its politics on its sleeve, tackling issues like class warfare and immigration. But just like in the real world, nothing is black and white and that goes for the public opinion on the state of global affairs in the space station Elysium as well. “It's a mirror of how the West is now with immigration,” the director told us. “A lot of people want to help out the rest of the world. They want to take that wealth and pour the glass half out to balance it in the rest of the planet. Other people want to close the borders. The people fit into those two camps.”

Enhancing that point is the fact that even the movie’s antagonists are shown with a human side. Talking about Jodie Foster’s character, Kinberg added, “She's got grandkids and kids around. She wants them to live their life in a very nice suburb and genuinely believes she needs to protect them.” Copley’s Kruger, on the other hand, is more pure soldier. Said the actor, “He would be on Elysium, but he has to live here. That's not the politics or about if what happens is fair or whatever. It's just soldiering, like it’s always been.”
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The movie has an important message, but Blomkamp doesn’t expect it to change society
Blomkamp certainly has important things to say with Elysium, but the truth of the matter is that the director doesn’t see the film as activism simply because he doesn’t expect the movie to actually spur social change. After denying that the movie took any inspiration from the Occupy movement – saying that “things manifest into reality out of the sort of global consciousness being aware of those topics” – the director noted that there is actually a particular danger in thinking that “popcorn cinema” is going to change anything.

“You can put ideas in there that are real issues that are going on in the world, and particularly for me there’s just a bunch of things that really interest me, and ideas formulate out of them,” he said. Instead, if he were to try and actually make an impact on the world at large he would choose a completely different medium than sci-fi/action blockbuster. “If I wanted to make something that actually made a difference roughly in this industry I would make a documentary. That would be the closest I could come to actually try and make a difference. So the film does speak about topics that really have a big impact on me, but I don’t know how much the audience takes away from it. It’s like inspiration for art.”

You won’t be seeing a lot of the film before it hits theaters
If you think back to 2009, there really wasn’t a great deal of promotional material out in the world for District 9. Sure, there were plenty of “For Humans Only” signs and a fair number of trailers and stills, but for the most part Blomkamp and the marketing department actually did its very best to reveal as little as possible about the movie before release. As a result, the twists and turns of the story came as great surprises when we actually paid for our tickets and sat in the theater to watch the plot play out. And while the director did reveal a full 10 minutes of footage yesterday for audiences in select cities around the world, he is still going to try and keep Elysium as much of a secret as he can.

“If you're a responsible, functioning filmmaker in the 21st century, you can't spend $100 million and then try to behave as though you're going to wrap it under a blanket and maybe one day play it at one theater in Vancouver. It just doesn't work,” Blomkamp said. “One of the reasons that I like Comic-Con as a venue is that I feel like I'm a fan. I feel like I'm the exact same person as people that come and watch the footage. It's a little weird that I made the film, so there's this kind of pedestal, soapbox talking thing element of the marketing that I don't really like. But you have to get it out there.”

Blomkamp is very hesitant about jumping into an established franchise…
Making both District 9 and Elysium as his first two feature films, Blomkamp has quickly established himself as an original, interesting voice in the science-fiction genre, but as with any filmmaker who finds success in Hollywood, the conversation always eventually turns to the idea of tackling either a franchise film or a sequel to something he has already made. But while the director is curious about the idea, a big part of what holds him back is the expectation that he would have to live up to, as he would be trying to match someone else’s vision in addition to his own.

“One of the things that I really learned with Halo, if I was given control, I would really like to do that film. But that's the problem. When something pre-exists, there's this idea of my own interpretation versus 150 other people involved with the film's interpretation of the same intellectual property. Then the entire film-going audience has their interpretation. You can really live up to or fail in their eyes.” And while he is open to the idea of diving back into the world of something like District 9 or telling the story of one of cinema’s “iconic” characters, he may not be there quite yet. “When I start dipping my toes into it, I get this allergic reaction. Maybe one day I'll end up doing something like that.”

...But he wants to continue making only genre films
There are many modern filmmakers, from Steven Spielberg to Gore Verbinski to Ridley Scott to Christopher Nolan, who don’t allow themselves to get stuck in any particular genre and are constantly exploring different kinds of storytelling, but that doesn’t seem to be the career trajectory that Blomkamp is interested in pursuing. While he certainly includes high-minded ideas in his movies and approaches important concepts and metaphors, he truly loves filtering them through the action blockbuster. “For me to make a film without any [robotics and guns], including action, is kind of boring to me,” the director said. “There's versions of that in films from filmmakers that I really like but, for me personally, to get invested and wanting to make it, it has gotta have genre elements. It has to have real – issues is the wrong word – but things that I want to explore and talk about also in the film.”

So if he doesn’t want to leave the world of action blockbusters behind, what does that mean for the future and what we can expect from him next? He may not know precisely at this point, but there are two elements he definitely wants to include. “My favorite film of all time is Aliens. Period. James Cameron's Aliens. What Elysium doesn't have that I'd like to put into the next film is slime and eggs. It's missing slime and eggs.”
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