Very few rising filmmakers get to experience a career trajectory as interesting as Neill Blomkamp did. After producing a series of standout shorts, as well as working in the special effects and animation field for years, Blomkamp was handpicked by maestro Peter Jackson himself to bring a live-action Halo adaptation to the big screen. That, obviously, did not come to fruition, but what actually did come from this duo is now regarded as a modern sci-fi classic: District 9. In letting his storytelling prowess speak for itself, Blomkamp modestly rose in the ranks of Hollywood’s most sought-out directors. With such success, his distinct eye for sci-fi would bring to light two more big-budget features, Elysium and CHAPPiE.
Although, Blomkamp has been through quite the roller coaster since releasing CHAPPiE in 2015. He got very close to revamping the iconic Alien franchise, giving dedicated fans enough hope with far-out concepts he was kind enough to share online. These plans were soon, unfortunately, shut down. He also almost helmed a legacy sequel to the original RoboCop, based on an old script from the 1980s. Yet, through all the ups and downs, Blomkamp managed to launch his own production company. Oats Studios was founded with the intent to showcase experimental shorts on YouTube and Steam in order to raise audience interest with potentially expanding them into features (just how Blomkamp made his big break with District 9). Since 2017, Oats has produced 11 shorts starring the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley, and Dakota Fanning.
Before the pandemic, Blomkamp was preparing to return to features of his own with Inferno, an original idea following an extraterrestrial mystery in the New Mexico desert. But as the industry shutdown and began to reform under social distancing, the project came to a halt. Still, that didn’t wither Blomkamp’s desires to visualize another full-length narrative (now for the first time in 6 years). And so Demonic was born, which is, surprisingly enough, this filmmaker’s first dive into full on horror – with a twist unique to himself, of course. The film uses volumetric capture technology to enhance a classic Vatican vs. demon spirit story, oh, and the priests are like blacks-ops soldiers too. Having just been released in theaters and on VOD, we were lucky enough to get the rare chance to truly pick Blomkamp’s process apart in an exclusive interview. We discuss everything from Demonic to the next films on his slate (including the long-awaited District 10) and his place in mainstream Hollywood.
So before the pandemic, you were setting up Inferno, which was described as a science-fiction thriller. I’m curious, how did your brain go from point A to B in terms of then deciding to tackle a horror film like Demonic?
Neill Blomkamp: Well, not the not the idea for Demonic, but the idea of doing a small, self-financed horror film has been interesting to me for a decade. I’ve always wanted to do that. Just when the timing was right, I thought that would be super fun to do. Over the last few years, I was accumulating ideas that I was interested in. Just ideas in general, like using volumetric capture to portray some sort of simulation in a film, where the technology was glitchy in the story. Then this idea of the Vatican Special Forces Unit was a different thing. So when the pandemic struck, I just started dusting that stuff off and merging it with the idea of shooting a small horror film basically, which I always wanted to do. So Demonic didn’t really play into it at all, it was a completely different decision.
You’ve previously named Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project as some of your inspirations. That’s very present here, but the volumetric technology reminded me of stuff like A Scanner Darkly, with that kind of trippy aesthetic. Now, your films are known for being very high concept, how did you capture that same feel with a much, much smaller budget here?
Neill Blomkamp: This film is really weird in the sense that it’s relatively super low-budget to have something that includes 16 minutes of computer graphics, like that’s a super weird idea. But volumetric capture and the awesome Czech Republic VFX company that we used were the reason it was able to be done. So if I tried to do it with traditional mocap or traditional VFX, there’s no way on God’s earth we could have afforded it.
So I think that you’re correct, in the sense that even though [Demonic] has a low-budget approach, there’s enough of a conceptual idea in the fabric of the story. Even though we don’t literally spend that much on it, it’s still potentially interesting. I don’t know what the audience is going to think, but it interests me at least!
Right, and you’ve called this project a child of the pandemic, since you shot it during COVID. I must ask, because the last few years have been full of twists and turns for you in the mainstream and Demonic is your first feature in 6 years, was it kind of cathartic in making this film? I mean, you have full creative control once again but are also at the mercy of new shooting protocols.
Neill Blomkamp: There’s obviously the Oats Studios stuff that we’ve been doing over the last few years, but in terms of being on set, working with actors, and the process of filmmaking – I mean, regardless of the fact that those are YouTube videos – the process of making them is still very similar. So I didn’t really feel like I was away from movie sets for a very long period of time. I was just away from Hollywood for a while.
I did have a super good time shooting Demonic though, regardless of the protocols that were in place for COVID, which are obviously necessary. They just slow you down a little bit – it wasn’t that much of a hit. But creatively, and just the style, is quite different from the other three feature films that I’ve done, in the sense that it’s extremely controlled. The shots are very deliberate and very handheld, it’s a different kind of filmmaking and I had a super good time. Just being aware of wanting to do that with every choice that was being made in the film – from the performances to the camera usage to the lighting – it was also just cool to be doing something in a time where everything seemed shut down. So yeah, it was pretty good to shoot.
In that regard, would you call this one of the most liberating filmmaking experiences you’ve had so far?
Neill Blomkamp: No, I would say Oats is that actually. Like shooting something like Rakka, you know? I very much enjoyed shooting Demonic, maybe to the same degree as Oats. But Oats was more crazy, it was more of you could really just do whatever you wanted.
Demonic is hitting theaters and VOD at the same time, so with the theatrical landscape seeing constant new changes, did you ever think about shopping this around? Do you prefer the theatrical experience?
Neill Blomkamp: It’s strange because for someone who just spent a bunch of years making YouTube videos, I didn’t realize how much I actually loved the theatrical moviegoing experience. It’s actually much more important to me now than I realized it was. So anything I can do to get closer to that with stuff that I’m working on would definitely be a goal of mine.
Going back to the plot of Demonic, you obviously incorporate spiritual elements but also have these black ops-like priests and other genre amalgamations. How did you go about writing this story in a short period of time?
Neill Blomkamp: I mean, based on the idea really coming together as something to do during COVID, it was put together pretty quickly but a lot of the ideas – not the script – pre-dated those. I’ve been thinking about those in separate parts of my mind for quite a long time.
Since this is your break-in with horror, and horror is one of the most booming genres right now, specifically. With there being so many creatives doing a wide variety of things, are there certain places you’re looking at right now and going, “Oh, I like what these people are doing?”
Neill Blomkamp: What is really strange about this movie is that it’s extremely difficult to point towards any reference. I don’t know what it is about the way that it was made that it’s so insular. So once Demonic is out there, maybe people will think it’s similar to other things. But in the process of making it, there was nothing that I was looking at that was inspiring Demonic – it’s a weird concept.
So I was just actually brushing up on watching horror of the moment – something I can do now that the movie is complete. I’m actually maybe not as up to date with things but I’ll give you a horror franchise that I really love the concept of which is 1,000% unrelated to Demonic, but it’s The Purge. I love the idea of The Purge a ton. I like older horror as well. There’s definitely a bunch of new horror that’s cool too, but it just didn’t come about that way. And I also think it’s almost as much sci-fi as it is horror.
Curious enough, there were some headlines that read like “Neill Blomkamp made a horror movie in secrecy.” So how does one take a break from the spotlight and come back with “Hey everyone, I have a new movie by the way”…
Neill Blomkamp: It was relatively easy to do because it started off being self-financed. And when you do that, it’s like you can just do whatever you want – you can just go off and do something. Then AGC came on board and doubled the amount of money that we had, which was a good thing. But, you know, I’m not trying to be actively secret. It’s just that because the film isn’t really based on huge IP and because the budget was so tight. It’s not like I was telling everybody to be quiet about it. It was just more naturally under the radar.
Speaking of projects under the radar, I have to bring up that one night you decided to tweet and confirm that District 10 is in early development. Fans have been dying for some kind of update on a sequel to District 9 for years, what was going through your head when revealing that to the world on Twitter as opposed to staying more quiet on other projects?
Neill Blomkamp: Well, District 10 is different. Something like Alien is outside of my control, right? So as long as Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and I are kind of on the same page with District 10, then I can talk about it in any way that I want. Because it’s far more in my control. But something like Alien is is not. I just feel quite good about where the script is going and the underlying story, and I’ve never really given an update! People have asked me constantly about a sequel. So we’re definitely working on a sequel and it’s in the relative, not too distant future. But other than writing right now, there’s nothing else happening. So it’s relatively far off, but not that far.
Out of curiosity, is the plan still to go back to Inferno next?
Neill Blomkamp: There’s a few different projects but Inferno is totally one of them. Inferno didn’t die because of the pandemic. So that’s cool and safe. It’s definitely one of the projects that I will probably make.
It’s very fascinating going to something like Demonic after your previous work. Besides the 6 year gap, many fans see District 9, Elysium, and CHAPPiE as this spiritual trilogy. Did you ever have any pressure or expectations in your head of like, “This is what people expect a Neill Blomkamp movie to look like” when tackling this latest project?
Neill Blomkamp: Not really. I think that any filmmaker should just do whatever they feel like working on, you know? It’s up to fans to either like the work or not, but the filmmaker shouldn’t be caged into just doing one thing. But I still think that there are a lot of elements that are definitely “me” in Demonic even though, thematically, it’s very different. And stylistically, it’s very different. There are still elements that on a deeper level, if you were to really analyze all four of my movies, there are commonalities between them.
But I definitely agree with you in the sense that the first three are much closer together than Demonic, and the primary reason for wanting to make it was from a directorial perspective. If I could do something that had a sense of dread the whole time for the audience? Like while you’re watching, it just feels unsettling the whole time, even when a sunny environment. Exploring the question, “Why do I feel unsettled?” I just I thought that was an interesting goal, so I just went off to that. But I will say that I am going to make more stuff that is more like the first three films of mine. There are a couple of things I’m working on that are in that camp for sure.
You just said that you’re going back to things that are a little bit more familiar. So now that you’ve branched off into more uncharted waters as an artist, in what ways do you see yourself moving further?
Neill Blomkamp: I think in quite a lot of ways, actually. You know, I shouldn’t speculate about films that I may or may not do. But I definitely feel now that I’ve taken some time off, I want to hit the ground running and make quite a few films. So we’ll see what happens.
Even though you stated that you “took a break from Hollywood,” I can’t imagine that you’ve been completely ignoring what’s been going on in the mainstream. Are there any certain popular Hollywood trends that you wan’t to avoid when returning to larger budget films?
Neill Blomkamp: Well, what kind of patterns are you reffering to?
Perhaps the obsessiveness with IP? Either mining from well-known IP or trying to make every small idea into potential IP. Also the ideas of legacy sequels, like what you were previously planning to do with Robocop. They did the same to Halloween and now with the soon to be released Texas Chainsaw.
Neill Blomkamp: Yeah, it’s interesting. When you look at Halloween or what I wanted to do with RoboCop or Alien, – I mean, Halloween, got it right – but what’s interesting is that if you go back a few years ago, initially, studios kept making the mistake that they thought that audiences wanted the IP, but they didn’t actually want the IP, what they actually wanted was the characters and the whole thing of the movie that they loved was actually about. So when you go off and reinvent the IP, a lot of the time, it just pisses the audience off.
So the idea of something like [my] RoboCop, which was set a day after Verhoeven’s [original] film, is very much in the same kind of realm as Halloween because Jamie Lee Curtis came back and that’s what audiences want, that’s why that film did well. But, for me, it’s a case of just wanting to make stuff that I feel resonates with me. I don’t really care what greater Hollywood is doing. It just has to make sense to me.
Finally, certain moviegoers will be watching Demonic in theaters as many have now safely reopened. If there’s one thing that you would would like to tell our audiences as to why they should see it on the big screen, what would that message be?
Neill Blomkamp: The reason to check it out in the theater, I think, is to see the simulation stuff on a big screen. Obviously, any director wants their film to be displayed in a theatrical setting because it’s just a better viewing experience. But I think the shared viewing experience in horror is a real thing – people want to be scared in a dark room. And I also think that the Demonic has some visual scope to it that makes it worthwhile, the simulation stuff really is pretty cool. So that would be the reason.