Neill Blomkamp was one of the first directors to write and shoot a new film during the pandemic.
With high-profile productions shutting down globally due to restrictions, the South African-Canadian filmmaker, known for the Oscar-nominated District 9 and cult film Chappie, jumped to action in March 2020 with an idea that had been niggling – a horror film largely set in the world of virtual reality.
If he couldn’t shoot a film in the real world, why not shoot one in a virtual domain?
The result is Demonic, a chiller following a young woman who unwittingly releases a supernatural force when using newly-devised technology to contact her mother, who is in a coma. The film’s live-action scenes were shot in and around Blomkamp’s home, in British Columbia, Vancouver, on a small budget of $1.5m (£1.1m).
We spoke to Blomkamp about his first foray into horror, which is released on Friday (27 August), the status of his long-mooted Alien film starring Sigourney Weaver, and which of his films he sees franchise potential in.
You once said the part of filmmaking you like the least is shooting. Do you still feel that way?
That’s quite interesting, because shooting is one of my favourites parts of the process now. Maybe I oscillate a little. When you don’t feel like arriving on set, and there’s 60 to 80 people waiting for a whole bunch of decisions from you, sometimes that can get pretty tough. I think I felt that more when. wasI younger, so that’s probably what I meant when I said that. I think now I’m pretty OK.
Demonic was one of the first films to be shot during lockdown. How many crew members were there?
It was really small. It began entirely self financed and then ACG helped us out with some cast. But I think there must have been, I would guess, 30 people altogether.
Do you view it as a smaller project compared to your other films?
If you look at something like Minari, that film’s around around like $2m (£1.4m). There’s nothing to do with a lower budget that lowers the audience’s enjoyment of the film. In audience’s minds, films are just films. I’m not sure that I categorise it as a different film in my head to any of the films that I‘ve done. In the production sense, it was very different. It is definitely a feature film, though.
Was there anything in particular you found especially tough about making Demonic in a global pandemic?
We shot it so early in the process of figuring out Covid that I think a lot of the on-set procedures weren’t as razor sharp as they are now. In a certain sense, maybe that made it more difficult because we were always trying to understand what the rules were and how they worked. Overall, it slowed us down a fraction, but it wasn’t something that was insurmountable.
Did you have plans to make it before the pandemic hit?
What happened was the other film I was working on got halted. Because of things like our online Oats studio, I love the idea of going out shooting things – making content. I’ve always been a fan of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity and the way those filmmakers went off to do something terrifying on a shoestring budget. So I thought, while we wait to see what happens, why don’t we shoot something inspired by those films? It was definitely 100 per cent born out of sitting around at the beginning of Covid.
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What was the inspiration behind the VR aspect of the film?
We knew that we wanted to do something that used the game action in a somewhat traditional film narrative,. That’s what led to the idea of a somewhat glitchy, not perfectly-refined VR simulation that you’e dropping characters into. I think the underlying goal was really to make something that had a feeling of dread with an unsettling feeling. If there’s anything I was attempting to do, it’s that.
Why did you decide to tell this story using that component?
I think it comes out of the fact I knew I wanted to do something in the simulated VR reality, and when I was thinking of the idea of someone in a coma, I combined that idea with possession in The Exorcist, and thought that whatever is possessing the person must presumably be in the virtual environment. Everything sprung from that idea. It was just blossoming out of that concept and, when you marry that idea with this target of trying to make an unsettling ilm, the story naturally percolated out of that.
Your films never seem to directly set themselves up for sequels. Is that an intentional decision?
Most ideas I come up with are closed situations. I guess if you’re directing Star Wars, or a film in that franchise arena, then you know what you’re dealing with. This film certainly was never designed to be a part of multiples. I guess it could be if you went down some avenues. You could scale it up. But, it was designed to be a one-off thing. It’s my first time directing anything in horror so there’s a lot of things I learnt that I could try and amplify.
Now you’ve tried horror, are there any other genres you’d like to put the “Blomkamp stamp” on?
The ones I feel I gravitate towards for sure is the war genre. So, anything from the Second World War to Vietnam – anywhere in that spectrum of time – is really fascinating to me. I’ve always been interested in horror, as long as it’s something that taps into psychology on a level that makes you feel something underneath the imagery as opposed to just gore on the surface, I’m not personally that interested in the concept of torture porn. Doing more horror that sidesteps that is interesting to me. I feel like I’m becoming more interested in films that have to do with real-world topics that have no science fiction or fantastic elements to them – films like Traffic.
In lockdown, some directors decided to tinker with their old projects seeing as they finally had some free time. Were you compelled to make another cut of, say, District 9 or Elysium to fix any elements you personally want changing?
No, I don’t subscribe to that idea, myself. I think who you are when you make something and where it exists in the time it’s made is the thing that you made. I think what you can do is, you can come up with different ideas for concepts within those worlds, and maybe you can have different perspectives ‘cause you’re older. I definitely feel that way with Elysium, for sure. I’d like to go back to Elysium with new stories. But, when something’s done, something’s done.
What’s the status with the Alien film you’ve long been attached to make?
I don’t know, to be honest. I’m not sure that I would do that project. My assumption is that it’s completely dead.
It was a case of both projects were moving forward at Fox simultaneously, and one of them was picked. Sigourney was unbelievably supportive and amazing. I have nothing but the best things to say about Sigourney. I’m such a fan of hers on every level. Sh was always into the project, but Fox just clearly doesn’t want it. I haven’t had anything to do with that for years.
Every year there seems to be new concept art leaked that gets a huge reaction from Alien fans wanting to know if it will ever happen. But, it’s easy to forget you might no longer be in the same mind space...
I wonder if it’s possible to do an entire loop, where your’e really into it up until the point it gets shut down, then you lose interest and years go by and you loop all the way back around to being really into it again. Maybe that’s hypothetically possible.
Maybe Alien 5 will be the last film you ever do.
Are there any others franchises you’d like to get involved with?
There’s so much complexity that comes with every well-known IP that the process of making it is somewhat restrictive and not as creative as I think it should be. At least in my experience. There are millions of existing concepts and worlds and movies that I would love to be a part of making films for, but I’m not sure that it’s worth the level of constraint once the studio has the idea of what the IP is. They’re going to maintain that. I’d rather be creative on something else. It doesn’t mean that I’m not interested; If a lot of the legwork’s been done and you can see the potential in something, it’s a very fertile, creative environment to get involved in. It’s inspiring, but it comes with downsides.
You spent the lats decade taking your time in between releasing new films. Will the next decade see you direct more frequently or are you planning on going at the same pace?
That assumes that I’ll be alive, but let’s assume I make it through the next decade: if that happens, I would be happy with my output increasing. I think if everything remains stable, I will probably start directing more.
‘Demonic’ opens FrightFest on 26 August, is released in cinemas on 27 August and available to own on blu-ray and DVD on 25 October
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