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District 9 was one of the most popular and acclaimed blockbusters of 2009, with The Los Angeles Times declaring that ‘District 9 is very smart sci-fi, but that’s just the beginning; it’s also a scathing social satire hidden inside a terrific action thriller.’
Based on the South African short film Alive in Joburg, written and directed by a-then twenty-six-year-old Neill Blomkamp, District 9 was produced by Academy Award-winning Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson, whose mastering of digital technology on the Lord of the Rings trilogy proved invaluable in the development of the movie.
Nominated for numerous BAFTA, Golden Globes and Academy Awards, District 9 received almost unanimous praise upon release. In the dual role of UKNR Chief Correspondent Grey Bradnam and Christopher Johnson, one of the alien resident ‘prawns’ that have made Johannesburg their new home.
Jason Cope talks about his experience making both Alive in Joburg and District 9.
How did you first come to work with Neill Blomkamp and how did Alive in Joburg originate?
Alive In Joburg was a concept that Neill had been thinking about. As a sci-fi fan, he had been thinking of the concept of creating a science fiction story in and around the environment that he grew up in. At the time I worked on the production side of visual effects, for a company owned by Sharlto. Neill came to Johannesburg to shoot his idea as a creative exercise, and we helped him to put it together.
Due to your involvement in the short film, were you a part of District 9 from the very beginning and how did the project first originate? What part did Peter Jackson play in the overall development?
Sharlto and I initially helped from a production side – It was clear that for alive the budget was going to be very small, and that we’d need to be creative. Sharlto and I were old hands at maximising extremely small budgets – We’d simply just do everything ourselves – wardrobe, art department, acting – a non-stop do-everything-right-now approach, combined with much creative networking, was the way we used to shoot. On the piece I ended up playing some of the aliens and a UN soldier, Sharlto played a sniper – while doing these we’d constantly be on our cellphones; organising the way ahead.
I took Neill and Sharlto to meet Dave, a community leader in Soweto that I knew from a TV show that I’d been shooting. Together the small group of us organised everything for shoot: the actors, the guns, the aliens – we had a couple of days prep and then shot on the fly for a few days. Most of the stock footage in the piece comes from the South African Police video unit – after our shoot I went and scoured the police archives and picked up some interesting bits and pieces. Neill completed all of the post on the piece by himself, including doing all of the animation.
A long while later, and Peter Jackson had asked Neill to direct Halo; an adaption of the video game. By now, Neill was a highly acclaimed commercial director. When the film collapsed during the planning phase, Fran Walsh and Peter suggested that Neill adapt Alive for the big screen.
How many different characters did you portray throughout the movie and how did you prepare for these roles?
I have no idea. It must be close on fifty, perhaps more, but that is rough guess: There’s no real way to count. I’m not sure how I should define a ‘character’ – is it an alien scuttling in the background, created using mo-cap? Or is it only the on set aliens with dialogue that count? There were some other motion capture guys that we used for mo-cap too. I did voices for the film too – that was fun – a lot of the reporter, chopper pilot voices and so on – it fools everyone except my close friends.
A friend who came to the premiere was very confused: ‘Why do you do so many of the voices too?’ We laughed, but he was the only one who noticed, so it turned out fine. Whatever the case is, almost all of my time was spent as Christopher Johnson. I spent more time thinking about him than everything else combined.
How were the special effects for Christopher Johnson achieved and how did you perform the character?
Imagine Engine is a fantastic Canadian VFX company. They were in charge of the alien visual effects for the film. The aliens were designed by Neill and the Weta guys, and image engine and myself would have to bring them to life. Developing the character of Christopher was a long process. Sharlto and I spent about a month work-shopping the major scenes of the film before we started shooting. I tried out a vast array of alien personas: from raging and animalistic to timid and emotional: During this time we developed a library of movements and states for the creatures.
Christopher was one of the most difficult things I’ve done: The layers of abstraction over his character were intense: He was a star wars VFX alien who couldn’t speak English and looked like a giant roach. And yet, the audience would have to end up liking Christopher, and nobody else. Neill wanted a journey for the audience: from revulsion to acceptance: working on than journey was challenging. We had to create a senstive, caring dad in the guise of giant roach, and yet not walk an OTT Disney road. With the great writing of Neill and Terry, a powerful creative environment and an incredible company like Image Engine, we all finally manged to create something that fitted the needs of the film.
Due to the digital effects being added later, was your co-star, Sharlto Copley, present on set for you to interact with or was it shot as normal and then the CGI painted over you?
In the large majority of scenes I was on camera – especially for scenes when Sharlto and I are talking to each other. I was then painted out and my movements used to provide a rfernce for the animators.
District 9 is noted for its political subtext, with the aliens being restricted to a ghetto and referred to racially as ‘pawns.’ Would you say that this mirrors the current racial climate of Johannesburg and was Blomkamp making a statement with this story?
Well, the film deals a lot with the concept of the ‘other.’ It’s steeped in apartheid references and littered with nods to the South Africa that we grew up in. We’re still a country that faces many problems with xenophobia, and a slew of other toxic social issues. The film was only coincidentally linked to theethnic murders that took place in Johannesburg while we were shooting.
I think all in all, that one can have an interesting time dissecting the film, but I also enjoy just watching it in a Hollywood way: This is South Africa and yes; we have a twisted and often brutal past: But perhaps we’re gettingourselves a bit and just making an action flick. I enjoy watching the film in South Africa and hearing the audience bellowing with laughter at all of the bizarre things that are aspects of our lives.The ending of the movie is left open, allowing for Christopher to return to Earth to save Wikus Van De Merwe, yet instead Blomkamp has allegedly expressed interest in a prequel. Do you know if either is being seriously considered and which would you prefer to take part in?
Well, I think nothing has been decided yet. I’m sure whatever will be shot will be fun to do.
District 9 has been nominated for several Academy Awards. How do you feel about the success and acclaim this movie has received and what affect has it had on your career?
It’s a little strange for us. What started out as a small group of guys making an extremely low budget short, for love of film alone, has ballooned into something global. I feel a little shocked. Then again, it’s wonderful to see the hard work of everybody being recognised. We worked with an extremely dedicated, passionate cast and crew; people who poured themselves wholeheartedly into the picture. Well done to all of them.