Right now District 9 is the most buzzed movie on the planet. Gauteng-born filmmaker Neill Blomkamp's debut feature is a science-fiction thriller set in a future Johannesburg where aliens are held in refugee camps. With parallels to apartheid and xenophobia it's uniquely South African, but reviews and advance word say it's one helluva cool movie as well. Andrew Worsdale gets caught up in the viral campaign and the hoopla, and is excited by the film's rapturous response.

 

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District 9
'Why shouldn't an alien spaceship land some place other than the U.S.?' asks Kirk Honeycutt in the rave review he gave to Blomkamp's Joburg set sci-fi movie District 9 for The Hollywood Reporter last week. Honeycutt thought the movie flirts with greatness and called it smart, savvy filmmaking of the highest order: 'it's a helluva movie. No true fan of science fiction - or for that matter, cinema - can help but thrill to the action, high stakes and suspense built around a very original chase movie.'

 

He went on to praise the setting: 'By choosing to film in the city of his youth, Johannesburg, Blomkamp situates his story in a very real place off the beaten path for science fiction. The accents, townships, barbed-wire enclosures and harsh, dusty environment all give District 9 a gritty sense of place.'

Variety was no less stinting in its praise with, Justin Chang saying: 'This grossly engrossing speculative fiction bears (Peter) Jackson's blood-splattered fingerprints but also heralds first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp as a nimble talent to watch.'

Not bad for a guy from Johannesburg, who from his days at Johannesburg's Redhill High School always dreamt of making a science-fiction flick.

A month shy of his thirtieth birthday, Blomkamp is about to have the world overwhelm him as his feature-film debut swamps the planet from 14 August, beginning its global roll-out in the US on thousands of screens.

Last month District 9 had its first public screening at the Comic-Con Conference in San Diego - it scored a direct hit with audiences and the response in cyberspace was deafening.

Blomkamp is camera shy, despite casting himself in some of his films, but at a round-table conference after the ecstatic reception he was really articulate, a bit withdrawn but infinitely proud and underneath it all very excited about his film. You can see the interview at:

http://screencrave.com/2009-07-25/comic-con-2009-interview-with-peter-jackson-neill-blomkamp-sharlto-copley/

 

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Neill Blomkamp
In it he talks about how fortunate he is to have a producer and mentor in Peter Jackson: 'There are millions of components that came together because of him being involved in the project. Now, finally, having attention, like attention like this, is the final icing on the cake, so I'm a very fortunate first time director and I'm aware of that.'

 

Standing next to Blomkamp at the Comic-Con screening, Jackson, the Lord of the Rings maestro, was undeniably proud of his name on Blomkamp's film, joking to his pal and protege that New Zealanders had an 'easier accent to understand and play better rugby.'

Next to him was Blomkamp's Redhill High School friend, producer and now actor, Sharlto Copley, who plays the lead in this, their first big movie together. Copley gave Blomkamp his first gig as a professional animator at the age of sixteen and co-produced the director's short movie Alive in Joburg which was the pilot for District 9.

There's been universal praise for Copley's performance as Wikus van der Merwe, the boastful operative anti-hero who must reverse his own alien metamorphosis while helping extraterrestrial refugees return to their planet. Variety noted that Copley delivers 'a twitchy, blustery, shifty-eyed performance of ferretlike intensity. Dropping F-bombs in Afrikaans accented English'.

http://vodpod.com/watch/1987060-district-9-la-press-interview-sharlto-copley

And to check out Alive in Joburg, the prototype for District 9 you can click here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlgtbEdqVsk

When Peter Jackson was developing a film version of Microsoft's killer military/sci-fi X-box game Halo with 20th Century Fox and Universal, he was looking for an original talent to direct it. Mary Parent, head of production at Universal, was keeping tabs on Blomkamp and gave Jackson his showreel.

Apart from Alive in Joburg, Jackson saw Blomkamp's Tetra Vaal, a faux corporate ad for a third-world Robo-Cop. Made in 2003, it established the director's penchant for mixing lo-fi production, often shot in the dusty Joburg streets and townships, with seamless CGI.

You can check out his ads for Citroen (Alive With Technology) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeCHu7fTcQ8 and his amazing stop-motion deterioration of a basketball shoe for Nike, which can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZRhOruZmY&feature=related.

Jackson's early movies were low-budget, 'sickfest' zombie flicks like Bad Taste and Brain Dead, loved as much for their laughs as for their gore. I'm sure the two were a natural match, or at the very least Blomkamp is so lucky to have landed up with a producer who loves the same things he does to do on film and see made real in movies.

Blomkamp won the 'Cannes Lions 2008 Film Lions- Grand Prix for his web commercial Halo Combat, one of the shorts he made developing the feature: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpwYmMIO94Q. The deal on Halo fell through when the budget reached $145m and for a while nobody wanted to be in the Neil Blomkamp business, but Jackson encouraged him to do his own film and District 9 was born.

It had a relatively short development time, with the film being shot in Kliptown and Tshiawelo in Soweto and around downtown Johannesburg in June and December last year. Michael Murphey, of Kalahari Pictures who provided production services, singled out the Gauteng Film Commission for praise in Variety: 'They were extremely supportive and helpful on District 9. With the GFC and the National Film and Video Foundation, we really felt like we had friends in government.'

Murphey, a co-producer on the film, believes that it's a unique South African movie. He told The Star Tonight!: 'A great movie like Tsotsi shows off what South Africans can do, while a larger movie like Blood Diamond was basically a Hollywood movie that came here. This is a combination. This is a South African attempt at making a blockbuster.'

LA Times writer Chris Lee calls District 9, 'the world's first autobiographical alien apartheid movie. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp grew up in Johannesburg during an era of white minority rule; later, memories of the apartheid government's social divisiveness and authoritarian control became 'the most powerful influence' in shaping his creative vision.'

'When we started conceiving the very idea of how District 9 would grow out of Joburg, I think for the first few months I was thinking of a film that probably was too serious and took itself too seriously,' Blomkamp told the press at Comic-Con. 'There was too much of me in it. I pretty quickly started realising that the smartest thing to do, especially with my first film is just make something that's accessible and more of a ride, that's more fun. I actually wrote 'satire' on different, like four pieces of paper and stuck them up on my wall to remind me that satire is the way to go with this film. When that happened, everything about it just kind of loosened up and became more enjoyable.'

He acknowledges the allegorical connections to South Africa's racial past and present situation of xenophobic violence but insists he's not forcing any soapbox beliefs onto the viewer. 'I grew up in South Africa during Apartheid and I wanted to make a film that had science fiction placed in that African setting, specifically that South African setting. There's no question that there's many, many, many elements of Apartheid and segregation and now xenophobia in South Africa that have made their way into the film but they provide the sort of foundation that the film rests on top of. It's like a framework that's there and it provides a very strange alternate reality because there's aliens involved, but it doesn't beat you over the headI'm simply saying this is all stuff that affected me when I was a kid and I put science fiction into it. Now you can take from it what you want within a sort of satirical, dark humorous kind of backdrop.'

Jackson agrees: He saw South African society -- both the good and bad of the society there -- and he wanted to put a science fiction spin on what he witnessed growing up because he's a science fiction geek.

One of the reasons the film has created so much expectation is the epic viral marketing campaign that kicked off at last year's Comic-Con, which spans five major websites and social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

At www.d-9.com you are asked to log in as Human or Non-Human. The site experience is then subject to what you choose. At www.multinationalunited.com you can find information on the corporation that administers the 'alien refugee camp' known as District 9. You can even apply for a job on the careers page, which currently has a vacancy for a 'Non-Human Dental Hygienist'. MNU also heads up the website www.mathsfromouterspace.com, an initiative that aims to 'enhance the spatial and logic capabilities of the human body by synthesizing earth-based proteins with DNA from our other-worldly friends. It consists of a math quiz and you qualify for the programme based on the results.

There's an affiliate site where you can train as an MNU operative, and www.district9game.com where with the aid of a webcam you become an MNU officer on patrol, to move ahead you have to arrest or shoot 20 non-humans in advance.

There's even a grassroots opposition movement with the slogan 'Everyone Deserves Equality' at www.mnuspreadslies.com. it's a blog run by a Non-Human equal rights advocate that is in alien lingo, which you translate into English. These are all in addition to Sony Pictures official site for the movie at http://www.district9movie.com/?hs317=District9_Blog+EPK_link

The marketing is not limited to cyberspace only. District 9 benches and bus-stops for 'Humans Only' with a number to report 'Non-Humans' cropped up in fifteen major cities across America over the past month.  'We wanted to do something provocative that would create a stir,Marc Weinstock, Sony's co-president of worldwide theatrical marketing told the L.A. Times. 'But we had no idea to what extent we'd connect.'

Sony's president of digital marketing, Dwight Caines, said: 'In two weeks, there have been 33,000 phone calls. Two thousand five hundred people left voice messages about alien sightings. And 92% of those calls come from cellphones, indicating that people are opting in, on the spot, in the streets.'

At Comic-Con the comparatively low-budget District 9 (it cost $30 million) was up against Twilight sequel New Moon, Iron Man2, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and James Cameron's eagerly awaited sci-fi behemoth Avatar ' and it stood out from the crowd.

For a movie with no stars and no built-in audience like its comic-book rivals, District 9 looks set for a blistering release this month. Locally, it will be treated as an event movie releasing on 80 screens, a bigger rollout than Terminator Salvation. It has a glitzy premiere at Joburg's The Zone on 19 August before opening nationwide on the 28th.

And as for Blomkamp, his sociological Johannesburg sci-fi epic has put him firmly on the map, 'Once we're finished with D9, his phone's going to be ringing like crazy,Jackson says. 'He's definitely on the radar.'

*Blomkamp is presently travelling the world promoting the film, he was last seen in Cancun, but he's due here for a press junket on 18 August and the GFC will feature a full interview with him in our September newsletter, by which time the all important first-weekend B/O figures will be in.