Neill Blomkamp talks his new tech-horror Demonic and leaving behind Alien and RoboCop...
After bursting onto the scene in 2009 with District 9, things have slowed down for director Neill Blomkamp.
District 9, the powerful mash-up of sci-fi and politics, earned over $200 million on a budget of just over $30 million and was nominated for four Oscars.
From there, Blomkamp followed it with the big-budget dystopia Elysium and robot romp Chappie, and then earned his dream gig, the chance to take charge of the next instalment of Alien.
Despite releasing concept arts and detailing his plans for the movie, Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise at the end of 2015 curtailed the project, meaning Blomkamp’s Alien would never see the light of day.
From there, he became involved with another iconic franchise, RoboCop. The film was set to be titled RoboCop Returns and would see original writers Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner producing and executive producing, respectively.
Blomkamp was set to shape a film based around the script that Neumeier and Miner originally wrote as a sequel to Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original. However, that project petered out too, with Blomkamp announcing he had departed to work on a new horror film.
Fortunately, that horror is Demonic, and this movie will definitely be seeing the light of day.
Carly Pope, Chris William Martin, Michael J. Rogers, Nathalie Boltt and Terry Chen all star in the film, which has been written, directed and co-produced by Blomkamp.
Shot in rural Canada during the Covid-19 lockdown, the story follows Carly, a young woman who has cut off contact with her mother after she committed a terrible crime.
When a medical research company get in touch asking her to help reach out to her mother, now in a coma, through revolutionary new technology, Carly is reluctant, but eventually agrees.
Sadly, it's a decision that soon unleashes terrifying demons...
With the film arriving in cinemas on Friday (August 27th), we spoke to Blomkamp about shooting in a pandemic and whether his disappointments over Alien and RoboCop have left him feeling bruised by Hollywood...
When was this written? Has the idea been in your head for a while?
“No, it’s pretty new. The only thing that was pre-conceived was the idea that I’d wanted to do a Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity style low-budget horror. I love the way those filmmakers just took the resources they had and went off and did it. So when Covid happened it felt like the perfect time to do that, to step up when everything else was slowing down. The film was really constructed out of that.”
How easy was it to make a film during Covid-19? The practicalities of filmmaking must have changed completely…
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed completely. It’s the same, just with a layer of extra precautions. Things are a bit slower. We went early on in the pandemic, so the way of working wasn’t as refined and clear as it is now. If you shoot something today, there’s a lot more protocol to work with. This was much more figuring it out as we went along.”
It’s a tight cast and only a handful of locations, is that by design to cope with the pandemic or because it fits the feel of the film?
“It’s a combination of both. I loved the way in Paranormal Activity the filmmakers just used what they had around them and were able to have such an impact on the audience. The goal for the movie was to scare people, so, if you work backwards from that, especially with a limited budget, it coalesces into something small and much more confined than anything I’ve done before. You’re looking for scares, you’re looking to make things brooding and with a layer of dread lying underneath the movie.”
How was the casting process?
“Super simple. The movie has a real puzzle piece feel to it and I knew what I wanted for each piece. I knew I wanted to work with Carly Pope before the script was written. I wrote Chris William Martin’s part for him, it was easy to put everything together.”
How fast was production?
“It was 26 days in all, a lot longer than Blair Witch, then we had four days to do all the volumetric capture, that was all the simulation.”
You’ve used visual effects throughout your career, why did you decide on volumetric capture for this project?
“Using that was the idea that predated the film itself. Volumetric capture is very new and very experimental, it’s hardly been used at all. We’ve planned to use a company in Los Angeles and Covid killed those plans. We found a company in Canada to come in and build a camera rig, which took some time. It was complex, but rewarding and I knew the results would be acceptable within the story. The glitchy nature of where volumetric capture is right now would fit in with the feel of the film, the sense of an untried technology that gives unpredictable results.”
How was it working with volumetric capture?
“It was much harder than I anticipated. Anything that you do that’s out on the edge will be rife with problems and things that you just can’t foresee. Our rig was 265 4K cameras in a dome over the actors. Then they had other hi-resolution hemispheres closer to their faces. Imagine being an actor in that situation, you’re in a one-metre cube, you can barely move, then there scaffolding around you with billions of cameras, then try acting naturally. The calculation of all that data was insane. The sheer volume of data. Can you imagine the output of those cameras? I think we were racking up 13 terabytes a day and it all had to be ingested, sorted through and broken down into usable files. Shooting like that was a motherf**ker.”
You went off and made this and then dealt with the release afterwards. Having spent a bit of time in the not so good side of the studio system, was that a deliberate decision?
“Completely. The other option was to give it away free on YouTube. I just wanted to be creative and to do something. I’m so pleased with how it’s gone. I’m so grateful that it’s in theatres at all.”
Do you feel bruised by the last few years at all? It seems inevitable that every director will come up against that at one point or another, but you had a spell of everything getting made…
“I don’t know if I feel bruised. Now, I feel like I want to get back into theatrical filmmaking. What people don’t realise with Alien, RoboCop and with The Gone World (the Tom Sweterlitsch novel Blomkamp was set to adapt), I was building Oats Studios (Blomkamp's home studio) and that’s where most of my attention was going. Now I’m ready to get back into the arena.”
Was making Demonic a bit like being a first-time filmmaker again? Just doing your own thing...
“I’ve shot too much stuff to ever feel like that again. And, in the five years since Chappie, I’ve shot so much for Oats Studios that it’s not like I’ve been away. Getting back into linear films will be the new thing.”
What’s next for you?
“I’ve got a new sci-fi thing that I’m focusing on. I’m working on that, I love the idea, I need to finish the script and assess where we are with the budget and how practical it is. Inferno (Blomkamp’s planned sci-fi thriller with Taylor Kitsch) is coming along too and I’m happy with the way it’s progressing.”
Demonic is released into UK cinemas from Friday (August 27th) and will be released on DVD later this year.