Sharlto Copley talks about playing Wikus Van De Merwe
Over twenty years ago, aliens made first contact with Earth. Humans waited for the hostile attack, or the giant advances in technology. Neither came. Instead, the aliens were refugees from their home world. The creatures were set up in a makeshift home in South Africa's District 9 as the world's nations argued over what to do with them.
Now, patience over the alien situation has run out. Control over the aliens has been contracted out to Multi-National United (MNU), a private company uninterested in the aliens' welfare. MNU will receive tremendous profits if they can make the aliens' powerful weaponry work. So far, they have failed; activation of the weaponry requires alien DNA.
The tension between the aliens and the humans comes to a head when MNU begins evicting the non-humans from District 9, with MNU field agents responsible for moving them to a new camp. One of the MNU field operatives, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), contracts an alien virus that begins changing his DNA. Wikus quickly becomes the most hunted man in the world, as well as the most valuable - he is the key to unlocking the secrets of alien technology. Ostracized and friendless, there is only one place left for him to hide: District 9.
Peter Jackson presents in association with TriStar Pictures and Block/Hanson a Wingnut Films Production, a film by Neill Blomkamp, District 9. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, based on a Blomkamp's short, low-budget mockumentary called Alive in Jo'burg.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"Neill Blomkamp is a terrifically exciting young director," says producer Peter Jackson, who shepherds Blomkamp's debut feature film, District 9. "We were considering a production of Halo, based on the video game. That movie never happened, but we loved working with Neill so much that when he pitched us District 9, we decided it would be fun to turn his idea into a feature film."
In District 9, Blomkamp deftly creates a film with an original vision and unique method of telling its story. After cutting his teeth as a visual effects artist and director of music videos and commercials, Blomkamp makes his feature film directorial debut, drawing inspiration from classic science fiction films as well as the Johannesburg of his youth (Blomkamp was born and raised there before relocating to Canada). The result is a film that breaks ground with a new, thrilling voice.
From the very beginning, Blomkamp intended District 9 to be unconventional and to blur the lines between filmmaking styles. "Essentially, the film bounces from our story, which is obviously fictional, to a sort of ultra‐real mode," explains Blomkamp. Dramatic scenes, mockumentary footage, real news video obtained from the South African Broadcasting Corporation - "it's all part of the same story," Blomkamp continues. "The movie fluctuates between something that feels like a film and something that feels bizarrely real."
"District 9 is set in an alternate history," says Jackson. "Imagine over 20 years ago, over a million alien refugees arrived on earth in a derelict spaceship. They are benign - more than that, they are helpless. They can't even feed themselves and have no particular desire to do anything. They come to Johannesburg, of all places, and the government doesn't know what to do with them, so the aliens end up in a township very similar to Soweto. And for over 20 years, humans have been trying to solve the alien problem."
Blomkamp says the film mimics the 24-hour news feed that cable channels, the internet, and other news sources feed us every day. "It used to be that you would pick up a single newspaper story. Now, the imagery is always there and we have become used to it," says Blomkamp. He also points out that the advent of reality television blurs the lines between reality and entertainment even further.
The genesis of District 9 lies in a short, low-budget mockumentary called Alive in Jo'burg that Blomkamp shot in a Johannesburg shantytown a few years ago. In the short film, Blomkamp introduces intergalactic aliens to the cultural mix of Johannesburg, one of Africa's most dynamic cities.
For that film, Blomkamp hit the streets with a camera crew, looking to capture reactions from real people. Blomkamp soon discovered that his idea of intergalactic refugees suddenly arriving on the city's doorstep dovetailed with the real conflict and xenophobia prevalent amongst the citizens of Johannesburg towards the influx of illegal aliens from neighboring countries. The honest reactions he captured on camera brought a vitality to the short film, blurring the line between fiction and reality. Of the short, Blomkamp says, "I was not intentionally trying to deceive the people we interviewed. I was just trying to get the most completely real and genuine answers. In essence, there is no difference except that in my film we had a group of intergalactic aliens as opposed to illegal aliens."
Because District 9 is set in South Africa, some may suggest that the film is a direct metaphor for the many problems that country has faced over the years. The filmmakers say that though it's impossible to divorce the film from its setting, no direct metaphor is intended. "In South Africa, we have to deal with issues that generally people around the world try to sweep under the rug," says Sharlto Copley, who plays the lead character, Wikus.
Working with the thematic and visual ingredients of the short film as a springboard, Blomkamp and his writing partner Terri Tatchell fleshed out the character of Wikus, and introduced two central alien characters, Christopher Johnson and his son, Little C.J. (The writers gave the aliens human names, imagining the re-naming humans would do when admitting the aliens to our planet). It was important to the writers that all of the characters, even and especially the aliens, were believable, recognizable - well, human. Drawing on people they knew or were familiar with, the writers created a cast of characters who are an amalgamation of many people.
Blomkamp's childhood friend and collaborator, Sharlto Copley, takes on the role of Wikus van der Merwe, the MNU official charged with removing the non-humans from District 9 and moving them to the concentration camp of District 10. Copley had also worked on the short film Alive in Jo'Burg, producing that film.
"Neill has found a very soulful way of approaching science fiction," says Copley, who has known Blomkamp for over 12 years. "The genre can be clinical, even cold and unemotional. But in Neill's hands, it resonates quite deeply. There's no particular message or big moral of the story - it's just a melting pot of emotions that comes out."
Copley says that he was thrilled to continue working with Blomkamp. "There is a very small film industry in South Africa," he says. "So even if you meet someone else who wants to work in film, it's not necessarily a person that you can resonate with or gets your creative point of view. So I feel very fortunate that Neill's one of those people that I always got what he was trying to accomplish, and he saw things in me, too."
"A small amount of power goes a long way with Wikus - he's an ordinary guy who likes to wield power in a bureaucratic way," says Copley. "That's why MNU promotes him - they want a guy who will do things in an orderly, proper way."
"Wikus has a very bad day," says Peter Jackson. "Not only does he contract a mysterious disease that starts changing his DNA, but what makes it worse is that he becomes the key to unlocking the alien weaponry. For a moment in time, Wikus becomes the most important person on the planet."
David James plays Koobus, MNU's chief enforcer, who becomes a bounty hunter of sorts when MNU's chiefs order Wikus to be brought in - dead or alive. "Koobus is the dark side of MNU," says James. "If you need something done legally, you get Wikus, and if you need it done even if it's not legal, you get Koobus. Everyone at MNU know that Koobus is not somebody you mess with."
"I think Neill liked the psychopathic edge I gave to Koobus in my audition," says James. "He can lie so convincingly to everyone around him - he's operating with his own agenda. Whenever I was in doubt about what my character would do in a situation, I went back to that."
Another subtle clue to character might go over the heads of most Americans, but plays into a kind of bigotry that South Africans would know. "Wikus is Afrikaaner, which is perceived by some in South Africa as a kind of a redneck," says James. "I decided that I would play Koobus as English, a man who has spent his military service out of country. Even at the outset, in every way, he sees himself as being superior to Wikus."
Jason Cope, who had served as Blomkamp's production manager on Alive in Jo'burg, plays the non-human Christopher Johnson. "Actually, I play about ten different characters," says Cope. "It was quite a thing to wake up and say, 'Which creature will I be today?' My mom was very excited when I got the part. She asked, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm playing a community of intergalactic beings in the townships.' She couldn't quite get her head around it."
"Neill had a very clear idea about what he wanted from the non-humans," Cope continues. "During the rehearsal process, we got a feel for what he liked, but he also gave me a lot of freedom, within certain boundaries. I wouldn't act too much like an animal or an insect, but I'm definitely not acting human, either."
"Jason is a terrific actor to play off of," says Copley. "Those were some of the best scenes in the film, for me."
ABOUT THE CINEMATOGRAPHY
From the very beginning, Blomkamp intended that District 9 would stand on its own - influenced by the great science fiction films that came before it, but unique in vision and groundbreaking in method.
District 9 breaks the rules most effectively in its style of shooting, which, by the end of the film, has audiences wondering what's real and what's entirely imagined. Blomkamp's longtime friend, cinematographer Trent Opaloch, shared the director's instinctive understanding of the trip he intended for moviegoers. "Trent is perfect in this ultra‐real, run‐and‐gun type of situation," says Blomkamp. "We didn't spend too much time painting a beautiful picture - we just got in there and captured a raw, authentic feel."
Blomkamp uses three different components to tell his story. First, of course, are the dramatic scenes encompassing Wikus's story. With handheld cameras and other techniques, Blomkamp and Opaloch sought raw, brutal, and authentic-looking images. For example, Opaloch mounted dozens of mini-cameras on every set, which captured both the action as well as the filming process. The filmmakers also shot a "corporate video" for MNU, with Copley as Wikus speaking directly to the camera. "That was the very first test we did," says Copley. "It adds an extra layer to the film, showing how the character is 'on-camera' vs. 'off' - he's trying to make himself seem impressive, show off a bit. When you get a little bit of the character when he thinks no one's watching, it's disarming - it fits right into the style of the film that Neill created - in the audience, you just believe it."
The second component is the mockumentary footage. The filmmakers worked independently from the main unit, interviewing dozens of people, some actors and some not, to get the desired, off‐the‐cuff responses to the situation presented in the film.
The third component is real, existing footage sourced from the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Reuters, and other news agencies. This is mostly archival news footage used to help flesh out the world that Blomkamp has created. "A lot of films will reference footage that they claim is existing footage, where you see a famous news presenter or a snippet from CNN, so what I am doing is not uncommon," explains Blomkamp. "The only difference is that there is a greater amount of it in this film."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
South African-born director NEILL BLOMKAMP (Director/Screenplay by) moved to Canada at the age of 18, beginning his career as a visual effects artist in the world of film and television. Garnering much recognition as one of the brightest young talents in the industry, Blomkamp was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding visual effects at the age of 21. Shortly afterwards, he made the move into directing, serving first as a music video director and then transitioning into the world of commercials. Blomkamp quickly drew attention as a director with a unique talent for seamlessly blending computer generated imagery with live action, while infusing elements of emotion, humor, and mood.
Helming million-dollar commercials for Nike, Citroen, Gatorade, Panasonic, and Namco, Blomkamp also directed many celebrated short films, including the Wieden and Kennedy-financed short, Tempbot, which garnered the coveted No Spot Short Film Festival Best Overall Film.
In 2004, Blomkamp was recognized as one of the Top 5 Directors to Watch at the First Boards Awards, featured in the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase at Cannes, and short-listed at the Shark Awards. In 2005, Blomkamp received the award for Outstanding VFX in a commercial for Citroen - Alive with Technology at the VES Awards in California. He has since been featured in Shots, Shoot, Campaign, and Creativity magazines, and won three awards in London, England at the BTAA award show.
Most recently, Blomkamp directed three Halo live action commercials for Microsoft.
District 9 is the first produced feature-length screenplay from the Canadian writer TERRI TATCHELL (Screenplay by). Writing partner to Neill Blomkamp, she has co-written much of his past work. Tatchell's other writing credits span the mediums including a 90-minute one-act multimedia stage play, news and magazine print, commercials and short films.
PETER JACKSON (Producer) made history with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, becoming the first person to direct three major feature films simultaneously. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King were nominated for and collected a slew of film awards from around the globe, including 17 Academy Awards, 12 British Academy of Film and Television Awards and four Golden Globes.
It was for The Return of the King that Jackson received his most impressive collection of awards. These included three Academy Awards (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture), two Golden Globes (Best Director and Best Motion Picture - Drama), three BAFTAs (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film and Viewers), a Directors Guild Award, a Producers Guild Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award.
As a follow up to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in 2005, Jackson directed, wrote and produced King Kong for Universal Pictures. The film has grossed over $500 million and won three Oscars.
Jackson previously received widespread acclaim for his 1994 feature Heavenly Creatures, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. Other film credits include The Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox; the adult puppet feature Meet the Feebles; and Braindead, which won 16 international science fiction awards, including the Saturn. Jackson also co-directed the television documentary "Forgotten Silver," which also hit the film festival circuit.
Born in New Zealand on Halloween in 1961, Jackson began at an early age making movies with his parents' Super 8 camera. At 17, he left school, purchased a 16mm camera, and began shooting a science fiction comedy short that three years later had grown into a 75-minute feature called Bad Taste.
Jackson works closely with partner Fran Walsh, with whom he shares his writing and producing credits, as well as a family. Jackson has a special interest in WWI memorabilia. He is also the proud owner of his own Sopwith Camel.
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