Over the last six years, acclaimed filmmaker Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) has been attached to sequels to Aliens and RoboCop, two of modern science-fictions most beloved series. Yet despite considerable online interest for both projectswhich would have ignored later installments and picked up immediately after 1986s Aliens and 1987s RoboCop, respectivelyneither appears likely to get off the ground in the foreseeable future, courtesy of clashing visions and studio priorities. Nonetheless, on the eve of the debut of his new thriller Demonic, the Academy Award-nominated South African writer/director remains upbeat about the possibility of again working in established franchises, provided the opportunity is right.
I wouldnt be averse to looking at other large pieces of IP that are owned by the studio. You just have to do it very cautiously, I think, he remarks. Theres certainly no reason to not be working with big studios on movies. Its actually a pretty good process. The only thing to really be aware of is, with a very well-known piece of IP, what does that mean? Just be aware of the elements that are riding on it.
While Alien and RoboCop didnt pan out, Blomkamp has another high-profile venture in the pipeline: a sequel to his 2009 breakthrough District 9, the sci-fi apartheid allegory that earned four Oscar nods (including for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay). The writer/director has recently stated that his planned follow-up will be rooted in American history, although when pressed directly about the film, hes reticent to reveal many details. Still, he does divulge that making a sequel in the first place was never a set-in-stone goal; rather, it simply sprang from a natural moment of inspiration.
I never wanted to force a sequel to it. It was just one day, I was struck by something, and I realized there could be a very cool way to do a sequel that suddenly made sense to me. Thats really all it is, right? You dont force creativity like that. And if it takes over a decade, thats fine. It could take forever, and theres never a sequel. It doesnt matter. That said, if Blomkamp isnt ready to provide a timetable for District 10s completion, he does verify that its currently on his front-burner. Im actively working on it. Im just unsure of when itll be right, and perfect.
As he plots a return trip to that futuristic world, Blomkamp has already charted a totally new course with his latest. Premiering Aug. 20 in theaters and on VOD, Demonic, his first feature since 2015s underperforming Chappie, is a low-budget horror film that was produced during the pandemic in 24 days. The story of a young woman named Carly (Carly Pope) whos invited by shady religious types to participate in a cutting-edge technological trial that involves sending her inside her estranged mothers (Nathalie Boltt) comatose mindwhere, it turns out, an evil entity lurksits a VR variation on a demonic-possession thriller. Think of it as The Lawnmower Man meets The Exorcist, shot in stripped-down claustrophobic fashion and embellished with plenty of volumetric-capture effects.
Though it shares with his prior output a love of sci-fi tech, Demonic is Blomkamps first genuine foray into horror, and the 41-year-old director confirms that hes long had the urge to do something in the genre. Ive always been interested in horror, and I was always particularly interested in wanting to do a tiny self-financed horror film, almost like a challenge, like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. I never knew when I would do that; I just knew that I wanted to at some point. So when the pandemic hit, it felt like with everything else slowing down, it would be a good time to try that idea. I think horror is very conducive to a low-budget environment, and you can do stuff in that genre that isnt very expensive.
Demonic boasts various touches that recall the works of James Cameron and David Cronenberg (among others), but the director asserts that there were no specific creative templates for the film, saying, Im not very good at looking outside at what other films are doing. Its much more of an insular process. Rather than channeling illustrious forebears, what appealed to him was the opportunity to generate the type of low-fi terror that made The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity such cultural phenomenons. Above even trying to be scary, the main objective was to create a sense of tension and dread. I just wanted this surface tension that was there the whole time. Those movies were inspirational because they were low budget, the filmmakers just went out and shot them, and they got a visceral audience response from them. I thought that was a really interesting thing.
COVID-19 may have impacted the logistical components of Demonic, but the genesis of the film came from two distinct creative impulses, both of which happened to merge seamlessly here. I think the idea for it was a bunch of separate ideas that I had for things that I wanted to work on at some point, like volumetric capture, which ended up being VR, and the idea of the Vatican acting in more of a 21st-century way, buying up tech companies, he says. So, I just blended them, really.
Above even trying to be scary, the main objective was to create a sense of tension and dread.
As Carly eventually discovers, the masterminds behind her predicament are church officials with a decidedly contemporary method of combatting Satans minions. In terms of developing the film, the exorcism part was more crucial, just because its one of the horror tropes thats easy to get into. It was built around the idea of, we know we want to do something low budget with demonic possession and exorcisms, so what would that look like? Getting volumetric capture involved with thatwhich was a separate idea that I hadstarted yielding this VR idea in a way that you could have a demon existing in someones mind, and people going in looking for it. It really was a case of merging elements that we wanted to put into the pot, while figuring out what to shoot during COVID.
As with so many cinematic undertakings during the past 18 months, Demonics completion was complicated by the pandemic, thanks to numerous operational protocols that put an additional burden on the production. It doesnt make it easier to shoot something thats already low budget when you have additional costs because of what is required for an element that normally, pre-pandemic, wouldnt be there, he states. But then at the same time, you want to make sure that the crew is safe. Fortunately, Blomkamp and company emerged largely unscathed from the process, with only one close call threatening to derail the film. We only had one potential COVID scare with a crew member, and we had to stand down and just sort of dissemble everything until we got the COVID results. Because of the way locations worked, it actually knocked everything for like two weeks. But it turned out he didnt have it.
Neill Blomkamp and Carly Pope on the set of Demonic
Even if such issues led to inevitable slowdownsBlomkamp estimates that COVID safety measures led to a 20-25 percent loss of efficiencythey had little effect on the finished product, which sets itself apart from its horror brethren via Carlys VR trips inside her moms digitized dream consciousness. According to Blomkamp, creating that unreal environment wasnt a walk in the parkespecially for his actors. Theyre in this insanely restrictive cage of cameraslike, 260 cameras, very close to them, he explains. But Carly and Natalie were great in that environment. It was just very hard, because theres the acting part of it, the emotional part of it, but then youre also trying to make sure that, on a technical level, theyre actually walking through the set correctlywhich isnt there, because all you have is a bunch of cameras. its about measurements and making sure they hit certain exact positions. Super mathematical. It was not easy, he laughs.
That techno-reality feels intimately connected to video games, which is no surprise in light of the fact that Blomkamp is currently collaborating with Gunzilla Games on a AAA multiplayer shooter. Pressed on the relationship between Demonic and games, he explains, I think the element that makes it feel gamey is just the fact that the technology is, in fact, running on a video game engine. Its running on Unity, so it is a game engine. As for his approach to designing those unsettling sequences, Everything that was live action was 100 percent not handheld. It was all Steadicam and very controlled. So when we were in VR, I wanted it to be handheld, to feel loose and like a massive environmental shift for the audience, so they felt like they were in VR with the actresses.
A volumetric capture sequence in Demonic
Demonic proves that Blomkamp remains committed to feature directing, although since Chappie, hes also kept busy with Oats Studios, an independent outfit he founded in 2017 for which hes directed numerous short films starring the likes of Pope, Sigourney Weaver, Dakota Fanning, and his favorite leading man, Sharlto Copley. Oats has been an outlet for both narrative and technological experimentation for Blomkamp, and he says theres also a third component to Oats, which is trying to build something outside of the film industry that is actually making films, which is an interesting idea. Achieving that dream, he chuckles, requires doing something exceedingly unpleasant: Losing a lot of money. I think you would need to lose a lot of money in order to get there, and then it may work. And hes quick to add, At this point, other people have to lose the money.
Blomkamp concedes that he doesnt know Oats ultimate fate, nor his own cinematic future, save for the fact that a sequel to Chappie is definitely not in the cards (I dont think so. I dont think that universe can be revisited. I dont see how thats ever going to happen). What he can envision himself doing, however, is striking a newfound balance between the epic sci-fi action of Elysium and the confined, claustrophobic suspense of Demonic. I think Im going to probably make something [next] thats bigger, he reveals. I think Im going back to a larger filmmaking scale. But I would not mind at all going back to something of this size again. I think just fluctuating between budget levels, and using different skills, is not a bad thing.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero