In the sci-fi thriller “Elysium” (written and directed by Neill Blomkamp), the year is 2154, when two classes of people exist: the very wealthy (who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium) and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. The people of Earth are desperate to escape the planet’s crime and poverty, and they critically need the state-of-the-art medical care available on Elysium, but some in Elysium will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve their citizens’ luxurious lifestyle.
The only man with the chance bring equality to these worlds is Max (played by Matt Damon), an ordinary guy in desperate need to get to Elysium. With his life hanging in the balance, he reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission – one that pits him against Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster) and her hard-line forces, including a sadistic renegade named Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley). But if Max succeeds, he could save not only his own life, but millions of people on Earth as well. Here is what Damon, Foster, Copley sand Blomkamp said at the “Elysium” press conference at Comic-Con International in 2012.
What can you say about “Elysium”?
Blomkamp: It’s a film about an orbital space station that has the rich living on it, and Earth is diseased and has been left behind with the money and the resources having left. Matt is from Earth and Jodie is from the space station.
What sort of themes are you addressing in the movie? Does it have “rich versus poor” storyline?
Blomkamp: The film definitely has elements of the haves and the have-nots, and the discrepancy in wealth that seems to be a widening gap. But hopefully, it is a film where that is woven into the tapestry of the story in a way that feels like an organic science-fiction thrill ride. The themes are touched upon, hopefully in a fairly realistic, not over-the-top way.
Jodie and Matt, do you have anything to add?
Foster: I agree with what he said. It’s a tough trick to be able to create an intelligent movie that has socio-political commentary and also has the emotional and moving stuff at the same time. That’s something that Neill does. This film is very different than “District 9” and addresses some of those issues in a very different way, but they share that mixture of sensibilities.
Damon: I think it, first and foremost, will be really entertaining and really work on that level. It certainly has a lot of relevance. Funnily enough, the whole terminology of the 99 percent and the 1 percent wasn’t even there when we started.
I just remember Neill, the first time I met him, said, “I grew up in South Africa, and I immigrated to Canada when I was 18. And to go from the third world to the first world, at that age, absolutely changed the way that I look at the world.” The sci-fi world and the gore is all the stuff that he loves, so what he’s thinking about gets expressed that way.
Can you make any comparisons between the statement “Elysium” is making with the rich and the poor, and how celebrities are treated differently from other people?
Damon: My character is trying to get to the space station because he’s dying and he wants to get there because they have health care. They have these med bays that you lie in and get completely healed. So, he’s desperate.
Copley: So he’s sort of selfish.
Damon: In a way.
Foster: I don’t know if there’s much to compare. I think celebrity culture and social commentary with disparate wealth. I don’t know if those two things can be compared.
Sharlto, you did various updates on your Facebook page during “District 9.” Will you be doing anything like that for this film?
Copley: No. I was able to do that on “District 9” just because it was a smaller project that I was involved with right from the beginning. This one [“Elysium”] was teams of people doing the behind-the-scenes pictures and stuff.
Blomkamp: But you can do it, once it comes out, dude. That would be cool.
What do you think the world will be like in 2154?
Damon: Well, I probably won’t be here. But I don’t even think this would be, necessarily, Neill’s vision of what the world would really look like in 140 years. This is just a dystopian fantasy.
It’s kind of a thought exercise that he went on where he just looked at where he grew up and where he lives now and what’s going on now, in terms of disparate wealth and the increasing gap. What if that kept happening for another 140 years? What would that look like?
Blomkamp: That’s completely accurate. Science fiction for the sake of science fiction, if it’s about science, is not really what this film is about. It’s more about using the imagery as an extrapolation of what the idea is.
Does “Elysium” feel entirely realistic as the year 2154? It’s probably not entirely realistic. It has elements that may be semi-realistic, but most of it comes from how you turn theme into visuals and into an idea. It’s somewhat a play on not a perfectly exact representation of the future, in my particular book. It’s more devoid of technology than it would be in 2154, even if the money was pulled out.
Foster: This is an extraordinary time There are lots of futurists that spend their whole life trying to figure out who we’re going to be in 40, 50, 60, 100 years. That’s the great thing about science fiction.
When you look at “The Matrix,” 15 years ago, I feel like we’re living that now. Obviously, it’s allegorical so they took it to a different extreme, but we are plugged in and living virtual lives and have all of our connectivity done virtually. We don’t have body connectivity anymore. That actually came true, which I thought was amazing that they came up with that before any of that stuff was really going on.
What would I like to happen? We all talk about our fears and what’s going to happen in the next 100 years, but there are good things, too. What the digital age has offered us, in terms of connectivity and transparency, and all of these people from weird places in the world are all talking to each other at 4 in the morning, and are sharing ideas. There’s more openness than has ever been known, so that’s a good thing.
Neill, what was it like to work with a bigger budget this time around?
Blomkamp: Making this film was as enjoyable as making “District 9.” Maybe fractionally more enjoyable because politically it was more stable.
Foster: It wasn’t scary.
Blomkamp: Basically, I had an easy time because the performances are just really good. Your job, as a director, is incredibly limited. You just go to get coffee and watch the video assist monitors while other people work.
It was easy is my bottom line. Hanging out with Sharlto [Copley] in a slightly different context was cool. There were moments when it definitely felt like we were doing parts of “District 9” again.
Matt, what did you learn from making “Elysium”?
Damon: A lot of it was really interesting. I learned a lot. Every time I work with a great director, I just learn a lot. Every day was really interesting. The level of detail that Neill had gone into was just really great.
The first time I met him, he gave me this whole graphic novel, and a different book with weapons systems and vehicles. I looked at that stuff and went home and told my wife, “There is no way I’m going to let this get away. I have to do this!” And we planned our whole life around it because of it.
I feel really lucky. After I saw “D9,” Neill immediately went to the top of the list of people that I wanted to work with. I feel lucky that it came around so quickly to me.”
What can you say about the characters you play in “Elysium”?
Damon: I play a guy on Earth who’s just hoping to some day go to Elysium, like everybody on Earth.
Copley: I play a guy called Kruger. When I read the script, I said to Neill, “If I could be in this movie, this is the guy that I would want to do.” He’s a special forces/black ops guy that hides out on Earth and essentially works for Jodie’s organization.
When Jodie and the other politicians can’t solve problems by peaceful negotiation and chats, they call my guy on Earth, and he deals with the problems. It was something very different for me.
The last time I had seen a really entertaining villain that I liked was Heath Ledger’s Joker. I thought with this character that there was the opportunity to do something that didn’t take itself too seriously. He’s still very dark and very intimidating, but hopefully has a certain level of charisma.
I wanted to present something that audiences really have never seen, thanks to Neill. Neill let me do my improv thing, as I do every now and then, and really gave me a chance to do something different. Hopefully, people will enjoy it.
Foster: I play a political figure who is very interested in keeping the habitat pure and trying to save it from those pesky earthlings.
Matt and Jodie, do you two have a lot of scenes together in “Elysium”? [Says jokingly] And is Matt the shy, quiet type?
Foster: We have one scene. And he’s very quiet. He’s dying.
Neill, will audiences find hope in the future you’re presenting in “Elysium”?
Blomkamp: No. Look at “War of the Worlds.” The debate between utopias and dystrophic science fiction is pretty evenly balanced. Maybe there is slightly less utopian stuff now, but the bad versions have been around for a long time, too. Maybe there is a need to inject back some of the utopia.
People that really are speculative science fiction fans want to get it right. Why don’t we see more of trans-humanism and all of the opportunities that we have with technology in cinema? It’s boring because there’s no conflict, really. If there was a way to keep the utopian element and write in conflict, it would be appealing. I just don’t know what that is right now.
Neill, why did it take this long for you to finish “Elysium” after doing “District 9”?
Blomkamp: That’s a tough one to answer. I think I started writing a treatment for this at the end of 2009 and by the time I finish the film, which is in November, it’s precisely three years. But I’ve been working solidly all the time.
It’s not a $200 million film or a $300 million film, but it seems to be exponentially greater than “District 9,” in terms of just how much stuff there is in the film. There are so many different pieces and elements and ideas, and the amount of stuff we had to design and the amount of stuff we had to build, and the kind of visual effects we’re doing, is just this absolutely relentless process. You just have to bulldoze through it.
So I’ve been working. I’m sorry it wasn’t quicker, but it’s just taken that long. There hasn’t been any roadblocks. It just took that long.
Copley: He also wrote another film at the same time.
Blomkamp: Yeah, in 2010 we wrote another film simultaneously. That just spontaneously happened, but I don’t know how much time it took away from “Elysium.”
For the actors, what was the key to finding your characters on an emotional level?
Foster: That’s a tough one. I don’t know. I haven’t seen the movie. None of us have seen the film. Matt may have seen bits and pieces, but none of us have seen it so we’re going to be as surprised as you are.
Interestingly, when you do films, sometimes you have conscious reasons, things that you were looking for or stuff that you were trying to do. And then you see the film and you think, “Wow, it ended up being something totally different!”
Damon: That’s a tough one to answer. My character is dying imminently, so that’s probably what’s driving a lot of what he does. The acting stems from the imminent death. That was most of the direction I would get. “So what am I thinking here?” “Well, dude, you’re going to die!”
Copley: The key for me with playing a villain was being able to access two parts of myself, because it was very different from roles that I’ve played before. One was growing up in a very hard environment, in a very dangerous place, where I’d been involved in violent things happening and seen a lot of violence around me, and to be able to be comfortable with the understanding that there is a certain level of violence that exists in the world.
And then, secondarily, to kind see the world in a black and white way in the sense that there are people that talk about things, and there are people that actually have to go an execute all of the things that those people talk about. So the key to my character’s emotional state is that he’s got to go do things that are not necessarily pleasant so that you can all have nicer and safer lives. That’s his thinking.
Doing those things that aren’t pleasant can also sometimes mess with your head a little bit. That’s where I had to come from, to be able to play someone that can do the things that he does.
Matt, what did you think when you found out about the Max character would look like? Were you excited about the physical transformation?
Damon: In that graphic novel that he gave me was a picture of the Max character and he had a very specific look, like every other piece and detail of the whole world that Neill created. If you look at the graphic novel, it’s going to look a lot like the movie is eventually going to look, except the movie will obviously be rendered in much greater detail.
But Max had this certain look. He spent time in prison. He was supposed to have a bald, shaved head with tattoos and he was a muscle-bound guy. I had never really done anything like that, so it seemed like a good fit.
And the gun was in the second book that I got, the weapons catalog that I got. Like every other gun, Neill and the guys at WETA workshop came up with all these things. They made sense, all of these guns.
Some of them have battery packs on and these gnarly weapons that obviously don’t exist in the world that we live in, but you totally buy them when you see them. Just seeing them on set, you’d go, “That clearly looks like some horrible weapon that someone’s going to invent someday.” It was just that level of detail.
Neill, what can you say about the movie that you wrote at the same time that you wrote “Elysium”?
Blomkamp: I actually didn’t actually take a break. That’s usually my style, at least, but I continued to work. What happened was I was writing “Elysium,” and I got this idea for this film, so I wrote it with Terri [Tatchell], who wrote “District 9” with me. I was writing “Elysium” on my own. And so I just came up with this original idea. Within literally … three weeks, it was done. It was simultaneous.
I would just write that with her when I felt like it, and then I would write “Elysium” on my own, and bounce between them. It was a fairly full-formed idea, so it was quite easy to jot down. It’s much more simplistic than “Elysium,” in terms of concept. It’s just a much more simple thing. It’s a science-fiction comedy thing. That’s about as far as I can go with it.
Does it have a title?
Neill, as a writer, do your films start with the characters or do you create the worlds first? How does the process work for you?
Blomkamp: “District 9,” “Elysium” and “Chappie” were all born out of a visual concept first. With “District 9,” it was wanting to see aliens living in Johannesburg. With “Elysium,” it was the idea of the separation of rich and poor, and the images of this space station separate from Earth. It was a thematic separation that was visual.
With “Chappie,” it was the imagery of this ridiculous robot character. It’s much more comedy based, in an unusual setting. I think I’m a visual person first, more than anything. They seem to be visual first, really. It’s visuals of ideas.
How to you feel about the higher frame rates and 2-D versus 3-D?
Blomkamp: It’s a really complex discussion. If you were to show a child who’s 6 months old right now a 48 fps [frames per second] film, when they’re 20 it would be as familiar to them as you watching 24 fps HD. It’s very much a generational thing.
But for people that are our age, there may be an alien quality to 48 or 60 fps that distances you from it in a way that I’m waiting to see if the audience gets behind or rejects. It has such a hyper-realism about it that the cinema may be taken away a little bit. For me, I don’t like it. But, that’s just me, personally. I prefer 24 fps. I definitely prefer 2-D over 3-D, and that’s a personal preference thing.
But the closer I am to cinema that I grew up with, where I feel like I’m watching a film and I’m in the state of mind that I want to be in when I’m entering a different world, I feel like some of that really crazy hi-res, high-frame rate stuff separates me from it. And 3-D sometimes has the same affect.
For more info: “Elysium” website