Matt Damon may be at the top of the A-list, but he had to persuade writer-director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) to cast him in his new sci-fi film, Elysium, opening Aug. 9. “I think he was even reluctant to meet me,” Damon says, laughing, from his apartment in Manhattan. “He kept saying, ‘I’m not doing anything Hollywood,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I live in New York.’ We ended up meeting in a diner and he was kind of giving me the one-eye for the first 10 minutes or so.” That wasn’t just in Damon’s head. “I was doing that,” Blomkamp says, smiling. “I was just trying to figure out what was going on, you know?”
In this week’s cover story, Entertainment Weekly goes inside the making of Elysium, this summer’s most provocative (and political) action film. The year is 2154 and Earth has become a Third World slum. The wealthy have long since departed, inhabiting an exclusive satellite paradise where advanced medical technology heals any ailment, from a hangnail to terminal cancer, in seconds. Damon plays Max, an orphan who dreams of the Eden in the sky, but is stuck slaving at a Los Angeles factory that manufactures droids. When he is accidentally irradiated, Silkwood-style, and told he has five days to live, Max hatches a plan to save himself. To do that, though, he’ll have to team up with a band of revolutionaries determined to make Elysium accessible to all. Standing in his way are Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), head of Elysium’s Civil Cooperation Bureau, who guns down any illegal spaceship attempting to enter the satellite’s orbit, and her psychotic henchman (District 9‘s Sharlto Copley), dispatched to take Max and his crew out.
So: Health care. Immigration. Economic disparities. Environmental degradation. Any of this sound familiar? “Everybody wants to ask me lately about my prediction for the future, whether I think this is what will happen in 140 years,” Blomkamp says, riding shotgun in a red Prius amid the soft green lawns and swaying palm trees of Beverly Hills. “No, no, no. This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.”
Blomkamp, 33, had made the Oscar-nominated District 9 for $30 million, completely under the Hollywood radar. But for Elysium he needed a big budget ($100 million), which meant he needed to make a studio film, and cast A-list stars. This made him nervous. He didn’t want some Hollywood ego derailing his vision, which is why he was keeping Damon at arm’s length at first. “High-level actors can be these razor-sharp tools that help you tell the story,” Blomkamp says. “But they can also be all about their close-ups and the size of their trailers. I was very apprehensive. You just hear all these horror stories.”
His other concern, of course, was working with a studio at all. “I remember sitting in my office wondering, ‘Am I making a huge mistake?'” he says. “‘Maybe this movie should be this sub-$40 million, off-the-radar thing. I was terrified of watering it down or losing control of it. That scared the s— out of me.”
Under normal circumstances it probably should have, but District 9 had earned $211 million worldwide, which gave Blomkamp some clout with Media Rights Capital — the studio that financed, developed and produced Elysium — and Sony, which distributed it. For the most part, they left him alone. “It’s the way movies should be made,” Jodie Foster says. “But Neill gets that opportunity exactly once. If this movie creates the greatest fortune ever he might get that again, but even then I doubt it. There’s a lot riding on this.”