Credit: Kimberley French

The new sci-fi action movie Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, is about a future Earth that is entirely third world, and a first-world sky satellite where the rich live in paradise. The inspiration? An ill-fated trip to Tijuana, Mexico.

In 2005, a few years before Blomkamp made his feature directing debut with District 9, he was shooting a Nike commercial in San Diego when his exec producer suggested they pop down to Tijuana for the night. So they set off in a rental car and hit the main tourist drag, Avenida Revolución, at dusk, bought a couple of beers in brown paper bags, and started strolling down the street. Suddenly, two Federales (Mexican police) pulled up onto the curb. “They got out of the car, threw me onto the hood, cuffed me, took my passport, did the same to my friend and threw us into the back of the car,” Blomkamp says. “They weren’t speaking to us; they just started driving us out of the city.”

His exec producer, who was carrying petty cash from their commercial shoot, began rolling up bills and shoving them through the grate that separated the backseat from the front. “When we’d reached some critical mass — $900 or something — they let us out of the car,” Blomkamp says. It was dark, they had no idea where they were, and they had at least a two-hour trek ahead of them. “We were walking through these totally impoverished, insane areas with feral dogs and crying babies and people making fires, and on the horizon I could see the floodlights from the U.S. shining into Mexico, and there were multiple Black Hawks flying the perimeter, and it was like science fiction on Earth,” he says. “Nothing has changed, but now you’re on the other side of the border.” His goal with Elysium, he says, was to put all of us there.

For more on Elysium, pick up a cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly, on sale Friday.

District 9
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