With the surprise smash ''District 9,'' Neill Blomkamp established himself not just as a hot director but as a storyteller with a furiously humane vision; his new movie, ''Elysium,'' is about a decimated Earth where the rich are above it all (literally) and EW is inside the making of an action movie that's also a call to action

By Sean Smith
Updated July 26, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
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This story doesn’t begin on a movie set with Matt Damon or in some Michelin-starred restaurant with Jodie Foster. It begins in the real world, with a director in handcuffs.

In 2005, a few years before Neill 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, Mexico, 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. This went on for 30 minutes. ”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’re walking through these totally impoverished, insane areas with feral dogs and crying babies and people making fires, and on the horizon I could see 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.”

Blomkamp’s new movie, Elysium (not yet rated, out Aug. 9), puts all of us there. The year is 2154, and Earth has become a Third World slum. The wealthy have long since departed, inhabiting an exclusive satellite paradise called Elysium 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 away 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 (Foster), head of Elysium’s Civil Cooperation Bureau, who guns down any illegal spaceship attempting to enter the satellite’s orbit, and her psychopathic henchman (District 9‘s Sharlto Copley), dispatched to take out Max and his crew.

If you are a member of the 1 percent, Elysium is a horror movie. For everyone else, it’s one step shy of a call to arms. Health care. Immigration. Economic disparities. Environmental degradation. Any of this sound familiar? ”Everybody wants to ask me lately about my predictions for the future, whether I think this is what will happen in 140 years,” says Blomkamp, 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.”

This is also a $100 million summer movie, so it’s packed with breakneck chases and badass weapons and special effects and lots of combat. The message of the film is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull, but it isn’t didactic. No one hectors about inequality or pontificates about global sociopolitics. There’s not even that much talking, really. ”I’m a male that likes films, so I want to sit in a movie theater and watch something that’s a ride,” says Blomkamp, who wrote the movie and produced it with Bill Block and Simon Kinberg. ”I want that adrenaline part of filmmaking, but I also want it to be about something more than just things blowing up.”

The problem, of course, is that you can’t make a movie of this scale without a lot of money — studio money — which is a bit like partnering with Elysium’s Civil Cooperation Bureau. Blomkamp, 33, who made the Oscar-nominated District 9 for $30 million free from interference, wasn’t sure he was willing to sign that deal with the devil. ”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 the studio, Sony. For the most part, they left him alone. ”It’s the way movies should be made,” Foster says. ”But Neill gets that opportunity exactly once. If this movie creates the greatest fortune ever, he might get it again, but even then I doubt it. There’s a lot riding on this.”

Don’t think he doesn’t know it. ”No one ever said to me, ‘This movie has to make its money back,”’ Blomkamp says. ”But you’d have to be a moron to not understand that. They’re investing in this film the same way they’re investing in, like, real estate.” And that required Blomkamp to make some concessions, including hiring bankable movie stars. He worried that A-list egos might derail his vision. ”High-level actors can be these razor-sharp tools that help you tell the story,” he 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…”

”I think he was even reluctant to meet me,” says Damon, laughing, from his Manhattan apartment. ”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 with a smile. ”I was just trying to figure out what was going on, you know?”

Damon and Foster, for the record, did not prove to be the kinds of narcissistic nightmares that Blomkamp was so stressed about. Still, the anticipation of directing top-tier talent tweaked him out a bit, and no one saw that more clearly than Sharlto Copley, who has known Blomkamp since the director was 14. Copley has a reputation for ad-libbing, which was worrying Blomkamp as they revved up production. ”He was saying, ‘Sharlto, it’s Matt and Jodie, my first time with big stars. Don’t do crazy stuff with them. Just, please, stick to the lines.’ He drilled this into me, and every time I talked to him he was like, ‘Remember, when you start shooting, just stick to the lines,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, okay!”’

But by the time Copley showed up, two weeks into production, for a scene with Alice Braga, who plays Damon’s childhood friend, he discovered that things had changed. ”I did every single pause and comma, every word exactly as it was in the script, and Alice didn’t,” Copley says. ”I pulled Neill aside and I’m like, ‘Dude, she’s not sticking to the lines, man.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m sort of relaxing that with some of the actors,’ and I’m like, ‘Then you’ve got to relax it with me, man!’ He just laughed and was like, ‘Yeah, okay.”’

In person, Blomkamp gives off a sort of fraternity-bro vibe, minus the arrogance. He’ll drop a random ”rad” into conversation, but he has the amiable, anchored air of a man who moves easily through the world. There is zero nervous energy about the guy. ”You would never even know he’s a director,” Foster says. ”He walks up to you on set and you think he’s some guy on the crew.” But in conversation, it’s clear that there’s also a big, geeky brain whirring away behind that ”Hey, man” demeanor. During a three-hour interview, he discusses NASA, ancient human migration patterns, Mr. T as a transracial icon, architect Richard Meier, transhumanism, his love of squash (the sport), his distaste for Portland, Ore., our synaptic response to foliage over high-tech structures, and why millennia of genetic coding make us hoard and overconsume even when it’s killing us. ”Neill’s really fun to talk to, but he’s definitely pessimistic,” Damon says. ”Get him talking about where he thinks the world is going if you want to slit your wrists.”

Blomkamp grew up in Johannesburg, and was 14 years old when apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela became president. By 1997, the year Blomkamp turned 18, the rate of violent crime had skyrocketed. ”That year was the pinnacle of lunacy in South Africa,” he says. ”The new government was still learning how to run the country, and the caging of apartheid had been removed. Every day, someone was getting hijacked next door to us or someone was getting shot. There was a lot of hectic s— happening.” His mother, who ran a translation company and often did contract work for the government, decided she’d had enough and moved the family to Vancouver. ”She ruled out the U.S. because of all the guns,” he says. Parachuting into the Northern Hemisphere at that age was a shock. ”It was a whole other planet,” he says. ”It felt like a generation ahead in terms of progressive politics — racial integration, homosexuality — and a lot of cultural stuff was just weird to me.” Such as? ”Like Big Bird,” he says. ”I still haven’t cleared up exactly what that f—er is.”

Both of Blomkamp’s films are about men crossing into new worlds. District 9, co-written with his longtime partner Terri Tatchell, with whom he has a 14-year-old daughter, is an apartheid allegory about a government official who becomes a member of the minority group he’s oppressing. Elysium is about a man trapped in the Third World trying to get to the First. ”I feel, now, like I’m a stranger in any land,” Blomkamp says. ”I have a blood bond with South Africa that I can’t get rid of, but when I’m in Canada, I don’t really feel like I’m from there, either, and I’m definitely not from America.”

When film journalists toss around phrases like ”a new global cinema,” we’re usually hyping some obscure Asian auteur or a cadre of indie films from Latin America. Movies, in other words, that few people will actually see. But Blomkamp may prove to be the harbinger of what ”global cinema” could become in the next decade: crowd-pleasing, big-canvas movies that speak to, and include, people from multiple cultures. Case in point: In Elysium, you’ll hear English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Afrikaans, among other languages. Most of the cast on Earth is Hispanic or black. Foster’s character is French. The president of Elysium is South Asian. But being ”global” isn’t just optics; it’s perspective. For all the hundreds of sci-fi films that have been made, few feel as plausible, as real, as Elysium does. Most directors choose between a dystopian (think Mad Max) or utopian (think Star Trek) vision of the future. Blomkamp, because he has lived in two vastly different worlds, sees that it is, and will be, both.

To American audiences, Elysium will symbolize Beverly Hills and Malibu, the wealthy enclaves Blomkamp used as design inspirations. To the rest of the planet, though, Elysium is the U.S. itself. ”America’s like a beacon in the world,” he says. ”But I feel like I’m watching it go down the toilet in front of my eyes. I’m fairly certain that this country is going to have pockets of Third World poverty within 50 to 60 years.” So while he shot the film’s earthbound scenes in Mexico City, he chose L.A. as the setting to create a subconscious gut punch. ”I knew that to show L.A., one of the richest cities in the world, as completely broken and dilapidated would mess with the audience,” he says. ”I wanted to show Americans what it feels like to be on the other side of the border.”

He’s about to go back across it himself. In September, Blomkamp begins shooting his third feature, the low(ish)-budget Chappie, starring Copley, in South Africa. It’s based on Blomkamp’s 2004 short film Tetra Vaal, but beyond that he’s not saying much. What is certain is that he’s not on a path to become the director of some superhero franchise. ”I have so many ideas for films that I feel like I’m not going to have enough time to do them all before I die,” he says. ”I’m where I want to be now. I can do under-the-radar or big-budget stuff. Now I just have to be good. As long as it’s not cookie-cutter, I’m okay.” Which means we may be about to watch a man who feels like a stranger in any land create a world entirely of his own.

Damon and Foster on the Home Front
Neill Blomkamp didn’t want any Hollywood divas on the set. So he hired a pair of unusually grounded, family-focused stars. Elysium‘s Matt Damon and Jodie Foster talk about the balance between kids and career.

Matt Damon has just one scene with Jodie Foster in Elysium, and he’s wearing a mouth gag the whole time (long story). Still, both are A-list anomalies: stars who have carved out quiet, stable family lives instead of flashy Hollywood ones. ”I’ve worked hard at that, but I’ve been pretty f—ing lucky, too,” says Damon, 42. ”I married the right woman, and that certainly helps with everything.” He has three young daughters (7, 4, and 2 years old) with his wife, Luciana Barroso, and is also helping raise her 15-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Last month, Damon’s Manhattan apartment was in boxes as he prepared to move his family to a house on the same L.A. street as Ben Affleck’s. During our interview, his girls wandered in and out of the room, asking for, in order: bread, bread, a pear, and (from 2-year-old Stella) an explanation of what a globe is. ”I’m totally surrounded,” he says, laughing. Wait until they’re teenagers. ”Our 15-year-old is spoiling us, she’s just so very cool, but I can tell my younger ones are going to be a handful.” Few men have sounded happier, though: ”I just changed my iPhone signature. It now says, ‘Sent from Elysium.”’

Jodie Foster‘s older son, Charlie, recently discovered that she’s a movie star. ”He’s 15 now and starting to have an appreciation of film history,” she says over a glass of soda water at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. ”On a Saturday he’ll lock himself in his room, get on Netflix, and watch four movies in a day. He’ll come out and go, ‘You made a movie with Robert De Niro? The guy from Meet the Parents?”’ In late June, Foster, 50, was about to head to France for a vacation with Charlie and her 11-year-old son, Kit, before Elysium hits theaters. She has acted infrequently since the boys were born, choosing to focus on her family. ”I don’t feel like I’ve made sacrifices,” she says. ”I just feel like I’m applying a different logic.” After 47 years in the entertainment business, she says, a role ”has to move me in some way. I don’t want to do what I’ve already done a thousand times.” Such as? ”I don’t want to make another movie about some strong lady saving some kid.” Meanwhile, she’s got some new fans at home. ”[The boys] really like the fact that I’m excited about what I do now,” she says. ”They want me to have a life like that.” —Sean Smith

Director & Star: A Lifelong Friendship
Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley have known each other since the director was a teenager. No wonder Copley has become Blomkamp’s go-to actor.

Sharlto Copely gave Neill Blomkamp his first job. The actor, now 39, was a young TV producer in Johannesburg when he hired 14-year-old Blomkamp as a computer-animation designer. Their friendship was not immediate — ”The fact that he was still in high school was a little prohibitive,” Copley says — but they shared a creative sensibility and a sense of humor. ”They’re really funny together,” says Matt Damon, noting that the two sometimes speak to each other in Afrikaans. ”Sharl reminds me of Heath Ledger — he’s just exploding with ideas. Neill had to keep hold of the narrative because you could just go down the rabbit hole with Sharl.”

When Blomkamp made his feature directing debut with District 9, he repaid the first-job favor by casting Copley, who had almost no acting experience at the time. Blomkamp has yet to make a movie without him, but Copley has built a career of his own, starring in 2010’s The A-Team, October’s Spike Lee joint Oldboy, and next summer’s Maleficent opposite Angelina Jolie. (”The woman can take a joke, and we had a great time,” Copley says.)

As Copley and Blomkamp prepare to shoot their third film together, Chappie, in September, they’re on the cusp of becoming a sort of South African version of Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. ”I feel very protective of my friendship with Neill, in a weird way,” Copley says. ”Hollywood can really mess with you, and what I have with Neill is complete honesty, about everything.” And so far, complete success on screen, too. —Sean Smith

Inside Elysium‘s Device Squad
In 2154, Earth is full of amazing new technology, but not all of it is exactly pleasant. The director and cast explain some of the movie’s coolest (and creepiest) gizmos and what inspired them.

Spine Tingler Matt Damon’s character gets a thumb drive screwed into his head to download top secret data and a metal exoskeleton to help him fight droids. ”When I first saw pictures of it, I was like, ‘This is going to be a f—ing nightmare,”’ says Damon. ”But you could do cartwheels in the thing. It wasn’t bad at all.”

Killer Looks Sharlto Copley’s Kruger has been in combat for 100-plus years. ”He’s got metal integrated into his body to make it easier to attach weapons,” Copley says. The metal attachments on his cheeks are weapon ports.

Miracle Bed On Elysium, medical reatomizers can cure any illness in a matter of seconds, so Elysians can live forever. ”That idea isn’t so far off,” Jodie Foster says. ”But who would want to be 180? I’m already tired.”

Diamond In The Sky Elysium’s wheel-like exterior is based on a ’70s Stanford University design. The inside is inspired by Rodeo Drive. ”That was ground zero,” Neill Blomkamp says. ”The synthetic foliage, the stark modern architecture. The way I perceive wealth is very Beverly Hills.” —Sean Smith


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