District 9 director Neill Blomkamp and author Tom Sweterlitsch chat about The Gone World
Blomkamp is directing the adaptation of the author's upcoming sci-fi novel
Tom Sweterlitsch’s novel The Gone World has already created quite a stir. The rights to the book were acquired by Fox months ago before it was even published, with Neill Blomkamp (District 9) now attached to direct the adaptation. All this and the book still hasn’t hit shelves — it’ll be released on Feb. 6. (Pre-order it here.)
The hype is already intense, in other words. The Gone World moves between two timelines, beginning in March 1997 with a family having been murdered and a daughter gone missing, and an ex-Navy seal named Patrick Mursult as the prime suspect. NCIS Special Agent Shannon Moss uncovers gruesome details about the case, encountering witnesses and persons of interest who are unusually reluctant to speak about the case.
In this twisty time-traveling narrative, Moss investigates the crime years into the future, returning to the present with the information she needs to close the case — but at a potentially, increasingly great cost. The book probes questions about consciousness and crime that calls to mind, among others, True Detective and 12 Monkeys.
In an in-depth, enlightening conversation exclusive to EW, Sweterlitsch and Blomkamp have interviewed each other about the book’s complicated structure, its human-focused themes, and the differences in telling the story between on the page and on film. As the conversation goes on, they speak existentially about life, death, and everything in between. Read on below.
TOM SWETERLITSCH: So, I’m just going to start with a question: How did you find out about The Gone World?
NEILL BLOMKAMP: So, as it became clear that Alien was collapsing, Mark Roybal, who was the executive, told me there’s a book we’re looking at optioning, that he really thought that I should take a look at, and then he forwarded me a paragraph summary that had been done internally at Fox, just to summarize what the book was. I read that just before Christmas and I was like, “This sounds insane, just send the book to me ASAP, I totally want to read this.” And then he sent me the kind of almost-finished manuscript, and I read that in some insanely quick amount of time, and couldn’t believe how incredible it was. And then I told him I really want to work on this, and that’s when Fox optioned the book.
SWETERLITSCH: I remember when you emailed me — I was watching The Martian at the Manor Theater here in Pittsburgh. About halfway through, my phone buzzes and I have an email from Neill Blomkamp. It was surreal, I was so excited. I’m such a fan of yours. I’ve watched all your early commercials, and your films — multiple times. Very excited my book resonated with you. But what was it that you responded to, that made you want to work on it?
BLOMKAMP: I mean, I remember very clearly before I read your book that I was becoming aware of these deep concepts around wave function collapse, but not really understanding, this idea that consciousness comes before matter, and manifests reality — and then I get sent this book that not only has those concepts, those very deep human/scientific/philosophical concepts embedded in it, it also is resting on top of a really amazing narrative and really incredible protagonist. So it was like someone had taken all of these ideas and wrapped them up into a very captivating story. That’s why I say it’s my favorite book that I’ve ever read.
SWETERLITSCH: Thanks — that means a lot to me. And I’m glad you like the protagonist, Shannon. I think Shannon’s my favorite thing about this book.
BLOMKAMP: It’s difficult to talk about Shannon without giving away massive plot points, or giving away the end of the book, in the reasons that I love her. But the way that Shannon is dealing with something that I think that all people feel, and how her story dramatizes it in real, physical, tangible ways, is amazing. And then Shannon as a character, as this NCIS researcher who’s kind of lost a little bit in the world, and a little bit disconnected, but driven and really good at what she does is — she’s just a mysterious, captivating character, with small touches of Clarice from Silence of the Lambs, or other iconic female characters. But in a new way — in a way that feels fresh.
SWETERLITSCH: I read in an interview with you — this was a couple years ago — you were talking about how, in terms of visual style, your first three movies sort of form a group, and you were maybe thinking about taking a different approach in whatever your next film would be. Is that something you still think about? Would you be looking to change your style, or is that all determined by whatever content you’re working with?
BLOMKAMP: Well, I think you need to start with the story and work backwards from that. The idea of aliens living in essentially Soweto in southern Johannesburg, in this kind of sun-bleached African setting, it made sense that you would have a somewhat documentary style, very real handheld photography in that setting, and when you look at The Gone World…
SWETERLITSCH: You might have a different approach…
BLOMKAMP: There’s two elements to visual design, or visual storytelling: There’s the way that what the camera is seeing is designed, and then there’s the grammar and the narrative applied to the filmmaking style itself, so in choosing camera angles, the way that the camera angles either move or are static… And I feel like The Gone World is a grown up, intellectual, adult film, and I feel like the filmmaking style needs to slow down and settle into that.
SWETERLITSCH: All of your robots, and vehicles — the District 9 ship, the ring in Elysium — are just so extremely cool. And I’m incredibly excited to see how you would design all the ships from the book, this fleet of United States Navy spaceships…
BLOMKAMP: I feel like the setting of time travel but interwoven with the Reagan-era, the U.S. military technology, this cold-war technology that leads into the 1990s, is from a cinematic standpoint so captivating. Plus, the SR-71…
SWETERLITSCH: Shannon’s ship…
BLOMKAMP: That’s always been my favorite plane. The idea of clipping particle accelerators onto the Blackbird, and kind of messing with that design a little bit while still keeping it realistic is fascinating.
SWETERLITSCH: The tone of The Gone World is different from your first three films.
BLOMKAMP: You know, the other films that I’ve done are always… I mean District 9 is definitely allegory, and Elysium is satirical, they’re kind of quirky. They’re not dead serious takes on something, where The Gone World is dead serious.
SWETERLITSCH: Yeah, definitely, I mean — whenever we email, we’re talking about the nature of reality and stuff, but whenever we talk to each other, you’re really very funny, and your films are funny… I guess the Oats pieces we’ve done aren’t so much… They aren’t funny…
BLOMKAMP: Right, that’s what I was going to say, I feel like I’m definitely, as a filmmaker, maturing a little bit into an area of wanting to be dead serious, for a bit. In the Oats stuff you can see this in Rakka or Firebase, but the moronic humor is still there in things like the cooking show, or God.
SWETERLITSCH: My first book had a lot of satire to it. It was almost similar to elements in your films.
BLOMKAMP: What I’ve come across in the stuff you’ve done, and particularly with The Gone World, is the idea that you take all of the most interesting, deepest questions about what it means to be human, questions that touch on theological ideas as well, and you distill them into something that is a compelling story in a space that I like to be inside of. So in Tomorrow and Tomorrow, it’s in a dystopian broken social-media collapsed future version of the United States, which is a place that… I would like to be creative in that space. And in the case of The Gone World, again, these massive questions are distilled down into a hyper-interesting 1997, which is a somewhat slightly twisted, slightly science-fiction version of ’97, that allows for all of these big questions to be asked. So, you have this super-unique mixture of questioning all of the biggest elements of what it means to be conscious, and then distilling them into very captivating stories. So that’s a very cool, somewhat unique mixture, because normally it’s kind of one or the other. It’s like you’re asking deep questions — but then there’s, you know, there will be something awesome. I remember you sent me those pig hearts that were kept alive…
SWETERLITSCH: Yeah, oh yeah…
BLOMKAMP: On like oxygen ventilation things, and then I sent you that spine with the brain, with the eyes…
BLOMKAMP: But it’s… Is that life, is that consciousness? What is that? Where is the line between an assembly line with the spine and the eyeballs, and then it being a life form? Or it being just… In what ways can you connect those dots in a way that’s so captivating? I think we’re both thinking about those questions.
SWETERLITSCH: Do you ever look at movies that have been adapted from books? Do you study that, and figure out how they do the adapting? When you read a book are you just thinking on your own terms what story you’d like to tell, or do you have any models for how you approach adaptations?
BLOMKAMP: No, but I do find books to be much more free than films. They’re able to go down avenues and paths that readers are willing to go down. They don’t need to follow as much of a concise, two-hour narrative the way that films do.
SWETERLITSCH: That’s true — in fact, books are almost better when they do go down every avenue. Books and films are narrative but books can explore everything, every loose end that comes up. But they’re a different experience than what you look for in a movie. I always think of The Shining, how Kubrick’s movie is different from Stephen King’s book, and why those differences are…
BLOMKAMP: Yeah, I guess that’s a very good example of how a good adaptation turns the book into film narrative, into film language, how to distill it down and end up with this reduction.
SWETERLITSCH: But in the short films we wrote for Oats, like Firebase and Rakka, you made these tight films that didn’t show all of the ideas and world-building we came up with together. So we couldn’t explore every loose end in the scripts, but we thought about them, we had it written down, so that what you did show made sense internally.
BLOMKAMP: Yeah, I remember the genesis of Firebase, when I first emailed you about it. That film deals with simulation hypothesis, it’s basically like 3-D graphics. And I was literally writing the River God character like he was controlling Maya software, and I remember — And then, we talked about Gnosticism and all of the ideas of simulated reality and the idea that our souls are trapped in this prison.
SWETERLITSCH: I think Firebase and The Gone World share the idea that existence as we perceive it might not be what truly exists. I think we both come to that idea from different reasons and different backgrounds, but I think we both take that idea seriously.
BLOMKAMP: But — The Gone World does something I’ve never really come across, the idea that you collapse all of your potential outcomes in the future down to one perceivable outcome. And so you’re constantly collapsing this tree of potentiality into a single defining moment. That idea calls into question everything. Do you exist only in the present moment? Is everything else non-linear? Do all of the other potential outcomes of you exist simultaneously? So definitely the other Oats pieces don’t touch on that, because I think the genesis for them comes from a different place. But I think that you and I are both playing with the same questions about the nature of reality, and asking those questions is definitely where I want to go as a filmmaker.