As District 9‘s Neill Blomkamp heads back to make feature films again with RoboCop Returns, the director continues tinkering away in Oat Studios, the independent workshop of sorts set up in 2015 to make the kind of science-fiction concepts considered too “out there” for Hollywood. His latest endeavor now taps into the world of Anthem, Bioware’s sprawling video game release coming later this month, to produce a live-action short starring Sean Carrigan of American Vandal.
“I was in popcorn movie mode,” the filmmaker tells EW over the phone after putting the final touches on the visual effects. “It just looks like a really big, fun summer movie.”
Blomkamp’s short, “Conviction,” which acts as a prequel to Anthem, feels more like a trailer for something more expansive. The game introduces a story about the Gods who harnessed the power of Anthem, a source of creation, to craft a world full of extraordinary beasts. But these deities vanished before completing the world, leaving behind only their tools. In “Conviction,” Carrigan plays one of the Freelancers, pilots of these Iron Man-esque Javelin exosuits that serve as humanity’s defense against the dangers of this volatile world.
Though it’s not as long as some of his other 20-minute-long films, Blomkamp estimates six months of work went into making the short. That includes the days he and his team at Oats sat in Bioware’s Edmonton Canadian headquarters to location scouting in Southern Spain and the jungles of Hawaii to actually making prosthetic Javelin suits for the actors to wear.
“The amount of shooting time and how much imagery you have to actually capture into three minutes to make it feel legitimate is exponentially more work than you think it would be,” Blomkamp says.
“I wrote two 10-page scripts, going off of the idea that a page is roughly a minute,” he explains. “I was proposing 20 minutes of footage, which was way beyond the budget scope we were dealing with. So I eventually condensed everything into one 10-page script and everyone was like, ‘Dude, it’s a three-minute piece. You can’t hand in a 10-page script.’ I was like, ‘No, it has to be 10 pages because we don’t know what’s gonna live and what’s gonna die in the edit room.’ We have to overshoot it in order to make it feel like a trailer so we can pick the best pieces. We can’t know that until the footage exists.”
His crew shot a lot more dialogue with the cast, which also includes Blomkamp’s production designer at Oats, Richard Simpson. “Rich will use any opportunity to put himself on screen,” the director chuckles. Oats could “probably cut an extended trailer,” but that’s mostly based on the response from viewers — an outlook that aligns with his dogma behind Oats. If the fans want it, he will build it.
“From a stylistic standpoint, the mixture of this otherworldly, science-fiction, dangerous jungle environment where these Game of Thrones-ian castles are placed inside, it’s an interesting world to play around in,” Blomkamp says.
From a career standpoint, it’s interesting to talk about a Blomkamp-helmed Anthem in 2019, a year that marks the 10th anniversary of District 9, his first feature film that famously rose from the ashes of what he hoped would be a Halo movie with producer Peter Jackson. As he looks back, Blomkamp says “it’s just been too long” to revisit that particular video game adaptation, but “Conviction” gave him the freedom to put his own spin on an existing IP. It’s not entirely different from what he’s now trying to do with RoboCop Returns, a sequel set within the world established by director Paul Verhoeven in 1987.
“RoboCop is really cool because it’s something that had enough of an effect on me as a kid and it’s an environment that I would like to work inside of,” he says. “If awesome opportunities like RoboCop present themselves where the core ideas are not mine or Oats’ ideas, then that’s a really good way to interact with Hollywood and I can keep the more crazy, more personal ideas in the Oats realm.”
Oats was, in part, a response to some of Blomkamp’s struggles in the industry. Instead of fighting against the Hollywood machine that killed his hoped-for Alien sequel or against an audience that didn’t quite take to films like Chappie, he went straight for his core fanbase online. What he produced were online shorts, like “Rakka” with Sigourney Weaver as a resistance leader or “Firebase,” a Vietnam War-set project he dreamt of crowd-funding into a feature-length work. “Conviction” was different in that his relationship with Bioware felt more creatively fulfilling, as he describes. “I think there were maybe a few things that I put out there that were killed [because they were] a little bit too on the edge,” he admits.
For RoboCop Returns, Blomkamp is similarly trying to maintain “the core themes and the ideas and the tone of what Paul Verhoeven made and what I witnessed as a younger person — what stuck with me and what I [re-]watched when I was older in the original RoboCop, this Reaganomics, ‘80s, capitalistic consumption, fascist, amazing film that he made.”
“If I can be honest to what Paul Verhoeven did and almost try to emulate that in a way,” he continues, “then I feel like it does have value and we’re not doing it for the sake of just doing it, but there’s something in there that may have value for the audience.”
Blomkamp is still about the long game. He still hits barriers in Hollywood, like with Greenland, his film about a family’s survival against a natural disaster. Chris Evans was announced last year to play a lead role, but Blomkamp now politely dodges questions pertaining to its development. “The problem is, unfortunately, is there’s some political stuff happening with it that I have to not be able to answer the question,” he says. In the interim, he continues looking through Oats to “find our audience online and in time that grows into something real.”
“The idea of what I’m attempting to do [with Oats], and it may totally not work out, is the idea that you set up a system where we find our own audience that wants to see the stuff that we’re making,” he says. “We find a financial mechanism where people are paying us directly to make the content that we’re making. I just love that idea of Oats having a really bunch of talented artists under one roof that are really good at executing two-dimensional narrative filmmaking under the science-fiction/horror/fantasy banner. Maybe at the beginning we don’t break even or in time we break even and then hopefully we become profitable and can make bigger and bigger stuff, but we’re making it straight for people who want to consume it.”
“Conviction” will debut online this Thursday ahead of Anthem‘s release this Feb. 22 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Origin for PC.