Located on a dry lakebed to the east of Mexico City, the 600-hectare Bordo Poniente landfill is one of the largest tips in the world. Home to more than 76m tonnes of refuse, some of which lies up to 56ft deep, it was opened in the 1980s – partially to take rubble left over after the 1985 earthquake – and, at the time of its closure towards the end of 2011, was accepting up to 12,600 tonnes of rubbish a day. According to the Clinton Foundation, the dump was responsible for releasing almost 1.5m tonnes of methane into the atmosphere every year, around 20 per cent of the Mexican capital’s total greenhouse gas emissions. It is, in short, the sort of place that only Wall.E could love: a filthy, flyblown wasteland that stinks worse than London Gentleman, Blackbeard’s Delight and Sex Panther combined.
As movie locations go, it leaves a lot to be desired. Yet that’s precisely what it became for the purposes of Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s eagerly awaited $100m follow-up to his 2009 debut feature District 9. Set in 2154, the film imagines a Utopian society where everyone who can afford to do so enjoys an idyllic, peaceful existence on a man-made space station free of disease, dirt, war and want. Everybody else is stuck down on Earth, an overpopulated, ruined husk of a planet that is crippled by poverty, riddled with crime and policed by robots. (“Elysium security goes beyond our borders,” reads the mock-promotional literature on the Welcome To Elysium site, a natty piece of stealth marketing which promises us we “won’t find a better home on Earth”. “Our fleet of Armadyne security bots are instrumental in neutralising all threats.”)
Matt Damon is Max, an Ordinary Joe who grudgingly accepts his place as one of the put-upon underclass. Until, that is, a workplace accident leaves him with only days to live and an ailment only one of Elysium’s hi-tech Med-Pods can cure. (“From crow’s feet to cancer, Armadyne’s Med-Pod 3000 cures all.”) Can he find a way to break into the rotating torus above, “the most heavily guarded place in the universe”? Sure he can – provided he can outwit Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Elysium’s driven chief of security, not to mention Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a sleeper agent stationed on Earth who’s prepared to eliminate anyone who even thinks of paying the space station a visit.
For me District 9 was all about South Africa and specifically race,” explains the 33-year-old Blomkamp, a Johannesburg native now based in Vancouver whose script for that sci-fi hit, co-written with his wife Terri Tatchell, scored the movie one of its four Academy Award nominations. “This movie is more about the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and that separation getting more and more extreme.” It is that social inequality that saw the rise of the Occupy movement, a coordinated campaign of dissent that had tent villages spring up in New York, London and dozens of other cities in the wake of the global financial crisis. Yet Blomkamp plays down any idea that Occupy played a part in his thinking, pointing out he started prepping Elysium three years ago and that he has always been interested in the notion of “stratification inside society”. “The thought process isn’t like, ‘Let me try to come up with a socio-political film and make it,’” he told a Comic-Con audience in 2012. “It doesn’t work that way.” Instead he’s made what promises to be an epic, eye-popping cross-world sci-fi about one man versus a corrupt super-power, that should blow your mind, and touch your heart – the thinking man’s Avatar, if you like, without the planet-sized budget.
Extreme is one word to describe Bordo Poniente, which provided the backdrop for a major Elysium set-piece shortly before it closed its gates for good. And Blomkamp admits he had doubts about his chosen location, not least on the first morning of the two weeks he spent in its malodorous company. “When you drive there before dawn it smells terrible,” he recalls with a shudder. “Coming in at 5am on Day One, I was like ‘Oh my god, should we do this?’” The director wasn’t the only one dubious, referencing obliquely “certain people who were trying to sabotage you behind the scenes”. His star, though, was nothing less than “a pro” – even if it did involve being blasted with shit for hours on end.
“Yeah, that was a running joke with the crew,” sighs Damon, whose commitment to the role of Max extended to shaving his head, bulking up and adorning his body with an assortment of gang-style tattoos. (He also got to wear an exoskeleton, a metal suit of armour that enhances Max’s strength and lets him hack into the Elysium computer system.) “Like any dump anywhere in the world, the dust is in large part fecal matter. So at the end of the day we would wipe this stuff off and basically throw shitty towels at each other. We also had a location within the dump that we called Poo River. It was like, ‘OK, can we get everyone down to Poo River?’” The result, the Bourne actor concedes, was “probably the toughest two weeks of shooting I’ve ever had”. “But we all knew it, and we all did it together,” he continues. “It wasn’t like anyone chickened out and didn’t go – except for our producer Simon [Kinberg], who was kind of late for work every day.”
“I was in a helicopter and we would come down and there would be this fecal matter,” says District 9 star Copley, who did his own body modification (in his case, a beard) in readiness for his role. “The helicopter comes down, and obviously the lower it gets the more dust is going to hit. I thought it was a stunt guy below us, but no, it was Matt – just eating all this dust. It really puts a lot of pressure on the crew if the actors are up for it.” And it was not only Damon who upped the ante. Copley also got into the act at one stage, subjecting DoP Trent Opaloch to a Kruger-style tongue lashing. “I thought, ‘I’m going to mess with him now,’ so I started berating him like my character would. Trent’s got a good sense of humour and he can take a joke, but about 30 seconds into my barrage I could tell he was really upset. I realised this was bad for the movie, so I had to have a five-second rule. It was like, ‘Once the cameras stop rolling you can be Kruger for five seconds, and then you stop.’
Having worked with Copley on District 9, as well as the Alive In Joburg short that preceded it, it was a no-brainer for Blomkamp to cast him as Jodie’s evil triggerman. According to the director, however, there were other factors involved that also played into the casting of Diego Luna (as an associate of Max’s) and Alice Braga (as a nurse in one of Earth’s dilapidated hospitals). “Alice, Diego and Sharlto come from Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, which are all quite particular countries,” he explains. “They are all countries that have extreme wealth discrepancies, which is an important theme in the movie.” It is one that resonates with Luna, an actor who insists the film “relates to the world we’re living in today”, and to Braga too, who salutes Blomkamp for making “a film that entertains while also speaking about social problems.” “I admire a filmmaker who can make attractive films people can have fun watching, but that you can also see two ways,” agrees Braga’s compatriot Wagner Moura, whose Spider character equips Max with his hi-tech (albeit second-hand) super-suit. “It’s cool to have the action, but it’s a very political film as well.”
Isn’t it easy, though, for a filmmaker from the privileged west to bemoan the world’s injustices? Are District 9 and Elysium really angry parables that call for action, or expiatory expressions of middle-class guilt? “That’s an interesting question,” admits their director, who is set to return to Johannesburg soon to commence work on sci-fi comedy Chappie. “I’m constantly drawn to those areas, but I don’t think guilt is the right word. Life is like a lottery to me; you got picked and now you live here, whereas you didn’t and you live in a garbage dump. Sometimes I get depressed about it but it’s not really guilt – I just feel bad.”
With its epic action, spectacular visuals and provocative themes, audiences are likely to feel the exact opposite when Elysium rolls into cinemas later this year. However the film is received, though, Blomkamp is happy he got to realise his vision, his way. “There is something about making your own films from your own ideas that is more satisfying to me,” he concludes. “If you do something that exists already, whatever it is, there’s a million people who have an idea how to do that. And I don’t want to hear their idea; I just want my own. The best way to do that is to do your own idea and get rid of all that noise…”
SOURCE and my copy of Total Film
I managed to copy and paste the whole feature from the magazine, enjoy!