Neill Blomkamp On Why Audiences Rejected ‘Chappie,’ And How He Created His New Horror Film, ‘Demonic’

The world owes Neill Blomkamp an apology. First, they rejected (generally speaking) his 2015 masterpiece, Chappie, and these days they can’t stop asking him about his Alien movie that languished in development hell for years, or his Robocop prequel that he dropped out of.

Even in prepping this piece, a big part of me wanted to headline it “Neill Blomkamp Is Tired Of Answering Your ‘Alien’ Questions.” That’d be the provocative headline, the most surefire way to sell the interview and get people to read the piece, my ostensible goal. And yet, it would also, in a way, be doing the exact thing that my subject just asked me politely not to do. I suppose I can sacrifice a few clicks for the man who gave us Chappie.

Neill Blomkamp, by the way, is only 41, and the South African/Canadian already has an Oscar nomination (for co-writing District 9, with his wife Terri Thatchell) so there isn’t much sense pondering what-ifs and potential sequels. This month, the former special fx prodigy tries his hand at horror in Demonic, which takes place inside a computer rendering of one its characters’ minds (where a demon may also live).

Blomkamp, who wrote this one alone, says Demonic grew out of both a desire to shoot a movie during COVID, and to utilize a technology called “volumetric capture,” in which 260 cameras are arranged in a grid that captures the actors from all points of view. It turns subjects into these sorts of geometric shapes that shudder as the perspective jumps from camera to camera. Influenced by movies like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, Blomkamp says he worked backwards to try to explain VolCap’s unique renderings.

It’s somewhat ironic employing so much complex, cutting edge tech in the service of a movie inspired by hand-held, low-budget horror films. Yet it fits with Blomkamp’s usual retro-futuristic style — he’s been doing dusty, lo-fi futurism at least since District 9. Tonally it’s also a big departure, a straightforward horror film without many jokes, spare and sober and unsettling in stark contrast to Chappie‘s candy-coated madness.

I spoke to Blomkamp this week about what Demonic means for his future, the challenges of working with VolCap, and which high-profile sequel projects he isn’t allowed or doesn’t want to talk about.

This is your first feature since Chappie. Were you stung by the critical reaction to that?

I think I was more not into the audience not liking it. I think the audience rejecting it was more problematic.

When you say that, what is your gauge for the audience rejecting a movie?

Well, I think any conversation about it is just always cloaked in negativity somehow. And I think people have a point of view of a film and it just locks in place and that’s the way that it is. So most of my interactions to do with it are quite, marginally negative, I would say. I think it was a case of misunderstanding the tone — or me not presenting the tone correctly and them rejecting it. But it’s all good. I mean, it’s like, you have to experiment.

I like to think of myself as the Internet’s foremost Chappie defender, but do you think–

I know. Your review cracked me up a lot. Because it felt quite spot on, but it was… it’s just hilarious.

I mean, I loved it. But do you think it had anything to do with Die Antwoord being at the point in their fame cycle where there was a backlash against them, and then the movie coming along right at that point?

I don’t think so. I think it’s more a case of how the film was trying to put forward these incredibly serious, massive questions about the nature of existence, and it was wrapped up in this kind of bubble gum, South African rap, pop color lunacy. I think that people didn’t want to see those two elements gel together, that they shouldn’t coexist. I think that was more of the issue. In other words, you could’ve put in rappers from anywhere, right? And the reaction would’ve been the same.

In Demonic, it seems like there’s less humor and that you, I don’t know, you “played it straight,” so to speak. Do you think that your Chappie experience had anything to do with that choice?

I don’t think so. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to the craziness of Chappie, for sure. It’s just a case of… I was really inspired by Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project. I like the no-joking seriousness of those and that’s where it came from tonally. It was just wanting to be more direct, I guess.

Is there irony to the fact that there’s this sort of straightforward, horror, low-budget influence to it, and yet, at the same time, you’re using all these really sort of complex technologies to create that?

I know, it is weird. I mean, it’s like those two things shouldn’t exist at the same time. But it’s because the film is a result of wanting to shoot something during the planet being shut down. And so there were all of these separate elements that I had in my head that I wanted to use at some point, and it was like, this was just the stew that they went into. So the volumetric capture VR stuff I wanted to use, but because of the glitchy early developmental nature of VolCap, I didn’t know how to put it into a film unless it was justified as being a prototype piece of technology in the movie, in the narrative. But it’s almost like if you have the VolCap idea up on a shelf somewhere, and then you have the idea of wanting to do a smaller self-financed Blair Witch Project film and combining them… it’s like, that’s what happened.

So this grew directly out of the limitations of the pandemic…

Yeah, yeah, no. It was a case of… I mean, going back more than a decade, I always wanted to shoot a tiny horror film. I just loved the way that Paranormal Activity was made. And so I always had that in the back of my head and then this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do it, around March or April when it was clear that normal production was halted and so people figured out what was the best way to approach it. It felt like an awesome time to just do something like that.

What did you have to do differently on set as a result of it shooting during quarantine?

It wasn’t really quarantine, yet, it was more just the beginning of COVID. I don’t think lockdowns had happened. The issue was getting… Carly [Pope, star of Demonic] lives in the US and she had to cross the border and then she had to quarantine. There were things like that. But I mean, other than actors quarantining, the only other thing was just the typical stuff that you see on set now about sanitization stations and masks and the way you cycle in and out of sets and stuff like that.

You were working on an Alien project, sequel, whatever. Were you disappointed in not getting to do that? What did you think about the movies that they ended up making?

If it’s possible, I really don’t want to talk about Alien. I’m just so done with the whole discussion and it seems like it just never goes away. Alien, Robocop, District 10, I’m just like, “I can’t talk about it.”

Is that just you’re done with the studio process to a certain degree?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t have a problem with the studio process. I think the issue, just to be aware of going into stuff, is when it’s a piece of relatively large IP, that can cause complexities down the line.

Now we’re kind of in a situation where almost every studio project is driven by a piece of large IP.

Yeah. But I mean I think you can still make original stuff and that’s fine.

So with this, the volumetric capture system, how much different was it working with actors while you’re doing this versus when you’re not using that technology?

It’s ridiculously difficult. They’re in, essentially, a prison cage of 260 cameras, and they can’t move, they can’t really cross the set. It’s a four-meter volume, so it’s very confined. It’s the worst situation you could imagine filming in, basically. And it’s hard for them. I mean, it’s awesome that Carly and Nathalie were able to pull off what they did in there because it’s not an easy environment. It’s much more difficult than motion capture.

What are the major differences between this and the way motion capture is done?

Well, motion capture puts the performance that you’re gathering from the actor onto a different model or avatar that they are driving, right? So that can look like anything. It looks like whatever the artists design. Volume capture is more like capturing three-dimensional video. So the actors look exactly the way they look and it’s unmodifiable. They come in in full hair and makeup and wardrobe and they get captured in that way.

It seems like you tried to create a glitchy, like the feel of new technology in the film.

Well, that was a product of knowing that that’s how volumetric capture would look, but I sort of worked backwards. It’s like, “It’s going to look glitchy, so how do I write it into the script to be acceptable that it looks glitchy?” The look is the way that it comes out. It’s like, that’s how it’s captured, so you just have to embrace that.

Are you thinking of going back to more horror after this are you going to go more back towards sci-fi?

No, the thing I’m doing next is more, yeah… It’s more bigger science fiction. So yeah, I’m pretty excited about it.

Is there a certain freedom on something like this where you don’t maybe necessarily have to promise as much just because it is cheaper to make?

I don’t know. I mean, it didn’t necessarily feel that different other than we just had way less resources, you know? Yeah, I mean, going back to Chappie, it’s like, the issues with it are, the audience was coming down on choices that I had made. It’s not really like there was an issue with the studio if that makes sense. Shooting this is the same kind of process. It’s just at a smaller scale.

Right. But you don’t think you have to promise bigger things when you’re trying to get money for a bigger project?

No, I don’t think so. You mean in terms of scope? In terms of spectacle?

Yeah. Or just in terms of having more freedom to play around, I guess. I mean, it seems when you want money for a bigger project, you have to make certain promises, and if you decide to change them later you’re in trouble or something.

Yeah. I don’t think so. I mean, it’s just a process of figuring out the story, figuring out the budget, and seeing if the studio is willing to pay for it. The only thing really that happens there is just making sure that there’s a star that can support the level of budget. But once you’re off and making it, it should be fine.

‘Demonic,’ from IFC Midnight and Neill Blomkamp, will be in theaters, on Digital Rental & VOD on August 20, 2021. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.