GHOST IN THE MACHINE - An Interview with DEMONIC writer/director Neill Blomkamp

Mon, Aug 23rd, 2021

by Steve Prokopy 

After years working in the film industry as a special effects artist and 3D animator, South African-born filmmaker Neill Blomkamp splashed onto the scene in a big way in 2009 as the co-writer and director of the critically acclaimed science fiction action film DISTRICT 9, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

He followed up that film with ELYSIUM (2013) and CHAPPIE (2015), neither of which truly capitalized on his early success. Blomkamp is almost as well know for projects that didn’t pan out for him, as for the ones that did. Before DISTRICT 9, he was very close to shooting a film adaptation of the videogame HALO, and as recently as 2015, he was working on an ALIEN sequel with Sigourney Weaver in the lead role of Ellen Ripley, but when Ridley Scott continued making ALIEN prequels, Blomkamp’s project fell apart. In 2018, he was also eyeballing ROBOCOP RETURNS, which meant to serve as a direct sequel to the original film, but that film seems to have evaporated as well.

What Blomkamp has been doing for the last several years is launch his own film production company, Oats Studios, and confirm a series of experimental short films and other content titled Oats Studios Volume 1, released via Steam; the films are also available for free streaming on YouTube. The shorts are distributed to gauge interest in a certain themes, with the intention to expand them into a feature film if deemed viable. But he also revealed at the end of 2020 that he’d spent the previous summer shooting a low-budget, indie horror film, DEMONIC, in British Columbia.

DEMONIC concerns Carly Spenser (Carly Pope), who learns that her estranged mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) has fallen into a coma. She reluctantly agrees to take part in a cutting-edge therapy that will allow her to tap into Angela’s still-active brain and communicate with her. Observed by physician Michael (Michael J. Rogers) and neuroscientist Daniel (Terry Chen), she enters a harrowing simulation of Angela’s mindscape, where she discovers the powerful supernatural force that drove her mother to commit unspeakable acts of violence nearly two decades earlier. Haunted by terrifying visions in the aftermath of these sessions, Carly joins forces with her old friend Martin (Chris William Martin) as she desperately tries to fend off the monstrous demon before it can enter a new host and inflict more pain and suffering on the world. Because Blomkamp is Blomkamp, the film does take advantage of cutting-edge technology that we discuss in our interview, and the result is unnerving and unlike anything ever seen in a possession story.

DEMONIC is now playing at the Music Box Theatre. With mild spoiler warnings, please enjoy this talk with Neill Blomkamp…

*******************************

Question: It’s been 11 or 12 years since I saw you last in Chicago, which I believe was the first stop on the DISTRICT 9 press tour that began at San Diego Comic-Con, which is where we met. It’s good to see you again.

Neill Blomkamp: Yeah, good to see you.

The way you’ve incorporated sci-fi elements into your films is done in a very matter-of-fact way, like it’s not a bit deal to people in the story because they’ve been living with these situations for year. What made come up with the idea of applying that technique to a horror film?

NB: I was interested in doing something that used virtual reality and portrayed virtual reality as volumetric capture, which is technique I wanted to use. And the low-budget nature of this allowed for this experimental film made it so I could use volumetric capture without it being an issue. Usually the glitchy nature of it would create a problem at higher budget levels. So because I wanted to use that and because I wanted to do something with demonic possession, when you combine those, you end up with this thing where you’re using the horror tropes of demonic possession and presenting them in a way that feels grounded and realistic, hopefully. The technological, sci-fi element is meant to be imbedded in the story as realistically as possible. I think fantastical ideas portrayed realistically just interest me. Some of it does come back to the use of volumetric capture, which allowed for something that feels lo-fi and prototype-y, so that the audience accepts it as something more real. It’s not put up on a pedestal in the same way. It feels like it’s part of the world, almost mundane in a way.

It does have this stripped-down, indie quality to it, even though there are these huge sections of the film that are meant to be in a virtual space. By having that feel, it did occur to me that this was likely shot during the pandemic, even though it doesn’t feel that way and it’s not about that. What are the challenges of creating something like that under those conditions?

NB: The film is the result of the pandemic, but it’s not about the pandemic. I always loved PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and have always wanted to make something like it, and I was waiting for a time when I could do a small, self-funded horror film, whenever that time would be. So when everything shut down, it felt like I could either not work on anything for a year or I could use the time to do something like PARANORMAL. It grew a little bit in scope, but it’s still basically came from the same place. The film wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the pandemic, but I didn’t want to make it about that topic, but some of the general anxiety worked its way into the movie.

Did you ever consider making DEMONIC…I don’t want to call it found footage, but something done from the first-person POV?

NB: I did. That’s how I was starting off, but because the main goal was to try and create the sense of tension and dread, even if the imagery was sunny and relative happy looking. I still wanted that feeling underneath the film. It started feeling like using more controlled, restrained camera moves was the better way to get that result, instead of handheld found footage, so I went away from it. Also, I used handheld all the time in the simulation only, just so the two worlds felt quite different.

A lot of times in films about possession, the either take a scientific approach or the religious angle. Here, you’ve essentially combined the two, which is unusual because those two approaches don’t often line up. Talk about taking that approach.

NB: It’s the result of the film being reverse engineered. We had some time to work on the small horror film, what are some elements I can use? If we assume it’s demonic possession, because that’s a cool trope to play with, what are the other things I want to mess with. So the two main ideas I had were using volumetric capture in some way, and in order to use it in a feature film, I would have to imbed it in the narrative in some way that it felt like a prototype piece of technology. So that led to the company Therapol, a medical setting where coma patients could get out of their bodies that they’re locked in. That fits with demonic possession because you’re already in someone’s body or head. The other element I was playing with, unrelated to this movie was this idea of the Vatican and Catholic church acting in more of a 21st century way and using all the capital that they have to scale up their offensive against demons. Those two things were what I wanted to do, and because of how this film emerged, they felt like they would work together, so I just combined them.

And make no mistake, I want a separate film about those holy warriors. You deliberately set us up for this big thing involving them that never happens, and it’s great how you subvert that expectation, but I want to see what they do when they’re unleashed.

NB: [laughs] I agree, but at 10 or 20 times the budget level.

The volumetric capture world in the film, did you have a name for that on set?

NB: We always just called it the simulation.

Tell me about what you wanted that world to look like. I love that you left in the glitchiness, because it is unnerving to see that. It looks real most of the time, and they you remember that it’s not. How real or artificial did you want that to be?

NB: This goes back to what I was saying about it being low budget. It would be extremely difficult to use that technology at a really high budget level, where it was really risky—and this is why you don’t really see it being used yet. It wasn’t about how glitchy we could make it; that’s the best we would do. I think the technology of volumetric capture is going to become more mainstream and will be in usage in the film industry going forward, but it still has a few years of resolution increase that is required for film use. So I knew what I was going to get and I aesthetically like it, so let’s commit to it. That was the head space. And the capture of the actors would look they way we wanted it to look, which is how it looks in the movie, but we have more control of things like the environment that they’re in. We can build that to whatever fidelity that we want, so we actually down-rezed places like her childhood home or the sanitarium; the locations she goes to were actually geometrically crushed down a little bit, so they were more in line with her image and looked more similar, and that was completely purposeful. One thing I love is the idea of an independent film doing this amount of visual effects—indie VFX, which is an interesting, cool place to be.

There’s this interesting sub-genre of horror films that has been bubbling up in recent years, which are these family dramas couched in a horror setting, and you’ve created something in that space as well. It allows for character work that you don’t often get to see in horror films and great performances. Carly is dealing with abandonment issues and humiliation throughout the film.

NB: Because this was a process of reverse engineering, once I had come up with the idea of the mother or any person being in a coma and potentially being trapped with a demon inside of them, and the demon being equally irritated that it’s trapped, I was thinking, “What would be a good emotional way to explore that?” And of course, it would make sense that it would be through another family member, and the mother-daughter relationship can often be contentious relationships, and I thought that angle and dynamic would be the most interesting. One thing I really wanted to make sure of is that it felt triumphant for Carly at the end of the film, like it was a win. Even in death, reuniting and realigning with her mother, I thought was a nice arc for her character.

Let’s talk about Carly, who you’ve worked with before. What is it about her that made her right for this character, and what did she bring to the character Carly?

NB: I really cannot state enough that this film did not emerge normally; it was not a normal process. If you look at the Oats Studios stuff that we’ve been doing on YouTube; I spent four years basically putting YouTube videos out, and working with a tightly-knit crew. We had a super-great time making those pieces and playing around. So when the pandemic happened, this idea of banding together and shooting a feature version of what we were doing with Oats, it was like “What puzzle pieces do we have access to? What elements can we throw in the cooking pot?” And when it came to actors, based on working with Carly on the Oats stuff, I felt like she had the talent level, she’s amazing to work with, and in this lower-budget, potentially more grueling environment, she would be a really good team player as well. So it was an overlap of all of these elements, which is why in the movie, her name is Carly, because I just wrote the character around the fact that she’d be in it. She certainly hadn’t done horror, and I had basically done no horror—I’d done some sci-fi horror—but this is more traditional horror. So we spoke a lot about that, and one of the things we settled on was that if we made it as authentic as possible, it will work. If you’re authentically scared, then you’re playing into horror, and if you’re authentically emotional because it’s a drama in some way, then that will also work with the audience.

One thing I really loved was the way that Ola Strandh’s score and your soundscape almost blend together at times. Was that something that you designed and planned for?

NB: I love that too. Audio in general is incredibly important to filmmaking, but I seem to live in a space with continuous audio all day. I love Ola’s stuff; he’s done a bunch of video game soundtracks, and I love the combination of synthy sounds and the big cinematic soundscapes that he creates. So I contacted him and explained the small horror film we were making, and persuaded him to do it. My goal was pretty direct, with Ola and the guys doing sound design; I wanted that audio-scape to be quite present in the film and feel ominous and quite larger, larger than the scale of the movie. Also, Ola’s stuff has the ability to get so big. Like I was saying about the camera movements being an exercise in restraint for tension, Ola’s stuff feels like it can get so huge, kind of like Hans Zimmer, that by never fully going there, it always feels like it may explode, so I feel like there’s tension in that conflict as well.

Even though we don’t see it that much, I want to ask about the demon design. Did you draw from any particular mythology or any other visual references?

NB: I didn’t draw from anything. I think what was happening was that I was researching plague masks from the Middles Ages.  I don’t know whether that comes from the pandemic—probably. Then I wrote one in with Sam [played by Kandyse McClure] in the nightmare, and that may have kicked off this avian, bird-like raven vibe. But I had a pretty clear image in my head, and when I wrote the description in the screenplay, I sent the writeup to my concept artist, and she sent back this incredible imagine. It was like the easiest concept design I’d ever done. She just sent back the creature, and we built this seven-foot suit model for a suit performer. I like the way it looks.

That sequence where you use…they aren’t night-vision goggles…

NB: FLIR [Night Vision System]

Exactly. That’s a great sequence, and I don’t want to ruin anything, but you do something really cool with those that I’ve never seen before.

NB: Those are real. None of that was vision effects. It’s somewhere between military and firefighting technology. It’s colorized infrared. Because it was from her perspective, we built a cool rig that with a helmet with the FLIR camera mounted to the helmet. The director of photography actually walked those scenes, so it wasn’t Carly, because the rig was super-heavy. I also love that they are Vatican-edition infrared goggles.

Were you gearing up to make INFERNO when lockdown happened? And are you going to be able to go back to that?

NB: I think so. I think INFERNO will be next. I have a few things that I’m looking at doing, and INFERNO is absolutely one of them.

Since our journey many years ago began with DISTRICT 9, I understand you are deep into writing DISTRICT 10. What I’m wondering is, that first film was so ingrained in South Africa’s history and present, will the new film be able to tap into something similar in a socio-political way?

NB: That was the hope. That was the reason it took a while to figure out if it was worth doing a sequel, because it needed to have some meaning to it, and it wasn’t just for the sake of being a sequel. I think perhaps we may have found that, but time will tell. I’m actually pretty far into the writing; I would describe it as going pretty well.

Neill, it was great to talk to you again. Thanks for chatting.

NB: Thanks, Steve.

***************************************

DEMONIC is Now Playing at the Music Box Theatre. CLICK HERE for Showtimes & Advance Tickets.

Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com), a co-host of the Movie Madness podcast, and the Public Relations Manager for the Music Box Theatre. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker & actor interviews under the name “Capone.”