Don’t call Neill Blomkamp a Hollywood director, well at least not anymore. The 37-year-old Johannesburg native has left the high-gloss shine of major Hollywood studios behind and is currently polishing up one of his own.
Also, don’t call him just a science fiction director anymore; he hates labels. In fact, the District 9 director hopes to helm horror films; a lot of them. More on that later.
His latest film is literally a horror/sci-fi mutation, but it won’t be premiering at El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard or Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. No, this masterpiece is free and streaming on YouTube right now.
Yes, that’s right, the man who was once called one of Hollywood’s most influential people and responsible for massive hits like District 9, Elysium and CHAPPiE, is releasing big-budget-looking shorts for free on your browser. And it’s amazing.
This latest entry, the third in a non-linear series, is called Zygote (watch below), and it’s everything a horror fan wants, including one of the most disturbing and ingenious menaces to stalk its prey down interstellar corridors in years.
But to understand why Blomkamp wanted to exit Tinseltown to make these bite-sized blockbusters, you have to know what he is doing instead.
He has created a studio called Oats Studios, a grassroots fully functional studio in all departments. That includes Visual Effects team, the lifeblood of both his past and present films. For that, he went to an expert.
“So I worked with Chris Harvey who is the effects supervisor on ‘CHAPPiE,’” he says. “I persuaded him to come and join Oats and head up the VFX Department here. And he proceeded to select this kind of ‘ninja squad’ of about 20 people specifically. They are like really, really, really talented guys.”
In Zygote, you can see how much this team is committed to making a quality and entertaining product that runs just under 30-minutes.
The seams of computer generated visuals and the practical ones are made invisible. Blomkamp explains that this is a result of both a mini on-site prosthetics team and constant inter-department communication, “it’s just a good level of oversight that kind of yields a really good result that looks real; somewhere between practical and CGI; a balance was found,” he says.
His reasons for going Hollywood rogue aren’t as balanced, and he doesn’t mince words when you ask why, “[Oats] is for me. I set up the studio where I can work on stuff that I want to work on exactly the way that I want to do it.”
“They’re done exactly the way that I want; I don’t answer to anyone,” he explains “We built the studio in order to execute them. If eventually we scale up, and we can figure out a way to monetize this. At that point, we’ll look at ideas that are coming into the company and see if we want to turn into more of a normal studio and work on other people’s ideas as well.”
OATS came to fruition about two years ago after the release of his extremely underrated film CHAPPiE. He says it took a long time to build the infrastructure. Meanwhile, he also had to figure out how to run it all.
But this is his space, his time and these are his visions. No matter what roadblocks he may face as a startup, there is nowhere he would rather be.
“When you work as a film director, you are not an artist,” he says. “You are beholden to people who have money. And the people that have money will influence the art that you are making. I don’t want to work in that environment. I want to work in an environment where I am in control of what I make. It’s difficult to do that because it requires money.”
Viewers and fans such as ourselves will be the deciding factor on where Blomkamp goes from here. The success of shorts such as Zygote will determine where Oats will carry its crew, that may mean making a few of them into larger films.
If those are a success then Oats would create more short films, he calls them “incubators for more ideas.” And not just his own.
Says Blomkamp, “I’m interested in just being a creative person being allowed to do what I want to do. And breaking the shackles of how the process usually goes.”
He says that the usual Hollywood production process is very inefficient, but allowing people to have some freedom ultimately reaps a much greater benefit.
“So each person, in each department in here is typically more creative than they would be because we are all just in communicating, we are not making decisions based on money we’re just communicating instantaneously and sending data back and forward and seeing what looks better. The decisions are really based on whatever works as opposed to financial decisions.”
I asked him about getting a recognized actor such as Dakota Fanning in Zygote. I wondered if getting big-name stars in his movies was a requirement, perhaps to give it more word-of-mouth thrust.
He quickly corrected me, “There is no requirement,” he said. “It’s like if you’re paying for something out of your own pocket, where does the requirement come from?”
He has directed Dakota before and fell in love with her work, “I am a massive fan of hers. So I think I would like to work with her more and putting her in this piece was like hopefully the start of just working with her more.”
There is something else of which he would like to pursue and that is the horror genre. Neill says it is one of his favorite mediums and he wouldn’t mind being known as a director who makes them.
I wanted to get his take on the argument from cinephiles who may have a blurred definition of what separates horror from science fiction. Or even if the two are exclusive of each other. He says his first major film didn’t have a lot of horrific elements, but they were there.
“Some of my favorite films are science fiction-horror,” he explained. “I mean obviously like the Alien films are. And you know, the films that I’ve done in the past – the bigger films, are basically, I think exclusively science fiction. I think District 9 has a few elements of science fiction horror. But it’s basically sci-fi.”
The vast intellectual properties and social commentary of his science fiction films have some deeper metaphorical meanings. Especially his movies that touch on human nature, sacrifice and oppression.
I asked if cerebral musings were casualties of the genre or if the storylines hinder their exploration. He says they have a marginalized reputation, yes, but depending on one’s approach they can be just as thought-provoking.
“I think all of them are equally – like if you look at the Academy Awards – I think horror and science fiction are both equally relegated to the back of the room,” He said. “They’re not the genre that people think of as high-brow filmmaking. And I think within both of them you have very elevated, cerebral pieces and you have like what people would consider B-grade. I think the spectrum within science fiction and within horror are exactly the same.”
He gives examples of Alien and Blade Runner as samplings of crossovers, but again he is emphatic about not being tagged as a specific artist who only works within a single genre or trope.
“The fact that I’m working on a bunch of YouTube videos is basically mentally insane as far as other directors would probably be concerned. But like, I just don’t really care,” He adds, “It’s whatever feels creatively compelling, and I would love to be someone who is known as someone who is working in horror just because some of the films I really like are in that genre.”
And for those of you wondering what he thought of the latest Alien prequel, well you will have to wait. It was rumored that he would direct Alien 5. But those plans seem to have gone by the wayside.
“I haven’t seen it. I am obviously like a massive fan of Alien – like huge -but I haven’t seen Covenant yet.”
But that’s a good thing in this writer’s opinion. This gives him more time to build up Oats Studios, and create these small, but high-powered action films such as Zygote for free.
That’s good news for all of us who are excited to see what he has in store for the horror genre. And what’s even more exciting is they may become full-length pictures thanks to Oats, because he doesn’t want to only make shorts.
“Think of it as a tiny, small Neill Blomkamp studio that’s for executing ideas that I have.”