"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
TriStar Pictures/David Bloomer
Neill Blomkamp won’t turn 30 until next month, but he’s such a bright and likable guy it’s tough to hold his success against him. At an age when lots of aspiring filmmakers are maxing out their friends’ platinum cards, or banging out screenplays in North Hollywood studio apartments, Blomkamp came under the mother-hen protection — and considerable financial clout — of “Lord of the Rings” impresario Peter Jackson.
Jackson and Blomkamp spent several years trying to put together a film version of the Microsoft video game Halo (Blomkamp actually made three digital shorts to promote a 2007 game release). When financing for that fanboy wet dream finally fell apart, Blomkamp began working on a long-percolating idea: Take an archetypal science-fiction story — in this case, the story of humans’ first contact with extraterrestrial aliens — and set it against the explosive social realities of contemporary Johannesburg, South Africa, his hometown. (Blomkamp’s family emigrated to Canada in the late ’90s.)
Amid the late-summer doldrums of studio leftovers, Blomkamp’s resulting feature-film debut, “District 9,” stands out as the science-fiction film of the year. (That’s with all due respect to J.J. Abrams’ enjoyable exercise in “Star Trek” meta-nostalgia.) Consider the fact that it was shot in South Africa without recognizable acting talent, on a budget that wouldn’t furnish Michael Bay’s assistant’s trailer, and it might be the sci-fi surprise of this entire decade. Blomkamp cut his teeth in the entertainment industry doing digital effects for such TV series as “Stargate SG-1″ and “Smallville,” and, yes, there’s ample technical wizardry on display. But “District 9,” thankfully, is a lot more than kickass digital fight scenes. It’s a grimy, consistently surprising and fundamentally human-centric science-fiction yarn, reminiscent of the dystopian, semi-realistic 1970s tradition.
Furthermore, it’s a movie in which a star is born: Sharlto Copley, a friend of Blomkamp’s from their teen years in Johannesburg, gives an amazing tragicomic performance as a mustachioed, second-rate Afrikaner bureaucrat named Wikus van der Merwe, who becomes — well, let me stop myself right there. I feel the hot, stinky breath of the spoiler police, so let’s just explain that Wikus is employed by MNU, a shadowy private corporation hired by the South African government to manage the increasingly unruly Johannesburg townships where a million or more insectoid aliens have been contained since their spaceship mysteriously beached itself above the city 30 years earlier.
Wikus’ MNU overlord, who just happens to also be his father-in-law, has appointed him to move the increasingly undesirable and violent interlopers out of Johannesburg and into a not-so-glorified concentration camp many miles outside the city. Unsurprisingly, the removal project goes terribly awry — and at least some of the aliens’ secrets are revealed — but along the way Wikus morphs from a smug, callous, sycophantic moron into one of the more unlikely motion-picture protagonists you’ll ever see.
Both as cinema and as storytelling, “District 9″ capitalizes on the uncertain boundaries between fiction and reality that characterize contemporary media, and for that matter the whole contemporary world. Blomkamp insists he’s got no specific allegorical, ironic or didactic message to deliver, but one might describe the movie as overloaded with potential metaphorical meaning. It’s presented as a propagandistic TV documentary about what went wrong in District 9, where Wikus — a white representative of a black government — went in with heavy military backup to uproot the one group in South African history to be treated worse than blacks were under the previous apartheid regime.
There’s even some footage Blomkamp shot documentary-style on the streets of Johannesburg, where he walked around asking residents of various races how they would feel if aliens were settled in their overstressed, socially divided, crime-ridden city. As Blomkamp explained when I met him at the New York offices of Sony Pictures, Johannesburg — depicted in the bleak, dry South African winter as an oppressive wasteland of shantytowns, fast food outlets, walled luxury compounds and grim government fortresses — is both the film’s main character and its reason for existing in the first place.
Neill, here you are with your debut feature film coming out, and it’s produced by Peter Jackson. It’s kind of an amazing situation for a first-time director.
Yeah, I’m aware of how lucky I’ve been. I’m in a very good position.
Are you also OK with the fact that — I’m guessing here — maybe 30 percent of the opening-night audience is going to think that Peter actually directed the movie?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, that’s fine. As long as the film is good and I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do, then Hollywood is going to be open to me making more films. There’s no question that Pete’s name is going to draw more people to the film, and that’s completely acceptable. It shines a spotlight on the whole movie.
You have this fascinating premise, where we’re thrown into this world in which aliens have lived on Earth for 20 or 30 years, and they just happen to be confined to the Johannesburg townships, in a situation very reminiscent of apartheid. Talk about how your background, growing up in that time and place, influenced this story.
Well, I think there’s no question that the movie is a condensation of all the elements in Joburg that had an effect on me when I was growing up. Which means it couldn’t have been set anywhere else. In my mind, the film doesn’t exist other than in Joburg. It was like, Johannesburg first, and “District 9″ grew out of that. There are many different levels you can break it down into. From a photographic standpoint, there was what I wanted to convey about Johannesburg, which is that it’s almost this burnt, nuclear wasteland, at least in winter. It really is like that.
Then there’s this constant sense of an urban prison, with razor wire and electric fences and armed guards everywhere. It’s a very oppressive-feeling city. I wanted to capture the essence of that, and I thought it was really cool to put science fiction in that environment. I wanted to see science fiction in that city. I mean, I lived there, and you don’t come across cities like that much, especially not in the First World. They don’t exist.
So that was the primary reason for making “District 9.” No allegories, no metaphors, nothing. Just science fiction in Joburg. Then, as the idea began to unfold, I started to realize that actually this includes all the topics that have formed my outlook on the whole world. My upbringing in that city had a massive effect on me, and I started to realize that everything to do with segregation and apartheid, and now the new xenophobic stuff that’s happening in the city, all of that dominates my mind, quite a lot of the time. Then there’s the fact that science fiction is the other big part of my mind, and I started to realize that the two fit well together. There’s no message, per se, that I’m trying to get across with the movie. It’s rather that I want to present science fiction, and put it in the environment that affected me. In the process, maybe I highlight all the topics that interest me, but I’m not giving any answers. You can take from it what you will.
Now, you left South Africa when you were a teenager, right?
Yeah, I was around 18 when we moved to Vancouver. It was 10 years ago, or a little more than that.
So does this story take place in contemporary South Africa, or further back, closer to the apartheid era?
It’s the present. It’s totally the present. I’ve gone back every year, so it’s not like I went back a decade later and was shocked by the changes. I’ve watched the city’s gradual changes. It’s more like this is an alternate reality of contemporary Joburg. In my mind, a black government is in control, and I assume that the white government — with apartheid ending in 1994 — did the same thing to the aliens.
Given your background in digital effects and advertising, people may expect a film that is highly technical, dominated by CGI and explosions. Now, you’ve got all that stuff, but the basis of the film is really a remarkable human character. You get this terrific performance from Sharlto Copley, who I guess has been your collaborator all along.
I would say he’s been more my friend than my collaborator. He was interested in similar things, and he’s a few years older than me. When I was coming into high school, he was leaving high school. He was closer to the film industry in South Africa than I was, and I’ve wanted to be in film since I was, like, zero. So when I moved to Canada we stayed in touch just because we were friends, and we were interested in the same stuff.
But Sharlto is also like Sacha Baron Cohen — he’ll just totally, relentlessly fuck with you. So I knew that if I was trying to create this realistic character, based on a lot of improv, he would be a really, really good person for that, even though he’s done no acting.
He’s never acted before? That’s pretty amazing.
He’s done a few Borat-style shows where he’s just gone out and messed with people, but he hasn’t actually done acting. This was a complete first for him. I filmed some test footage and showed it to Pete, and Pete said, “Clearly he’s very talented,” and signed off on casting him in the film, and here we are.
Sharlto plays this guy, Wikus, this Afrikaner bureaucrat who seems at first like kind of an imbecile.
Oh, he is an imbecile. [Laughter.] He is totally out of his depth.
He has been assigned to move the alien population from one ghetto to another, basically. Or, to put it more honestly, from a ghetto to a concentration camp. And it all goes wrong.
Yeah, it goes horribly wrong. Wikus is someone who is like an indirect racist, I suppose. His indirect oppression of the aliens, through being a company yes man, along with 50,000 other employees — agreeing with everything his company does and never questioning it — has resulted in their current situation in Johannesburg. He’s comfortable with that kind of oppression, he even makes jokes about the conditions the aliens live in. Then an event happens in the film that catapults him down a path that ultimately leads him away from his peers, his friends and family. He finds himself dealing with what the aliens have been dealing with for the last 30 years, and becomes a complete outcast. The question becomes what he’s going to do to rectify things, or get himself back where he was before, and that’s where the compelling human element of the story comes from.
There’s a very dark comic side to this story, in which blacks and whites come together to treat another group worse than blacks were ever treated under apartheid.
I was pretty aware of that. I thought that was a pretty funny concept. Another part of recent South African history that isn’t world news is that the collapse of Zimbabwe has introduced millions of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants into South African cities. So you have impoverished South African blacks, hoping for a better life in their own country, faced with an influx of millions of impoverished Zimbabweans who have come to South Africa to build a new life for their families. Now you have this powder-keg situation, with black against black, which is highly bizarre.
When we started filming the movie, we had this terrible situation where we woke up one morning to find out that Johannesburg was eating itself alive. Impoverished South Africans had started murdering impoverished Zimbabweans, necklacing them and burning them and chopping them up. That’s a very serious piece of contemporary South African society that also finds its way into the film: some impoverished citizens wanting other impoverished citizens out.
There’s an ingredient here that will definitely push some people’s buttons. I’m talking about the way you depict these really scary Nigerian crime lords who are running things in the townships. They’re violent and brutal, they’re obsessed with voodoo and magic. You know, these images are pretty uncomfortable, especially for Americans who tend to be so careful in public discussions of race: Here’s a white guy from South Africa making a movie with scary, murderous black African villains.
Sure, I’m totally aware of that. I know those buttons are going to be pushed. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of it, and it doesn’t matter how politically correct or politically incorrect you are. The bottom line is that there are huge Nigerian crime syndicates in Johannesburg. I wanted the film to feel real, to feel grounded, and I was going to incorporate as much of contemporary South Africa as I wanted to, and that’s just how it is.
You’re too young to have seen movies from the ’70s the first time around, but I was really reminded of the gritty, social-realist sci-fi parables we used to see back then. “Soylent Green,” for example, or the first few “Planet of the Apes” films.
Yeah, “Soylent Green” is really great. “Soylent Green” and “Silent Running.” Yeah, totally, I love those. My actual, real favorites, though, are not the films about contemporary society but more the ones about human psychology: “Alien” and “Aliens,” “Blade Runner,” “2001.” But, I mean, the entire spectrum of science fiction — I’m a fan of all of it. I’m just happy participating in that environment. It’s all I want to do.
“District 9″ opens Aug. 14 nationwide.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)