I really didn’t want to see District 9.  I knew very little about it, but what I did know put me off.  Most action moves just seem to be the antithesis of a Gok Wan show - watching a man get progressively more dishevelled, his vest dirtier, and his BO more pronounced.  So that lessened my enthusiasm, and what was more, this wasn’t just an Action Film, it was an Action Film with Aliens.  I had my fill of that in 1997 with Independence Day, and who could outdo Close Encounters?  The whole Armageddon/Deep Impact comet genre I also willingly chuck in there.  It’s just glossy and dispoable tragedy - bad aliens, people are gonna die, and the world as we know it will be ripped to ribbons.  Ugh, go away.  I fear change.  But I went anyway, we did a double header, watching The Invention of Lying (why Ricky?  WHY?)  and then I was cajoled into seeing D9 if only to cleanse my cinematic palate of that humdrum romcom monstrosity.

It was amazing.  If you haven’t seen it, you must.  It flips the genre on it’s head and should be compulsory viewing worldwide.  I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through, both metaphorically and literally - my bum has never been so numb.  Mid-watching I realised that the UN representative, Jason Cope, is actually an old friend of my sister’s.  When we went to South Africa a few years ago he took us out and we sat on a roof overlooking Capetown with loads of really pretty people (it seemed everyone in SA was ridiculously attractive).  I felt embarrassed on realising this since when I met him I was little more than a grumpy teenager and kind of hated everything, and I am pretty sure that shone through.  Anyway, he’s a great actor - voicing all the aliens and playing the part of main alien Christopher, so I asked him about it.

Hey Jason.  So, when did you first meet Neill Blomkamp?

I first met Neill about 5 years ago, helping to film his short film, ‘Alive in Joburg’.

How was it following the process from short film to Peter Jackson produced feature?

It was nothing short of magical. I enjoyed making the first film, but I thought that perhaps our enjoyment of the short was slightly eccentric - away from the mainstream. Neill was very interested in the idea of sci-fi in South Africa, but seemed focussed on it for its own merits as a creative exercise.  Sharlto [who plays Wikus, below] was always adamant that it would become a film, but when it actually happened it was incredibly exciting. I remember getting off the phone with Neill after he told me the news: I didn’t sleep for a few days after that, but I was very happy.

Since Sharlto, who plays main character Wikus, had not really acted before, how did he cope?

Sharlto has a an intense work ethic so, true to form, he dived into the role with an intense ferocity that is rare to encounter. He realised right from the start that he would have to become Wikus and promptly went about doing this with intense focus. His improvisational skills were immediately unshakeable, and the highly-wound, motor-mouthed Wikus was able to deal with anything thrown at him.

Is it true that all the shacks in the film were actual shacks already existing in an area of Johannesburg?

Yes, although most of them had been rebuilt in some way. The Art Department, who did some amazing things, purchased the shacks from the occupants for the duration of the shoot. Some of the people moved back in after we wrapped.

The film is obviously an excellent parallel for the events of District 6 and the Joe Slovo Informal Settlement

Well, the whole system of Apartheid was founded on the forced removal and relocation of groups of people.  The Apartheid government moved the vast majority of the population into small “homelands”, not dissimilar to “reserves”, so the central acts of government often revolved around the classification and control  of population groups. We grew up in what was effectively a police state. High levels of social and civil unrest and high levels of crime and violence were coupled with severe government brutality and aggression. The government was fighting wars across the continent, and facing an armed struggle within its own borders. All parties had no problems with assassinating, abducting or torturing each other. It was, in short, a pretty intense time. Many people were shielded from some of the truth by a state-controlled media; those in the armed struggle were the “terrorists”.   A lot of these themes of our youth are referred to in the film. Indeed, if oxygen-breathing shrimp from another galaxy had landed in Apartheid South Africa, there is no doubt in my mind that government would have responded in a manner similar to that displayed by MNU in the film. So are these subjects close to my heart? Yes, very much so. Many South Africans lived through difficult times that we all remember well. I know that Neill thinks about these things too.

As well as the UN narrator, you played the part of alien Christopher Johnson, and did most of the voices in the film.  What is your background as an actor?

I’ve always been around theatre or film. My mother was a painter for the state theatre, so my early years are filled with powerful imprinting; often revolving around show business. For a short while as a boy I only felt attracted to girls that worked in the circus.  I’ve been acting full time for a few years now.

I heard you were on stilts for the alien parts, how was that?

I’d act just as a normal actor would; standing in the shot with the other actors. Image Engine would then carefully paint me out and replace me with the digital alien. Using tracking marks attached to a suit that I was wearing, they would generate the movement of the alien and refine that using key frame. It varied with some shots.  Sometimes I’d be off camera, feeding lines to the other characters.

Did you ad-lib all of the dialogue for the aliens or was it scripted?

The script was very clear with what the scene consisted of, but Neill encouraged us to ad-lib our dialogue while meeting the needs of the scene.

How do you go about building the personality of an alien?

We work shopped different stuff for about a month. Neill just kept us going though a sort of actors’ gym. Sharlto would do his Wikus stuff and I’d try out different alien personalities. We worked every day in an underground parking lot beneath the production offices. For me the challenge was to find the physical balance between insect and human. The aliens carry the emotional content of the film, so we needed to be able to relate to them. If I just roared, twitched and tried to bite everybody there was no emotional connection, so we’d vary the aliens performance, depending on what was needed for the scene. I spent almost all of my time thinking about Christopher.

What do you think about the controversy over the portrayal of Nigerians in the film?  Do you think it’s justified?

The “Nigerian” gang in the film is simply interchangeable with any other South African gang, of which we have many. It was a geographic choice, as opposed to trying to single out Nigerians as a people, and is based on the Nigerian crime syndicates that hold sway over the some of the ruined downtown slums of Joburg. Hillbrow, specifically. The thought was; well, here’s a slum, what do we get in the heart of Joburg slums? Of course South Africa has a large variety of gangs in different areas: If we’d set the film in the Western Cape, for example, we’d probably have called the leader Johnny Mongrel and the gang the Numbers Gang or the Young Americans. If we’d set it in some other areas we’d have used the Chinese Triads, or The Russians or any one of a host of SA bad guys that exist today. I understand if people get upset, but it’s not meant as an attack on Nigerians; it’s simply a tool to add another dimension of South African badness to drive the plot forward.  The entire film is about adding ‘movie magic’ to the bad guys of our shared collective conscience. Our reality is an offensive one to live in, and it’s potentially theraputic to see it up there on the screen. I enjoy watching the film in South Africa, listening to South Africans cheer and laugh at all of the things that they recognise, including the disturbing stuff like Muti killing and so on; it’s enjoyable. It’s easy to forget, if you’re not from here, that the film is in fact a dark comedy. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously.

How has the response been in the U.S.?  Do you think the deserved success of the film will make big changes in the South African film industry?

The response has been incredible. The film went straight to number one at the US box office. It received a slew of positive reviews and, for a short and glorious while, it seemed it was the apple of Hollywood’s eye.

Are there plans for a sequel?

I’m not sure.

Why was there seemingly only one child alien?

Well, Little CJ and his relationship with his father was the emotional focus point of the story. MNU also supposedly discourages kids in the alien population, as evidenced by the scene when Wikus gleefully torches the alien eggs.

And finally, the cat food?  Did you have to actually eat it?

Neill and Terry found out somewhere (I think in Vancouver) that cat food is great bait for catching prawns, so they wrote it in.  Happily I managed to avoid eating it. Sharlto and Neill were not so lucky; they recently ate cat food on a radio show in the US.