FAN FEST EXCLUSIVE: Neill Blomkamp Talks Oats Studios, Creative Expression and What The Future Holds
Oats Studio is the brand new studio/project from the mind of Neill Blomkamp (Director of District 9, Elysium, Chappie). Oats blew onto the scene with three incredible short films: Rakka, Firebase and Zygote; showcasing the directors knack for world building, character creation and everything in between. Not only were these short films released online for free; but, fans have the ability to purchase DLC packs from each film to dig deeper into how they were made.
While Neill calls this ‘creative expression,’ I call it ‘creative genius.’
Luckily, Neill was generous enough to offer up a bit of his time to talk the conception of Oats Studios, the origin of the shorts and so much more.
NICK: So first and foremost, I think the best start to this is can you tell me a little bit about the name Oats Studios and how that came to you?
NEILL: Well, it’s like a long story. That name has been I the back of my mind for more than 12, maybe 15 years. I’ve had that name, it’s a strange entity that would put out weird, short films. So it’s a very, very, very old concept to me. And, forming the company, probably over two years ago, it just kind of became this situation where I knew that people would be confused by it and it wouldn’t really make sense. And I felt like that perfectly summed up exactly what the company is, which is that it’s not some homogenous focus-group guided, catering to everyone kind of studio. It just is its own thing, that it does whatever it wants to do and the name backs that up. I won’t even explain why other than that. It’s a good name.
NICK: As a fan of your work, you really blew on the scene with such shorts as Tetra Vaal, Alive in Joburg, and Tempbot. I personally remember watching these shorts on repeat, not knowing we’d be given the gift of District 9 and Chappie, which draw a lot of inspiration from those shorts. Did you take a different approach to these stories, or did you use the foundation that you’d previously built to tackle these films?
NEILL: Well, they’re slightly different from what we’re doing now in the sense that when I made those short films they were never a calling card for feature films. When I was doing Alive in Joburg, I had just gotten into directing commercials, and I found the commercials that I was doing were very uncreative and I wasn’t enjoying it and I was trying to do something more creative. So I used whatever money I had left over to shoot that piece and it didn’t occur to me that it would ever be turned into a film. And the same was true with Tetra Vaal. So what’s different with Oats is we are consciously putting out ideas that could be turned into films, and if that happened it would be part of the plan, where that was never part of the plan with the early pieces I did.
NICK: Wow. So, one thing that I truly admire is your confidence as a filmmaker in approaching these ideas and these stories. But, what a lot of people in the mainstream audience don’t know is short-form story telling is actually one of the most complicated things to master, and you’ve mastered it. Do you find comfort more in making short films or feature films?
NEILL: I like them both equally. The benefit of short films is your creative interests can be across several different projects simultaneously and you feel excited to be bouncing around creatively in slightly different worlds. The positives with feature films is that the canvas is so much bigger that the audience is really going to go into a dark theater and live that world for two hours. Right now, coming to the end of volume one for the films that are being made for Oats, my creative instinct right now is to want to make a feature film. I feel like I’ve been dabbling in these 20-minute realm films for the last two years now and I feel like what I would really like to do now is to take the audience into a dark theater and put them into a world that we, at Oats, manufacture for them to enjoy. So both are equally interesting and it’s cool to bounce back and forth between them.
NICK: What I love about what you’ve created is that you’re tapping into this market of fans via steam and giving them content that they, the day before, let’s say Rakka comes out, they didn’t know they needed in their life until they watch it and go, “I needed this. Where was this before?” So, upon the initial conception of this project, were these fans the key market that you were targeting or was it more of putting these ideas out into the ether and just letting them run?
NEILL: I would definitely say that everything about what we are doing on a creative level is very premeditated and unstructured. So it’s like what is creatively interesting at this moment? Let’s make that. As opposed to, I’m going after this demographic and then this is the kind of film that I want to make. It’s way more artistic and sort of emotional.
The strategic stuff to do with the business is more high level. It’s not really about the creative itself. It’s more if we assume that we have a bunch of short films and we assume that we want to make feature films and then we assume we want to go back to doing short films to come up with more ideas to do more feature films, then logistically and financially, how do we execute that? That’s more of the strategic kind of stuff that we would be thinking about. The actually specifics to do with a film like Rakka, there’s no strategy behind that. It’s entirely just creative expression.
It’s interesting, like when you talk about the average mainstream not really picking up on short films being used or being a valid art form, as opposed to feature films only. The thing that’s so awesome about what it feels like to me to be doing the stuff inside of Oats is this idea that because the whole company has this kind of “doesn’t care” approach and I found this incredibly difficult in my career to get this through to the audience, but that I’m not going to follow some kind of Hollywood predetermined path for what people think directors should be doing and go off and get some kind of giant IP project that every other director is trying to get.
I’m choosing to use my own cash to make YouTube videos, essentially. And having that dismissed by a lot of people in the mainstream, is actually awesome. As opposed to working on some giant film where the director is basically replaceable and their stamp on that piece of IP is borderline undefinable. I’m working on something that in their eyes is the lowest of the low, as in I’ve become a YouTuber and that’s almost like the greatest stamp of approval. And so, I love doing that and the more of that I get online, the better.
NICK: And that’s, I think, what has made you so inspiring, I think, as a film maker is that the moment that you came on the scene with District 9, it was something so left of center, but everyone just fell in love with it and years later that you’re still doing that with Oats, it’s awesome.
NEILL: District 9 is interesting, because District 9 is no different to Chappie until the day it’s released. So when you’re busy making it, it’s like you’re trying to do stuff that’s a little bit unusual and a little bit weird and you’re doing it because you’re creatively invested in it and you have no idea. You literally have no idea how it’s going to get received. When I was making District 9, I felt like I knew that I liked the film, and that meant that if there were a few other people that had similar tastes to me, I knew that they would like the film.
But in terms of a larger, a mass demographic, theater-going audience group, I had absolutely no idea whether they would like it or not. And that exact same truth can be said about Chappie; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. But sometimes when you do something in the film where the marketing didn’t necessarily show them and the audience felt like they were caught off-guard by that, doesn’t help you, but at the same time, the bold decision to do something like that, which rests firmly on my shoulders, is one of many decisions in that process that I felt creatively was the right route. Whether the audience agrees with me or not, I felt that it was the right route.
And so every time you go out making a film like that, you never know if it’s going to work until the day that it’s in theaters and there are ways to change that process so that you feel like your chance of success with the audience goes up by taking less and less risks. It’s a very easy choice to make. You can follow a set list of things that will put you in much more of a safe kind of zone. And since I don’t really seem to be able to behave in that safe zone, Oats is a really cool way to experiment with that.
A perfect example of that would be Firebase, which on paper sounds insane and when we filmed it it felt insane and I loved it when I shot it. And the audience online, when I put this poll up on my Twitter, chose Firebase over the other two, which is perfect confirmation of what I’m trying to do, which is sometimes the more surreal and abstract pieces actually people do respond to. And you wouldn’t know that if you make it, you would just assume on paper it was too strange.
NICK: Right. And that’s what’s so cool. And I think collectively, everyone online, between Rakka, Firebase and Zygote are saying that you’ve created this trilogy of fear in science fiction that no one’s experienced since Alien and even with Zygote, everyone is losing their mind about how terrifying these films are in their own different ways. So first off, I have to say, how do you maintain sleep at night with these concepts, creatures and characters going through your head?
NEILL: What’s interesting about Rakka and Firebase and Zygote is that they’re all darker than any of the feature films that I’ve done. The tone is quite different and that’s one of the things that I love about this weird studio is if I feel like dabbling in that darker, unrelenting tone, I can. And if I want to go off and make something that’s a little bit funnier and a little bit more light-hearted, I can do that as well.
So, I think that the head space that I was in after Chappie, regardless of Oats, whether Oats was around or not, the head space that I was in was this more nefarious, bleak, heroine, darker tone. I just felt creatively drawn to that. I feel like I’m at the tail end of it now, like I want to do something that’s a little bit different to that in the next volume of pieces. But I don’t know. Those are definitely the three darkest pieces that I’ve done.
NICK: Oh, absolutely. So, films are considered escapism. I know they are for me. And you’re providing escapism with realistic commentary within each of these shorts. But even in your films, you’ve always built this world that feels real, yet the audience can still escape the reality of it all. What drives you to keep your fictional worlds grounded in reality?
NEILL: That’s just a personal, aesthetic choice. From the time that I was a kid, if I came across fantasy or science fiction or horror or whatever it may be, it always had more of an effect on me if I felt like the rules of the world that had been set up were very realistic and the more grounded it is and the more realistic it feels, the more interesting the non-real elements become. And I think that in the stuff that I make, now that I’m now putting stuff back out into that same pot of ideas that I would when I was younger, I think that striving to try to make something that is non-real try to come across in a grounded, realistic way is just my personal aesthetic preference. So, yeah, on a cerebral level, other than that description, I don’t really know how else to sum it up. A lot of it I think is subconscious.
NICK: Wow. Yeah, it definitely adds to it. Okay, so I guess the final question, I would say is, of the three shorts so far, if you could make one tomorrow, what would be the one that you would want to adapt into a feature-length film?
NEILL: I really like all three of them, but I think I’d probably have to go with Firebase because I think it would be the most difficult to turn into a feature but I also think that it … I just, I love the surreal nature of it and the strange mixture of different elements occurring in the Vietnam War. It draws me in and I feel like I could spend the year or two that it requires to make a film in that environment really happily. So, yeah. I’d probably go with Firebase. Which one would you pick?
NICK: I was talking to Jose [Pablo Cantillo] about this. Zygote, the way that my brain function is, I saw the entire film before that scene that was shown, before the actual film and even after it, there’s a whole film of her getting out and telling the world and it’s just … that one drove me nuts with would could be.
NEILL: Yeah. Zygote’s really interesting because that is actually very true. It can be the prequel or I don’t know if prequel’s the right word. It can be the pre-story, which is probably my preference, I think. Or following her off the lids, which becomes more about her story of now that she knows that she’s human. But they’re both equally interesting. The thing with Zygote that I liked is the homage flashback to 1980s sci-fi that I loved and this claustrophobic horror environment that the characters are put inside of, that feels isolated and claustrophobic. That’s also super appealing. I love that.
NICK: Oh yeah. I was telling Jose, it was horrifying. My palms were sweating and I was terrified. It’s great.
NEILL: He’s really good in it. I was really lucky to get him and Dakota [Fanning]. They’re both so, so good in there. I love them in that film.