Returning with his first feature film since 2015’s Chappie, Neill Blomkamp was swapped science fiction for horror with his latest movie Demonic. Best known as the director behind the sensational District 9 and the Matt Damon-led blockbuster Elysium, Blomkamp produced his latest film during the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Starring Carly Pope, Terry Chen, and Chris William Martin, Demonic follows a young woman who unleashes malevolent forces when a decades-old tension between her and her mother is revisited. A possession horror that also makes use of virtual reality and a game engine, the first trailer for Blomkamp’s new film was released earlier this month. Ahead of the film’s official premiere, Blomkamp sat down with STARBURST to talk about the challenges he encountered making this film, how the concept first came to him, and what other projects he has on the horizon.
STARBURST: Your latest film was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic. What challenges did this present, especially for a body possession horror film?
Neill Blomkamp: We shot the film relatively early during our process of learning how to deal with COVID-19. I think if you were to shoot something now, the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] and DGA [Directors Guild of America] rules on how everything works would be more clarified than they were when we shot Demonic. It was early on and we were receiving different information from different people. So we had to figure out how to manage all of that, what the rules were, and how they worked. It probably slowed us down ever so slightly, but other than that there was no real difference. You just soldier on.
This is your first out-and-out horror film, but all of your previous films (particularly District 9) have in some way involved bodily modification or change and the way this impacts a character’s sense of their own humanity. Is this a subject matter that particularly interests you?
I don’t know! I think the more films that you direct - maybe it's the same for authors as well - there’s kind of a ‘psychiatrist’s couch’ element to it where you’re learning about yourself in some way. I know that I find the idea of body horror incredibly captivating, but I don’t really know why. I’m not entirely sure. And in Demonic it is definitely nowhere near as pronounced as in District 9. It is more about the psychology of what is a dream and not a dream, and where this character stands in the world at a given moment. But body horror is in there. It is definitely there. It’s just toned down a bit.
You mentioned the psychiatrist’s couch, did you learn anything about yourself and the way you like to make films while filming Demonic, especially given how different it is from what you have made in the past?
I think that difference was a little more conscious and controlled than that. The film really had one single goal, which was to try and make audiences feel a sense of dread throughout the whole movie. That’s really all I was trying to do, and every decision we made worked backwards from that goal; the way the shots were composed, the way the camera moves, the selection with the score. Even the edit pace - everything was just trying to be slower and create this sense of brooding dread the whole time. That’s not a ‘psychiatrist’s couch’ situation. That’s a conscious, intellectually aware choice.
How long have you wanted to make a possession horror like this? And what influences did you draw on, if any? You have previously talked about your respect for DIY-style films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.
Those films were massively inspirational in the sense that filmmakers went out and shot something on a very low budget and got a very visceral response from the audience. I would say that is how they were inspirational [to me] - not in terms of content. Demonic is kind of a weird movie that way. It’s very hard for me to actually point at references. I’m not sure what the references are, because it is so much more a case of all these different building blocks that we were assembling based on what we had access to during the beginning of the pandemic. An example is the cemetery in the third act at the end of the film. That was a location that we were able to access and we definitely wanted to use it, so we asked ourselves ‘how do we write that in?’ Filming Demonic was this reverse engineering process of putting everything together. The volumetric capture stuff, the VR stuff, and doing all of that inside a game engine… that was also a priority. So we thought ‘okay well if we know we have that, and we know we have this, and we know that all of these elements are coming together.’ The film almost percolated out of those elements. It wasn’t really a case of watching something and thinking ‘I want to use that, I want to use that, and I want to use that.’ So it’s super hard for me to point to references.
So it sounds like to an extent you were making the most out of the technology and the settings that you had to hand, given the situation.
Yeah exactly. It was highly, highly different to any other film that I have worked on before in the sense that everything had stopped and the world was figuring out the pandemic. There’s a whole lot of interesting shooting locations out here [in British Columbia] that are reflected in the movie. So we had access to them. The movie also started out as being entirely self-financed, and then AGC Studios came in and gave us more money. So we then gathered together and figured out how to do this, and asked ourselves what cool elements we wanted to put into it. That process is very different to sitting down and writing a screenplay that will reverse engineer the production and the budget back into it. Demonic was the other way around.
How long had you been sitting on the concept of a film like this? How far back did the idea first come to you?
The only things that predated the pandemic that I can remember with Demonic were the idea of something to do with virtual reality and using volumetric capture. I knew that I wanted to do that. And if you look at Blair Witch it is just filmmakers going out and shooting stuff in the woods, so we thought ‘let’s go shoot some stuff in the woods.’ That’s really all I can remember existing before the pandemic. When you merge something like that with demonic possession… it’s a weird Venn diagram kind of overlap between science fiction and horror, I think in an interesting way. That was really the seed of it, and then you work backwards and incorporate the sets and the concepts that you want to put in there.
Did the cast rise to the story and the challenges presented by the pandemic? How was it to work with them on this film?
For sure. I loved working with all of the actors on this film. Particularly Carly, who was a real collaborator and team member. She was a really great asset to the whole movie. I had a super good time working with everyone. The cast needed to be the right kind of talented actors that could work under the pressure of a low budget environment, mixed with the pandemic restrictions. And they were awesome. It was a good shoot.
What are your hopes for future projects after Demonic? Is body horror or horror in general something that you could see yourself returning to?
Working in this subgenre of horror is very interesting to me. I’m less interested in ‘gore horror’ but possession horror I like. So I could definitely see myself coming back to the genre for sure.
Why is ‘gore horror’ less interesting to you?
It’s hard to put your finger on it exactly. I think that the supernatural and psychological part of horror is interesting because it’s more subtle and it operates on a different level. There’s something gratuitous about gore that for me personally I just don’t really resonate with. [With gore] I’m not sure exactly what the film is trying to tell me. So it’s just a personal thing.
Was there anything about making a film like this, which is so different to what you have made in the past, that presented particular creative challenges?
The one thing that was radically different for me was just how low the budget was, compared to the other stuff that I have done. That was a symptom of just gathering a bunch of people together and basically self-financing it, and doing something while we were still figuring out what the pandemic was going to do to the rest of the film industry. That was the largest affecting factor. Having said that, filmmaking is very scalable. Once you establish what the budget is… the day to day stuff isn’t really that different. You just have radically less time and visual effects, radically less stunts, or your shoot days are not as numerous. But the actual day and the way it goes is standard filmmaking.
Do you have anything else on the immediate horizon after Demonic? I know you have another project lined up called Inferno.
There’s a science fiction film that I am writing right now that is most interesting to me, and that I would love to make. But the script isn’t done yet. Inferno is still moving forward; it’s just under a different structure. It’s going to take more time to put together so it’s just percolating right now. Theoretically, though, this other film that I am working on would be before Inferno anyway.
Signature Entertainment’s Demonic opens ArrowVideo FrightFest on August 26th and is at UK Cinemas, Premium Digital on August 27th and Blu-ray & DVD on October 25th. You can watch the first trailer for the film here.