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Neill Blomkamp Sheds Some Light On The Black-Ops Priests And Avian Terrors Of Demonic - Exclusive

When you think of demonic possession movies, there are several key ingredients that probably spring to mind, including Bibles, priests, holy water, and crucifixes. But there's one new horror movie that's straying away from the common tropes and adding its unique stamp to the genre. It's simply titled "Demonic," and it's from the acclaimed experimental director Neill Blomkamp, who's best known for his Academy Award-nominated "District 9."

While Blomkamp went on to leave his mark on science fiction with other titles such as "Elysium" and "Chappie," he's now injecting some of his signature sci-fi traits into a genre mostly known for men of the cloth battling Satan's minions by screaming "The power of Christ compels you!" In "Demonic," his priests trade their robes for tactical gear and advance weaponry. And rather than rely on religious iconography and prayer to expel their infernal foes, they instead embrace science and technology. Think of them as the Vatican's very own 21st century black ops team.

One modern-day gizmo they utilize is a neurological device that allows comatose individuals to live on and dwell in a virtual reality cooked up by their very own subconsciousness. This advanced cyber dream machine also works both ways, which allows a woman (Carly Pope) to plug in and visit her slumbering and thought-to-be-deranged mother who just so happens to be a vessel for a nightmarish demonic entity. As you probably already guessed, toying with this machine leads to hell being virtually unleashed.

To bring the movie's gritty simulations to life, Blomkamp turned to a new technology known as volumetric capture (aka vol-cap). In fact, the film features about 15-20 minutes of footage spawned by the new patent-pending technology — the most used in a Hollywood feature thus far. During a recent exclusive interview with Looper, Blomkamp walked us though the grueling mathematical filming process and explained why this new low-budget horror film seemed like the perfect opportunity to experiment with the prototype technology. He also revealed what inspired the avian looks of his feathered fiend and shared his own personal beliefs on whether or not demons exist. And if you're curious to see if he chimed in on his defunct "Alien 5" project or offered an update on the long-awaited sequel to "District 9," well ... read on for the details.

Actress Carly Pope was caged by 250 cameras

With "Demonic," you steer away from the common tropes that we see in a lot of demon movies: traditional exorcisms, crucifixes, holy water. Your exorcists use science, technology, and firepower to battle demons, something we don't see very often. Was that always your goal?

Because I was doing this low-budget, self-financed film, it allowed for stuff that I probably couldn't do at a higher budget level, like using volumetric capture. And I really wanted to use volumetric capture in something, so if you sort of track the thinking, it's like, "I want to put vol-cap in a movie and I'm doing a low-budget horror film. Could it work in there?" And then, when you think that through, it's like, "Well, it could be a VR thing." And you can explain it to the audience in the way that it looks glitchy, which, vol-cap actually does look kind of glitchy, you can explain to them that it's prototype technology. So, that led to this idea of combining the demonic possession trope with VR and with vol-cap. And when you combine those, I wasn't really looking at other films as reference, it just sort of happened that way. And that's probably what you're talking about, it gives it a slightly different way into demonic possession.

You mentioned this new vol-cap technology. Were there any ups and downs or obstacles you dealt with while using it? When it came to nailing down the exact look you wanted for these virtual reality sequences, how long did it take to flesh those out and get it right?

Actually, once we captured it, it was pretty clear sailing. The issue was more the capturing. It's the actual shooting because it's so confining and difficult. There are 250 cameras around the actors, you feel like you're in a physical cage. It's like an actual cage of cameras and they can barely move. And there's no physical representation of the sets there. So [Carly Pope is] just on a soundstage with a bunch of cameras around her and every measurement and everything that she's doing to walk through her house or walk through the sanitarium, they all have to be mathematically measured and sort of explained with tape along the floor. So it's grueling. It's just a grueling process to shoot, but once that's done, then it's cool.

Beaked plague masks from the middle ages influenced the creature design

Speaking of cages, you went with an avian design for your demon — it's a very crow-like creature. How much research did you do in demonology and how long did it take you to settle on the design you went with?

It didn't take long. It wasn't a conscious negotiation where I was trying to figure out exactly between 20 different designs. When I wrote the script, for some reason, I just wrote this bird creature. And I don't know where it comes from. I was sort of interested in crows and ravens and stuff, and then I was also reading about the plague in the middle ages and those plague masks that they would wear, and I think that kind of looks like a beak, obviously, so that may have influenced things. I don't actually know. It was very subconscious. But I gave the script to this awesome concept artist that I work with, and she gave back one image. It was one of the easiest design processes ever, and I looked at it and I was like, "That's the monster. We should just build the suit now."

You have big-budget movies on your resume such as "District 9," "Chappie," and "Elysium," and now you're back with this considerably smaller-budget film. You've done low-budget short films in the past, but after coming off those other three big movies, was it a jarring exercise to go back to your roots and do this feature length film on a low-budget?

No. Well, I mean, I basically was off making YouTube videos for four years. Oats Studios is the film school of how to make higher production value stuff for very low amounts of money, so I was doing that already. So when the pandemic happened, it felt like an awesome time to try to do that, but within a feature-film length instead of a short. I'm sort of equally comfortable with both, I think. Having done this now for a while, I want to go back to higher budget stuff for a bit, but I'm happy to bounce between them. I probably will in the future.

A 21st century portrayal of the Vatican

Throughout the past few decades, we've seen so many imaginative filmmakers put their own spin on demons. One that comes to mind would be "Hellraiser," which has such a fantastical vision on what demons and hell could look like. John Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness" was unique because it explained that Satan and Jesus were extraterrestrial beings. It seems you wanted to do something different with the demon genre as well. Would you say you drew inspiration from any past demon films?

It's hard to say that I did. It's weird. This film is very strange. It feels like it was made in a vacuum. But the John Carpenter reference and "Hellraiser," I mean, I loved "Hellraiser" when I was younger, so it's totally possible that, on some subconscious level, it's in there. But I honestly wasn't trying to remix the demonic possession genre, I was trying to combine elements that I wanted to see together. Like, one idea I had that predates this form of the movie, is I had this idea for the Vatican being portrayed in a much more 21st century way.

When you talk about demonic possession and you talk about exorcisms and you talk about priests and the Vatican having classes on how to exorcize demons, which they actually do have, I started thinking like, "Well, it would be interesting to just portray them in a much more 21st century way, where they're using all the capital that they have to sort of buy up corporations and do things that are more nefarious." Just present it differently. So I had that idea on a shelf, and when the time was right to kind of make something like this at the budget level, I kind of just took that and then merged it with another concept. So I wasn't actively going like, "I want to do a demon film in a way that is different." It was more, "I want this element and this element and this element, and whatever that is will be what the film is."

The whole Vatican black ops team was a nice touch. It was like the Vatican's spin on the Colonial Marines from "Aliens." You could do a really cool and interesting spinoff with them.

Yeah, you could do other films in this world that are higher budget, that could exploit more of that. You could go down that road more.

Alien 5 is a thing of the past

The technology used in "Demonic" reminded me of Tarsem Singh's "The Cell," where they use similar neural technology to go into the mind of a serial killer. If you had a larger budget, do you think you might've gone a different route done more hyper-realistic dream world sort of simulations, or perhaps you could explore that in a sequel?

Maybe. I mean, to me, I'm more interested in the Vatican angle. It would be more in the real world of what the priests are doing. I mean, the simulation stuff would be interesting too, but that's the part that I think is in alignment with allowing for it to be scaled up. Yeah, I feel like that would be an interesting road to go down.

What are your personal beliefs on actual demons? Are you more of the skeptical type? Agnostic or undecided? Or do you think they're simply fictional products of the human imagination?

Unfortunately, I do think that they're manifestations of some deeper psyche. I wish they existed, but I don't think they do. I mean, I don't believe in ghosts, I don't believe in demons, but it would be awesome if they were around.

I have to ask about your now defunct "Alien 5" project. In August 2020, IGN asked James Cameron to give you a call about your "Alien" project and he simply said "I'm working on that." Is there any truth to that? Do you still have a little bit of hope that your killed "Aliens" project might see the light of day?

I mean, the way I'm looking at it now, I'd rather not go down that road just because now, I kind of have a bunch of films that I want to make and I'm just sort of looking forward rather than looking back. It's always a topic that always comes up.

Some unproduced "Alien" scripts have been adapted into graphic novels, such as William Gibson's "Alien 3." I know a lot of fans are just so curious about what you were going to do, what your storyline was, because no one really knows what it was going to be about. Would you toy with the idea of maybe doing a graphic novel adaptation of your story?

Probably not. Probably not. Yeah, I think for me, it's just about going forward now.

The District 9 sequel is coming in the near future

Since the "Alien" thing didn't work out, are there any other dream franchises you'd love to get your hands on? Or perhaps there are other comic book or video game properties you'd love to dabble with in the future?

There's a lot that I really like, and I really admire, and it would be awesome to creatively work on them. I'm just a little bit nervous with franchises and a large IP with what that comes with, but I there's a million that I love. I mean, even that He-Man t-shirt you're wearing. There are millions.

A bit ago you mentioned Oats Studios. You made some really killer short films in 2017. A lot of those, such as "Rakka" and "Zygote," were awesome. They were begging for feature film adaptations. But the freakish creature in "Zygote" is probably one of my favorites. Is there a possibility your fans might see any of those short films expanded into feature-length movies?

I hope not. I mean, I hope that there's absolutely no way that those touch Hollywood in any way, shape, or form. That would just ruin those. But I think what they may get is more of those worlds, just not presented through Hollywood.

Everyone's been clamoring for a sequel to "District 9" since it came out in 2010. I know you're deep into the writing process with that one. Do you have an idea on when it might go into production? Can you give us a little update or a tease there?

I think I would just say the near future. There's no concrete dates yet, but I would say in the near future.

Because the first one got nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, do you feel there's a lot of pressure and high expectations for you to deliver a sequel that totally outshine the original?

Well, I mean, for a long time I didn't really want to make a sequel. It was like, I didn't want to make a sequel for the sake of making a sequel. But then, there was an idea for something that made it make sense to me. It was like, this justifies making a sequel. So the pressure was more like, it must have merit, it must have a reason for being made. And I think I have that now.

Neill Blomkamp's "Demonic" will be in theaters and everywhere you rent movies August 20.