A couple of weeks ago, District 9 and Chappie director Neill Blomkamp unveiled Oats Studios, his new project focusing on experimental short films. At the time, Blomkamp described the studio as an attempt to remain creative in a film industry that rewards endless sequels and franchises. Through Oats, he’ll be developing a range of potential projects, from serious science fiction to wackier concepts, with the hope that some of them may eventually make the leap to full-length feature films.
The first film from Oats Studios, Rakka, is now available for streaming on YouTube and Steam, and it depicts the aftermath of an alien invasion. The year is 2020, and aliens have enslaved humanity, and altering the Earth’s atmosphere. But Rakka isn’t a conventional short film. Instead, it’s a series of scenes depicting various points of view. Some scenes show what the aliens are doing to humanity; others track a resistance movement led by Sigourney Weaver, and an escaped prisoner named Amir. Later, in a climactic battle, resistance fighters shoot down an alien aircraft and track down its pilot.
On the eve of its release, I spoke with Blomkamp about his new film, the real-world inspirations, and the key to success for Oats Studios.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This is the one of three projects Oats will be releasing in this initial volume of projects. Where did the story come from?
The original idea was to make make a science fiction piece that was about an occupying force in a foreign country, and it kind of grew around that. I always wanted to do a science fiction invasion piece that had direct parallels with an occupying force in a country, like the Germans in France, or Americans in Iraq. There's these levels of armed troops that are walking through neighborhoods, and well-built buildings, and local politicians have been turned or manipulated. There is a lot of stuff in there that I felt was really interesting, and to look at it from a different point of view is really cool. That's where the seed was from.
The narrator in the film says that in this environment, people have to do things that in peacetime would be really abhorrent, such as using a human being to bait a trap for the aliens. Is there another political parallel there that you were looking at?
No. There's a point at which I feel like you just start getting into character or pure sci-fi ideas. The same thing happened with District 9, where you started off with allegory, but there’s a certain point [when] it branches off, and as long as you’re not damaging the metaphor, then it's fine.
Some of that is just story or plot or character, and I think Nosh, [who proposes the bait idea], is so completely insane and nihilistic that what he's offering may tactically actually makes sense. But then in other times, it wouldn’t. That isn't necessarily a direct parallel with something related to war.
Tell me a little about the design in Rakka, because it feels quite a bit different from the other films that you've done.
The main idea that I like is that [the alien creatures] have this nanotech ferrofluid that changes shape. The aliens would have essentially come to earth in a lake. It forms whenever they need, and when they arrive at Earth, it probably split up into several pieces, with the different ships that formed out of it going to different continents and building the towers that they live in. They breathe a different atmosphere. If you look at the creature itself, it has this black hood on that also runs down the bridge of its nose. It's almost like a gas mask, but hooked directly into their nostrils. It just does whatever they need it to: it processes Earth's air into a mixture that they can breathe, it forms weapons, it forms the structures that they live in, it forms their vehicles. I just like the idea that [the fluid’s] always active, and it’s intelligent.
The aliens that we see in this piece, which we have dubbed the “Klum” aliens (rhymes with ‘plume’), are actually a sort of genetically cloned drone. They're not entirely sentient, and they're sent out by a far more intelligent species who we haven’t really seen yet.
There's a scene where a soldier sees something after his truck is blown up. Was that the superior alien species?
Yeah. They're floating around in the peripheral edges of our solar system, and they're visualizing what's happening on the Earth by proxy. They live inside some kind of quantum state back in their ship. They’re gathering any organism that they find that can help them think about how to survive the end of the universe. They know it's coming, and they don't want to die.
The Klum treat this species like a god. However, this intelligent species turned their back on them, but they didn’t do that to humans.
The character of Amir is an escaped prisoner. He's obviously been experimented on by the Klum. Can you tell me a little about him?
[The Gone World author] Thomas Sweterlitsch came up with this idea. The experimentation we see on Amir is the Klum trying to find out what this top-tier species sees in humanity: why are humans worthy of attention, but not the Klum? Amir wasn’t killed, and the experimentation gives him an eye into how the Klum see the world. I have ideas where his character goes, but we just have to see if the audience gets behind us in order for us to tell more of these stories.
So you see this as one small episode in a much larger story.
Yes. We don't know what form that story will take. Rakka feels like it could almost be more of an episodic thing, because there's a lot of avenues to explore. The footage is too unconventional and weird [for a mainstream feature], and the audience has to think of the footage as a snapshot into the window of this world.
It’s the same for the film we’re going to release in a couple of weeks. When the audience understands that this isn't the complete, final story, and they choose to get behind us financially, we can then figure out if this is an episodic thing, or if it’s one big feature film. There are other ideas that we have in Volume 1, and some that will be in Volume 2, that are explicitly feature films.
These stories aren’t pre-determined: they don't have to be HBO-style, 60-minute episodes. They can be multiple 20-minute pieces, you can have a five-minute window into a character with just one scene, or you can have a two-hour piece somewhere else.
It felt to me like you have the right amount of material for a future film with Rakka. You have the big set pieces that could then be connected with a much more complete story.
I've always thought of Rakka as much more in the camp of Star Trek or something, where you have a lot of interesting things to explore, rather than a movie. You could make a feature, but I think it's more interesting for it to be more of a long term, episodic format.
But if you had someone like 20th Century Fox come up and say that they wanted to do business, is that something you would be receptive to?
We would be receptive if our main goal failed. If you feel like you want to get behind it, go to Steam, buy the film instead of watching it for free. If you like what you see, the only way for us to make more is for you to give us cash to fuel the next round of stuff.
If that fails — which it probably stands a greater chance of failing than working — than a traditional approach to realizing some of the ideas is very much on the table. But it's not a goal. I could have just written Rakka, and went to Hollywood. I don't want to do that. I want to test this model and see if anyone in the world will get behind us.