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Neill Blomkamp on his next short film, Firebase, and life in a virtual simulation

Neill Blomkamp on his next short film, Firebase, and life in a virtual simulation


The District 9 director on the model for his new studio: ‘The focus right now is on giving all of this away for free’

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Earlier this month, Neill Blomkamp began releasing short films from his experimental film venture, Oats Studios. First came Rakka, an alien-invasion concept. That was followed by Cooking With Bill, a wacky infomercial that goes terribly wrong. Oats’ third and most recent short film is Firebase, a story about something lurking in the rain forests while the Vietnam War rages on around it.

Firebase opens with a disfigured American soldier tied to a post. Soon, American GIs start coming across bodies with strange, horrifying growths under the skin. When they look into the sky, they see a Huey dismantled in mid-flight, while more footage shows tanks and planes floating in the air. The CIA starts investigating the unexplained occurrences, and a team gears up to confront the River God, a seemingly invincible supernatural creature behind the strange incidents — and possibly other things beyond their comprehension.

I recently spoke with Blomkamp about Firebase, how Oats Studios is faring, and what’s coming next.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When we last spoke, you were just getting ready to release Rakka. Now that it’s been out for a couple of weeks, what’s the response been like?

The response seems good. It’s been generally positive, which is cool. I feel very good about it. I didn't really know what to expect. I think if you have any sort of preconceived idea of what is going to happen, things turn out to be different. Across the board, if you're looking for people enjoying the films or getting some value from them, that’s really all that counts. I feel like that's what’s happened so far. So that's a good thing.

You guys have the extras for Rakka up on Steam where users can buy all the 3D assets and concept act. Have you seen a lot of people buying those?

There's been quite a lot of that. We’re basically just testing to see what data we get back, and to see if people are interested in it, more than selling them as a viable business model to pay for shorts of this scale. But in terms of the kind of collaborative, open nature of what we're trying to do, the option to buy the DLC assets was the right way to go.

Since its release, Rakka has been seen 2.4 million times, and it looks like people have begun to make movie-style trailers for it.

That’s pretty cool. I’m really curious to see how people respond to Firebase, because it's a little bit more surreal in its presentation, and it’s a little more non-linear. So I don't know how they're going to take it.

Firebase is set in the Vietnam War, and it has some pretty horrifying things going on — even for a war. What inspired this story, and where did it come from?

The initial idea was the concept of living in a virtual simulation: simulation hypothesis was the core basis. The theory behind this was born out of the idea that we exist in a simulated construct, where there are errors or anomalies. If you think of the universe as a piece of software, then there would be this self-correcting code that would come in and fix the erroneous code.

We came up with the idea of someone who accidentally breaks through the program and is able to see and understand that there's more to reality than the level they exist in. We wanted someone who could play with the laws of thermodynamics, time, and space. In the case of the River God, he’s acting almost subconsciously. He’s more of an error or an anomaly. Plus, the idea of a science fiction story set in Vietnam is interesting, and a concept I haven't seen that much of.

In this film, the River God starts tampering with the fabric of space-time. This universe corrects that by sending in people like Hines, who don't understand why they were drawn to these anomalies, or what their purpose is. They just know they have to stop this thing from happening. On a higher level, he's almost like an antivirus program.

Image: Oats Studios

In the film, we see a CIA agent interviewing a wounded soldier, who claims he was transported back to America, where he saw the Russians invading. When we spoke about Rakka, you mentioned a lot of extra story that didn’t make it into the film. Is that happening here?

The River God, subconsciously or almost erroneously, is breaking through into concurrent realities that exist simultaneously. In this instance, he pulls the soldier out of his reality, puts him into another, and pulls him back again. That reality he went to is just as real as the reality he lives in now, but he only saw it for a fraction of time.

At the end of Firebase, the soldiers are gearing up for a big confrontation. Do you have an ending in mind?

We have several different paths we can take with Firebase, as opposed to some of the other films. However, whether they get made, and whether they’re feature films or shorts or whatever, is completely unknown.

Where did you film this particular short?

This was actually shot in the jungles of South Africa. It was the second cheapest option. The cheapest was in Uruguay. It was a combination of finding a place with film crews, a tropical jungle, and where we could get Huey helicopters. Hawaii was actually the first place we looked at, and it just turned out to be too expensive.

Were there any unexpected challenges that you came across when you were shooting in the jungle?

We were going deep in the jungle, so that was a little disconcerting. The biggest challenge was snakes. It was prime location for black mambas, which are highly poisonous, so we had a snake wrangler with us. But other than that, it was a good shoot.

The Vietnam War has been influential for some major directors. Did it have a similar impact on you?

No. If there's anything in there, it's subconscious. As an era in time, it's just an interesting conflict to me. I'm very interested in soldiers, and in returning soldiers. The Vietnam War was over before I was born, so I don’t think it’s the same kind of thing for me as with other directors. District 9 was influenced by the politics of South Africa, and I think that would be more akin to American directors who lived through the war.

“The focus right now is on giving all of this away for free.”

You told me you don’t see Rakka as the basis for a feature. But you think Firebase could potentially spin off into one?

Until we figure out exactly how we can come up with a viable model to continue Oats Studios, it’s difficult to get into the specifics about which film will become a feature or a TV show, or even more shorts. The focus right now is on giving all of this away for free. It's really difficult to figure out a model where we can extract enough money directly from the audience to keep this going. But if we can do that, then we look at which ones really work as features or shows, or even which ones shouldn’t be continued. I guess that could be part of it as well: turn something into a feature and use that cash to stay around.

I do think if you step back and look at the whole concept of simulation hypothesis that Hines lives in in Firebase, it does feel like you can make a really interesting feature out of that. So this could be a feature, but I feel like I'm getting ahead of myself by thinking that.

What do you have coming up next?

One of the [projects] I like is this small kind of Cooking with Bill-length, recurring show. It’s all CG, like a video game, cinematic-level render. It’s these two guys that test weapons for a weapons company. It’s very games-centric, and has a very macabre sense of humor. That’s called Capture.

I’m guessing people are going to get dismembered in it?

Umm. In a sense, yeah.

Then you have another, longer short coming out?

Yeah, there’s another with Dakota Fanning called Zygote. That piece is pretty awesome, and the creature in it is really cool.