South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp would be the first to tell you: filming his third feature, the $50 million sci-fi thriller Chappie, over eight months in his hometown of Johannesburg was no walk in the park. “Chappie was a very difficult shoot; it was difficult going for me,” Blomkamp says, adding for emphasis: “I feel partially done with South Africa.”
Strong words from a guy who singularly channeled the country’s simmering racial tensions, random street violence and yawning class divide into his 2009 best picture Oscar nominated breakthrough District 9, which was shot run-and-gun style in South Africa’s impoverished townships during a period of violent civil unrest.
Chappie (which hits theaters Friday) is a Pinocchio-esque coming-of-age story about a police robot reprogrammed with experimental Artificial Intelligence to think and feel for himself. The impressionable young bot gets kidnapped by a criminal gang (portrayed by the South African rave-rap duo Die Antwoord), however, and reluctantly compelled to commit a string of brazen heists en route to a moment of personal, nature-versus-nurture reckoning.
And it was the unique challenges of shooting scenes at the gang’s hideout inside a cavernous former power plant that seems to have soured the director on his homeland. Specifically: the location’s post-industrial squalor threatened to cave in on itself and the place ended up collapsing on a group of looters just days after Chappie’s production had wrapped.
“District 9 was shot in a difficult physical location. But Die Antwoord’s lair: my heart would literally sink when I would have to go to that building,” says Blomkamp.
“It’s about 400 or 500 meters on one axis and has been deactivated for 20 years. Because it’s in Soweto, which is relatively impoverished, it means that guys have been acetylene torching metal out of the structure for 20 years.”
“We had structural engineers come in and tell us where we were not allowed to shoot because so much metal had been removed. So you had these huge swaths of it we weren’t allowed to go into. You had about an inch of metal particulate that was probably from grinders, from acetylene torches. In the sunlight, you’d see glistening particles of steel. When you’re in the structure looking up, you can see the I-beam bowing because all of the support beams have been cut. So there were a couple of times we were in the areas structural engineers said we could go into, I would call someone over and be like, ‘That doesn’t look safe.’ I wondered if I was over-reacting.”
“We put up a perimeter fence when we put it up as a location because we wanted to stop guys from stealing more metal that would potentially bring the building down,” he continues. “One of our guards actually got stabbed in the face—that’s how aggressively people wanted the metal! We were cutting them out of their income.”
“So we finish shooting, pull our fence and leave the country. We get back to Canada. And within two weeks, on the news in South Africa, it’s ‘Building implodes, kills four.’ This is something the size and volume of the Pentagon falling in. It killed four of the acetylene-torching guys and trapped 13.”
“Photographically, it is awesome. But shooting in there was revolting,” Blomkamp says. “It was a vile place.”