‘War of the worlds’ in Soweto
Woman screenwriter keeps it real with baby alien
ALTHOUGH the much talkedabout District 9 is dominated by men, it is the feminine touch and motherly instinct of Canadian screenwriter Terri Tatchell that resulted in the creation of the baby alien that is stealing human hearts all over the world.
“I fought, and I fought, to keep little CJ in the film, because being a mother, it was my best way to humanise the aliens,” says Tatchell, who co-wrote the screenplay with South African-born director Neill Blomkamp.
In District 9, it’s “War of the Worlds” in Soweto when a spaceship settles over the township and changes the future of South Africa in Blomkamp’s mind-blowing and explosive sci-fi thriller, produced by Peter Jackson.
The tension between the aliens and the humans comes to a head when an MNU field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), contracts a mysterious virus that begins changing his DNA. Wikus quickly becomes the most hunted man in the world, as well as the most valuable – he is the key to unlocking the secrets of alien technology.
Ostracised and friendless, there is only one place left for him to hide: District 9.
The genesis of District 9 lies in a short, low-budget mockumentary called Alive in Jo’burg that Blomkamp shot in a Joburg shantytown a few years ago. In the short film, Blomkamp introduces intergalactic aliens to the cultural mix of Joburg, one of Africa’s most dynamic cities.
Working with the thematic and visual ingredients of the short film as a springboard, Blomkamp and Tatchell fleshed out the character of Wikus, and introduced two central alien characters, Christopher Johnson and his son, Little C J.
The writers gave the aliens human names, imagining the re-naming humans would do when admitting the aliens to our planet.
It was important to the writers that all of the characters, even and especially the aliens, were believable, recognisable – well, human. Drawing on people they knew or were familiar with, the writers created a cast of characters who are an amalgamation of many people.
For Tatchell it was important during the writing process to be able to relate to the aliens, and she came up with the idea of little C J.
Although she was confident about her creation, Blomkamp was not that convinced.
“Even after the first screenings, Neill still said that he did not know about that little alien,” laughs Tatchell.
“Just last week I heard him say in an interview that he loved the little alien. It took me two-and-a-half years, but I finally got him on board.”
When Tatchell completed writing the screenplay and returned to Vancouver, the WETA design team gave her a pencil sketch of the conceptual art of C J.
“I have had him for the last year and a half behind glass in my living room. I smile every time I look at him,” she says.
For Tatchell, District 9 marks her first produced screenplay. She has cowritten much of Blomkamp’s past work.
“We had a good time with it,” she says. “It took us a year to write the script, and probably the most fun for me was actually being on set and seeing these things made up in our imaginations to come to life. That to me was probably the best element. My first day walking on set.”
As Blomkamp’s writing partner, Tatchell was fortunate to be involved in every step of the production process, and to be given notes and feedback.
“I almost feel cheated in a way, because I wish that I could just have not seen anything and then seen the finished film, like all the actors are seeing. But, in a different respect, for a learning experience to be involved every step of the way and see what works, what doesn’t, and be involved in the solution of fixing things is incredible. Ten years of film school couldn’t have given me that.”
For Tatchell, it is vital for a writer and the director to see eye to eye and have a good working relationship.
“Shockingly, we really did agree with each other most of the time,” she says.
“There were very, very few things we did not agree on. The way we wrote, is that we spent about a month in story meetings, just talking about the world and the story, but when it actually came down to writing the script, we’d pass things back and forth, so he would have it for maybe four days, then I’d have it for four days, and the only time we really ran into arguments, and our big point of contention – and he’d only come to my side last week – was little C J.”
In writing a story that is set in South Africa, Tatchell was fortunate to have been able to work with Blomkamp.
“Neill is obviously obsessed with South Africa, having grown up here, so I’ve had countless, countless conversations with his take on it,” says Tatchell.
“I feel so fortunate to have been involved in this film, and it’s like the world that I was given is just amazing, and, yes, it’s science-fiction, but no it’s Joburg; to have that as a jumping-off point is the greatest gift any writer could hope for.”
STRANGE ENCOUNTERS: Investigator Wikus van der Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley, confronts an alien in the science fiction thriller The movie, produced by South African Neill Blomkamp, introduces intergalactic aliens to the cultural mix of Soweto.