‘War of the worlds’ in Soweto

Woman screen­writer keeps it real with baby alien

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODMOVIES -

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.

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