Interview | Neill Blomkamp, ‘Zygote’ and the Future of Oats Studios
In the early 2000s, writer/director Neill Blomkamp was making ambitious science-fiction short films which would one day be turned into feature film. Now, over a decade later, with three big budget studio films under his belt and an Oscar nomination for writing a sci-fi action movie (a very rare feat), he’s doing it all over again.
Neill Blomkamp has founded Oats Studios, an ambitious new company which produces sci-fi/horror short films – for free – with the intention of turning the most popular installments into features. The output of Oats Studios looks at a glance like films made by mad scientists, and we like them that way.
Neill Blomkamp has directed the most expensive Oats Studios shorts so far. There is Rakka, a gritty war film set in a future where Earth has been invaded by lizard-like aliens, and Firebase, a high-concept Vietnam War film set in a virtual reality where the rules are sometimes broken. And today Oats Studios releases Blomkamp’s third short film, Zygote, which stars Dakota Fanning as a young woman in a futuristic mining operation, who is told that she was only born to die for her superiors, and suddenly has to fight for her own life against a monster comprised of a freakish number of spare body parts.
Oats Studios is an interesting experiment, founded by an interesting filmmaker. So I got Neill Blomkamp on the phone yesterday to talk about his mission statement, how Oats Studios intends to sustain itself, how YOU can help decide which shorts get made into feature films, and what makes Zygote so danged weird.
Watch the short below, and read the interview after. Some SPOILERS lie ahead.
Crave: I am so excited by the all possibilities involved in Oats Studios. It feels like the short film, although it isn’t going anywhere, isn’t getting enough attention. This project, this studio you’ve created, at least it has opportunity to change that. Is that part of the mission statement?
Neill Blomkamp: I think the mission statement is really for us to try to be as free and creative open to making whatever we want to make. So the byproduct of that is, we can make more pieces if they are shorter, and show the audience more worlds, or avenues that we can go down. Instead of one piece that’s 80 minutes long, we make four that are 20 minutes long. It’s sort of like the shorter film allocation is a byproduct of financial limitation. I wish that I had a two-hour film for each of these, but we don’t have the [finances].
So yeah, it’s a hard one to answer. If you look at things like God, the God short we did, or the weird, totally insane cooking show stuff, those are meant to be the length that they are. It’s hard to expand those out further. And those are designed to be shorter in nature. But the bigger ones are meant to eventually evolve into longer formats.
I normally wouldn’t ask such a technical, behind the scenes question, but these shorts… you say it’s cheaper to do them this way but they look really expensive. How expensive is a typical short, at least on the scale that you are making them at Oats?
Any of the 20-minute ones are several million dollars, so they’re not cheap. They’re probably cheaper and more efficient than how you would normally do them, in any normal production sense, but they are still expensive.
So is the business model, from that perspective, since you’re spending millions of dollars on these shorts, to turn them into features? Or is there another endgame? Could these be released as an anthology?
We never really thought that the shorts themselves would generate revenue in any way. It was always more a case of… First of all, when we first got into it, it was like, okay, would people buy this kind of material, where the beginning and the middle and the end, a three-act film structure isn’t really present as much? Will they feel ripped off? Can you even sell something like this? And we felt like a smarter move would just be to release everything for free, so the audience knew what to expect, and then if we want to attempt to charge for Volume 2 we could because you could make the argument that the audience knew what they were getting involved in, because Volume 1 was out for free.
But the more we thought about that the more that also didn’t make sense, and I think, personally, to me, the best model of the whole thing would be to continuously release volumes online, for free, for as long as we can. Hopefully just forever. And you pick your favorite pieces, the pieces that the audience is really responding to. So in a sense that’s where the [is] audience kind of picking.
But if you release five pieces and two are standout hits, then we inside the company could pick our favorite of those two and make a traditional film out of that, and the proceeds of that film would then finance Volume 2 and Volume 3. And you could do the same thing again with Volume 2 and Volume 3. Put those out for free, see which ones work, and then make a traditional, sellable piece out of whatever your favorite piece is.
So for me, from my perspective, that gives me the ability to always be in this creative environment of constantly coming up with ideas and executing them, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work, and then getting ready to scale up to a feature film for something that I feel really invested in, and something that I know the audience is behind. That has become what I think we’re going to do.
How do you know that the audience is behind it? Are you only looking at the number of views it’s getting on YouTube? Is it comments, social media engagements? If people have a favorite, how can they help?
Yeah, so that’s a really interesting question. I don’t think that we exactly know the answer to that because it is difficult to actually get to the bottom of all the incoming data. But you know, I think if you take every possible thing that you can find online – whether it’s comments, whether it’s view counts, whether it’s how our DLC downloads on Steam are going – [if] you just take all of the data and comb through it, you can come to an analytical end result that like, this one seems to be the best performing, and the audience seems to be responding to this the most. But you’re right though, it’s not easy.
So you’re coming up with new ideas, and you’ve already released some. You’ve already released Rakka and Firebase and now Zygote. How many of those were ideas you had before Oats Studios, and which of them were ideas you came up with “because” of Oats Studios?
Well, Rakka was older than the studio, but only 50% of it. Because Tom Sweterlisch, who wrote Rakka with me, brought a whole bunch of elements that I’d never thought of, and kind of merged them with this “alien invasion as a war film” idea. So that one is sort of a mixture, before and after. And I don’t know when Tom came up with those ideas. It could have been before Oats was formed.
Firebase was sort of a mixture of that, in sentiment. The idea of living in a virtual simulation, and having a character that had control over physics and thermodynamics, that idea was older than Oats but the Vietnam War setting and some of the stuff that Tom introduced – like the idea of Brackin being pulled into an alternate history of the United States – that was since Oats has been created.
And Zygote was entirely since Oats was created. Like, about a year-and-a-half ago, I think, I came up with the idea of these creature that was made up of stitched together body parts, and the building was… we were up and running at that point. So that was has been since we’ve been here.
I was going to ask, actually: Zygote does have a very cool-looking monster, and I was curious if the story emerged from the monster or vice-versa. I guess the monster came first. How did you build a narrative on top of this visual concept?
Well, usually what happens, at least for me, is the ideas are from a few different places and then they start to coalesce into something. So I had the idea for Barkley, who Dakota [Fanning] plays, as this synthetic human that’s been lied to, who is actually a human, and has acted like… she’s been treated as slave labor her entire life. I have that character in the setting of a mine, and then separate from it, this flight that I was on between Vancouver and Toronto, where I came up with the notion of this weird monster. And then those two independent ideas kind of merged into one idea. So I guess, to some degree, the monster did create some of the story but not all of the elements.
It’s interesting when you combine those two elements, because if she is an exploited worker, and the monster in the movie literally all the workers combined to strike back against the company, it kind of turns the creature into a metaphor for unions, doesn’t it?
[Laughs.] I haven’t heard anybody say that before. That’s pretty cool, though. Yeah, I like that. That’s kind of a deep, analytical point of view on the film, but I do like that. For me it was much based on trying to create something that was disgusting and terrifying, and had some sort of primal, Freudian gross-out factor to it, and I thought the idea of stitched together limbs did that.
On a deeper psychological level, I would say the fact that she is told that she’s a synthetic human, that there’s a heavy emphasis put on non-biological humans being treated worse, and the monster rejecting synthetic humans and opting only for biological humans that it cuts up and continues to absorb… that there’s some deeper psychological thing going on there about what it means to be human, and whether your body is the thing that makes you human. But no, the whole “union” approach is hilarious. I’ve not heard that before. I like that.
The idea of body horror, and the idea of your body being your own, it’s interesting because the film shifts once you find out Dakota Fanning’s character was born as a human. Because as it starts she’s a character who has to overcome her social station, in order to even fight for her own existence, and then she becomes someone who should never have become part of that station to in the first place.
Is that the sort of thing you’d want to play with more in an extended, feature-length version of Zygote?
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Dakota’s character is kind of the lynchpin that I would build the framework of a feature film around, and I was completely aware of that when I wrote it with Terri [Tatchell] and Tom, and I was aware of it when I filmed it with Dakota. I mean, it’s just really interesting. I love the idea that she’s in her early twenties and she’s been lied to since she was literally a toddler.
So going back within the story, and getting to the point that this short film takes place, or going forward in the story from the end of this film, and we start the next one, both are really interesting to me, and kind of identify exactly what Oats is meant to do. Which is to show a very clear world of a particular science-fiction/horror setting. The result of the end of the film being made, for me, is that I enjoyed it. I like the result of it. I would kind of like to play with it more, and now I’m going to see if the audience feels the same way.
What’s interesting to me about Zygote, compared to Rakka and Firebase, is that Rakka and Firebase feel like condensed, larger narratives and Zygote feels like you had the full script for it and plucked out a chunk around the second and third act.
Yeah. That’s exactly correct, and it’s a complete conscious choice to do that. The conundrum that Oats poses is, if you have 20 minutes to show the audience a particular world that you feel like you want to make other films in, and you want to see if the audience feels the same way that you do, how do you display that world? What is the most effective way to bring an audience into the place that you want to take them, and let them live and breathe that place?
Option one is you can show something grander and bigger than any individual story, and almost go down this road that feels like documentary in some sense, where you’re kind of like, “This is rules of the world, this is what it’s like.” You’ll get hammered for too much exposition if you do that, but that’s life in the big city.
The second option is to give them a much smaller story that feels exactly like you just snipped 20 pages out of a larger screenplay, and let the choices that the characters are making inform the audience. At least give them a glimpse into something beyond what they are being shown. And both approaches are equally interesting.
Firebase is somewhere between the two. Rakka is extremely one direction, Zygote is extremely linear, and Firebase straddles the fence. It’s kind of neither of them. And that’s exactly what Oats should be. Which is the most interesting way? So yeah, it is 20 pages cut out of a bigger story and it’s a killer short.
It’s been interesting watching your career because you’ve been attached to other properties, existing franchises, a couple of times. But you keep coming back to making your own material and telling your own stories.
I’m curious what the experience of developing films like Halo and your Alien sequel has taught you, and how that informs your work at Oats?
Well, I mean Halo was a godsend because it introduced me to Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, and they pretty much allowed me to have a career, essentially, because they made District 9 happen. So I am very thankful for Halo just because of the way it all turned out. But I think that if I had to summarize why I keep coming back to my own stuff… like, I didn’t choose to leave Halo, and I didn’t choose to leave Alien. That’s just how things played out. And the more times that that happens, I suppose it reinforces more that you should just really put yourself in the driver’s seat, and just do things where nobody can take the project away from you. That doesn’t mean that I don’t really respond to a lot of existing ideas and franchises and IP’s that are out there. I love a lot of the stuff that’s out there. I’m just nervous about getting close to it because it hasn’t played out correctly for me.
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Top Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Sony Pictures / Oats Studios
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.