‘Gran Turismo’ Director Neill Blomkamp Conjured Sports Films and a ‘Hopeful’ Tone for His Surprising New Film

Neill Blomkamp is back.

The director, best known for a trio of films that effortlessly blend startling futurism with barbed social commentary, has returned with “Gran Turismo,” his first studio film since 2015’s “Chappie” and his first movie since the pandemic-shot, micro-budgeted “Demonic” in 2021. And it marks a kinder, gentler Blomkamp. All of his filmmaking hallmarks are still there, from elaborately staged action sequences to relatable characters to the kind of camerawork that captures the immediacy of real life, but this time it’s in serve of an elegant – and, crucially, feel-good – sports movie.

Based on a true story about the PlayStation video game franchise, “Gran Turismo” follows Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a young, working-class Englishman who wins a “Gran Turismo” tournament that allows him to become a real-life racecar driver. That’s when he starts to bond with David Harbour’s Jack Salter, his flinty (but still caring) trainer.

And the story of how Blomkamp came to make “Gran Turismo” is just as exciting as anything in the movie.

After the somewhat polarizing response “Chappie,” Blomkamp continued to experiment, establishing Oats Studios and making a series of visually stunning short films that premiered on YouTube and were later collected on Blu-ray. While some of them could be the basis for films going forward, Blomkamp says that they were actually closer to other mediums.

“They were actually quite tied to the video game industry and potentially maybe very tied to the video game industry going forward. They were particularly outside of Hollywood, they’re closer to YouTube or video games than they are to Hollywood,” Blomkamp told TheWrap.

Not that he was entirely done with Hollywood at the time, as he worked on a proposed project in the “Alien” universe (derailed by Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant”) and another that would have served as a direct sequel to “RoboCop” squashed, he said, by Amazon’s acquisition of MGM. “I would love to have made that film. It would be cool to work in the world of ‘RoboCop’ one day,” Blomkamp said.

Blomkamp also made “Demonic,” which he described as “basically a scaled-up Oats short.” The film, which features a perfectly Blomkampian mixture of the supernatural and the technological, “was lower budget than a lot of our shorts that we made.”

After “Demonic,” which Blomkamp said “was lower budget than a lot of our shorts that we made,” the filmmaker wrote a “really, really dystopian science fiction film” that he sold to Columbia. He described the film as “pretty R-rated and pretty excessive,” which would have required a significant star to “offset the cost of the movie.” He and the studio were waiting on that large star to make up their mind and Blomkamp started to get antsy. “I was going to go and do another film. And then Sony said like, ‘Whoa, whoa, before you go, we want to make Gran Turismo into a movie. Do you want to look at this?’” Blomkamp’s response? “There’s no way that you can make a movie out of ‘Gran Turismo.’ It doesn’t make any sense.”

But after Blomkamp read the script by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin, he said he was struck by two things: “I was struck by this notion of treating a video game film like the way that the ‘Social Network’ dealt with Facebook in that you’re not inside the lore of the game, you’re external from it. I thought that was a really interesting way to make a video game film. And then also that it was biographical to Jann Mardenborough, so it had this biopic element, which is a different kind of filmmaking than I had done before.”

Sony Pictures

And instead of driving him away, the more hopeful tone of the movie was another appeal.

“I was really struck by how positive the film felt and how it reminded me of movies that I’d seen as a kid that you’d leave the movie theater feeling inspired or there was an aspirational quality to the film,” Blomkamp said. “I very consciously wanted to be a contributor to that feeling for the 13-year-old or 12-year-old version of me. It never occurred to me until I read the screenplay that I was like, ‘Oh, actually this idea of putting some positive value back into the world.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah. Actually, that sounds very appealing.’ Those were the biggest reasons that I signed on.”

As Blomkamp thought about the project more, there were additional pieces of the “Gran Turismo” world that he got excited about – he loves cars, he loved the idea of a movie without a single supernatural component (a first for him) and capturing our world instead of creating one of his own.

“The challenges around production design would be trying to convince the audience things were things real to the world that they knew, not real to a world that I was coming up with,” Blomkamp said. After initially thinking there was no way he would say yes, “I couldn’t believe how many positive elements there were.”

It is also, we noted, the first Blomkamp movie where someone doesn’t explode into gooey chunks. “I should have just had someone spontaneously combust in the stands,” Blomkamp joked.

Harbour has brought up “Hoosiers” as a major touchpoint for his work in “Gran Turismo,” and the sports movie element was not lost on Blomkamp. “I think about the fact that I directed a sports drama, I’m shocked. It definitely wasn’t on my mind, it wasn’t in my future, it wasn’t on the cards,” Blomkamp said. “It just wasn’t something that I would’ve gone and sought out. By the time I got to the end of the screenplay, I was thinking of ‘Rocky’ and the ‘Karate Kid’ and movies that had this aspirational quality about just sticking to a dream regardless of the hardships, trying to overcome them, but also being inside the realm of some sport. And it just clicked for me. It’s unexpected.”

And the racing sequences are just as visceral as you’d expect from Blomkamp, with a particular emphasis on utilizing first-person drones that would give you the sensation of careening down a dangerous track. He said he was inspired by the use of drones in sports coverage, not Hollywood films (Michael Bay made particularly good use of them in last year’s “Ambulance”). He emulated the three POVs that you would get in the actual video game, including an angle that is locked behind the car.

“Photographically we did everything that we wanted to do,” Blomkamp said. He also added graphics and sound effects from the game. “I was really interested in this idea of the virtual becoming real and the way that a simulation racer, someone like Jann Mardenborough, would have experienced racing until the point he was put in a real car, his reference point would be entirely virtual,” Blomkamp said. “Visually it’s cool, but it makes a ton of thematic sense to pull that from the virtual world into the real world.”

As for what’s next, Blomkamp was in the process of prepping an alien abduction film with Joel Kinnaman (who, once upon a time, played Robocop) called “They Found Us.” He doesn’t know if the movie will still be able to shoot later this year in Australia because of the strike, although it is an independent movie so might receive a waiver. “It’s hopefully just a UFO alien abduction movie, something that quantifies the concept of being abducted by a UFO,” Blomkamp said. When asked if someone would explode in that one, he paused for a moment and said: “S–t, I need to put someone exploding in there. I don’t actually have an exploding human in there. That’s a good point. I’m going to see if I can do that.”

A couple of years ago it was announced that Blomkamp was hard at work on “District 10,” a follow-up to “District 9,” his Best Picture-nominated debut feature, but he said that there’s really no news on that front. “There’s no plan. It’s just film by film, really,” Blomkamp said. And that expensive R-rated movie he was working on at Sony before taking on “Gran Turismo?” He still wants to get back to that too. “I definitely want to make that film. That’s also unknown right now, its status, but I am very, very into that movie,” Blomkamp said. “It makes sense that there would need to be a really big star that would lead that role in order for them to feel like it was something that could work in the theatrical space.”

It’s sort of a miracle, we marveled, that Blomkamp was able to follow up “District 9” with “Elysium,” which saw Matt Damon traveling to an orbiting space station for the ultra-wealthy from an environmentally decimated Earth and “Chappie,” about a tactical police robot who develops a personality. They are big and bold, full of interesting and idiosyncratic ideas, liberally mixing tones and gene-splicing genres. “I totally agree. I love both of those movies. I want to do a sequel to ‘Elysium’ actually, because I think ‘Elysium’ is becoming more and more relevant as time goes on,” Blomkamp said. “I wouldn’t mind doing a sequel to that movie at some point, but it’s not really a sequel. It’s more like another movie in that world.” This new movie would be set on both Earth and the orbiting space station Elysium.

It makes sense that Blomkamp would do something more earthbound like “Gran Turismo” before returning to the stars.

“Gran Turismo” opens exclusively in theaters on Aug. 25.

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