Interview with Matt Damon
Directed by Neill Blomkamp who brought us the over-the-top-but-still-very-awesome ‘District 9’ (about aliens taking over Johannesburg in South Africa), ‘Elysium’ is a sci-fi film in which a dystopic future (set in the year 2159) sees Earth running rife with poverty and crime.
The film stars Matt Damon as ‘Max’, the hero who needs to break into space station ‘Elysium’ – in which everything is state-of-the-art and fully equipped with medical supplies, at the expense of those left behind on earth suffering.
Here, Matt chats about making heavy sci-fi flicks, wearing weird suits, working with Jodie Foster, and even his hope of helping impoverished communities in real life…
Do you think a sci-fi film like ‘Elysium’ is a good way to talk about problems of the world?
If you can make a movie that is really entertaining and that a lot of people want to go see, you have a much better chance of exploring those themes. I remember talking to [director] Neill [Blomkamp] about District 9 and he said, “If I had made a movie about Zimbabwe or Johannesburg, nobody would have come to see it. So I made it about aliens.
Was the political aspect of the script part of its appeal?
Neill wasn’t trying to make a political movie with this. It’s just that, thematically, it will resonate with people: the idea of the have’s and have not’s.
What was it like wearing the full-body armor suit and was it uncomfortable?
They actually got it down to 25 pounds and it was distributed really evenly so it wasn’t bad at all. They did all these tests with it, because every joint had to work since I’m running around, jumping and climbing in it, and I had to be able to do everything.
‘Elysium’ has a big international cast but also includes another big Hollywood star, Jodie Foster. What was it like working with her?
Unfortunately, I only have one scene with Jodie and [in it] I’ve got a gag stuffed in my mouth. [laughs]. But that was really exciting because I’m a huge fan of her and I have been for a long time. Neill remarked on her level of professionalism. Normally actors do a take and then they go back to their trailers but she would never leave once she came in – probably because she’s used to directing and not leaving the set. She would just come and be on the set but she wouldn’t impose herself, or help set up shots. Meanwhile, I’m always running around, going, “Where are we going to put the camera?”
What was it like filming in the Mexico City dump?
It was actually a lot of fun. But it was a tough couple of weeks for the crew. It was funny because [Mexican actor] Diego [Luna] showed up with a mask and people looked at him and he goes, “Just because I’m from here doesn’t mean I hang out at the dump!” But it was really worth it for what it gave us visually.
Were you scared of getting sick?
More because we’d have to shut the production down. But people who weren’t on camera were wearing masks because breathing enough of that stuff, you could pick something up and get a little sick.
There’s an impoverished community living in that dump. Did seeing them affect you emotionally?
That part was really tough – to see kids born into that. I do a lot of work with water.org and travel around a lot and any time you see somebody who’s living in true abject poverty – which is the bottom billionth of us living on planet earth – it’s a life that we can’t even begin to understand.
Do you think there is a way out for those people?
I always have hope that somehow technology is going to level everything. I was at an event last year and Bill Gates spoke. He said, “Two hundred years ago, the best standard of living was in Sweden, and the king of Sweden presumably had the greatest life.” But the richest man in Sweden’s life expectancy would be less than the lowest person’s today. So he goes, “We are moving in the right direction. It does feel glacially to most of us, but we are trending in the right way. Things are getting better.”
Overall, is there a big difference shooting a movie in a foreign country vs. in the U.S.?
What’s the same everywhere is the love of film. That is the great equaliser. I’ve shot movies with crews speaking all different languages and guys will be working on camera teams together who don’t even speak the same language but they know everything about the camera so they have this other, common language. That’s why working all over the world is so easy: people know film.
At the outset, what appealed to you about this project?
The first thing, really, was Neill Blomkamp. I’d seen ‘District 9’ and I was such a big fan of it that he instantly went right to the top of the list of directors that I wanted to work with. Then, sure enough, this project came along and so I sat down with him and we started to talk about it. Then he pulled out this graphic novel that he’d made on his computer that was just this homemade bunch of images and I started to look through them and it was incredible. These were things I’d never seen in a movie before – this whole concept of ‘Elysium’ and this Torus that’s sitting up in space and what it looked like and the exoskeleton that my character wore and all the vehicles and the weapons and all this stuff that he’d done. And the level of detail was staggering. So I’m just kind of looking through this with my jaw on the ground. It was a very easy decision for me. I knew I wanted to do the movie right away.
What kind of preparation did you do to play Max, both physically and mentally?
In [the] graphic novel, there were a lot of pictures of Max and I basically just tried to match myself to these pictures because Neill was so specific about what he wanted him to look like – this shaved-head, muscular, tattooed guy. It was also a look I’d never done in a movie before. So I literally got a trainer and went to him with the picture and was like, “I have to look like that.” So it was just hours and hours in the gym and dieting and all that stuff to try to build this character, at least physically. On the internal side, a lot of it was just on the page the way Neill had written it and it was very clear. The character of Max becomes very desperate, very quickly, based on what happens to him in the first act of the movie so it kind of had that urgency that I probably compare mostly to the ‘Bourne’ series that I did. This character has a great need to accomplish the mission that he’s on.
You have a number of big fights scenes in the film. Which was the most challenging to shoot and why?
They were all challenging for different reasons but I think the most challenging was the sequence in the garbage dump in Mexico City just because it was a really rough location. [Laughs] It was not a pleasant place to be. And yet the photography that we were collecting there was so good and so unlike anything. Neill said to me, “Look, have you ever seen a futuristic movie with a giant action sequence in a third world garbage dump?” and I was like, “Well, you have a point. I think we should probably go do this.” I think it helped that it was late in the schedule because we’d all been talking about it for a long time but, thematically, we understood that, if you’re making a movie about this class divide, it’s a pretty good idea to do an action set piece with a Bugatti Veyron spaceship crashing in a third world dump. That is the perfect visual expression of that theme.
This film explores the theme of the gap between the haves and the have-nots. How does this theme resonate with you and how do you think it will resonate with audiences around the world?
I think that’s something that’s on peoples’ minds right now, in general, after this really long economic slump – this kind of worldwide slump. I think people will be able to relate to Max, who’s a character who’s a good guy and he’s doing his best and he’s got his head down just trying to get by in a world that’s becoming increasingly more difficult to get by in. So I think that, on that thematic level, people will relate to the character. On a personal level, I’m glad that the movie explores things that feel relevant to the world that we’re living in because, if it doesn’t, I don’t think there’s any point to really making the movie because you need the audience to relate to the characters. You need them to relate the world that you’re creating to the world that they live in or else it’s just going to be a forgettable movie.
‘Elysium’ is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and UltraViolet through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
To view the trailer, click on the cover art below.