In an otherwise unremarkable shot in the captivating new science-fiction film “Elysium,” the camera follows Max (Matt Damon) as he walks purposefully away. Meanwhile, in the far background of the frame, a spaceship lands, notably out of focus.
“The spaceship is blurry because the spaceship is like a helicopter in 2154. Who cares? They’re everywhere,” says Matt Damon, admiring the counterintuitive decision-making of “Elysium’’’s director, Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”). “What sells that world is everybody’s nonchalance about it. If you feature the spaceships and put it in slow motion,” Damon says, doing a creditable landing-spaceship sound effect, “one of those things to show how great your VFX works, you’re just completely undercutting your storytelling.”
A great film is marked by its sense of life teeming just beyond the edge of the frame, of a fully imagined world of which we are only glimpsing a small fraction. Blomkamp’s much-anticipated follow-up to 2010 best picture Oscar nominee “District 9” is set in an overstuffed, airless, crumbling Los Angeles from which all the better-off inhabitants have fled, to the artificial planet of Elysium. Max, a former car thief turned factory worker, is accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of radiation by his venal bosses, and given only a handful of days to live. He must make his way to Elysium, where miracle healing machines are accessible to every citizen. Meanwhile, after Max steals a valuable computer program from his former CEO, the Elysian defense minister (a steely Jodie Foster) sics bearded South African mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) on his tail.
Damon, 42, has now been a major star for more than a decade and a half, working with first-tier directors like Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, Paul Greengrass, and Terry Gilliam. Each new collaboration is an opportunity to study what ingredients make for a great film, with Blomkamp the latest instructor. “I had a long conversation with Neill about [how] a great movie cannot be made by accident,” said Damon. “It just can’t, because there are too many decisions over too great a period of time that the director has to make. And if you can’t do it, you will be found out. So when you see somebody make a great movie, they’re basically, ipso facto, a great director.”
On paper, Max is more the kind of role that his former screenwriting partner Ben Affleck might have taken in his action-hero salad days. But Damon, like Brad Pitt with “World War Z,” is shrewdly embracing the pulp-fiction warrior aesthetic on his own terms. Damon chose to take the starring role in “Elysium” because he considered Blomkamp a filmmaker worthy of keeping company with those other top directors on his resume.
“The more movies I made, the more I became convinced that it’s just 100 percent who’s directing the movie,” Damon says of selecting new projects. “With Paul Greengrass on the last Bourne movie [2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum”], we had nothing, just locations, and it worked out. It wasn’t fun, but it worked out. And it worked out only because he’s a great director. Whereas you can take a great piece of material and make it pretty mediocre with a not-so-great director.”
In his initial meeting with Blomkamp, Damon was deeply impressed by a notebook the director showed him, with drawings of the fully imagined world of dilapidated 2154 Los Angeles, and the pristine suburban sprawl of Elysium. “It’s not a Blomkamp film if there’s not a slum somewhere,” Copley, who starred in “District 9,” said in an e-mail message. “He had a separate book for weapons, and vehicles, and all these things that are in the deep background of shots,” said Damon. “You could ask him questions about Elysium and he would talk to you about it as if he had been there. It reminded me of talking to James Cameron before he did ‘Avatar.’ He had invented a world, and if you talked to him, you almost believed that the world existed.”
For Damon, a film is a trust fall, leaning into the void in the hopes that a talented filmmaker will catch you. “Elysium”’s physically demanding role, with much battering and bruising and hobbling for its protagonist, and little dialogue, reminded Damon of his three films as Jason Bourne. “I remember Tony Gilroy saying, on the second one [2004’s ‘The Bourne Supremacy’], when he made the decision to kill Franka [Potente]’s character in the first act of the second movie, he called me up and said, ‘I just want to be clear. You don’t have anyone to talk to anymore!’ ” Damon remembers with a chuckle. “He called it the samurai version of the movie.”
Just as a director runs the risk of revealing his or her weaknesses in making a film, an actor faces the same fear of exposure. The process of acting, which Damon describes as akin to a “giant magic trick,” is a matter of drawing on one’s own experiences to fight off the creeping of faulty notes into a performance. “So it’s troubleshooting beforehand: What are the potential ways we can be found out here?” says Damon. “For Michael Douglas and I on the Liberace movie [‘Behind the Candelabra,’ directed by Soderbergh], it’s, OK, how do people intimate with each other, long-term couples, how are they in a room together? If it was me and [wife] Lucy [Barroso], what would we be doing? All those tiny little things, they add up into what a performance is.”
Blomkamp believes in sneaking weighty themes — about immigration, about health-care inequality, about US foreign policy — into a science-fiction framework, a formula that appealed to Damon. “As Neill said to me in that first meeting, ‘if I made ‘District 9’ about Zimbabwean refugees in Joburg, three people would have seen the movie.’ Whereas if you make it about aliens and treat them like they’re real, and you totally sell that world as totally real, you can say a lot more and the movie’s far more entertaining.” For Copley, the South African undercurrents to “Elysium” were appealing, if also cause for momentary concern. “Neill and I joke that we have just undone all the good PR work we did for white South Africans with ‘District 9,’ where a white South African wasn’t the villain smuggling diamonds or what have you.”
Rather than adding to his list of famous directorial scalps, Damon would prefer to work again with some of the filmmakers who generously taught him when he was first starting out, like Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. “While he was shooting ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ he would stop and answer any question that I asked him, which was really nice of him,” Damon says about Spielberg. “I just remember thinking I don’t know enough to be here with him yet. I have to try to absorb all of this, because I’ll learn lessons later.”
The film set and editing room is a laboratory, and Damon believes that directors are no longer given experimental opportunities necessary for mastery of the form. “A lot of these movies nowadays are getting made, for these $250 million budgets, with first-time directors, because the studio wants to be able to control the director,” said Damon. “But they’re just doing themselves a disservice.” Both Copley and Damon praised Blomkamp for encouraging a spirit of collaboration on set, allowing them some wiggle room to experiment with dialogue and bits of business, like Damon’s putting on a robotic voice in speaking to a particularly dull robot parole officer. “Once you’ve filmed something, you don’t have to film it again,” says Damon. “Don’t do it the same way. Try something else.”
Damon has been on a “ ’70s jag” recently, rewatching Coppola’s “Godfather” films and Alan J. Pakula’s “Klute” and “All the President’s Men.” “That quality of film that those guys were making, that’s why I make movies. That’s the best of what this can be,” says Damon. “My bigger fear about Hollywood, and the direction it’s taking, is those movies aren’t getting made now, and it’s hard for them to get made.”
Referencing Soderbergh, who has “done nothing but be in one stage of production or another for 25 years,” Damon worries that Hollywood is failing to nurture the next Soderbergh: “I wonder about the next generation of filmmaker. What are they going to cut their teeth on?”
‘A great movie cannot be made by accident. . . . There are too many decisions over too great a period of time that the director has to make. And if you can’t do it, you will be found out.’
The midlevel, midbudget film for adults is being stomped to extinction by superhero movies and thrill-a-minute blockbusters. “With fewer people going to the movies, I don’t know where it’s headed. The huge IMAX things are the ones that are packing them in, so . . .” Damon’s voice trails off. Even the blockbusters seem to be failing more often now, with more summer films like “The Lone Ranger” than “Man of Steel.” “Those are huge write-downs. So maybe that’ll spin it back in our favor,” Damon says, laughing. “I don’t know. One can hope.”Saul Austerlitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.