Sometimes shooting on location allows you to experience the majestic landscapes of New Zealand or the old-world charm of a European capital. Other times, it means you're standing next to an enormous mountain of garbage, throat burning and eyes watering as a helicopter's blades spray dried fecal matter over every exposed inch of your body. Elysium was the latter case.
The socially conscious sci-fi action yarn takes place in 2159, when the world has been divided into two classes: The rich elite live aboard the titular high-tech orbital space station, and everyone else suffers down below on a withering Earth. To depict our planet's unpromising future, writer-director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) took a trip to the outskirts of Mexico City to film at one of the world's largest garbage dumps.''The first day we drove in there, the smell came into the car and I was questioning if this was even possible,'' says Blomkamp. ''I was like, 'What have I done?'''
While the crew wore face masks and respirators, the actors didn't have that luxury. ''From a hygienic standpoint, it was a DEFCON 1 couple of weeks,'' says Matt Damon, laughing. ''Neill did get a little bit of enjoyment pointing out it wasn't dirt we were covered in, but fecal matter. We'd say, 'Man, I'm dirty,' and he would be like, 'Well, not technically.''' Although the experience wasn't pleasant, Damon says he was happy to hold his nose for Blomkamp's vision. The actor plays Max, a resident of Earth who gets irradiated at his factory job and must break into Elysium to cure himself using the station's advanced medical technology. His plan involves abducting an Elysian resident (William Fichtner) and making a brain-to-brain transfer. ''It becomes this act of desperation for him just to get to Elysium,'' says Damon. ''And he'll basically do anything.''
Partly filmed in the world’s second-largest garbage dump in Mexico City, the film saw Matt and his co-stars Diego Luna and Sharlto Copley contend with a particularly foul biological hazard. Matt explained they had to "literally eat sh*t".
"It was explained to us that, like any dump anywhere in the world, the dust is actually comprised largely of faecal matter,” Matt told Australia's News Limited newspaper group. "So, at the end of every day, as we’d wipe this stuff off, we’d be basically throwing these sh*tty towels at each other.”
Directed by Oscar-nominated District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, the film had several unglamorous sets in the garbage dump. Matt recalls one being a waterway - of sorts.
"One of them was called Poo River," said Matt. "Literally, that was, ‘OK, can we get everybody down to Poo River for scene 36?’”
Matt said it made for the toughest two weeks of shooting he's ever had. However, the end result was worth it.
"Everybody on the crew recognised that it was a really good idea and it was going to be worth it. It’s really one of the best sequences in the movie and I’m really proud of it," he gushed.
Max's efforts put him on the wrong side of the Elysium Corporate Authority (headed by Jodie Foster), which dispatches a nasty problem-fixer named Kruger, played with psychotic glee by District 9 star Sharlto Copley. ''He's definitely off his rocker,'' says Blomkamp of the character. ''Every time he comes on screen, there's a smile on my face.''Kruger carries a number of deadly gadgets, including a samurai-style sword, and he's so intense and off-putting that the actor needed to rein in his typical process of improvisation. ''I had a five-second rule for Kruger,'' says Copley. ''I couldn't be in character for more than five seconds off camera so I wouldn't mess up the vibe on set. He's not a nice guy.''
Science fiction has always been a strong avenue for social commentary — the first great sci-fi film, 1927's silent Metropolis, was set in a future strikingly similar to Elysium's — and Blomkamp's film plucks a number of political strings: immigration, health care, wealth disparity, pollution. ''For me, my films always seem to begin with something that's more of a conceptual thought,'' says Blomkamp. ''I was like, 'It would be really interesting to make a film on the science-fiction level about the haves and the have-nots.' Then I started messing around with the idea, and it started to just write itself.'' But he also hopes Elysium will give your heartbeat a workout along with your brain. ''All that social stuff is somewhere in there,'' says Damon, ''but none of it is heavy-handed. It's ultimately an entertaining, fun, big summer movie.''
Blomkamp, who made the F/X-driven District 9 for only $30 million, says Elysium similarly punches above its weight despite a heftier cost of nearly $100 million. ''Elysium tries to achieve the same ratio of budget to quality that District 9 did,'' he says. Another thing the films have in common: D9 was also filmed at a garbage dump. ''That's definitely a repeating theme with Neill,'' says Copley. ''I always know when I work with him that I'm going to experience some new and interesting smells.''
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I got to hand it to them to have the guts to film in a place like that, I know I would never be able to