Gran Turismo: we interview director Neill Blomkamp about his F1 racing drama

Neill Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo is unlike most video game movies. It’s actually the true story of Jann Mardenborough (played here by Archie Madekwe), a gifted Gran Turismo player who parlayed his skills into a professional race car driving career. It’s a fascinating tale that’s anchored by Madekwe and co-star David Harbour’s performances, as well as Blomkamp’s immersive style. We actually had a chance recently to sit down with the director and talk about his latest, which is a pretty huge departure from his earlier work like District 9, Elysium or Chappie.

One of the things that I guess I found most refreshing about Gran Turismo is that when you think of a video game movie, you don’t often think of the term based on a true story.

NB: I think that was one of the main things that drew me to it. It was this very unusual way of telling a story using a video game. By making it a dramatic biography that hinges on the usage of the video game in the real world.

One thing I enjoyed about it, as a fan of the game, is you can see the influence of the racing simulator in the film during the races.

NB: I kind of cheated by using some of the Gran Turismo ideas, like putting holograms above cars so you could track where he (Jann) was. Racing is difficult to portray because you don’t always have a firm understanding of where the protagonist is in the pack and where the cars are. And, I could just steal from the game basically and use a lot of the data that they convey to the player, but through a passive film experience instead of an active game.

What was it like working with Jann Mardenborough? It’s his story and it’s kind of a fascinating story as well. And the fact is that he also doubled for Archie, didn’t he?

NB: it was awesome working with him and to tell his story because you know he’s a really great guy and what he’s done is really exceptional. So I got to know him during prep and then during shooting. He was initially gonna be on set as one of our advisors. Not only for the realism in terms of all of the racing stuff, but obviously more for the personal stuff. But, what happened was we started realizing – I don’t remember who had the first idea I think it may have been me- where I was saying like we should get him into a car and just let him drive and be a stunt performer somewhere in the pack. And then the stunt department had to certify him. They immediately loved him and said he was excellent.

And then we were also looking for a stunt double for Archie for the driving scenes. So it was this like obvious next step, which was like, why don’t you just play yourself and drive your own car? So it’s pretty meta, but very cool. 

I also really liked the cast. There were some unconventional, but really cool choices. I mean, there’s David Harbour, of course, but then I also just liked the fact that you had like Geri Haliwell show up as his mom. That was kind of a cool little touch. 

NB: Yeah, no, I totally like that. And I didn’t even know about Christian Horner and her connection to Formula 1 until I spoke to her which was awesome. I’d seen a lot of scenes from Drive to Survive (a Formula One docuseries that features Horner, Halliwell’s race driver husband), but mostly like cherry picked specific racing stuff that I was referencing. So I had no idea that she was actually connected to the Formula 1 Red Bull team. 

And what was it like working with David Harbour? 

He was awesome to work with. He’s definitely unique and he definitely has a different approach. He’s very thoughtful and methodical and he would really think hard about how he was going to portray the character. And we would have a lot of discussions about it. And he had a very clear reference for the character, which was Gene Hackman’s performance in Hoosiers. That kind of influenced a lot of the direction that he wanted to go in with (his character) Jack. So yeah, but he was awesome to work with. I mean, he’s just a very, very professional, super talented actor.

How about Orlando Bloom? I feel like I hadn’t seen him in a big movie in quite a while. It was nice seeing him back in a film like this.

NB: I mean, he’s also like a total gearhead as well. Which is nice. But we has a similar kind of way into Hollywood and into films. Because we both kind of came from the Wellington Peter Jackson school. We actually lived in the same house, you know when I was there for District 9 and when he was there for Lord of the Rings, which is crazy. So we have this like sort of common touchstone which is quite cool.

And how about Archie? Because I mean it’s his first big movie, but he does a pretty good job carrying it I thought

NB: I met so many actors for that role, and the first time I met him on Zoom, I just loved him. And then I met him in person in London and I thought he was just absolutely perfect. And, you know, he’s perfect to play Jann, but outside of Jann, he’s just a very, very good actor, and I think he has a, a bright future ahead of him. 

So, as far as the racing scenes go, I mean, this is notoriously one of the hardest things to film. I remember reading all the horror stories about making Days of Thunder and even something like Stoker Ace or Le Mans. What were the challenges like with that because it must have been, you know, something that would get quite hairy at times, right?

Yeah, I think the main issue really is just the scale of the logistics, you know. It’s just mentally super taxing to kind of try to figure out choreography with 20 cars and moving 20 cars to different racetracks all over Europe. And you know, I think we have 24 or 25 stunt drivers. You have the mechanics that go with the cars and then you’ve got to think hard about camera placement and how you’re going to tell the story. Once you’ve overcome the logistical hurdle, it’s like, okay, how do you actually tell what you want to tell now? And just being super, super precise about what part of the race you want to use, and the camera technology. I was obsessed with using FPV drones. Plus there’s a lot of in cockpit stuff to try to get close with the actors. It’s very difficult to do, but we thought pretty hard about how to do it each day and, you know, hopefully the results work.

You can read our Gran Turismo review here. Stay tuned for more from our exclusive chat with Blomkamp in the coming days, and don’t forget to check out an earlier story we did where he revealed what his unmade Robocop sequel might have been like.

Gran Turismo is in theaters now!

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