As a former VFX artist, director Neill Blomkamp appreciates the finer things that video games have to offer. “Games often are the leading edge of three-dimensional synthetic environments that you can drop into,” he explains. “So often, I’ll play games for a few hours. I don’t give a shit about completing the game. I care about just experiencing what the artists have made. I’ve been doing that for years. I don’t play games competitively. I just appreciate the art.”
Blomkamp has what he calls “a kind of weird relationship” with video games. For the past two years, the director of acclaimed sci-fi movies District 9, Elysium and Chappie has been working on the video game Off the Grid for Gunzilla Games. A Battle Royale-style adventure, Blomkamp is the “lead creative” on the game – an exciting prospect, given that it’s set in a dystopian cyberpunk future.
Despite all this, it wasn’t his interest in games that brought him to his new movie, Gran Turismo – based on the hit console title that was first launched in 1997 and has grown in popularity ever since. “When I read the script, my initial instinct was absolutely no way that you can make a film about Gran Turismo… it’s like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” laughs Blomkamp. “It’s a racing simulator.” True enough; in the game, players modify their cars and compete with others to conquer the world’s greatest racing circuits.
Blomkamp, however, was surprised when he read the script: the story centres around Jann Mardenborough, a lad from Cardiff, Wales. A Gran Turismo obsessive, he was invited to join the GT Academy, a gimmick set up by Nissan employee Darren Cox. The idea was simple: find the best players of Gran Turismo and see if they could bring their skills to a real racetrack. “I thought [it] was amazing,” admits Blomkamp, who couldn’t quite believe that Mardenborough’s journey from gamer to racer was entirely true.
What’s more, the screenplay offered a unique way to bring a popular video game to the big screen. “You’re not inside the world of the game,” Blomkamp explains, “you’re in the narrative.” The way Blomkamp saw it, Gran Turismo – the movie – was closer to films like baseball-themed Moneyball and Facebook tale The Social Network than a video game adaptation like Super Mario Bros.
In Gran Turismo, Jann (played by Archie Madekwe) is enticed into trying out for the GT Academy (founder Cox here is renamed Danny Moore and played by Orlando Bloom). Soon enough, he’s rivalling other gamers for the chance to compete against professionals. Training him is ex-racing driver-turned-chief engineer Jack Salter (Stranger Things’ David Harbour), who has little time for these video game junkies who have never sat behind the wheel of a real race car before.
Blomkamp points out that many people – usually found on YouTube, showing off their gaming skills to followers – make a living out of playing video games. “Where I think Gran Turismo, the movie, is unique – or the achievement of Jann is really unique – is [that] a virtual simulator has trained him for real life. It’s less that ‘oh, you played video games, and then you ended up making a career out of it’. It’s not that. It’s that your virtual skills were applicable in reality. That’s super interesting.”
Remarkably, when we meet Blomkamp in Cannes in May, where he’s decamped for some advance publicity, he’s been on the film for little over a year. “This entire movie was pedal-to-the metal, full blast, full steam ahead from the second I came on board.” Taking over from original director, Top Gun: Maverick’s Joseph Kosinski, he signed on in May 2022 and by June he was in Budapest in pre-production, “which is incredibly short, for a movie like this”. From casting to location scouting, the film had to get underway at top speed. “Everything was compressed.”
With that in mind, he was delighted by the cast that he assembled. “I feel really, really lucky. Because you can’t always control that. You also can’t control the chemistry and the dynamics between the actors on screen, how they work with one another. And all of it, I felt really, really good about.” The search for an actor to play Jann was an extensive one – Blomkamp suggests they looked at “thousands of kids” – ultimately leading to English-born Archie Madekwe, who previously featured in Ari Aster’s Midsommar.
Orlando Bloom, famed for playing Legolas in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, was always on the cards to play Moore. “We actually have a kind of shared history because of Peter Jackson and New Zealand,” notes Blomkamp (whose District 9 was aided by the Jackson-founded visual/practical effects company Weta). “I even lived in the same house that he lived in! We had this commonality.” So, did he find evidence of Bloom living there? Did he carve his initials in the furniture? “He probably did,” laughs Blomkamp. “I should ask him if he desecrated the house somewhere!”
Alongside David Harbour as the grouchy Salter, Blomkamp was delighted to secure Djimon Honsou and, believe it or not, ex-Spice Girl, Geri Halliwell-Horner, as Jann’s parents, Steve and Lesley. “Djimon was an actor I always wanted to work with. When I was 20 years old, I saw Gladiator. And I’ve been obsessed with him since then,” Blomkamp admits. “And Geri – and the way the family dynamic works – was also a really super pleasant surprise.”
Blomkamp also had the help of Mardenborough himself, who went from advisor to Madekwe’s stunt double. “He was like, ‘Hey, when you guys are actually filming, can I come out?’ Then that turned into, ‘Hey, when you’re filming, do you think I can drive one of the cars just to say that I drove one of the cars?’ And then that turned into, ‘Could I be my own stunt double?’ And so, it ended up being that Jann Mardenborough was the stunt double through the whole movie in his own car when Archie was out of the picture.”
The motoring scenes in Gran Turismo were always going to be the main draw, as Jann works his way through the GT Academy and into real races against pro drivers. “We didn’t do a single fake shot in the movie,” says Blomkamp. “Every single shot of them driving is them driving.” The cars were all fitted with ‘pods’ on the roof, where a stunt driver would sit and control the vehicle, allowing for some insanely visceral footage. “It was pretty grueling and difficult to shoot,” he adds.
All this blood, sweat and tears was worth it; Gran Turismo – the movie – promises to give fans the drive of their life.
Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story is in cinemas on August 10, 2023