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Joe Cornish talks directing and aliens

Attack The Block
11 May 2011

Attack the Block is a fast, funny, frightening action adventure movie that pits a teen gang against an invasion of savage alien monsters. It turns a London housing estate into a sci-fi playground. A tower block into a fortress under siege. And teenage street kids into heroes. It¹s inner city versus outer space.

Trainee nurse Sam is walking home to her flat in a scary South London tower block when she¹s robbed by a gang of masked, hooded youths. She¹s saved when the gang are distracted by a bright meteorite, which falls from the sky and hits a nearby parked car. Sam flees, just before the gang are attacked by a small alien creature that leaps from the wreckage. The gang chase the creature and kill it, dragging its ghoulish carcass to the top of the block, which they treat as their territory.

While Sam and the police hunt for the gang, a second wave of meteors fall.Confident of victory against such feeble invaders, the gang grab weapons, mount bikes and mopeds, and set out to defend their turf. But this time, the creatures are bigger. Much bigger. Savage, shadowy and bestial, they are hunting their fallen comrade and nothing will stand in their way. The estate is about to become a battleground. And the bunch of no-hope kids who just attacked Sam are about to become her, and the block¹s, only hope.

In what is his filmmaking debut, Joe Cornish caught up with the Fan Carpet ahead of the release of South London Sci-Fi Attack the Block.

The film, about an alien invasion on a council estate in South London, comes out on May 11th, and marks only the beginning of a very promising career for the 42-year-old Brit.



Can we start off by asking where the idea came from?

Yes, basically, the idea comes from my love of eighties monster movies like E.T. and Gremlins and Critters and Tremors, all the stuff that I loved when I was growing up in South London and also gang movies that I loved when I was a teenager, like Warriors, and Streets of Fire and the Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and just a general sense that I’ve never seen a film like that happening in the area where I grew up, and that Britain was very good at doing realism, and quite good at doing fantasy but seldom fused the two together in the way that particularly eighties American directors seem to. So that was the inspiration really.


The aliens were very distinctive, what made you decide on their appearance, and that they wouldn’t be CGI?

We knew we couldn’t afford 3D CGI Aliens, and also I didn’t really want to do those, as, as a filmgoer, I often feel that it sometimes feels that there’s a sort iPhone app for digital creatures and they have to look the same in movies, there’s a sort of aesthetic homogenisation happening for some reason so I was excited to try and do what they used to do in the eighties, which was something a little bit practical and when I was a kid and a special effect would either be a puppet, or a painting or a model and you got a sense that someone had made it, now for this generation there’s probably a similar thing that’s happening, because they could probably go home and make it in a virtual sense, but I spent my childhood being really excited by films and going home and making them, and however sophisticated the effects were, there was always a DIY sense wasn’t there? That you could have a go yourself, so it was a combination of those things really, and plus there’s a thing about digital creatures where they seem to be hyper-detailed, they’ve got so much detail but I like to be able to draw creatures as well, I used to be very good at drawing the stay puft marshmallow man, and the Ghostbusters logo, so I wanted to take a graphic and stylised approach, and I also wanted there to be something on set with the actors so when they’re attacked, they’re really attacked. When they smash into things no-one is reacting to tennis balls on sticks or to a green screen, so I hope we’ve come up with something that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and is a little bit stylish and hopefully a little bit cooler than the generic stuff you sometimes get in bigger-budget movies. I’ll be shorter in future, sorry.


Both in a cinematic sense, and in real-life, what do you think is scarier? Gang’s of young people, or aliens?

The movie addresses that question, that’s basically the premise of the film. The idea with the creatures was that we took all of the adjectives people used to describe those kids, or what some of the media sometimes call those kids, and made those clichés into an actual creature. Pit them against the kids and then you will bring out the fact that the kids are not that one-dimensional, they are human and they are as capable of doing good things as everyone is capable of doing bad things and particularly in some films you get this demonisation of individuals who in reality, are a) children, and b) come from situations where they don’t necessarily have the advantages that you or I might, and personally I’m uncomfortable with the way they are presented in some films and media, so I wanted to address that balance by pitting them against the actual cliché made into a monster. That’s not really what your question was. I’ve gone Tony Blair on your arse.


So, your saying Aliens are scarier?



You talk about the influence of seventies and eighties sci-fi movies, and that really comes across, particularly in the sound track, just how important is it to the film?

Thank you. The sound track is massively important and I’d read stuff about directors talking about how important the score is, and experiencing it first-hand was very interesting. It happens very late in the production process and it happens at a stage when you are very busy with other elements in the film, and it has a massive effect as we all know. I felt amazingly lucky that we got Basement Jaxx, who are a Brixton-based band whose very first gig was at the foot of the road where we actually shot the mugging, and it was important to this film, as we were setting it in an area that’s usually very downbeat, and we wanted to make an upbeat film and there’s something very upbeat about everything Basement Jaxx do, there’s a sort of smile in their music the whole time, and I just think they nailed it and did an amazing job.


Were they using those seventies and eighties films as a reference point when writing the score?

Yeah, I listen to a lot of John Carpenter and we had a think about it and noticed various things, like the fact that he didn’t use a snare drum, he tend to just use a bass drum and a hi-hat, which helps for you to be involved in the story and not click your fingers. And the pitch for the score was; imagine John Carpenter and John Williams went to Roots Manuva’s house and got very high. That was the pitch for the score.


You’ve obviously done much work with Adam Buxton in the past, as a sort-of comedy double-act, and Nick Frost is also in a similar situation with Simon Pegg. So we’ve got Joe and Frost – are you worried that Adam and Pegg are gonna get up to anything behind your backs?

I would love that to! I’m all up for comedy bed-hopping – I think it’s healthy. Adam and I have known each other since we were 13 and we’ve worked together in various idiotic ways since, and, this is not good advice for an actual marriage, but for a comedy marriage it’s quite healthy to sleep around every now and then.


Back to the film – how much research did you do into the dialogue between the main five characters?

A lot – and I did it before we even wrote the script because as you can see, despite the fact I’m very street and young, even so I had to make sure I got it right. So I formulated the story and went to loads of youth clubs and youth groups around South London and I talked to hundreds of kids in groups, and I talked them through the story and I listened to everything they said and I went home and transcribed it myself as if I were learning Italian or French on a course, and then went over it time and time again until I thought that I had enough of a grip on it to write it myself, and then when we cast it, we let the kids that we cast tweak and contribute to, and adjust every word. It’s not supposed to be totally super-real, its supposed to be slightly heightened as the movie is a bit larger than life, and it also had to be accessible to anybody, so hopefully the language is used in a way so that it can be understood by anybody. We simplified it a bit and made sure we had a limited glossary that we repeat so that you understand the words through context. The film is sort of designed to teach you a basic glossary, so if it works, your gonna get old people like me using it, and then the kids are just gonna have to change it all, which will happen anyway.


All of the characters were very realistic, was there anyone in particular that you enjoyed writing for the most?

Well I guess if there’s any character in the film that’s sort of me, its Brewis (Luke Treadaway), who’s the sort of posh idiot in the block, trying to score weed and gets embroiled in all the chaos, and that’s sort of based on me when I was in my twenties. I would spend time in various tower blocks in Wandsworth, scoring jazz herbs and sometimes I’d be left alone by the dealer, and my mind would wonder like, what would happen in the police burst in? What about a rival dealer? None of which ever happened, I was being melodramatic, but yeah, when I thought of the idea of Brewis being involved, that’s very much what he was based on, but hopefully I wasn’t quite as idiotic as him. Or maybe more… I don’t know.


When writing the film, did you always have the idea of directing? Or did you ever think of getting someone else on board to direct?

I kinda always wanted to direct it, because I wanted to make my own mistakes, so I could only blame myself.


As a first-time director, how was it working with first-time actors? Was it good for you, and for them?

It was great. As a first-time director you are the least experienced person on the set but yet you are expected to be the one in charge, and it took me a few days to understand the dynamics of that relationship, but once I got on top of it, having that group of young actors there was fantastic because they were as enthusiastic and as excited and passionate and keen, as I was. And every experience was new for them as it was for me, and it felt like a big adventure we were going on, and I grew to love them and I wish all of them every success, I think there are some genuine future stars amongst that cast, and they all worked incredibly hard, and you know, they were a testament to the message of the film – which is that they are brilliant kids, capable of amazing things.



Lastly, this film is very much a genre-film as much as everything else, it’s got elements of horror and action and comedy – are there any other genre’s that you would instinctively like to tackle?

Um, yes – but I kinda don’t want to say. Edgar Wright also kind of regretted telling people about Hot Fuzz – long before they’d started making it and he said to me that in every interview he ever did, he was then asked about another little nugget about Hot Fuzz and it was a bit of a nightmare for him in the years it took him to make it. So I think its best for me to stay schtum. I’ll probably do something quite different, and I’ve got an idea, but I just want to give it the same care and attention I gave Attack the Block.

Attack The Block Film Page