I had the great pleasure of interviewing Joe Cornish, writer and director of Attack the Block at New York Comic Con. It was a roundtable interview and I’m an enormous fan of Attack the Block and have proclaimed it my favorite film of the summer and even film of the year.
Attack the Block’s tag line, “Inner City versus Outer Space” sums up everything. It’s like season 4 of The Wire, with a grittier Gremlin and Goonies thrown in for good measure. But this is more than an aliens attack story; it’s a film about redemption, friendship, inequality and social commentary (all without being too politically serious).
Joe Cornish also co-wrote The Adventures of Tintin along with Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) which was directed by Steven Spielberg is coming out December 21st.
There were some spoilery questions and comments in the interview so I moved those to the end of this post in case you haven’t seen the film yet, because I know you will. You must, trust!
Interview with writer and director Joe Cornish:
Question: I found it to be very character driven, I really liked the opening and how it was set in the inner city, which is like war zone in itself.
Joe Cornish: I wouldn’t call it a war zone myself. We were keen to respect the reality of the environment and show actually how important their home is to those kids. They go to great length to protect it because they love it and other people may think it’s a down beat place. Many of the movies show that environment as a depressing signifier of urban deprivation. For the kids that live there it’s home, and they love it and it’s their playground and their childhood. I wanted to show it becomes a war zone because of the aliens, but a fun war zone of aliens versus humans. I didn’t want to make a gang movie about kids beating each other up or stabbing each other. Attack the Block is a pretty fun, in terms of the violence. The worse things that happens is when they try to mug that woman in the beginning of the movie, but compared to the amount of violence you see in the average Hollywood film, this is pretty mild. But at the same time I hope that quite ballsy and dynamic and scary and fun kind of thing.
Q: So you’re talking about how you wanted to portray it as the kids home, was that tied to the decision to have all the colors bright and vivid? Because it seemed to contribute a lot to the warmth.
JC: Yeah definitely you’re right. Similarly like I was saying, that often environment is portrayed in a downbeat way that’s reflected in the cinematography in a lot of films. I’m not saying that’s not how to do it, it’s just something I wanted to react against. A of movies they de-saturate the color and it’s grainy and handheld and it’s super down-beaten and real. The interesting thing about this architecture is it was built in the 50s and 60s in a huge spirit of optimism and futurism. These designs were seen as this utopia that would solve the slum problems in post-war Britain. So if you look at original documentaries or footage taken of the time these buildings were originally opened, they seemed like science fiction and since then they’ve become, heroin addicts slumped in corners and dog shit in the lift and stuff like that. So I wanted to bring it back to that imaginative optimistic futuristic feel and the color has very much to do with that. We wanted it to look like almost a 60s Disney film… to be fluorescent to look like Mary Poppins, more than fish tank you know?
Q: I was amazed in the DVD featured that you used so many practical special effects, was that originally the idea?
JC: No, we never had the budget to do CGI creatures but I didn’t want to do CGI creatures. As a film guru I find digital monsters very samey, they all feel the same and I don’t understand this obsession with hyper-realistic detail. All the movies I loved whether it was Gremlins or ET, or Critters or Predator I believed those creatures, and they felt like they were there. They were simpler and imaginative and hell I could go home and draw them, and you can’t draw the dragon from Harry Potter without a fine art degree. So I wanted to do a movie with a monster that was sketchable and graphic. So we have a guy in a suit and the guy is Terry Notary, he’s a very brilliant creature performer with a long IMDb credits list of amazing films. Spectral Motion, who do Guillermo del Toro’s stuff, made the suits. And then a company called Double Negative and another company called Fido Film, used CGI to actually take away detail and every now and then to help the jaws, but that was it. In Attack the Block if a kid is being attacked by a creature it’s real, he’s really being attacked by the creature.
JC: Well we needed that because to get that reflection of the teeth in that environment is very laborious and time-consuming to do digitally. But if you have them there on the set, it doesn’t cost anything apart from the teeth. So it was half to do with resources but mainly to do with wanting to get something original aesthetically and more to do with the old school effects that I love.
JC: Because it’s where I live, it’s where I grew up and Stockwell in South London, and you know the movie wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t about those kids. The movie is about the kids, it’s about the situation they find themselves in. It’s about their energy and power of teenagers in particular, these teenagers are funny, they’re strong, they’re passionate, they have a very particular way of looking at the world and they are very tight when they get together and if you don’t care for them and pay attention to them, you can have problems. And if you do, you can have something amazingly positive and strong and I felt very strongly that especially in the UK, the press and the public attitude towards kids like that is dangerously negative. Even though I start my film with almost the stereotype, the cliché that was our basis then to go 100 miles an hour in the other direction. That’s why the film exists, because it’s the story of those kids. If I set it in a different part of London it might have been a different culture mix… I was also very excited to give young actors of that age from my area the change to be in a movie like this.
Q: John (Boyega) was fantastic I like how you transitioned from a thug mentality, he had no remorse, it was all about disrespect.
JC: But even that was a front. I did a lot of research; the movie is all about trying not to see things in binary times. Because you get in trouble and you oversimplify the thing. Some of the critical reaction is interesting, people who seem to find it impossible to think in this binary way. And when you actually talk to young people like that, yeah they’re capable of doing bad things but they are smart and clever and articulate this movie is an attempt to show the full spectrum.
Q: Towards the end of the movie was totally a 180, he (John Boyega/Moses) was guilty, he started off almost like a criminal and looked like a hero at the end, and even with Jodi Whitaker (Sam) and she said this was my home at the end.
JC: The first ideas I had were the very beginning and the very end. I thought okay that’s my A that’s my Z, can I get there? Can I bring the audience with me? And that was the challenge and that felt like an exiting thing to write. But John Boyega is amazing.
Q: Where did you find him?
JC: Well we saw about 1,500 young people. We found him in a play in the Triangle Theater in London, we saw him on stage for about 10 minutes. He was 17 when I saw him maybe even 16, and he was just great.
Q: A high school play?
JC: No he left school I think, or he was in college. But he was passionate about acting and he had been acting for about 2 years when we found him. He’s quite something, I think he was going to make it with or without us, but I feel very lucky that we discovered him for this.
Q: How much of that hero’s journey was literary and how much was organically based on the character? Because it is in a way a very classical hero’s journey… did that come from an organic progression of the character or taking the literally tradition of the hero’s journey and overlaying onto that character?
JC: The former, I did all that stuff. I did the Robert McKee course and I read all those books and I did the McKee course in my 20’s and it gave me writers block for about 7 years because everything I wrote seemed wrong. It was lie, everything I wrote I had to compare to this paradigm and it always fell short. I was never really good at math’s or sciences and it made it feel like math or science. So what really liberated me was just forgetting all that stuff and just writing what I thought felt instinctively cool.
JC: No, I knew shit would be read into it, but I think sometimes that’s a nice thing about having quite a minimalist scenario. That it can become allegorical or metaphorical and people can maybe see stuff in it. That’s always a strength of any good little lo-fi sci-fi movie whether it’s Night of the Living Dead or Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Invasion of the Damned. Beautifully boiled down allegorical scenarios that are capable of containing lots of different interpretations. The name of Moses came from one of the first kids I spoke to in researched and I just liked the name. The other thing I liked about it is I liked the idea of his parents naming him that. And I liked imagining his parents and the hope and faith parents have in their kid to name him that, and I thought it was juxtaposed nicely with where we find him in the beginning of the story. Plus, as I always say my name is Joseph and I’m no good at carpentry, so it’s just a name.
Girl Gone Geek: How’s the writing process been for TinTin, with Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright?
JC: Steven Moffat is a brilliant man, he did the first few drafts then he had to leave and go and be show runner of Doctor Who and Sherlock. So Peter Jackson called Edgar [Wright] and Edgar knew I was a big Tintin fan so that’s how I got involved, Edgar got me into it and it was amazing.
Girl Gone Geek: What about Ant Man what is happening with that film?
JC: Ant Man we’ve written a script we’re really proud of, we love it and that’s in the hands of Marvel now and Edgar really, I’m really a humble writer.
This section of the interview has major spoilers about Attack the Block:
Q: You seem to have a little nationalism in there with Jodi Whitaker’s boyfriend who is in Africa, [and the kids say] why isn’t he in Great Britain? And at the end of the movie when Moses blew up all the aliens, and he’s hanging from the British flag.
JC: Cool! It’s not actually supposed to be nationalistic. That’s an interesting example of it’s not didactic it’s not polemical, it’s the character saying it and I thought that’s just an interesting irony that I may have come across in research or maybe I thought myself… That would be insane to not to want to help kids in the 3rd world. Maybe the word is satire; it’s just poking you in the ribs and make you think. And that’s a perfect example of how teenagers say that kind of thing, they know the irony they’re self aware they know they’re being provocative. I find stuff like that interesting and thought provoking and that for me I say a good thing.
Q: It is powerful imagine, this marginalized character holding the flag.
JC: Well if you go to London people do hang flags out of their windows. And you know what? That was always inspired by The Spy Who Loved Me. The parachute in the beginning, and when I was a kid I loved British films with union jacks in them. So you’re right about that, an element of that is to see a union jack in a British action adventure film. But to use it in that way with a black character and that level of irony I thought was and interesting new… a little poke in the ribs, a little thing that might make people think differently for a moment.
JC: Yeah he needed a big death he deserved to have his face ripped off.
Q: And Dennis didn’t do anything wrong and he got it too.
JC: I know life isn’t fair, I know it’s horrible [laughs].