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Joe Cornish Discusses Attack The Block
Simon Jablonski , May 16th, 2011 09:35

We spoke to Adam Buxton about his Bug celebration last Friday, now it's the turn of his telly chum Joe Cornish as Simon Jablonski asks him about social realism and alien escapades in new film Attack The Block

Joe Cornish’s feature debut Attack The Block is a chase round a council block that gives a very specific Anglicised tone to the much loved 80s sci-fi genre. Set in the deepest darkest depths of South London where no Daily Mail reader dare tread, a bunch of teenage rogues try to find some manner of outlet. After taking the wallet of a passing lady at knife-point, the gang beat the crap out of an alien that has the poor fortune to land near them. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the fleet of landing extra-terrestrials are pretty miffed by this and track the gang to their tower block, mercilessly ripping to pieces anyone that gets in their way.

Wonderfully shot, the film’s dimly lit, orangey glow allows it to nicely straddle the commonly contrasting atmospheric worlds of gritty realism and alien fantasy. A great deal of work obviously went into the aliens; most of the fear comes from what you don’t see of them, but when you do catch a glimpse, they’re fantastically smooth and realistic – even with glow-in-the-dark-teeth.

As you’ll see below, one of the motivations for the film was to humanise an often unfairly targeted section of society. In the face of atrocious rot like Harry Brown – in which estate kids better resemble zombies – this is nothing but a noble intention. There are a couple of niggling problems with the film, however - and even though it feels a bit like bursting all the balloons at the fair, they probably warrant a mention. If the film's aim is to offer these kids a different voice, then setting them up as muggers and then butcherers does little to quell this. Their bravery and quest to preserve other inhabitants gets the audience behind them, but it’s not really redemption for the mugging and bludgeoning the crap out of the first alien. Perhaps that’s the point, though: that being made valuable by society instead of sidelined leads to constructive and productive citizens. Also, it is a slight concern that the beginning of the film relies on the aliens being vicious, indiscriminate killers, yet the last sequence relies on them only attacking certain people (saying too much would be a spoiler). And for a really anal observation, it seems unlikely that what are essentially massive dogs could master the complexities of inter-galactic space travel.

Aside from petty grievances, though, Attack The Block is fun and affecting - and The Quietus grabbed some time with Joe Cornish to chat aliens, muggings and sub-text.

Where did you get the idea for the movie?

Joe Cornish: It was two things, really. First thing was me and my girlfriend being carjacked in 2001 by a gang of kids in South London, where I grew up. The second one was watching Signs, the M. Night Shyamalan film which reminded me of a script called Dark Skies that John Sayles wrote for Spielberg years ago. It was never made and was fragmented and became Gremlins, Poltergeist and E.T.. And it just occurred to me that if that happened in South London, those kids that pulled me out of my car would probably be the first people I would turn to to protect me, so that was the kernel of the idea. And I also thought the idea of a tower block under siege was good, because I love movies that use a limited environment, [and] play with the space. And I just thought it would be cool to start a film with a group of kids mugging somebody and end with them being heroes to try to turn the audience’s attitudes round. I thought if I could manage to do that in 90 minutes, then it might be a good story idea. That was back in 2001, and I’ve been working on it since then.

What happened during the mugging?

JC: It wasn’t that fun. The thing that was weird about it was that they were so young, and it seemed like a ritual. I’m a total pussy so I just gave them everything I had, but I could see how young they were and I could see how nervous they were, and I just thought it was weird. It seemed so unreal and unnatural, and stereotypical and clichéd. The kid that did it was young and as scared as I was, and it seemed like a pantomime or a performance. It seemed like we were playing out a scenario that we’d both seen on The Bill. He was playing the role of the bully and I was playing the role of the middle class victim. It was like a Michael Winner film. Although it is a reprehensible thing to do, it made me intrigued as to why that kid thought it might be an acceptable thing to do, and it made me wonder why a kid like that was living up that stereotype in that way.

So the main motivation for the film was to work out why a kid would go about mugging strangers?

JC: I had two routes of inquiry. One was into a kid like that and why he would find himself in a position where he thought that was a feasible thing to do. The other was that it made me think about all the fantasy films I’d loved when I lived round South London, and how I used to pine for things that happened in those movies to happen here. And I sort of put the two thoughts together. And yes I did a lot of research before I wrote the script. I talked to hundreds of young people in youth groups, and we did come across one or two kids who had done things like that in the past. Were they monsters? No. Were they feral and bestial? No. Did they understand right from wrong? Yes. But you know, the film is not an apology for doing that kind of thing, it’s a sort of crazy alien-driven investigation into the life of a kid who finds himself doing that.

So subtext was quite an important aspect for you?

JC: Absolutely, it does have a subtext. I’m a big fan of John Carpenter and particularly his film Assault on Precinct 13, which is a very lean, mean and stripped-down minimalist siege movie, but it also has a strong sociological subtext; it’s about something and you don’t need to know that - and in fact, lots of people can probably watch it and not consciously appreciate that it has something to say - but I love that combination. I love how escapist and popcorny and just how out-and-out fun his films are, but at the same time there’s a little bit of fibre and nutrition there as well. I was trying to do the same with Attack The Block. You can totally watch Attack The Block as if it was a stupid, crazy alien-chase movie, but hopefully viewers will pick up the fact that it is also an exploration of that particular character, Moses.

What was the biggest challenge moving from directing smaller projects to this huge scale feature film?

JC: I would say the biggest challenge is the speed with which you have to work, and how hard you have to work, and how fast you have to make decisions, and how quickly very important things go by. As a punter and a film-goer, I would be very judgmental about films. I’d say, 'That’s shit and rubbish, and I could have done better'. I thought I knew it all. And I also thought that films were terribly considered and artful, like a painter stepping back from his canvas and rubbing it out and going back in. You can’t do that - it’s like a flippin’ trolley dash. And every moment is hugely expensive and everything will go wrong - however brilliant the people you’re working with are, things will go wrong, so you have to really think on your feet and do things really fast and improvise and stuff. But I loved it, it was fun.

The first two weeks I think I behaved like a prick, if you ask the crew. I really wasn’t used to delegating at all, I didn’t really understand the role of first AD [Assistant Director] so I was shouting and trying to run the set. Nira Park, the producer, had to take me to the side and say 'Joe, let the first AD do that'. And that was amazingly liberating, because you just sit at the monitor and just make the shots better.

Were the main cast planned from the beginning?

JC: We saw lots of actresses for Sam’s character, but Jodie [Whittaker] just did a brilliant read in the audition. She just looks very real - she’s attractive and sexy but not stupidly so. Do you know what I mean? Does that sound polite? She’s that extra sexy type of real sexy, not that unsexy type of fake sexy - is that better?

I certainly had Nick [Frost] in mind for Ron. I didn’t know whether he’d be up for doing it, but I always thought it was a good part for him. It’s a strong supporting role. I thought it would be doable in terms of schedule and it was amazing that he was up for it - particularly for the young actors because he comes from a similar informal background. He’s had no formal training, like a lot of my cast. So it’s really encouraging for them to be in the room and acting with somebody who is a star, and also from a similar untrained background.

What was it like to work with untrained actors?

JC: As a first-time director I was more frightened about directing the full-time actors than the kids, because I knew the kids didn’t have any frame of reference with which to criticise me. They couldn’t compare me to other directors whereas Nick and Jodie and Luke [Treadaway] might go, 'Ah, he’s not half as good as whoever'. But the kids were so enthusiastic about every aspect of the process and they’re so enthusiastic to learn that it just stops it feeling like a days work. It feels like a sort of exciting youth club.

Did you have to adapt your directing style when working with the untrained actors?

JC: I definitely had to calibrate the way I worked - my frame of reference and terminology. The main thing is to get them to trust you and get them to not be intimidated by the actual process of making a film, which is very fragmented, and try and do that in a way that they stay natural. But the film is so much about them, that they could tell us as much as we could tell them about the truth of the situations. It was very important that it was a democracy and not a dictatorship, and that there was a dialogue between us all the time. I wasn’t always prescribing what they should do. Sometimes they feel so excited about being in a film that they think they have to act in a certain way, figure out their mannerisms and pose. The important thing is to say to them, 'Look, you don’t have to do anything. You just have to be yourself'. Relaxing them and giving them the confidence not to do anything. We ran every single line of dialogue by them, and they changed it when they wanted to. They advised on costume, they advised on language. We used them as a kind of resource to make sure the film was credible, and would be truthful to other people of their age.

Was casting the gang and the kids a long process?

JC: We took months and months over the casting. We saw thousands of kids. We had a brilliant casting director called Nina Gold, and also a very brilliant woman called Lucy Pardy who found Katy Jarvis from Fish Tank, and is a kind of street casting specialist. We wanted the kids to be young. I had this thing where kids you usually see in these roles - especially kids you see in British so called 'urban' films - are often a bit too old for me. You think, 'You’re 19, get a fucking job'. Whereas the kids that mugged us were young. They were in their early to mid teens. And I just thought they’re kids, and you can’t really blame a child. Just because they’re in hoods or whatever and doing their thing, they’re still children. I think society is pretty cruel and forgets that often these kids are just kids, so it was important to me that they were young. Plus it was cool to get a chance to show totally fresh faces.

How did you research the streetwise dialogue for the kids?

JC: We went to do a whole load of workshops with South London kids in youth groups, all decent kids. I fed out the story and I had a friend draw big illustrations and moments from the story, and I went in and said, 'Hello, my name’s Joe and I’m writing a film. I want to talk to you about an imaginary scenario that might happen. Tell me what you would do. Who would you defend? Who would you protect? What weapons would you use? Where would you go? What would you do if this happened? Ahh, but what would you do if that happened?' And I did that scores and scores of times, to hundreds of different kids.

Were the kids you spoke to very responsive?

JC: Very much so. They were incredibly excited by the idea of an alien film being set in their world, because I think they’re used to quite downbeat, depressing state-of-the nation stuff. And here was a film about grabbing a samurai sword and jumping on your mini moto and fighting aliens.

What was the inspiration for the aliens?

JC: I’m not telling you how we did them, if that’s what you’re after. I’d like to keep a little bit of mystery. They’re certainly not District 9 aliens - they’re not CGI. It’s never what creatures look like, it’s how they’re shot and how they’re edited... the sound they make. We’re using a combination of in camera stuff. It was very important for me that they were in the room with the kids - that they’re present in the scenes, and that the kids have something real to react to. They were there and they were brought to life by an extraordinary chap called Terry Notary, who I met on the set of Tintin. He was the movement coach for the Viper wolves in Avatar and Silver Surfer in X-Men, and the Hulk in Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. He’s the fastest quadruped runner in the world and he’s a Cirque du Soleil performer; he’s the most physically fit individual I’ve ever met in my life. When I met him I thought, ‘Fuck, this is doable’. And he was one of the first people we signed on for the film, and he did a great job. The tone of the film overall is supposed to be 50% kitchen sink realism and then 50% escapist 80s style adventure movie, so the creatures are sort of that; 50% scary and 50% just idiotic and cool. So, the aliens are a combination of practical and digital, and I’m not going to tell you which is which.

Did the budget constrain your original intentions?

JC: Quite the opposite. I always intended this to be black and white and cost half a million at most, but big talk at Film4 and Optimum immediately raised the standards in productions values. And I’m amazed to be on sets this big with a cast this good and have an amazingly good crew: brilliant DOP, brilliant designer... we’re just very lucky to have this production value. If anything, it slightly unnerves me.