Interview: Joe Cornish

Former TV personality reflects on Attack The Block

The majority of British movies tend to fall into set categories: award-friendly fare, overlooked dramas that tap into the grit of working class life, shit comedies or pale attempts to imitate the financially mighty efforts of their American counterparts. In recent years, though, since the dawn of the Edgar Wright/Pegg/Frost-era with Shaun Of The Dead, we have seen more films rise claiming to have their own unique British voice, or demonstrating that we can offer something creative that no other country can. Attack The Block, written and directed by TV and radio personality Joe Cornish, and produced by the team behind Shaun, was released earlier in the year to a unanimously warm reception from critics and decent levels of success at the UK box office. Its most important phase may be coming now, as the picture builds momentum within a limited release in the US and as the DVD drops onto shelves, the ideal scenario for this cracking alien invasion movie to uncover a Shaun-sized cult audience.

“I think a lot of people didn’t expect Shaun Of The Dead to be the success that it was,” director Joe Cornish tells us. “That movie, Edgar’s work, Simon’s work, Jessie’s work, Nick’s work, they really opened a lot of doors, they proved that British people could do genre stuff in a unique way, and in a way that they could compete in the US. A lot of people didn’t expect that and were caught on the back foot when it came to Shaun Of The Dead’s success, and that helped us in terms of raising the money. People didn’t want to miss another chance to be part of something similar, I suppose.”

Yet Attack the Block really deserves our attention due to the way it combines the close-to-home idea of a group of hopeless teenagers who’d happily mug an innocent victim, with an alien invasion, all married together by an Eighties action movie pastiche. We speak to Cornish as he’s promoting the movie in the US, and he says that American audiences are definitely drawing those parallels. “People seem to respond to it and get it. It’s very influenced by those America Eighties monster movies, so everyone really picks up on those connections. People understand it and enjoy it. It plays really well – people are cheering and applauding and getting into it, it’s really cool.” Indeed, despite starting on a small scale, a positive early response means that it’s now spreading to more screens, while fantastic buzz from festivals and San Diego are creating an enviable level of word-of-mouth.

In case you haven’t seen it, the movie takes place on a housing estate in London, following a young gang that is mugging trainee nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), before being interrupted by an alien crashing to Earth. After defending his gang from the mysterious and aggressive creature, Moses (John Boyega) soon finds that he and his friends have become the targets of the remaining aliens, which are searching for their missing ally. Rather than portraying the gang in a way that casts black-and-white moral judgement on the teenage protagonists, the film explores both sides of the situation, condemning them for the crime but also showing that they’re each capable of empathy, bravery and camaraderie in the face of a truly threatening invasion.

It’s an idea that has so far translated well internationally. “I think the situation is fairly universal – different types of people from different economic brackets living quite close together and occasionally rubbing up against each other in the wrong way. I think it’s a very accessible scenario. Plus it’s a good old-fashioned alien invasion B-movie, and I think everyone understands that scenario.”

Yet it’s the original mugging Cornish experienced himself, as well as his subsequent research experiences, that informed the original side of the movie’s conceit, and it’s that which is likely to remain with audiences after they’ve seen the film. “My mugging experience was unusual because it was so unexpected,” the director says. “I’ve lived in that area for my whole life, which is more than 40 years now, and nothing bad has ever happened to me. I love that area, and I’m constantly defending it – and suddenly, here was the cliché, here was the stereotype, here was this guy behaving in the way that I thought never happened. And the kid was very young, he was a kid, and the situation just seemed very artificial, it didn’t seem real. So I became fascinated in his character, in what would make such a young child think that this was a good idea, that doing something like this was a good idea.

“So I started researching him and kids like him, and talking to lots of youth groups and groups for kids who’d been excluded from school, researching their lives and stuff, and it also made me connected to this idea of all the Eighties monster movies that I loved which connected a suburban reality with fantasy, I started thinking, ‘what would happen if something fell from space during that mugging? Would it be cooler to stay with the gang, rather than follow the victim, and to explore the motivations and lives of the gang through this alien invasion? So that’s how the idea started.”

Tapping into the voice of the youth and creating a convincing lingo was a delicate process, but completely worth the time investment given how authentically realised it is in the movie. Cornish tells how such an approach to language is really in the lifeblood of sci-fi. “I think anybody under 25 who lives in a city, you almost have to know how to speak like that because it’s the way everyone speaks. For me it’s a sci-fi thing, as well, I love little science fictional buzzwords as well; meaningless words that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone outside of a select circle, like Bespin or Hoth, or Dilithium Crystals or Hogwarts, all these made up words that mean something to the cognoscenti but don’t mean anything to anyone outside, you know? The language these kids use felt like something out of A Clockwork Orange of a science-fictional world to me.”

The triumph of the film is really how that gang’s lives are explored through the filter of an alien vision, and how we end the film sympathising for these youngsters, rather than condemning them as the audience perhaps would during the mugging scene early on. “The responses to it have been fascinating. It’s pretty rare, but you do get the occasional person who goes, ‘no, I’m not having it. What these kids did to that woman…’ Even though it’s a movie, it’s not real, it’s heightened like a Western or a comic book. I think it’s funny how some people go, ‘no, I’m not having it!’ Very, very few, and all I can say is their minds are wired in different way to me. But that was definitely the film’s purpose – you start with these anonymous kids, you don’t know how old they are, their masked, they’ve put this front on. The purpose of the story would then be to strip away those layers without ever apologising for denying how wrong what they do at the beginning is. It’s certainly not an apology for them, it’s showing that side of it for what it is, but then showing the other possibilities, hopefully.”

For anyone out there who shares Cornish’s childhood dream of making the great sci-fi movie, they should know that the old perennial creative roadblock, procrastination, is one reason that the director tackled Attack The Block at this point in his career. “Yes, [procrastination], absolutely. Classic Cornish procrastination for 25 years or something ridiculous. A marathon of procrastination. It’s really enjoyable and really hard work – you have to think on your feet and make decisions really quickly, and it’s quite high-pressured. People giving you a lot of money and having faith in you to deliver the goods. But it was a really pleasurable experience, particularly because of this cast. If ever I felt annoyed, I reminded myself I was making an alien invasion film with stunts and creatures and kids on dirt bikes wielding samurai swords. There was never anything to complain about.”

Attack The Block is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.