Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. There were few more buzzed about films at SXSW this year than ATTACK THE BLOCK. And oddly, that buzz grew in pitch; the sign of a genuinely good movie. I know that first screening was packed (I was there, waited 2 hours in line to guarantee entry), but not much was known about the movie going in. I think a lot of people were there based on a fun sounding alien invasion movie, some were there because Edgar Wright and Nick Frost were supposed to attend and some were there because they were already in the vicinity.
But what sets Attack the Block apart from a lot of buzz films is that the movie delivered on the thrills, the humor and excitement while also giving us a fairly somber portrayal of life in South London. There’s a real subtext to this goofy chase-em-up that shines through thanks to solid writing by Joe Cornish and the fantastic performances of the hooligan teens, led by a young guy named John Boyega who pretty much shows up and demands you realize he’s going to be a star in the very near future.
The two screenings following the premiere were chaotic as people who had seen the movie already rearranged their schedules to watch it again and those who hadn’t worked it in began organizing their days around getting into the movie. And they loved it, too. It was pretty amazing to follow my Twitter feed and see this unfold.
Now here’s my interview with writer/director Joe Cornish about the flick. At the intro Cornish listed off a series of influences. They were the usual suspects of The Shining, Spielberg, etc… but then he threw Critters in there and I’ll be damned if a little bit of Critters didn’t end up in the final film.
We talk a bit about that, the subtext of the film, the influence of Spielberg’s films and a little about actually working with the man himself (Cornish recently co-wrote Spielberg’s TINTIN film). Cornish came across as a real deal geek and a super nice guy and I think you’ll see that in the text below. Enjoy!
Quint: You won me over when you dropped the CRITTERS comparison during the intro and then lived up to it!
Joe Cornish: That’s very kind of you.
Quint: Because you know anybody who makes anything in the genre can always drop the big ones. They can talk about THE SHINING, but not too many people go “Yeah, CRITTERS was a big influence…”
Joe Cornish: I know what you mean. It does feel quite pretentious as a director when you are asked what your influences are, because the subtext is always “My film’s as good as those films” and it’s seldom the case and I would be flattered if you thought I had even a little fragment of CRITTERness.
Quint: What I liked about the comparisons is you can see it in the movie. Do you know what I mean? You also have the humor and you spend a lot of time getting to know your characters before the ferocious aliens are dropped in. I think a lot of filmmakers today just like to get right into the action stuff and a lot of people wouldn’t take the time to actually build a nice character arc for your protagonists. In your movie, the kids kind of start off as villains.
Joe Cornish: Yeah, they are bad kids. He’s a bad kid at the beginning.
Quint: I guess that’s my roundabout way to get around to just your process and your thoughts in writing the character and starting that arc. Was it always intentional or was that something that developed over time?
Joe Cornish: Well, it was based on my own experience. I grew up in South London my whole life. You know, South London is a beautiful place, it’s very mixed, there’s an amazing sense of community and nothing bad had ever happened to me there for my whole life. It’s one of those areas and I don’t know if there are similar areas and cities in America where when you tell people you live there they go “Oh, that’s nice… is it okay? Are you all right?” kind of thing. I spent my whole life going “Yeah, I’m fine.”
I love the area, it’s beautiful and then one time like when I was in my early 30’s I was mugged by these kids. It was kind of pathetic and happened very quickly. They were frightened. I was frightened. And it just struck me that the lead kid.... He was so young looking, I could see his humanity, I could see the fear in his eyes, and it struck me “You probably live around the corner. We’ve probably passed each other in the park every day. I’m probably on the same level of Call Of Duty and probably listening to the same music… I probably could have a conversation about FAMILY GUY with you and yet here we are, you with a mask on, me terrified, in this weird ritualized pantomime situation.”
It made me think two things; it made me think, “I want to talk to that kid. I want to sit down with him and have that conversation about video games and FAMILY GUY and say ‘Why have you taken my phone?’” and it also sparked all of these things that from my childhood growing up there, like my whole generation I’m a child of Spielberg and Lucas and I saw all of those films while I was in that environment and as a kid I would project those fantasies into my own environment… So I think it was kind of a symptom of a traumatized brain that that childhood part of my brain opened up after the mugging and started to fantasize about “What would happen if that incident was corrupted by some fantastical intervention kind of thing?”
That’s just what got the ball rolling and then I started to see these science fictional things in that world like the costumes they wear they look like bandits or ninjas. The projects where they live, the architecture where they live, was futuristic when it was built. Kubrick shot A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in estates in south London… You know, the architecture in LOGAN’S RUN, even METROPOLIS… That stuff was supposed to be futuristic, now it’s seen as this grim, downbeat, depressing thing, but I thought “Why not bring back that aspirational sense to it? Because if I was a kid living in those estates, I would dig riding my bike along those walkways. I would dig the fact that my block looked like a spaceship and I think they probably do.
So yeah, I was looking for connections between this quite mundane downbeat world as depicted in British films usually and the science fiction that I loved and also the gang movies I loved. I saw all of these opportunities to make a movie like the movies I loved from America in this milieu that was British, but that secretly had this little play set that no one had picked up the toys yet. Everyone was using these toys to make serious depressing dramas, I thought, “Hang on a second, there’s vehicles, there’s costumes, there’s weapons, there’s architecture, there could be something else here.”
Quint: All we have got to do is drop some glowy toothed aliens in there. (Laughs)
Joe Cornish: Exactly. That’s what was so amazing about ET. ET is like a Ken Loach film with a pipette of fantasy in it, a droplet of fantasy kind of thing.
Quint: And CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, that whole suburban drama aspect… Even in POLTERGEIST…
Joe Cornish: Yeah, the Spielberg… You see it in the SUPER 8 trailer. Spielberg’s “families around a table” are amazing and they are good, if not better than Mike Leigh, they are better than Ken Loach, they are as good as Altman… I mean he’s an amazing realist director, but he’s also an amazing fantasy director.
Quint: That was always the best part about Spielberg’s stuff is that there was an automatic entrance for most people. Even if you didn’t grow up in the suburbs, you went to the suburbs. More that even that though, the family dynamics didn’t really change from apartment to suburbs, so it’s like once you have a connection with the characters that’s your in. If you can give an audience an excuse to suspend their disbelief and get in there, then that’s all you need and that’s another thing that I really liked about the arc of the main character and I don’t mean to keep harping on it, but it wasn’t just “Oh, I’ve learned the err of my ways. This lady that we mugged earlier is a nice lady.” It’s like the whole alien invasion stuff essentially became a representation of him having to take responsibility for his actions, to the point where everything that has happened is quite literally his fault. The deaths of his friends and the people in the community are because of what he did.
Joe Cornish: I think there’s a truth in that. Those kids in all inner cities wherever you are in the world, they are presented with a difficult set of a choices, not immediately employable, because of prejudices out there and one choice when you are young can set you on a really difficult path. So yeah that was absolutely what the metaphor was kind of thing.
Quint: You could replace the aliens with another gang and it would have been a drama. There’s a reveal in the movie that shows how one cruel deed sticks to those involved.
Joe Cornish: That was the idea and the idea was those kids are demonized in the British media and much as I love the craft of films like EDEN LAKE and CHERRY TREE LANE, I have an ethical issue with the way they portray those kids, so I wanted to try and flip that. The idea was to take all of the adjectives that the media used to describe those kids “Bestial. Feral. Amoral. Selfish. Territorial.” create a creature out of those adjectives and then set that creature on the kids and bring the humanity of out of the kids. That was the premise, yeah. I’m glad it came through, man!
Quint: It did. I don’t want to make it sound like that this is a dour soapbox preaching kind of movie, because it’s so much fun. My whole row was in hysterics throughout. My good friend Jarrette has like the most recognizable load piercing laugh...
Joe Cornish: Ahhh! I love Jarrette. His laugh made me very happy. That was cool.
Quint: He was so into it and it’s such a fun movie, especially at midnight when I had been up since nine o’clock in the morning and for the movie to play… it couldn’t have been all message, let me just say that. You have the fun movie, but then you have the subtext beneath that you can take or leave if you want it.
Joe Cornish: Yeah, well that was very much a Carpenter thing, an ASSAULT ON PRECINT 13 thing, and also I’m a big fan of Lindsay Anderson. IF… is one of my favorite movies, so I love a bit of gentle quiet and political subtext that’s there if you want it, but you are absolutely right. This is a fun escapist action chase monster movie first and foremost and if you don’t want the subtext, you don’t have to have it. It’s never said…
Quint: But there is a political science quiz at the end of the movie.
Joe Cornish: (laughs) Exactly, yeah you do get a qualification if you end up understanding it.
Quint: Since we are at the end of the interview here, we’ve talked a lot about loving Spielberg’s movies, but few of us can say we’ve worked with the man. You’ve gotten to do that, yeah?
Joe Cornish: Yeah.
Quint: How was that experience? Especially on something like TINTIN, which I understand is very close to his heart… I met him once and we talked mostly about Ray Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien, KING KONG, and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG… things he was passionate about…
Joe Cornish: (Laughs) It sounds like you were more relaxed than I was.
Quint: Oh no, not on the inside, my friend.
Joe Cornish: I couldn’t… You know when people ask me that, I just say, “Well, how would you feel?” Because that’s how you feel, isn’t it? Especially people like us who were kids when his stuff was cooking. I just had to focus on the work. That was my life raft. I just clung on to trying to do as good a work that I possibly could for him and I tried not to think about his amazing films. It’s hard because he’s been making them nonstop for however long it is.
He’s the architect of my imagination, so to meet the architect of your imagination… It’s got a little bit of INCEPTION about it going in and you just have to try and hold onto your sanity. The way I did that was through the work and then to put Mr. Peter Jackson into the mix as well was amazing and I feel very, very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with them and I wouldn’t have been there without Edgar [Wright]. Edgar got called by Peter Jackson to help out with the script and Edgar pulled me in because he knew I was a TINTIN fan, so yeah I feel really lucky and really privileged.
Quint: Allright, well thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Joe Cornish: Thank you, man.
Attack the Block still doesn’t have US distribution yet, which is a horrible shame. Where’s Rogue? Where’s Lionsgate? Are they scared of the accents? They might be, but then again the same argument was thrown on Shaun of the Dead and that one did okay. So, hopefully we’ll see that resolved soon and everybody can go see this really fun, funny, gory, sad, creepy, sweet movie.
Hope you guys enjoyed the chat!