Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Joe Cornish on Attack the Block

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Out on DVD and Blu-ray October 25

One of the nicest surprises for genre fans this year was watching Joe Cornish’s directorial debut Attack the Block quickly grow a cult following after its premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival, even it never really got as wide a release as many of its fans have hoped. Although it revolved around a fairly high concept about a group of kids at a council estate (the British equivalent of low-income housing) who face an alien invasion, it was a refreshingly original take on the genre in a year when aliens were everywhere. Anyone lucky enough to see the movie in theaters will likely have been impressed by Cornish’s writing and direction, his casting of a lot of incredibly talented newcomers and the unforgettable soundtrack by Steven Price and electronica group Basement Jaxx, which recently won an award at the annual Sitges festival in Spain.

The movie follows a group of young friends led by the street-tough Moses (John Boyega) as they face dozens of ferocious alien creatures with the help of a young woman (Jodie Whitaker) they robbed earlier in the evening and two chronically-stoned building regulars, played by Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway.

Hollywood has definitely taken notice of Cornish as a director with his name coming up as being in negotiations for a surprising number of big movies since his movie’s debut. Before Attack the Block, he had already been establishing his name as a screenwriter after working with Edgar Wright on a new take on Ant-Man for Marvel Studios as well as doing some writing for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Adventures of Tintin.

ShockTillYouDrop.com sat down with Cornish at this year’s New York Comic-Con where he was doing a last minute push for the film’s release on Blu-ray and DVD on October 25. Oddly, the first time this writer even heard of Cornish was when he was trailing Edgar Wright and Nick Frost at the San Diego Comic-Con as they were there to do a presentation for Hot Fuzz, so imagine our surprise when we learned that he had made such a cool movie. We didn’t get nearly as much time as we needed to get too in-depth into the making of the movie but we did get to sneak in one burning question we’ve had about Ant-Man.

ShockTIllYouDrop.com: Obviously, you’ve been doing press for the movie for some time. Having seen the movie for a third time last night, one of the things I caught was that you really seem to be in touch with these inner city kids. I don’t know what your background is, but when you hear about your movie, it seems fairly high concept to have kid at a council estate fighting aliens, but you really get into what they go through in their lives. Was that something from your own past?

Joe Cornish:
Well, I grew up in Stockwell in South London, which is very near where we made the film, and I still live there, and I come from a very comfortable background. I went to a very good school, I have very nice parents, but I lived very close to blocks like this. London is a very multicultural place in a very good way. It was bombed heavily in the second World War and a lot of these municipal housing projects sprung up in areas that were bombed, so you get a very dense mixture of different types of people, different socioeconomic levels co-existing very close to each other, so I grew up around these environments and I have friends who grew up in blocks like that. Having said that, when I started writing this film, I was in my late thirties, so I wasn’t exactly a teenager anymore, so I did a lot of research.

Shock: Was this an idea you had for a long time that it took a long time to get around to making it.

Cornish:
Yeah, probably like anybody, I always have five or ten ideas buzzing around in my head at any given time, just letting them gather other ideas, and this was one of them really. This just felt like a cool first film for me, since I always admired first films by directors I loved, whether it’s “Dual” by Spielberg or the first “Terminator.” I know that’s not Cameron’s first film, but we’ll put “Piranha II: The Spawning” aside for a second. I love those low-buget high concept movies, directors who take on big ideas but manage to find big ideas in a small environment and that’s kind of doable, but it’s a bit too ambitious.

Shock: This one is very ambitious, and I would think that if you sold the script to a studio, it could have been made fairly quickly.

Cornish:
We tried, you know. It did go around studios—one or two American studios passed on it, I think because of stuff like the slang and the multi-cultural cast and stuff like that, I don’t know, but I’m pleased really because I was able to make exactly the film I wanted to make, and I was very protected by Studio Canal and Film Four and Big Talk Productions. There’s something terrific I think about independent genre films, because they can do things… you’re freer.

Shock: You can’t have young kids smoking pot, and that probably would have been the first thing cut if it was a studio movie I’m sure. How did you go about finding these kids? You pretty much went for unknowns at least here, and how did you know they could pull off carrying the movie? The guy who plays Pest is hilarious.

Cornish:
Oh, cor. Yeah, he’s such a lovely kid—Alex Esmail. We auditioned 1,500 young people from around London. We put them through audition after audition, we got them to improvise, we got them to learn lines. One of the reason we kept them coming back for so many auditions was to check that they turned up on time, and they came like they weren’t hung over, like they had self-discipline, but you know it’s worth saying that all of these kids had already demonstrated an interest, an enthusiasm, for acting. Their teachers had noticed them at school or they were involved in an after-school drama club or they were doing youth theater.

Shock: Did you model some of the characters towards them once they were cast?

Cornish:
We did, yeah. The last two drafts I wrote after I cast them, and I let them go through all the dialogue and change anything they wanted to or we discussed any changes they wanted. So yeah, I feel that’s very important and as a writer, it’s very exciting to have an actor inhabit a role, because as a writer, you’re looking at the whole forest and suddenly, people are taking ownership of individual trees, so to speak, and that’s exciting. These actors aren’t necessarily from the background depicted in “The Block,” but they’re all not that far away from it and have a knowledge of it. They were a really useful resource when it came to dialogue and costume and the way we balanced the script.

Shock: Even Jody Whitaker and Luke Threadway, I’ve seen them in other movies, but the first time I saw the movie, since I didn’t have press notes, I didn’t know who these actors were. I was really surprised by the characterizations they came up with for their characters since they’re different from what they’ve done before.

Cornish:
Yeah, absolutely, and I think it speaks very highly of them that they agreed to be in it. It’s quite something for an adult actor to perform with so many newcomers, and it was a risk for them as well.

Shock: Jody was only a newcomer a couple years ago herself.

Cornish:
That’s true, yeah, but she’s made several films now and lots of TV, but you know what I mean? It was important that they all felt like they came from the same world, that it didn’t feel like actors with first-timers, and yeah, so I think simply by merit of taking the parts, we ended up with a really generous group of people. You know, it was such a great atmosphere on that set. Everyone was having such a good time and there was such a warmth.

Shock: Were you actually shooting on a council estates?

Cornish:
Yeah, yeah. We shot for five weeks at night, and we shot around the area where I live in Brixton in South London and we shot in a place called the Heygate Estate that they used in “Harry Brown,” and they just shot some of “World War Z” there. It’s this amazing big estate that’s about to be pulled down that’s completely empty, so you can shoot at night and you can make noise and you can do stunts and stuff.

Shock: I was wondering how you avoided having all the unwanted extras. There was a movie called “Freedomland” with Samuel Jackson and another one called “Brooklyn’s Finest” where they shot in that environment and in both cases, the people in the neighborhoods became extras, because it couldn’t be avoided. You really don’t see anyone else in the movie except for the main characters.

Cornish:
No, we didn’t. I did shoot some stuff of neighbors and other people, but it just didn’t cut in, weirdly. It didn’t feel like it fitted, it felt like it worked much better just focusing… the nice thing about this movie I feel is every single character counts. Everybody has something to contribute. There are no little asides… except at the very end.

Shock: It also gives the movie such a distinctive look since not having lots of people in the background gives it a stark look, and the music also adds to that, which is really amazing. I think it’s one of the best soundtracks of the year.

Cornish:
Thank you. Yeah, I’m so knocked out by the work Steve Price and Basement Jaxx did. Music happens really late in the day, I’m sure you know. I never really realized as a first-time director how late it happens and how quickly it has to happen, and how much it affects the tone of a film, so I was very lucky that they got it, and they delivered it really fast. I can’t take too much credit for that apart from giving them the brief and telling them what I wanted, they went off and kind of nailed it.

Shock: They must have known the music that John Carpenter did for his own movies.

Cornish:
Yeah, well we studied John Carpenter and one of the things that I noticed is that he never or very rarely uses a snare drum, so he’ll never have a 4/4 beat. He’ll do bass (drum) and high-hat and other movies when they do a 4/4 beat, it turns it into a pop promo, and Carpenter’s movies, even though they have these contemporary rhythmic soundracks, it never feels like a pop promo. You still get absorbed in the action.

Shock: The movie’s already come out in the States and the UK, and what’s interesting is that it had a cult following right after it premiered at SXSW and through the early screenings. I remember the first New York screening had more than 400 people in line and built this cult following but when it came out, it didn’t really do the kind of business some had hoped. How has that felt as someone who spent so much time making it? It seems like the people who wanted to see it go the chance, but everyone felt like it should be huge.

Cornish:
Yeah, well I really appreciate that, and I hope it finds a bigger audience on disc. I just hope people project it or watch it on a big TV and turn all the lights out and turn the volume up and really appreciate it as if they’re in a cinema. I can’t complain. This is a small British film, I feel very lucky that Sony/Screen Gems picked it up in the first place. Many very good British films never make it across the pond, so I don’t think I have anything to complain about. Obviously, I would have loved it if it had been a massive smash, but I can’t complain, man. It’s had such a good response. I’d rather a comparatively smaller group of people saw it and f*cking loved it than loads of people saw it and felt indifferent towards it, ‘cause that’s the stuff I liked. I’ve always liked stuff that I felt I discovered, and that I felt I owned, and there’s nothing better than being able to go to a friend, “Hey, have you seen this thing?” and “Man, you’ve got to check it out!”

Shock: You’d be amazed how many movies we loved as kids were actually bombs…

Cornish:
You know? Absolutely.

Shock: There might be some kid who sees this and ends up being inspired to be a filmmaker just like Carpenter’s movies did in the ‘80s.

Cornish:
Well, that would be amazing, and as you say, it’s not a meritocracy. Good films do badly, bad films do well, and the lovely thing about movies as a thing is that if they’re good, they last, more than television, more than any other visual art form really. If they’re good, they stick around and I hope “Attack the Block” has a chance of having a longer life.

Shock: One of the more interesting things that came out of this experience is that literally before the movie even came out, your name was being mentioned as being in talks for a couple big projects. Do you have a lot of people chasing after you to direct their movies and how do you feel about that as someone who developed his own project? Do you feel you need to write your own material or want to continue on as a director finding good scripts?

Cornish:
I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s all fairly new to me, and I’m definitely being sent stuff and offered stuff and talking to some amazing people. I’ve met a lot of my heroes in the last six months and producers I really admire and I’ve got ideas of stuff I want to do, but I’m open if a script came along that was super-cool, I would definitely consider doing it, but I do think there’s a particular strength in being a writer-director. I really admire Edgar’s work, I really admire Quentin Tarantino’s work. I think a writer-director at their best is the best ‘cause the work is so authored.

Shock: True, but it’s tough, since that often means making a movie every three years…

Cornish:
But that’s cool, that’s fine. There’s enough people to make other movies.

Shock: You don’t want to be like Michael Winterbottom and have five movies every year?

Cornish:
I don’t know, I don’t know. That’s interesting, isn’t it? I also think it’s interesting what Duncan Jones did. I think he went straight into “Source Code,” which I thought was interesting and interesting what Rupert Wyatt did after “The Escapist,” he took a big, big budget movie and has done very successfully with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” So I’m just trying to figure it out. I’m looking around, I’m trying to take it all in and trying to take it slowly and surely.

Shock: Back at Comic-Con in ’06 when I was talking to Edgar and Nick, “Ant-Man” was already being mentioned. Now, it’s five years later and I know you guys have continued to develop the script but one thing I’ve wanted to know is why Ant-Man isn’t going to be in “The Avengers”?

Cornish:
You’d have to ask Edgar and Marvel that. I think he probably wasn’t in “Avengers” out of respect for our screenplay, because our screenplay is kind of standalone, but again, I think that’s a question for Edgar and Marvel.

Attack the Block is out on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 25.

Source: Edward Douglas