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  • Urban Invasion: Director Joe Cornish talks about 'Attack the Block'

  • 16 DEC 2011|BY JOE NAZZARO
  • Attack The BlockOne of the biggest sleepers of 2011 was Attack the Block, a modestly-budgeted British film about a group of inner city London teens who find themselves fending off an invasion by a savage pack of alien creatures. Although the film’s US release was somewhat limited, it’s now available special features-filled home video from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

    On the eve of the film’s DVD/Blu-Ray release, writer/director Joe Cornish sat down to discuss the challenges of making his feature debut by working with children, animals (alien and otherwise) and special effects…

    Could we start by talking about two major elements in Attack the Block, which were the creatures and the gore effects?

    With the creatures, we didn’t have the budget for CGI, but at the same time, I’m a little bored with CGI in contemporary movies. I feel that creatures are all a little same-y and there’s an obsession with hyper-realistic detail. I grew up in the eighties, so I love Gremlins and Ghosbusters and Critters and ET and I love practical FX. I know filmmakers often say that and when you see the film, it’s all CG, but we couldn’t afford CG so that was an opportunity to go back to that old-school feel, so our creatures are a man in a suit, this guy Terry Notary, who worked on Avatar, Fantastic Four and The Hulk, and he’s in a costume designed by Spectral Motion, who do all of Guillermo del Toro’s work. And then we used CG to actually take away detail and make them almost into shadow puppets.

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    But for me, that was an exciting kind of meeting point of CGI and practical, and I though by making them almost like two-dimensional animation, I always hoped we could create a creature that felt a little bit old school, but also unlike anything you’d seen before. I really had no idea how people would react to them. When we first showed the film at SXSW, I had no idea how people would respond to them. I always thought of Attack the Block as the most terrifying and irresponsible episode of Sesame Street ever made.

    There have been comparisons between Attack the Block and everything from Critters to Shawn of the Dead, but it’s really its own film, isn’t it?

    I’m good friends with Edgar Wright and I’ve known him for years and years. The guy is a genius and he has a very particular visual style and flavor, so I didn’t want to be accused of copying him or cashing in, in any way. I wanted to make sure I did something different. I was directly inspired by John Carpenter and George Romero in the sense that Night of the Living Dead as well as being an amazing zombie movie has a very interesting racial and political subtext to it, as does Assault on Precinct 13and for me, the best science fiction is a way of looking at the present as much as imagining the future or some parallel reality. So the thing that made me make the film is my concern for the kids that are depicted in it.

    We shot the film, which is set in the area where I grew up and really beyond being a sci-fi or monster movie, it’s a quite sincere, heartfelt plea towards kids like that, who I think exist in all cities all over the world, and particularly teenager who when they get together are very strong. Teenagers have a lot of energy and humor and strength and I wanted to show that if you’re not careful and you don’t care for them, that can go wrong. I also wanted to show that in the right circumstances, that energy can be used terrifically positively, so that’s really why I made the film. It’s all about those kids and what they do at the beginning of the film, the bad thing they do and it’s all about what they learn from that and the consequences of it, so it’s trying to be an allegory in a way.

    Do British directors have more of a sensibility to make a film about misfits and antiheroes rather than actual heroes?

    I think that’s probably true, especially with misfits; Guy Richie’s films and Jonathan Glazer’s stuff, but I think that’s maybe just the advantage of being an independent filmmaker that if you get it right and you work with the right people, it’s easier to make an unmediated statement. There’s less interference and politics, or I’m kind of guessing that, because this is my first film, but that’s the sense I get. I also think that narrative has become very conservative in contemporary movies. It’s very difficult to think of a villain in a contemporary movie that isn’t somehow politically incorrect or insulting somebody, which is why so many movies are science fiction or period pieces.

    Personally, I think movies in the seventies and eighties felt a bit more adventurous in their narrative structure and a lot of times when I go to the movies, I feel like I’m seeing the same story over and over again; not in the detail, but in terms of the overall structure; the way the lead character is made very empathic in the first ten minutes, the way the first exciting incident will happen exactly on 15, the way the progressive complications will happen between acts two and three. It felt to me that things used to be more interesting. In literature, they certainly are, so I don’t know what it is, but that was the feeling I got, so I was excited to make a film where the lead characters start by doing something bad. I knew it would freak some people out, but I thought fuck it!

    Attack The BlockThere’s no real back-story for the aliens in the film but I’m sure you have one. Could you share some of it here?

    The back-story is pretty much what Brewis says at the end of the film. I wouldn’t want to give it away for the people who haven’t seen it yet.  Here’s the thing: they either come from a low-gravity or a volcanic planet. They live on this planet and part of their reproductive or breeding cycle is they exude some kind of weird substance that solidifies around them like a cocoon and then either the solar winds or the low gravity or a volcanic eruption blows them into orbit, the female first because she’s lighter and then they drift through space like spores or pollen until they hit something and the rest is explained in the movie.

    I’ve got a weird picture in my head of this volcanic planet where they live, which is deep black and charcoal-y rock and the bright glowing embers of the volcanoes are like the design of film: fluorescents and darkness, but I don’t know if that biologically feasible; I’ll have to use my contacts at the BBC to try and get the team behind the series Earth to figure out whether or not that’s feasible.

    Attack The BlockYou ended up working with children, aliens and special effects. Did you ever wish you had written a straightforward drama instead?

    That’s what Edgar Wright said to me: he said, ‘You’ve made it as hard as possible!’ We did all the things you’re not supposed to do: children, animals, stunts, special effects, costume performers, all at night, pyrotechnics, explosions, slang, a multi-cultural cast; it’s everything you’re not supposed to, but I’m very pleased we did.

    In the UK in particular, there are a lot of first-time film directors, not that many second-time director and very few third-time directors, so I figured if I was going to have one shot, why not be ambitious, and if it f**ks up, at least I tried. And if it’s in any way successful, it will have been worth it. Plus movies for me aren’t about talk. A good movie is where you can switch the sound down and it will still work, so I wanted to make a film about movement, kinetics, things happening, action, character development through action; I wanted to make a film about people doing things rather than talking about them. I think as soon as you make that decision, you end up with all the cool stuff.

    There’s a wonderful sequence in the film where the kids are racing down the stairs to fight the aliens, but they all stop in their own homes to grab their choice of weapons. That one scene says a lot about the characters.

    That came from my research. I would ask the young people I spoke to, ‘Okay, you’re in this situation; these creatures have come down; what do you do?’ and I got each kid I spoke to, to describe what their home was like, who would be at home when they went home, what weapon they would use and where they would find it, so that all came out of real detail. I’m glad you picked up on that, because by the end of the movie, you know about the parents of every individual. You know about Brewis and his dad’s car. You know about Sam who’s on the phone to her mum at the beginning, so the family environment of every character is revealed as the narrative goes on and that was entirely intentional. So that all came from research.

    Again, that’s something Edgar taught me when we started writing Ant Man all those years ago. He stressed the importance of research, and I was like, ‘Research? For a film about a man who shrinks to the size of an ant?’ But the way he taught me to go about doing it was a real revelation to me actually. Again, the whole film is a combination of truth and bulls**t. I supplied the bulls**t, but then you’ve got to go and get the truth, because I think the balance is good between the two.

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    Can you talk about your use of color and light in the film?

    We looked at The Warriors and at Andrew Lazlo’s work. The main driving factor with the movie was that films set in this environment are usually very grainy and there’s this bleak aesthetic that’s associated with them, a hand-held naturalism and you where you drain the color out, but I wanted to go completely the other way. We wanted to make it almost color-saturated like a ‘60s or ‘70s Disney film. I looked at the night sequences in Mary Poppins, like the extraordinary rooftop sequence with the fireworks going off, and just the pleasure of looking at an image and the pleasure of color and light and iridescence and tonality. We also looked at The Thing and the amazing levels of contrast that were achieved with the bright whiteness of the snow and the darkness of the shadows, often in the same frame. That was how I chose Tom Townend as our cinematographer. I specifically looked for someone who could shoot nights and keep that level of contras without grain. I saw a commercial he made for Virgin Mobile in the UK that did exactly that, so I went on IMDB to find out who shot it and hired him.

    Attack the Block DVD is packed with features, including no less than three commentaries. Are you a fan of these ‘loaded’ editions?

    I am. I thought we had a particularly good gang of people, so I really wanted to do a commentary with Edgar Wright and we go out of our way not to talk about what’s happening on the screen; it’s basically like a podcast. I do a podcast in the UK, so I love radio and audio. And the young actors are f**king great; they’re so funny and full of energy, so I thought it would be interesting for people to hear them talk naturally and see to what extent they use the slang and all that stuff.

    What surprised me was how quickly it happened. Before you know it, the commentaries are at 7 a.m. the next morning, so I wanted to plan them all and script some stuff, but I never got the time so we just riffed them. We’ve also got a really good 58-minute ‘making-of,’ because I love really good making-ofs, like Fincher’s making-ofs or the Three Kings making-of. I was watching the making of Point Blank the other day, which is really good, so we’ve got a good 58-minute making-of, three commentaries, a ten-minute thing about how we did the creatures and we worked really hard on the picture and sound quality. I’m a big home cinema enthusiast, so I have a projector and surround-sound system, and all through the production of this movie, I would fantasize about the moment when I got home and put the disc in my system, so I wanted to make it good. We spent a long time on the sound, so I’m very pleased with the reviews in the UK of being particularly strong technically about the sound and picture quality, which I’m very happy about.

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