While attending NYCC, I had the opportunity to take part in a roundtable interview with British director Joe Cornish. Cornish’s directorial debut, Attack of the Block, has been compared to Shaun of the Dead and has already developed a cult following. Attack of the Block is the story of a group of youth from the projects in south London and their encounter with extraterrestrials. Attack of the Block is available on Bluray and DVD and can be purchased here.
Q: When you made (the film) did you ever think it could be a hit in America? It’s a very British film, did you ever think it could have an international audience?
Cornish: Well, I think anybody that makes a film always dreams that it might be a success. You know, you don’t go into production, you don’t go into an endeavor as elaborate as making a film without some little voice in your head going ‘aw man, this could be f–king great’, but then it’s usually drowned out by the other voices going ‘you’re wasting your time’. So yeah, I always fantasized that it might be. But it’s extraordinary just to be here in the States with it. You know, I know Edgar (Wright director Shaun of the Dead) very well. I trailed around with him during the Hot Fuzz promotional tour and now I’m visiting all those places myself. So yeah, it’s amazingly rewarding and I’m very appreciative that people dig it. It’s massively influenced by American cinema. As you know, I was totally raised, I was bottle-fed American cinema, so I guess it’s not totally far out, we like similar things.
Q: I was actually wondering, you said it took you 20 years to actually make a film, I was wondering why it was Attack of the Block?
Cornish: I was waiting for the right idea. I didn’t want to do something talky, I didn’t want to do a coming-of-age movie, I didn’t want to make something set in one room about people shooting each other. I’m very inspired by the first films from my favorite directors, like the first Terminator, I know that wasn’t Cameron’s first movie but we’ll sweep aside Piranha 2. But those directors who were trying to make big movies even when they couldn’t. There was a sense of ambition in those films and these directors forced themselves to deal with the current sea of big movies. You know they are about action and movement and forward motion and big ideas and I love movies where necessity is the mother of invention. I love the image of Gale Anne Hurd and James Cameron, in her garage, doing the final shot of the Terminator’s Eye. Terminator is as good as, if not better than, hundreds of 150 million dollar movies I could name but its basically independent, low budget movies. I miss that, lots of filmmakers are trying to do a similar thing. But yea, I was waiting for an idea that felt like a mini blockbuster.
Q: The creatures in Attack of the Block, where did you come up with the glowing teeth and no eyes? What influenced the creatures, where did they come from?
J.C.- They came from lots of places. They came from looking at my cat. I have a black cat, I grew up with a black cat and I was fascinated by when you back light a black furred animal they appear to me two dimensional, it looks like a shadow, and it occurred to me that film is the process of capturing a three dimensional space and flattening it so I just thought, almost mathematically, huh what if you had a creature that was so black that its fur absorbed light and it visually looked like my cat? Wouldn’t that sit in a film image in a cool way and it reminded me of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings where he used rotoscope, it reminded me of Pete’s Dragon, it reminded me of Mary Poppins, it reminded me of contemporary performance capture techniques where you really are almost painting over live action. Or you know, the techniques you saw in Snow White or the first S.N.E.S. game to use performance capture technology called Another World and just thought, cool that might work, and tested it six months before we shot and it kinda worked. Then I figured by that time I had a sense of the overall look of the film, that it was all at night and that i was going to be dealing with high contrasts and bright colors and deep deep shadows and I thought ‘Ok, if the body is a deep shadow there should be a secondary point to draw your attention’ and I was looking at a back issue of Cinefex and I was reading about how Spielberg put a light in E.T.‘s chest and finger and how much Spielberg used light to express emotion in Close Encounters and E.T. and that gave me the idea to make the teeth glow and that was that. We approached the design of the movie and the cinematography and the post production all with that in mind, with making the creature work and we did a special grade for the blu ray and DVD to make sure the black turns work. I used to obsessively watch DVDs and look at the black turns so yea, I’m pleased if they worked for you.
Q: Do you have a name for the aliens? Did you ever come up with one?
J.C.- “Big Gorilla Mother Fuckers.” It’s not catchy, but it’s descriptive.
Q: The language and the dialect in the movie are very unique and very British. How did you get that to work on screen? Was it hard to write like that?
J.C.- We did a lot of research. I spoke to hundreds of young people and I started with a treatment and, before I wrote the script, I went to loads of young people and talked them through the story and listened to what they said. So a lot of the lines in the film are things they said to me; ‘Too much madness for one text’, ‘Better off calling the Ghost Busters’, ‘ I don’t want to get chlamydia’. All those things just… I mean teenagers are funny and they know they’re funny. They are naturally funny and hopefully that’s where the comedy of the film comes from. It’s not just goofy or gag-y, it’s just teenagers being teenagers. They are funny, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.
Q: Was that all written or was any of it ad libbed?
J.C.- It was all scripted. I mean the kids had an opportunity to adjust the script before we shot but when you’re making a movie like this you don’t have time to get all Judd Apatow on its ass. You gotta shoot what you need to shoot and move on. So, if it feels natural, that’s a testament to the atmosphere on the set and to these young people and as to how relaxed and comfortable they were. I worked hard to give them ownership of it, to be a collaborator and not a dictator and to let them own it as much as I did, but yea I’m really proud of them and they did an amazing job.
Q: Well I’m a big fan of the movie, a huge fan of the movie, one sequence in particular, if you don’t mind me getting into spoilers, the sequence where the kids get chased down and it’s an edge of your seat, nail biting sequence, how long did that take to film?
J.C.- The big chase back to the block? We had I think five days on that and you know i’ts scary, you shoot a lot and it cuts down to tiny, tiny, tiny, pieces and its scarily time consuming. I think on big movies that’s second unit shit and they give it to the second unit but I didn’t want any second units, I wanted to do it all myself and it’s kind of a learning curve but, you know, once you factor in safety, once you factor in the limitations of your environment, I mean in that estate we could only really go for like the length of this room (about 25 feet) before you hit a corner or a curve. It was tough but that’s what I love in film. I love chase sequences. One of my favorite sequences is the riverbed chase scene in Terminator 2. Such a beautifully made sequences. Its so geographically clear where everybody is, there’s no shaky cam, its so elegant, locked down, and i just wanted to see if I could approach even a tiny percentage of that kind of thing.
Q: The shot with the peephole, where the monster comes out, where did you get the idea for that? That’s such an iconic scene.
J.C.- I guess that just comes from the reality of those apartments. They all have the little peepholes and I was looking at the rushes of it the other day and I’m pleased I made Moses do ‘that’ (a minor adjustment motion) with his baseball cap because he doesn’t do that on the first five takes. Then it just occurred to me, do ‘that’ with your hat and its funny how little gestures like that can be effective, but I’m glad you liked that. I almost wanted the lights to be out in that corridor but I think it worked quite well with the brightness. I’m pleased you liked it.
Q: How did you decide who you wanted to kill and who you wanted to keep alive?
J.C.- I wanted to be unexpected with it, you know? I’m a big fan of the Friday the 13th movies. I like Stalker/ Slasher Movies. I love The Burning its one of my favorites and what I wanted to avoid was the way those movies have a moral structure and characters will smoke pot or have premarital sex or they’ll do something ‘wrong’ and they will get punished for it. I wanted to reflect the very real random dangers they have in the world for kids like that and there’s no kind of moral framework. It tends to be much more random so I thought it would be more exciting and more truthful to make it pretty random.
Q: Are you yourself a product of an apartment block?
J.C.- No, I grew up very near the blocks, I grew up near Stockwell in south London, very near to where we shot the movie and where the movie is set. I have all my life, but I come from a very nice, middle class, comfortable house but i do have many friends that do live in that environment. I’ve lived very close to it you know I have lived through one, two… five sets of riots since I was born in my neighborhood and I love my neighborhood and the people in it and this film wouldn’t exist without the story of those kids. That’s what its really about and that comes from the fact that that’s where I live, not literally where I live but very near to where I live.
Q: I was actually gonna ask, I know part of where you got this idea from is that you were mugged, and that’s kinda where you got really interested in how the kids developed but how did you bring aliens into the whole mix? Its a story about the kids, I get that, but where did you go “I wanna do a story about….”
J.C.- Just because i love that kind of movie. I am interested in any story that involves a monster or a Sasquatch or a ghost or some kind of reanimated corpse, or I don’t know its like sugar in my tea. I need to have some kind of a super natural element in it. I just love it that’s my type of movie. A movie that speaks about reality through the prism of bullshit is wonderful to me, I love it. A lot of sci-fi is about the present. Night of the Living Dead has an amazing sort of racial subtext in it, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about McCarthy era America, E.T. is about divorce, Godzilla is about the atomic bomb. All good science fiction is a way to look at reality in a fun way, do you know what I mean? And I’m not really interested in anything else really.
Q: Is that love of sci-fi and the supernatural why you got involved with No Heroics and the Antman movie your name is attached to?
J.C.- No Heroics was made by a friend of mine, Drew Pierce, who is now writing Iron Man 3 and The Runaways, so I just did a tiny voice over in that as a favor to him. And Antman: I was a fan of that character and I would have done anything to work with Edgar. He’s just so clever and I learn a lot from him. So, if he wanted to adapt Mr. Tickle I would have been in there. Do you know who Mr. Tickle is in the states? Do you know who the Mystery Men are? Mr. Peanut! You guys have Mr. Peanut right? With the hat? If he asked me to co-write a film about Mr. Peanut, I would have done that, but I do love Antman as a character and I’m very proud of our script.