Primarily known as a comedian and radio presenter, London based director Joe Cornish has made a big slash in the world of genre filmmaking with his alien invasion movie Attack the Block.
First making its debut at the SXSW festival way back in March, Attack the Block has garnered a cult following with its tale of Brit hood teens VS man eating alien invaders winning acclaim worldwide.
With Attack the Block finally hitting Australian cinemas this week, Matt’s Movie Reviews spoke with Joe Cornish about making the film, its unique setting and his screenwriting work on The Adventures of Tintin and Ant Man.
I first heard about Attack the Block when it first premiered in March at the SXSW festival and we finally get to see it Australia.
Taking its time, hasn’t it?
Could you imagine still plugging this film 8 months later?
(Laughs) Well I think that is a positive thing. I’ve been promoting the film all year. I’ve been to Switzerland, Germany and L.A. … I’ve been all over the world with it and that’s pretty cool for me though, considering it could have just vanished.
It’s my first film and it’s risky in some ways. You know the way we did it was a bit risky and the characters are a tiny bit edgy, so for it to have done so well and still be playing around the world is very rewarding and exciting.
When did you get the initial idea to make this movie?
Quite a few years ago, really. This film is about this gang of kind of street kids who have to defend their housing block from an alien invasion, and the original germ of the idea came when I was robbed by a gang of quite young street kids in the neighbourhood here where I live and where I grew up.
I just thought it would be an interesting idea, like an interesting challenge to try and take this bunch of fairly unsympathetic kids and see whether you can bring out the hero in them by having them encounter this alien invasion scenario.
The film start with these kids up to no good, you are allowed to dislike them, for the first half of the movie you could be enjoying them being chased and bitten by these aliens, then hopefully as the story proceeds you can start to understand them a bit more. The film is exploring them as characters as well as being a kind of crazy, action adventure, alien chase movie.
The environment and the language of your characters feel very authentic. What kind of research did you undertake to get that look and tone right?
We did a lot of research. I figured out the story in treatment form across about 7 or 8 pages, and before I wrote the script I went out into the community and talked to hundreds of young people from areas like that and in youth groups.
So I did months and months of research to try and nail the way they spoke and the slang they used and the things that would be important to them….you know I asked them all sorts of questions like “Who would you defend in a situation like that?”, “Who would you not mind if they were eaten?”, “How would you protect yourself?”, and “Who do you have home to support you?”
So yeah, we did lots and lots of research. Because to me it was very important that to balance the kind of sci-fi craziness of the alien plot, we also had to have a fairly realistic and grounded group of characters and the environment to set it in.
"The film start with these kids up to no good, you are allowed to dislike them, for the first half of the movie you could be enjoying them being chased and bitten by these aliens, then hopefully as the story proceeds you can start to understand them a bit more." - Joe Cornish
There have been a lot of Australian films that have succumbed to outside pressures and have their voiced over dubbed with American accents. Did you face any obstacles of that nature when marketing his film overseas?
No, not really. When we first showed it at SXSW much earlier this year, there was one journalist who wrote “This could need subtitles” and it sort of became a bit of a story. But it’s never happened and audiences in America really seem to understand it, you know?
It’s a pretty straight forward scenario so it’s not complicated to figure out what is happening. Then we took great care to make the slang really simple. They use the same 10 or 11 phrases over and over again…
“Allow it” is my favourite.
…yeah, and those are real slang terms that are really used. For me that’s a cool thing and that’s one of the fun things about science fiction, that you come away from a good science fiction or fantasy movie knowing some new, literal, cool terms, you know? Whether it’s “quit it” or “half full” or “best been” or all of those made up words that science fiction fans understand but nobody else does. Attack the Block will give you a whole new little handful of those terms, hopefully.
I love the look of your alien invaders. They are very simplistic but they are very menacing. Where did the idea come from to create them in that way?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away about them for people who haven’t seen the film yet. But as you say hopefully they are quite unique and are unlike anything you’ve seen for a while…you know, they connect more with the movies I love when I was growing up like E.T. and Gremlins and Critters. So there is more of a practical aspect to them than maybe is usually the case in big budget Hollywood movies.
You know if I tell you what inspired them it’ll make them not so scary (laughs) and it’ll give them away. So I’m gonna keep that a secret, but suffice to say that in a world where CGI creatures are pretty sane-y…for me the kind of creature in Super 8 and the creatures in Battle: Los Angeles kind of look the same. So we went out of our way to make a very different kind of creature that’s a bit more old school but is there, you know?
Our creature when it attacks the kids, it’s attacking them for real. And when it smashes through a window it’s really smashing through a window. So yeah, that’s all I would say.
Not many British films tackle this type of material. Do you foresee a swing in direction where filmmakers such as yourself influenced by American genre movies, create their own genre films within the British industry?
Well, there is a bit of a resurgence of that kind of thing in the UK. Like I’m of thinking of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which really the beginning of a kind of revival of genre movies in the UK. I’m thinking of Neil Marshall’s film The Descent, of Duncan Jones’Moon, of Gareth Edwards Monsters…in the last few years there have been a sort of sea change away from the kind of social realism and movies about royalty that get made quite easily over here, towards something a bit more imaginative and out there and really led by lots of great television whether it be Dr. Who becoming a huge success again or shows like Misfits.
You know, there is a bit of a revival I think of sci-fi in the UK and I love it! It’s the kind of thing I loved really as a child over here in the UK. I was watching great ‘70s and ‘80s genre films so maybe it was a generation influenced by the great ‘80s cinema and that they’re trying to bring it back.
"The last few years there have been a sort of sea change away from the kind of social realism and movies about royalty that get made quite easily over here, towards something a bit more imaginative and out there." - Joe Cornish
What I really love about the film is that I feel it has the potential to be a great franchise. Is there any talk of potential franchise spin offs? Can we see an American version with Attack the Block: Compton or in the case for Sydney, an Attack the Block: Redfern?
(Laughs) That would be cool! I would like to see the characters from Animal Kingdom or Snowtown deal with an alien invasion.
The possibilities are vast, aren’t they?
Yeah! It’s true…I wouldn’t be averse to it. It doesn’t happen that often, does it? I know that Paranormal Activity has started to spin off movies like that, haven’t they? I know there is a Tokyo version of Paranormal Activity and stuff.
We’ve been approached by a couple of studios investigating the possibility of a remake…we definitely spend a lot of time thinking about the sequel, even though there is nothing on the cards yet.
But you know Attack the Block is quite the punchy film, it’s just under 90 min long, so hopefully it leads you wanting more rather than leaving you exhausted and desperate to go home, like some of these 3 hour Hollywood movies do. So hopefully that’s an indication that people want more after it ends, which is a good thing.
Yeah, definitely. Another film you also contributed to and will be released in Australia soon is the Tintin movie. What was that experience like?
Well that was pretty amazing. I got that gig through my friend Edgar Wright who made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim and stuff…he and I worked with Steven Moffat and Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson to write the Adventures of Tintin, which I think is due out in Australia Christmas time, right?
The day after Christmas. That’s right.
Yeah, so that was amazing. Spielberg and Jackson are both big heroes of mine, and I’m a massive fan of Tintin and Herge work and have been since I was a little kid. So that was a dream come true, really.
It was hard work, it’s a big production and obviously working with people like that you want to do your best. So it was an amazing opportunity and the film is pretty spectacular. You know, it’s a big collaboration between lots of people who are big, big fans of Herge and the character. So yeah, it’s pretty exciting and I hope you guys enjoy it when it comes out.
Speaking of Edgar Wright, you are writing the screenplay for his Ant Man movie. How is that coming along?
It’s good! You know, we’ve been working on that for a while now. We’ve delivered a draft earlier in the year and that’s really in the hands of Edgar and Marvel as to if and when they’ll make it.
But we’re pretty excited about our draft. He’s a pretty cool character. You know, he’s not a hugely famous Marvel character but in a way that’s kind of cool because people don’t have too many pre-conceptions or expectations.
We feel that in quite a crowded market he is a very unique and very different kind of comic book hero. So it will be great if Ant Man got made at some point. We think we’ve written a pretty cool script.