Though Joe Cornish is a first time director with Attack the Block, he’s not someone fresh out of film school, or a dilettante. Having been in the British entertainment industry for over a decade, his move to feature length filmmaking was as considered as the movie. Cornish was happy to talk about his influences, and was somehow drawn to speaking of Grace Jones. We had a great chat about the film, and he’s a very sharp passionate man. Check it out.
What was the genesis of this project?
It was two things, first of all it was my love of American 80’s movies, like E.T., Gremlins and Critters – little practical monster movies set in suburbia. I had watched those movies growing up and I had never seen one set in Brittan. But Brittan’s really good at the realist side of it, but not the fantasy side of it. What Spielberg and Company were doing back then was making these super realistic suburban movies – almost like a Robert Altman movie, or a Ken Loach movie – and then putting a drop of fantasy in and it struck me “what would happen if you did that not only in the UK, but in this particular environment, with this particular type of kid? How would that change up the story?” That was the genesis.
There also seems to be a strong sense of the Walter Hill and John Carpenter sense of action.
I’m a big fan of first films by filmmakers who are a little high concept about it, and bite off a little more than they can chew. I’m thinking about The Terminator, or Duel or Assault on Precinct 13, movies that aren’t too talky, that try to do the stuff that bigger budget movies do, but find a clever way to do it on a small scale. What’s so inspiring about Carpenter’s movies is that there isn’t a lot of chit-chat. There’s not a lot of exposition, or talk about their childhoods, or when they were ten, and you know it’s going to be repeated in the last scene as catharsis, people just react in the moment to what’s happening, and that was inspiring. Those early Carpenter films are almost set in real time as well, or in constrained time frames. I’m in my early forties, I waited a long time to make a film so I had movie blue balls, and there was a lot of stuff and movies I wanted to get in there, without explicitly referencing a particular shot or scene. I didn’t want it to be a movie of references or shots. I wanted it to be in the spirit.
The big difference between your film and the Spielberg films of that era is that you didn’t make the kids warm and cuddly.
It’s interesting, there used to be more anti-heroes in movies. Something’s happened in the last ten or fifteen years that they bend over backwards to make you love the characters in the first fifteen minutes. The wife is beautiful and the kids are gorgeous, and then they’re kidnapped. People are allowed to be anti-heroes as long as it’s righteous and retributional. And there’s a rich history from James Cagney in Public Enemy through to Bonnie and Clyde to a lot of John Carpenter’s movies, through to Taxi Driver, I mean my movie’s more populist than those movies, but as a writer I wanted to take on an interesting character, and for me that was a challenge to start out with a guy who does a bad thing. The moment that inspired me to write the movie was the moment right after they mug this woman a meteor comes down, she runs away and we stay with them. That to me was the thing that was provocative, interesting, I knew the audience – if I shot the mugging right – would feel something, and I thought a negative energy was more interesting than a positive one because it felt less familiar. Less easy, less predictable, and if I could harness that energy and take it somewhere, that might be an achievement.
Was the block always going to be a part of it?
I was looking in area where I grew up, and I was looking for something where that milieu was science fictional. So the way the kids dressed looked like ninjas or cowboys, maybe fantasy is better to use than Sci-fi, I was looking for fantasy beats in this area. The vehicles they use, the mini-dirtbikes, the bicycles reminded me of E.T. The blocks reminded me of the Nostromo or the Poseidon or the Nakatomi plaza, and the language reminded me of Clockwork Orange. One of the joys of science fiction phrases is the phrases that mean something to us, but not outside the context, like Hoth or Bespin or Dylithium Crystals. All those elements made it a fantasy for me, and you could have those elements without betraying the reality of the environment.
Did you have the cinematography in mind when you started?
Yeah, one thing I noticed about a lot of the movies I loved Blade Runner, Alien, Streets of Fire, The Warriors, all take place almost entirely at night. And that forces you to light everything, and it forces you to think about how you light everything. And it forces us to think about light both inside the frame and outside the frame, which is how we ended up with the glow in the dark teeth, etc. And we studied Andrew Lazlo’s work, and Dean Cundey. Tom Townend was the DP, he’d never shot a feature before, I saw a commercial he did and it was all night and stunningly lit, and we brought him in incredibly early, he storyboarded with us, I think he did a great job.
One of the great things about foreign filmmakers taking on American genre, is how they subvert it, like with the Spaghetti western, or what Edgar Wright did. Was that part of the appeal?
I never looked at it in a schematic way – that was just the story that was exciting, it was exactly what I wanted to do. When I pitched it to people, they said “don’t you think you’ll alienate people by having him mug this woman at the beginning?” And I would say “that’s cool, you can empathizes with the aliens if you want, but somewhere around the midpoint of the movie I hope you start thinking twice.” And I don’t want to turn it all around and make you excuse their actions, but this boy has more dimension to him, and that he’s a child..
I think you did something that Spielberg and Carpenter were doing in the 70’s. You watch Assault on Precinct 13, and there’s a whole lot of Rio Bravo there, but it’s not Rio Bravo, and when you watch this, you can feel the influences, but it’s not those movies. You mentioned that the robbery was the Doc Brown moment of inspiration, what inspired that?
I was mugged myself in the neighborhood I grew up. It was the worst thing that had happened to be there, and the kid was young. It was a very tame experience. They asked for my wallet and phone, I gave them my wallet and phone, we went our separate ways. It struck me how young the kid was, and how the situation seemed totally artificial, it seemed like a role playing game or a western, it seemed very phony. The kid was young, I thought to myself “they’re probably on the same level of Call of Duty as me, we probably listen to the same music, you probably live a couple of streets away, why are we in this weird situation out of an Abel Ferrara film, or a bad Michael Winner film? Why do you think this is an acceptable choice?” I did a lot of research and I ended up speaking at great length to kids who did this stuff, and they do bad things, but it’s not who they are.
Did you find them to be like your main character?
Yeah. And we tried to show that process in the movie. When you start the movie you can’t tell how old they are, you can’t tell what color they are, you can’t tell who they are, they’re completely masked. They’re bandits, and then the process of the chase, their hoods and masks come down, you visit their flats, by the end of the movie, you know what every kid’s parent situation is, so the process of the story is to dimensionalize the character while being chased by these crazy alien wolf mother*ckers.
Was The Wire also an influence?
I made a tactical decision as a writer not to watch any television about fifteen years ago. I only watch movies, but by god I’ve heard a lot about it. And I watched a little bit of season four, which has the kids. I didn’t want to watch too much, because I didn’t want to be influence, but I know John Boyega – our lead – found it very helpful for his research into the character.
During the process of researching this, did you find a lot of these kids have to grow up really fast?
Of course, and it’s a front, they put up a front. It’s all about your front and your reputation. That’s a response to being in a tough environment that isn’t policed very well and that society turns its back on, and actively demonizes a little bit. You get what you wish for; if you call children monsters, they’re going to be monsters by the end of the day. The film is a reaction to that without getting too deep into that. Bottom line is that it’s a mean, lean monster movie, but those old movies used to have a little bit of fiber in them as well.
One of the great things about the film is that it’s dense, but it runs just around ninety minutes, was that the end goal?
I was always about ninety. However brilliant a film is, it’s a rare film that if a film is over two hours you don’t start shifting in your seat, don’t you? And you need to go to the bathroom, and you don’t know when. I don’t know, I smell a rat. You used to come out of a theater feeling satisfaction, now it’s more of a “thank god that’s over.” It’s like they’re trying to make a different sense of satisfaction by force feeding you. A big meal isn’t necessarily as tasty.
The posters say “from the producers of Shaun of the Dead.” How does that make you feel?
It’s a very different film from Shaun of the Dead. Edgar (Wright) was a producer on the film, he’s a very good old friend of mine. It’s less of a comedy, it’s not as a gag driven, I’d be a fool to make it with Edgar’s stylistic signature, so it’s different. And you shouldn’t expect spoofing, or a gag a minute. This is a movie that wants to be real, wants to be grounded, wants you take the world in a real way, but hopefully has laughs that come as an escape, it’s different.
One similarity is that in Shaun they hide in a bar, while in your film they hide in a pot farm.
Well, it all traces back to Rio Bravo, I mean, Night of the living Dead traces back to Rio Bravo, it’s a siege scenario. But when you watch Rio Bravo that’s a smaller element than you might think. We do have a little place where they hide.
I’m surprised we haven’t talked about Tin-Tin, do you get many questions about it?
Yeah, but I’m pretty taciturn about talking about it, so maybe that’s why I don’t get so many. (laughs) I finished my work on Tin-Tin before I started Attack the Block, I’m a small cog big brilliant machine with many great brains, I’m as excited about it as you are.
It must be nice to brag about.
It’s amazing – I can’t quite believe it myself. I’m quite lucky and privileged.
This is your first film, and this is most of your cast’s first film as well. How was that like on set? Was it one huge learning process for everyone, how was the set in general?
It was fun. You have to work really hard, particularly as a director, I didn’t have any of the fun. You have to be on it, on top of it from dawn til dusk. I think the kids had fun, between shots and when they weren’t in the scene, but I wasn’t part of it. When you’re a director making a first film, everyone around you will have made two or three films that year or will make two or three films that year, and they’ll have done it for years and year. You are the guy with the least experience, but yet you’re supposed to be in charge, so there’s immediate disconnect and problem.
How was the casting process? Because they’re amazing.
Thank you, I’m so proud of them. There are eleven kids who were between the ages of ten and seventeen when we shot the film. We auditioned about fifteen hundred. This was my first film, I thought there might be some secret alchemy to casting, some special techniques or tricks, but what it boiled down to for me was that I don’t want to too much time directing these kids, because I’ve got effects and stunts to take care of, so who can do it? Who can I put the camera down in front of and feel like I could cut that into the movie? And those were the ones we put in the film. They’re all Londoners, but they’re all acting.
Had you spent much time on other sets?
Well, I’ve worked a lot in TV, and I’ve directed some TV. As for movie sets, a little on Edgar’s films but basically no. But I’d done a lot of TV, and I’ve doen it well – I’ve been in front of the camera, behind it, I’ve had a bit of experience with lighting and sound, and because I’ve been in radio, I’m used to soundwork.
It’s not like you went in there completely blind.
Absolutely, I’m quite old, and I’ve done a lot of TV and radio.
You’re not quite old.
I’m quiet old. Comparatively speaking, I’m not a twenty two year old whiz kid.
Having experience is an underrated thing, obviously you’ve been working in the industry for a while, but you see a lot of young kids come in and then by their film you realize they have no life experience and it plays out in their movies. I think being old is to the benefit of a first film.
Cool, I hope so. I sort of seem to be making movies about teenagers, and I’ve certainly got a couple years perspective on that (laughs)
Do you have a next film?
I do, but I don’t want to say anything about it. I remember when Edgar and Simon told people about Hot Fuzz almost immediately after Shaun of the Dead and in development people were constantly asking them about it. I think it’s nice to work on an idea free of an sense of responsibility or that people know what it is, plus I just like surprises. One of my formative experiences as a kid was seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark the week it came out, and in the UK they didn’t distinguish the start time of the film, so you could go in at any point. So I went in there just before the end, and I gathered I shouldn’t know what was inside the box, and Indy says to Marion “close your eyes, don’t look in the box!” and I realized “shit, I better close my eyes, and not spoil the film” and all I heard was the audio, and felt exactly like Indiana Jones “what the f*ck is this in this box,” and I never knew, and I sat through the commercials and the trailers, and then it started again with that amazing opening, and I thought “holy sh*t, this is incredible” and I knew nothing about the movie, I didn’t know what was in the ark, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and that’s rare these days. I think J.J. Abrams is very good at that, concealing everything.
It’s good and bad, it sucks to go into Citizen Kane knowing what Rosebud is, or the reveal in Vertigo but at the same time a good movie can’t be spoiled.
But those are big twists, I’m talking about moment to moment, or even what the tone will be. Those 80’s Spielberg movies had more gore than you might expect, or were scarier. More foul language and stuff.
But you could get away with it at the time, not like you can now. Do you have a complicated MPAA R rating? They’re all more touchy and picky now.
In the UK, we got a 15, it’s language, violence and soft drug use. Even those things annoy me because sometimes they give away plot twists. If I’d seen Raiders and it had said “exploding head, melting head, one use of the word sh*t – wait, that was Temple of Doom – that would have rained on the party. Of course it’s important for parents to keep their kids safe from dangerous special effects (laughs).
The score is really, really good, it was one of those instances when I got out of the theater I said “wish I had the soundtrack right now so I could blast it in my car.” You’ve got a bit of a musical background.
Kind of, that’s very flattering. I have done some songs, I could do some more if I was insane.
There was the Quantum of Solace stuff.
That was for my show in the UK “The Adam and Joe Show” where we pick a theme and then each of us has five days to write on that theme, we do it totally ourselves in a garage band. And then we play the song the following Saturday and the audience vote for which one they like best. And one week the theme was to anticipate the theme song for the new Bond movie and that was when the title had just been announced, and so I did a song about how confusing that title was. I like that film.
How much influence did you have when it came to the score?
It was an interesting process because what I didn’t realize is that a film score comes in at the eleventh hour. It comes late in the process, it has a huge effect on the tone of the movie and the atmosphere of the movie, obviously it’s one of the most important things in the film. You read a lot of stories about filmmakers who have to change the score at the last minute, famously with the Legend, and there’s lot of examples of scores being thrown out and a new guy being called in at the last minute. Famous unused scores, composers who have used the same cues in different movies.
That seems to be about eighty percent of all action movies these days. Everything this year has the Inception thing.
Indeed. The other thing you hear about is directors who don’t used composed music, like Quentin Tarantino.
You also hear about directors falling in love with their temp track. You can tell in Live Free or Die Hard, that they fell in love with it.
It’s noticeable on Kick Ass as well. But – again – I watched Raiders before, and if you listen to the Raiders score, it’s elastic, it fits the action, and the tempo get faster or slower as the action gets faster or slower and I wanted a score like that a slave to the action – a slave to the rhythm of the action as Grace Jones might say. (laughs) I’m depressed by that joke, I’m depressed and sad. (laughs) I was really lucky that this brilliant guy named Steve Price – who worked on the Lord of the Rings movies and has been a brilliant music supervisor and has been the right hand man to a lot of famous composers he was ready to do his first score, he was willing to do it for less than he’s probably worth to get the opportunity to do it. We were really lucky that Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe from Basement Jaxx were up for doing it, and interested and available, and the pitch for the score was “imagine if John Williams and John Carpenter got together and got quite high and wrote the score.” And they really knocked it out of the park. The first thing that Basement Jaxx brought to me was that riff you hear when the gang are first walking down the street pulling the carcass, the little three note riff. And that was the first demo they brought to me. And I just thought “wow, they nailed it.” I was just really lucky.
When the score came in what got better for you?
Everything. That scene I was just talking about, originally we had a track called “You can’t stop us now” by the RZA but we couldn’t clear it. And that was really working in the preview screenings, but we couldn’t clear it, and I felt it was wrong – I mean the mood was right and the swagger was right but it was too American, so when Basement Jaxx brought that in as a demo, we immediately laid it in in place of that track and it worked.
Were you trying to keep America out of the film?
No, but there’s some British films in the past that are so desperate to be American that they sacrifice their own voice, and sometimes that can seem a bit craven. So I wanted to have the spirit of those things, but not actually be directly obviously referencing them. Basement Jaxx’s first ever gig was at the Jam, which is at bottom of the road from where we shot the mugging scene, so they’re a Brixton-based band. Their studio’s about a five minute walk from my house. It just seemed right and proper. And they’re brilliant at world music, they’re brilliant at different styles, and everything they do has a joy to it, a bounce, and I knew that however dark I asked them to get, it would always be fun. And they were amazing. The other thing we noticed about John Carpenter is that he never seems to use a snare drum. He’ll use a high hat, and a bass drum, but they’ll never be a 4/4 snare drum rhythm that you can tap your feet to, so it never turns into a pop promo, it’s always atmospheric and dramatic. So that’s one of the things I said to Basement Jaxx, I said “don’t use a snare, and if you do, don’t let it sit on the beat, make sure it is – to again quote Grace Jones – a slave to the rhythm of the scene.
The hype has been building on this one since SXSW, people have been raving about it, how is that for you?
I’m psyched, is the word, and the important thing is that this isn’t studio-generated publicity. The word hype has connotations of fakeness and artificial-ness. All we’re saying is if you like this movie, tell your friends and write about it on the internet and spread the word. Hopefully this is a genuine type of hype, a sincere type of hype, not a lot of money is being spent on promoting this movie, so if it is a success it will be a success because people like it, and I think there’s something cool about that. In a world where movies can live or die in a weekend, and often are based on the amount of marketing muscle they have.
And isn’t being shoved down your throat.
Yeah. Hopefully someday I will make a movie that is shoved down your throat.
I look forward to having you shoved down my throat.
Don’t be dirty, I’m actually talking about making a movie and shoving it down the throat of everyone. It’ll be an edible film. The world’s first edible movie.
Attack the Block opens July 29. Don’t miss one of the best films of the year.