As a kid growing up in South London during the late ’70s and early ’80s Joe Cornish adored both creature features like Gremlins and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and gang movies such as The Outsiders and The Warriors. His one complaint about these films? None of them were set in South London. “I used to wonder why those stories never happened where I lived,” says Cornish. “Twenty-five years later I’m trying to put that right.”
Cornish’s vehicle for doing so is the movie Attack the Block, which the 42-year-old wrote and directed and which opens tomorrow. The movie is set in London’s Oval neighborhood — home to some dodgy projects-style apartment blocks — and begins with a white nurse (Jodie Whittaker) being robbed by a gang of poor, mostly black, teenagers, led by John Boyega’s Moses. Attack the Block then heads deep into vintage John Carpenter territory, as the muggers and their victim reluctantly cooperate to battle a horde of hairy, sharply dentured aliens. Also caught up in the mayhem is a drug dealer (Nick Frost from Shaun of the Dead) and a feckless trustafarian-type (Luke Treadaway), whose desire to purchase marijuana lands him in the titular neighborhood on the night of the alien invasion. Cornish sheepishly admits the latter character is partly based on himself. “Yeah, that is sort of me, I’m afraid,” says the director. “I spent a lot of my early 20s in housing estates scoring weed.”
Attack the Block premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, where it garnered hugely positive reviews and an audience award. But the film, which Cornish says cost around $13 million, opens this weekend opposite Cowboys & Aliens and runs the risk of being pounded into the ground by Jon Favreau’s similarly themed, but much starrier and more lavishly budgeted effort. Despite this, Cornish has hopes his film will not only do well, but will also fly the flag for the kind of movie that Hollywood just doesn’t seem to make any more. “The movie world at the moment is full of very very big-budget films and very very low-budget films,” he says. “The middle ground, especially for this type of comic book movie, is becoming less common. But this is the kind of film I absolutely loved when I was growing up. So if you’re a fan of low-budget and high-concept inventiveness, of fresh faces, of something different, then hopefully you’ll dig Attack the Block.”
While Attack the Block is Cornish’s first film, he has been a beloved figure in the UK since 1996 when he and his friend Adam Buxton launched The Adam and Joe Show. A pop culture-obsessed half hour of comedic weirdness that ran for five years on Britain’s groundbreaking Channel 4 network, the series featured such regular features as “BaadDad” — featuring Buxton’s elderly father reviewing music videos — and “Toymovies.” In the latter skits, Cornish and Buxton recreated blockbuster movies using stuffed toys and cardboard sets, years before Robot Chicken did pretty much the same thing. Cornish says he has never had any contact with Chicken overlord Seth Green but has no bone to pick with him. “We got our idea from Todd Haynes’ film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” says Cornish. “So we don’t really worry about other people doing that toy stuff.” Cornish regarded the “Toymovies” sketches as a way of teaching himself directing skills. “That was very much a way to analyze movies; to pick them apart,” he says. “It was a kind of toy-town film school.”
The inspiration for Attack the Block came around a decade ago when Cornish was himself robbed in South London. “It was a mugging, which ended in the car being nicked as well, since they realized I had the keys in my pocket,” he explains. The incident prompted the director to investigate London’s gang culture. “It made me want to find out why a young person would find themselves in a position where they thought robbing someone was a reasonable thing to do,” he says. “I spent months and months talking to kids in South London and trying to find the type of kid that did that to me. I ended up feeling a great deal of empathy for kids like that, whilst not apologizing in any way for the wrongness of what they do at the start of the film.”
He also ended up with an in-depth knowledge of the kids’ hip-hop-inspired argot — a street language he put into the mouths of his ruffian characters when he started to write Attack the Block. “The film’s designed to teach you the language,” says Cornish “For the first few minutes, you might find yourself a little bit disorientated. But the further you get in, the more you should pick it up.”
Cornish wanted his movie to be as ambitious as the early work of his cinematic heroes, such as John Carpenter (whose first movie, Dark Star, actually began as a college project) and Joe Dante (whose first real film was the technically demanding, water-based Piranha). The director admits there were many occasions during the Spring 2010 shoot when he thought he might have bitten off more than he could chew. “Yeah, all the time,” he laughs. “And everyone around me told me that! We had first-time acting kids, we had creature effects, we had chases and stunts and explosions. It was in many ways foolish. But I figured, ‘If you’re gonna have a go, why not be ambitious?’ And I loved it. I don’t regret it at all.”
Attack the Block opened in British cinemas in May and grossed a respectable $4 million. Cornish also screened the film in Los Angeles for an audience that included Joe Dante. “It’s a very entertaining movie,” says the Gremlins director, Trailers From Hell website overlord, and devoted sci-fi fan. “It’s quite ingenious for its budget level. But particularly, it’s the ambiance of the story. I think knowing your world is one of the best entrees into making something where people will say, ‘Hey, that’s new, that’s something that’s got some integrity.'”
Another of Cornish’s idols to have given the film the thumbs up? Steven Spielberg. “Spielberg watched it and enjoyed it,” says the director. “I wouldn’t want to directly quote him because I haven’t had a chance to speak to him about what he thought.”
Spielberg isn’t just one of Cornish’s idols. A couple of years back, Spielberg recruited him and Edgar Wright — an old friend who also executive produced Block — to pick up the writing reins on his forthcoming movie The Adventures of Tintin, after Steven Moffat left the project to oversee Doctor Who. “It was amazing,” says Cornish of meeting Spielberg. “It’s sort of like meeting your maker, isn’t it? The thing I had to do was try not to remember his incredible body of work because I would have been in danger of passing out.”
Cornish and Wright are currently collaborating again on the screenplay for the long-in-gestation movie about the Marvel superhero Ant-Man. Cornish also reveals that Wright has come up with “a very good idea” for an Attack the Block sequel. Over the past few months, however, the debut auteur has been busy preparing the ground for the original movie’s U.S. release and its David-and-Goliath box office battle with Cowboys & Aliens (whose producers include one Steven Spielberg). The word-of-mouth pump was primed by 25 screenings that took place around the country on May 25 and the buzz was further increased by the Attack the Block team’s presence at last weekend’s Comic-Con.
Cornish also jokingly suggests that — unlike Cowboys & Aliens — his movie might actually prove linguistically useful to audiences. “When you come out of the theatre,” he explains, “you will be ready to come to South London and kick some alien arse!”
Attack the Block starts screening from midnight at selected cinemas. You can check out the trailer below.