How Attack the Block became a monster hit at SXSW
Director Joe Cornish's sci-fi cult classic stars John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker.
Ten years on from its release, the reputation of the science fiction-action movie Attack the Block has become cemented as that of a beloved cult classic. But first-time writer-director Joe Cornish had severe doubts about the prospects for his tale of menacing aliens dropping from the sky into an impoverished area of south London prior to his film's world premiere, which took place on March 12, 2011, at the SXSW Festival.
"We hadn't really shown it to a broad audience, let alone an American-international audience," says Cornish. "So, for me, it was a shot in the dark. I remember having no idea how people would react to it at all. When I showed it to the cast, they just laughed because they were so tickled by seeing themselves onscreen, pretending to be these characters. They just spent the whole film laughing and I was like, that's not how you're supposed to react! So, that was a bit weird. I had no idea what the response was going to be [at SXSW]. No idea at all."
In fact, the film's world premiere at Austin's Alamo Ritz cinema would prove the perfect launchpad for the movie, whose cast included Nick Frost, future Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker, and the then-unknown John Boyega as the film's anti-hero Moses. Below, Cornish talks about the SXSW screening, how it lit the fuse for the movie's cult rep, and his plans for a sequel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Had you been to SXSW before?
JOE CORNISH: No. It was a fantastic few days. We flew into Austin and I was with Edgar (Wright, Shaun of the Dead director and Attack the Block executive producer) and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost because they were showing Paul. Paul was the bigger movie.
It's a beautiful little city for someone from London who's used to the dark and the rain. The atmosphere there is amazing, but I think I was swept straight into a hotel room to do a bunch of press with Nick and Edgar, and everyone was really more interested in Nick and Edgar, because they didn't know who the f--- I was. [Laughs] So, I just sat there like a gooseberry.
Paul had a massive screening at the Paramount Theatre with a big Q&A. Attack the Block was a much smaller deal in a smaller cinema at a midnight screening. So, really, I felt a little bit inferior. I remember going to the Paul screening a few nights before, and everybody mobbing Simon and Nick, and thinking, oh, what are people going to think of my little film with no stars in it?
Was the film's distribution set at that point?
No. It was a StudioCanal film, so they had the European rights, but there was no American distributor at all.
So, the film might not have gotten distributed at all in America?
Oh yeah, and it very nearly didn't. That's a long story, but there was a lot of anxiety about the accents, and whether anybody in America would understand the slang — and of course they did.
What do you remember about the screening? Were you nervous?
I was very nervous. The guy who was hosting the screening asked me, "What are your influences?" I remember reeling off about 40 different films. I'd waited so long to make a film, there were a lot of influences on Attack the Block. But I remember somebody pointed out, "Wow, nobody had ever listed so many films as being influential."
I couldn't sit in the theatre. I was too nervous. It was too surreal and weird to have this sort of handcrafted passion project unspooling in front of all these strangers in a foreign country. It was too strange. I went outside the door, and I just sat on the floor perched in a fetal position, listening to the audience. I remember hearing them laugh, and start to react to the movie, and then at the end, when Moses does his hero run down the corridor pursued by the aliens, I heard everybody cheer. I guess that was when I realized that they were digging it.
What do you remember about the rest of the night?
Well, my key memory is going back to the hotel, feeling really excited that it had had such a great response, and everybody I was with, all the producers, just staring at their Blackberries in silence, because they were getting so many calls. I wanted to celebrate, and have a drink, and laugh and shout and dance, but I was surrounded by about eight people with bowed heads staring at their phones until about four in the morning.
What difference did the screening make to Attack the Block?
Well, I don't think we could have asked for a better place to premiere the film in the US. They're such a generous and knowledgeable crowd, especially for a film like Attack the Block, which is so influenced by American genre cinema. I don't know what the fate of the film would have been without SXSW. It was picked up by Screen Gems after that screening. In Britain, it was a weird atmosphere because there was this big cultural atmosphere of fear and demonization towards what the press called "hoodies." So, the movie was quite edgy in Britain, because it turns John Boyega's character from a villain into a hero and audiences were a little unsure of what to make of that. The response in America was much more understanding and they really appreciated it as a genre film rather than a sort of political film.
But Attack the Block has made its reputation on a sort of a slow burn. It didn't have much of a theatrical release, but it was the word-of-mouth that that screening generated and was perpetuated by all the bloggers and film writers and movie fans for whom South-by is a kind of nexus. That fuse was lit by the South-by screening and it continued to burn for years really, when the film hit home video and TV. And that's what's kept it alive. So, it's evidence as to how important events like that can be for independent movies, especially genre movies. You know, it's really tough to make original genre movies at a certain budget level because there's no room on the playing field due to all the big franchises. The only hope really for survival when you're an original genre movie is the community of places like South-by. So, yeah, they were the lifeblood of the film and to this day support it and write about it and keep it alive.
You also managed to cast two future sci-fi icons, which hasn't hurt its long tail.
Jodie was already pretty successful. She'd been in that movie Venus with Peter O'Toole. After South-by, the movie really got a big buzz in Hollywood. I think pretty much every producer and director saw it within the next few months. J.J. (Abrams, who would cast Boyega as Finn in The Force Awakens) saw it and really responded to John's performance in particular. John went for a meeting at Bad Robot, he ran into J.J. I think J.J. just said something like, "I'm going to give you a part one day." And he did! So, it served as an incredible calling card for us. Yeah, it's weird to think in retrospect that Finn and the Doctor were both battling aliens in a high-rise tower in south London long before they were in their other universe.
Do you know what you are doing next?
I'm doing a bunch of stuff. I'm doing this show for Netflix called Lockwood & Co., which we're shooting in a month or two, that I'm writing and directing. Then, I have another feature. Yeah, a bunch of stuff. I think it's the same with everybody — loads of stuff that's been cooking for the last year, waiting to sprint as soon as it's allowed to. But Lockwood & Co. is the next thing.
And what is the chance of you revisiting the Attack the Block universe?
We're working on it at the moment. John Boyega was round at my place a few weeks ago and we sat in the garden — socially distanced — talking about story ideas until it was so dark we couldn't see each other. So, yeah, we're working on that.
Watch the trailer for Attack the Block above.