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British Talent: Director Joe Cornish

With urban sci-fi Attack the Block, Joe Cornish served up one of the best British films of the year; not bad for his directorial debut. Here, he walks us through his phenomenal journey, and explains why the British industry is such an exciting place to be.

The original idea for Attack the Block came from my love of the American creature features I saw when I was growing up in the 80s; classic creature features like ET, Gremlins, Critters and Ghostbusters. Those movies combined realism and fantasy, they told extraordinary stories but set them amongst ordinary people and places. There was only ever one thing missing. No-one had ever set a story like that in my suburbia, Stockwell in South London.

It was all very well for aliens to be landing in middle America, in Elliot’s back yard or an unsuspecting midwestern town, but what would happen if they landed on one of the more notorious South London housing estates which I’d grown up around? A very different kind of a story, I thought, and one that could be pretty exciting and meaningful.

When I first had the idea, I didn’t feel I was good enough at screenwriting to do it well enough. It was working with Edgar Wright on Ant-man, the movie we wrote for Marvel, that really gave me a crash course in the discipline of screenwriting. I started writing Attack The Block properly in about 2008. I developed it with Big Talk Productions, the company who made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and thankfully they did all the tough work of raising the money. They just let me get on with being creative.

Edgar taught me the importance of research, and with Attack The Block it was particularly important to portray the young characters in as honest a way as possible. So I worked with a brilliant woman called Lucy Pardee, who famously discovered Katie Jarvis for Fishtank. She and I went out into the community and talked to hundreds of young people. I would talk them through the treatment, using big illustrations of moments from the story. We tried to get an honest reaction to the premise from every type of person that was represented in the script, and I built up two massive files full of interviews and notes. I didn’t start writing until I had loads of research material to draw from.

One of the first things I thought of was the strapline, ‘Inner City Versus Outer Space’, so people got the concept pretty quickly. The question that would arise most concerned the creatures. People would say, ‘This is a really good idea, but how the hell can you make a monster movie with this many creatures in it for the type of budget that we’ll probably be able to raise?’ So the main challenge was proving that I had a design idea and a way to execute the creatures.

I never really considered using 3D CGI for the creatures, because I always knew we couldn’t afford them! Plus, I don’t really like CGI creatures. In all those ‘80s films I love, the effects were practical. I think CGI technicians and designers are geniuses, and their work is brilliant, but I don’t think the physics are there yet. I think you can always tell computer physics. And I think puppetry and the performance of a real human will always beat computer physics.

Plus, with all our young actors, it was good to have a presence in the room. I definitely didn’t want them to have to react to tennis balls on sticks. We had this terrific performer called Terry Notary, who I met on the set of Tintin, and we collaborated with him to make the alien suit and to design the practical aspects of the costume.

It was always our ambition to make a high concept, low budget movie. I was really inspired by the first Terminator movie, or Lucas’ THX1138, or Spielberg’s Duel, early movies by ambitious directors who bit off more than they could chew and had to be inventive to solve problems. To me, a low-budget high-concept blockbuster where everyone has to be really creative can be much more satisfying that a big budget blockbuster where everyone is throwing money at it to fix it.

We made sure that we were loose enough and relaxed enough every day to react moment to moment to opportunities and advantages. I always think of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the most famous moment comes from Harrison Ford having diarrhoea and shooting that scimitar—wielding baddie. Sometimes the mix of spontaneous moments and planned moments can be a good combination.

Attack the Block was always a science fiction film for us; it was never a state of the nation thing, it was never an urban thing. We also made an effort to make it accessible. The story is pretty simple; it’s a chase movie. The main thing was to keep the language and the slang simple, and present it in a certain way that foreign audiences would be able to pick it up quickly. And we thought about that when we cast; we looked for kids whose annunciation was clear. We looked for kids who looked right and could act, and then the final box to tick was, ‘Are they clearly comprehensible? Do they pronounce their vowels and constantans clearly enough?’

2011 has definitely been a very exciting year for me, but it all happened so fast I don’t feel as if I’ve had time to digest everything yet! We finished the film, it opened at SXSW a couple of weeks later, and then we went straight into the British release and then the American release. I haven’t had a chance to really register 2011. But I think it’s been a brilliant year for British film. I’m a big fan of Richard Ayoade—I loved Submarine—and Ben Wheatley who made the brilliant Kill List, and just to be part of the scene is a dream come true.

Making films in Britain, I think, is quite a precious thing. Because it’s a small enough community to keep a level of control and authorship that’s maybe harder to do in the big leagues. But if you can make a British film that competes internationally, but that also keeps its own identity, I think that’s a really exciting prospect.

Attack the Block is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 24 (September/October 2011)

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