You may have noticed that we here at Film School Rejects took quite the shine to Joe Cornish’s debut feature film Attack the Block. Brian couldn’t praise it enough after its premiere at this year’s SXSW film festival and our resident Brit Simon Gallagher loved up on it in his Cannes coverage.
Screen Gems picked it up for a domestic theatrical run and while it opened in 7 top markets a few weeks ago, it expanded to 6 additional markets over the weekend. It’s also now playing in big chain theaters like Regal and AMC which will hopefully encourage the popcorn-chomping masses to give it a shot. I fell in love with this movie at SX and can’t get enough of it.
This is a film that deserves to be seen. I had a chance to sit down with writer/director Joe Cornish and star John Boyega to talk about the movie, their respective first outings into film and their inevitable slide into drugs and infamy.
You’ve kinda made a film where your main characters aren’t likable, at least not up front. Can you talk about the decision to do things that way?
Cornish: Yeah, I don’t know, it was always the most interesting thing for me. That was the first idea that came to me that was that you start with this group of kids…it would start like an Abel Ferrara film or a Michael Winner film with this archetypal situation, this deliberately stereotypical situation and then this thing would fall from the sky and everything would change. And you would start the process of humanizing and exploring and dimensionalizing the characters. That was absolutely the inspiration. So as far as all the actors are concerned, the people who financed it, the people who made it, we all signed up to the same thing.
We all were excited by that idea. And you know it’s not a new idea. The idea that somebody who does something bad is also capable of doing something good. It exists in many faiths, and has done for many thousands of years. It exists in many movies from Jimmy Cagney in the 40s all the way through to classic anti-heroes of the 70s and 80s. I think it’s interesting that people find it so different. And I think it maybe says something about how anodyne contemporary movies have become that this narrative choice stands out to the degree it seems to be standing out. It never seemed that edgy or dangerous to me, it just seemed like a cool interesting exciting dramatic idea. And it’s absolutely the raison d’etre of the film. You know, as well as the aliens with glowing teeth, the samurai swords and the explosions and the chases and the bikes.
Have you found that the reactions have been different between the UK audiences and the American audiences?
Cornish: No, it’s been pretty similar. People really enjoy the movie and they love it. I mean you could say that because this is a British movie and sometimes the situation that we portray at the beginning of this movie does happen, some people are maybe more anxious about it than the are over here. Over here it can be seen more as an escapist piece. But no, the movie’s had an amazing response in the UK. We got amazing reviews. We thought some newspapers would be down on it, but we were really surprised, people really seemed to understand it and enjoy it.
John you come from a stage-acting background and this was your first feature film, can you talk a little about the differences between acting on stage live in front of an audience and in front of a camera?
Boyega: Well, that’s the first thing, you’re live in front of an audience which means you can’t mess up. You always have to be on point, you always have to be in character. Whereas if I’m shooting a scene, I’ll be in character for that take and then when the camera’s off I’ll go and have a little panini and have some John Boyega time.
I personally love film and stage is always home for a lot of actors. Film is just a great medium to express yourself and a great environment to work around. You have people guiding you, you don’t have to so much rely on yourself. Whereas they direct you in a play and then once you’re on stage, you’re by yourself. Mess up, you mess up. Whereas if I mess up in a take, Joe can come and say “look, do it like this, do it like that.” Which is more of a sense of safety for me, being so young, being educated by Hollywood and by this industry. But it’s been fun so far doing that transition.
Tell me a little more about what Joe was like on set.
Boyega: Joe was great. [All laugh]
Cornish: I should leave for this question.
Boyega: Joe was cool. Do you know what? When they were like “oh you’re going to meet the director today in the audition.” I was just like, okay. When I went into the room, there was this tall man and he kept on talking to me and he was cool. I was like “oh great, so where’s the director?” D’you know what I mean? I’ve never gone to audition where you see a director so much involved and so enthusiastic about it. And I guess that’s down to him being a first-time director and me being a first-time film actor and us going on this journey together. It was really fun but at the same time we got the job done.
Boyega: We’re both going to change. I’m going to be really cold in future, and John’s going to be really cocky and distant.
Well good, yeah, then you can both get caught up in cocaine for awhile…
Cornish: Yeah, yeah, we’ve all picked up [unintelligible and possibly incriminating for John] it’ll be great.
So much of the Moses character is communicated through facial expressions, there are all these great close ups, and John does a great job of emoting and letting the audience into his world a little bit just with his facial expressions. Is that how you envisioned it or did that come from realizing what John was capable of?
Cornish: No, it was totally how we envisioned. I mean you can see that on the page in the drafts. [Turns to John] And you probably saw it when you looked through the script and highlighted your lines. There weren’t that many of them.
Boyega: No lines. Just highlighting blank spaces. [All laugh]
Cornish: But it was interesting, in John’s first audition he did a very outward performance, which is probably what’s required from other directors in other parts. But you know, you got about three lines into the performance and I said “this is an internal character, a taciturn character.” And he just took that and two seconds later he was on it, he was being Moses. But no, it was always an internal character. It’s based on like Snake Plissken, MacReady, to a bit of a degree Riddick in Pitch Black. You know cinema for me isn’t dialogue. One of the things that frustrates me about British film is how dialogue driven it is. And one of my rules at film school used to be, could this be a radio play? Could I still follow this story if it was on the radio? And many British movies to one degree or another you can kind of say that about, like this would work as a really good radio or TV play.
Cinema for me is a story that’s told visually, and it’s a story that’s moving in a way that if you turn away to make a cup of tea, you’ll miss it. TV, you can make tea during, do you know what I mean? But movies, a good movie you stare at the screen for 90 minutes or 2 hours and you cannot look away. That’s how it was for me with Raiders of the Lost Ark, or E.T., or Close Encounters or The Warriors, all those great movies. And that’s what we were trying to do.
It’s interesting that you mention mostly 80s films and you said Snake Plissken, there’s obviously a Carpenter influence, an Amblin Entertainment influence. Can you tell me a little bit about the score? That’s another thing that Carpenter was always really big about, Ennio Morricone for The Thing was obviously a great score and you’ve got a great score with Basement Jaxx that really drives the narrative.
Cornish: Thank you. Yeah, they did an amazing job. The idea always was to get the sort of cinematic of John Williams and combine that with the electronic feel of John Carpenter.
The original plan was to score the aliens with the John Williams and the gang with the Carpenter and then the moment when Dennis dies and Moses takes responsibility we were going to flip it. And then the gang would have the Hollywood score and the aliens would…we didn’t quite stick to that in the end, but that was the brief plan.
But they did an amazing job. Basement Jaxx worked with a guy called Steve Price who was music supervisor on Scott Pilgrim and he worked on the Lord of the Rings movies. He was one of these brilliant guys who assists composers but was just chomping at the bit to step up and make his own score. And we gave him that opportunity and he agreed to do it. I just feel really lucky that they nailed it and they nailed that riff…I used to love movies where you came out humming the theme tune and I haven’t had that for awhile. And that was our ambition and fingers crossed hopefully…
I think you’ve done that admirably well.
You mentioned earlier that it was kind of intentional to do the stereotypical hoodie gang. Obviously, we in America aren’t really familiar with that. Can you talk about the reality of the hoodie culture in England? Both of you, certainly. It seems to pop up a lot in films like Kidulthood and Harry Brown just last year that there’s this fear in a lot of the English people about young people in general, not necessarily bad young people but all young people.
Cornish: Well, John will have his own answer to this, but my answer is very straightforward. It’s a lazy, reductive, cartoony way to describe a million different varied things. And it really means nothing to be perfectly honest. And what this film is about is deconstructing that and showing that especially children, in some parts of London you’ve got children growing up under really difficult circumstances. And when they’re portrayed in this simplified, sort of dehumanizing way it makes me genuinely angry, cause I grew up there, it makes me genuinely angry. Cause there are real issues there and no ones helping anything by…
By oversimplifying things.
Cornish: Yeah, so we try and start with that simplicity and then we try and…
Show the humanity behind it.
Cornish: Yeah, that was absolutely the intention of the film.
John, what are your thoughts?
Boyega: I just think this is an awesome movie. [All laugh]
As a young man in England, do you feel that there’s…I don’t know, an atmosphere? Do you feel that people look at you differently for being a young man in England?
Boyega: I feel as if I don’t give a shit, do you know what I mean? It’s about the individual. And for the people who look at those people and judge, it’s on them. But what Attack the Block is about is stripping the characters of all that cliche, tabloid BS, and showing you that everybody is a human being. And everybody has the capability to do a bad thing given the wrong circumstances. And we all don’t need to be simplified and judged as being one sort of human being. You know, we all can do bad and we all can do good. So everyone get over it and just watch an alien invasion film.
You talked about film being such a visual medium and I think the creature design is just incredible. I know you wanted to stay more practical and have the CG augment that and not have it feel like a Transformers movie.
[Sharp intake of breath from Boyega]
Cornish: John loves the Transformers movies.
Apologies, sir. Great CG and all, but…
Boyega: Yeah, let’s not talk about that.
Cornish: That’s the real controversial issue in Attack the Block is John’s love for Transformers. [All laugh]
But can you talk a bit about the effects?
Cornish: About Transformers?
Cornish: Oh about the effects. Yeah, well the idea was to do something lo-fi. The idea was to do something authored and old school. I used to love E.T. I loved Yoda. I had a big poster of Yoda on my wall when I was a kid. I think my Dad thought I was some sort of frog pervert. Cause he didn’t know who the fuck Yoda was. He’s like “most boys have pictures of scantily clad women on their walls. My son has a huge deformed frog.” You know, I love Critters and Gremlins…
This in particular is very similar to Critters.
Yeah, so I just wanted to do an old school thing. And I was fascinated with roto-scope. My Mom took me to an exhibition of the making of Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings when I was about 6 or something. And I remember seeing a documentary about how roto-scope worked and it just occurred to me that there was a way to use CG to actually remove detail rather than put it in, and a way to make this comic book film have comic book aliens in it basically. But a way to make them kind of half naturalistic and half animated. It’s complicated and it evolved over a long period. But hopefully, the aliens we’ve ended up with are unlike anything anyone’s seen before and they’re there. You know, they look other-worldly, they look as if they’re kind of half not there, but they’re there and they’re jumping on John and they’re ripping Franz’s head off and they’re dragging Jerome into the mist. So they’re a real physical presence. There’s no responding to tennis balls or blue screen.
This is the last question. This was the first feature film for both of you. What was the biggest lesson that you took away from your first experience in a feature film?
Boyega: Never be scared to ask if you don’t understand anything. That’s one thing that Nick Frost told us, you know don’t feel as if you need to be the person that you feel everyone expects you to be. Just come correct, man. Be educated and take it as a learning curve at the same time make sure you put that into action and the work. And respect Joe Cornish.
Cornish: That’s the main thing. Sometimes it’s hard to do that.
Joe, what’s the main thing you learned?
Cornish: I just learned that I love it and I enjoy it. There’s no need for it be this tense, aggressive, argumentative bullshit that you read about in making of books. It can be an enjoyable, productive, fun, bonding, amazing, exhilarating, rewarding experience regardless of how the film turns out.
So we haven’t seen the last Joe Cornish film?
Cornish: I don’t think so…
Boyega: Oh, hell no! [All laugh]
Good. Well, thank you guys very much.
Boyega: Thank you.
Cornish: Thank you, man that was great. Another good t-shirt, we’ve got to step our t-shirt game up.
Author’s Note: I was wearing the Stephen King Rules shirt from Monster Squad. Peter Hall from Movies.com had the interview slot right before me and he was sporting Mondo’s Evil Dead shirt. Great shirts, indeed. And a great movie.