If there must be one film to be labeled as the true winner of this year’s SXSW, it’s without a doubt Joe Cornish‘s feature debut film, Attack the Block. The comedic chase film is by all accounts a universally loved film here at the festival, and for good reason. The story follows a group of hooligans from the projects fighting off an alien invasion, and what could be cooler than that? Anything? No? Thought so. If you need further proof as to why the film is so beloved, then check out Brian Salisbury’s excellent review to discover why it is truly the bee’s knees.
Very few films this year will contain half the energy and style that Attack the Block has, similarly to the work of Edgar Wright, who’s an executive producer of the film. Cornish’s Attack the Block and Edgar Wright’s work have such a specific energy to them that it’s difficult to imagine how they crack that pace and feel in script form, and that’s what we discussed amongst other things in our pleasant 15-minute conversation.
Here’s what director Joe Cornish and executive producer Edgar Wright had to say about writing style, building stakes, and following antiheroes:
If you don’t mind, can you discuss how you both met and your background?
Cornish: Well, yeah. I had a TV show on in the U.K. called “The Adam and Joe Show” that ran from 1996-2001. It was a homemade, low-flight sketch comedy show. It was on TV at the same time as Spaced was on Channel 4. England is a very small place full of people with bad teeth. There are only six of us that live there, so we met each other. No, we met in a video shop.
Wright: The Cinema Store.
Cornish: We were buying DVDs in a shop called The Cinema Store on St. Martin’s Lane – excellent DVD store if you’re in London. We were just browsing and stuff there. Did we recognize each other?
Wright: Yeah. I was with Simon and Jess at the time, I remember, in that store. Then we got talking, and then we said – to cut a long story short – I said let’s be the best of friends. Then much later those blokes made lots of British genre movies. That wasn’t my only gambit.
How was the process of getting financing?
Cornish: That was relatively and shockingly straightforward. I feel very, very lucky in that respect. I took the idea to Nira Park and Jim Wilson at Big Talk Productions. They took it to Film Four, UK – the now defunct U.K. Film Council. They funded the development of the script. Then they took it to Optimum and Studio Canal, and they pretty much funded the production with a bit of money from Film Four and a bit of money from the Film Council.
And that was it. People were weirdly excited about the idea. In retrospect, it seems incredible to me that they would give me money to make a film with nine inexperienced kids, a first-time director, a first-time DOP, chases, action, night shoots, explosions, effects, street parlance. I’m nothing but massively appreciative for their confidence in me, and I hope they might one day make their money back.
Do you think the high concept of the film helped make it an easier sell?
Wright: We were discussing earlier because I think weirdly, thinking about it, you probably introduced me to Jim Wilson way before Shaun of the Dead. Because Jim Wilson and Nira Park has been my producer since before Spaced, and me and Joe have been writing on the two scripts that we wrote together about Ant-Man. Since he wrote – well I assume he wrote possibly the first draft for Ant-Man in Big Talk – when Joe was telling me about doing it, I’m pretty sure…I’m going to claim credit. In this interview, I’m going to claim credit that I said, “Well, you should do it with Big Talk.”
Cornish: I was always very envious of Edgar and Simon’s relationship with Big Talk. They seemed like just a group of friends making stuff together and doing it at a very high level. Everything I’d done in TV, the people that made it were my friends, but I’d never worked with a feature film company before. They were absolutely the first port of call.
Wright: Also there’s a thing, which I think hopefully it’s changing, when we grew up watching movies – we’re both big genre fans – but in the 80s and 90s the British genre industry collapsed. There just wasn’t anything. The British cinema became famous for something else, and most of the genre films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s are lauded in retrospect.
It was difficult. I remember when we did Shaun of the Dead, and when we were trying to get it off the ground in 2001 before we actually made it, a lot of people just didn’t want to know. Actually the only people that did want to know are the people who ended up actually making it, which was Jim and Working Title. That’s how that came together. But we got a lot of doors shut in our faces and people who said, “I don’t know about this.”
So I think it was nice being able to work in an exec capacity with Joe having been through that experience and hopefully being able to impart some advice to him on doing his first feature here.
How do you establish this type of pace in script form?
Cornish: I’m a big fan of Walter Hill’s scripts, incredibly pared down. I think we both – Edgar had directed Spaced; I directed a lot of sketch comedy. I think when you are a director, you’re very careful about what you write on the page because you know you’re going to have to shoot that shit. There’s nothing better to encourage economy.
I think when you’re worked with actors, you realize that there’s a lot they can bring. So I tend to be a bit sparse because I know that they can add the embellishment in a more organic way on the set than you probably can sitting at home writing.
My thing was to keep it short. I didn’t want it to be over 90 pages. Never write a paragraph of more than two or three lines. Keep the dialogue ticking over. Never let a scene go beyond a page. Just keep it tight. If you boil stuff down, you’ll know what you’ve got.
Wright: It’s also something if you’re directing a script that you’ve written, you tend not to write too many stage directions because who are you communicating to? Usually if you read a script by somebody else and there’s a dense page of stage directions, people just skip through it or speed read it. Some actors don’t even read the stage directions at all.
You’re not writing a novel. Actually the Walter Hill scripts are really good examples of how to write super pared down action. Because it also gives you room to maneuver. You can expand and contract the scene in storyboards and actually directing it. You’re not in any contract with anybody, even yourself. You can switch it up. I’m with Joe. I’m a big believer in keeping the stage directions really tight.
Is it detailed enough though where I could read the script and still get the energy and style the film has?
Cornish: I don’t know. Only you could answer that question by reading the script. I also had a director’s statement. I had a two-page director’s statement attached to the front of the script. That outlined the style and the approach. Actually a lot of people on the crew who read that said they signed on for the film because of the director’s statement, because they liked some of the values: the fact that it wasn’t shaky cam.
I mean this was a big thing with Attack the Block. It was all at night. That was a major thing, because even the estate, the building we shot in has been used in The Hereafter and lots of British TV. I thought by shooting it all at night, you would immediately force yourself to light every shot. You would force yourself to think about the light in every single shot. You would immediately give it this high contrast look that I hoped would make it just look different from any other movie.
I just think lighting is so flipping important. When I watch films, I talked to the DOP about it’s all about pointing the camera at lights for me. Especially with The Warriors and those Walter Hill movies, the way that he would shoot – what’s the cinematographer called? He wrote that about “Every Frame a Rembrandt.” His name has escaped me…
They did this amazing thing. They had so little money, he would use the same stuff they use on fluorescent jackets. He would just stick it on a piece of cardboard, stand it on a light stand all the way down the street. Then if you put a key light right next to the lens shining onto that reflective material, and then you just had a little guy just turning it, it would make it look like a really bright light. So they used all these techniques to create these jewels of color and light on this dark, almost like a velvet painting.
I’ll tell you the other thing that I really dug was looking at James Cameron’s concept art for The Terminator. He had a very simple thing he did which was he drew in white chalk on black paper. When I did my storyboards, we did them black on white. But then we put them into a computer and we flipped them so they were white on black.
That immediately did the night thing, and it immediately makes you think in terms of light. That’s all the film image is; it’s just light bouncing off objects. So there’s something about drawing in white on black that makes you think about highlights, makes you think about light basically, that black on white doesn’t.
Wright: [whispers the name of the cinematographer after searching for it on his iPhone] Andrew Laszlo.
Cornish: Andrew Laszlo, there you go.
Great book, “Every Frame a Rembrandt.” Really interesting. He shot Streets of Fire. He shot Dreamscape. Amazing, from a period where all those effects were done in camera. .
Can you talk about your process about writing stakes and creating a real sense of danger for these kids?
Cornish: Well, I learned something off Edgar there. If you watch Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, they spend a lot of time setting up the characters.
I in fact remember being around Edgar when he was developing the Hot Fuzz script. Like any good director he gave it to friends to get notes. I think I’m right in saying one of the notes you got was get to the first kill faster on Hot Fuzz. I remember Edgar saying, “No, you’ve got to spend this time with Nick Angel so that when the first kill happens it means something.”
Again with Shaun of the Dead the way the zombie stuff is kept in the background. So that character development, character development with this little tickle of subplot until it rises up. But the subplot does not rise up until you know who Shaun is, what his issue is, who his friends are; then you introduce.
It’s the same with American Werewolf, which has that whole scene of them walking on the moor telling those stories. That was the deal. I think you put character – I feel like a bit of a pompous tit talking about this. It’s my first film. So, I don’t know, but that’s what the set felt like.
Wright: Yeah, I’ll give you an example of this. When we had a Shaun of the Dead test screening, the first really big reactions in it were in the garden scene right as the first death. It got a really good reaction.
Somebody involved in it said, “Get to that first garden scene. Cut down the first half hour and get to that first garden scene. That’s where the laughs are.” I said, “But haven’t we earned the laughs?” Isn’t that the point? You’ve lulled people into a false sense of security, or you’ve taken time to get to know the characters.
I think that’s what works in yours in the ensemble. Because your average slasher movie is just going to kill somebody every 15 minutes, and you don’t really give a shit about them apart from maybe whoever the last woman standing is – no last man standing. So I think that’s the thing. I think you’ve got to get to know the characters, and then you’re more shocked when they’re gone because you invested in them.
Cornish: It’s like a Ponzi scheme.
In the film and also your films as well, Mr. Wright, you follow antiheroes. What influences the both of you to follow not the most conventional type of heroes?
Cornish: Yeah, I guess that was just because I liked those films. That was very much a John Carpenter-y thing. Specifically Assault on Precinct 13 where the character who’s locked in the prison, he’s a murderer. You don’t know what he’s done. You don’t specifically know what his crime was. Snake Plissken, he’s not a good guy. He’s on death row, isn’t he, or he’s a convict. Vin Diesel in Pitch Black.
I mean, any film about bank robbers, any film about a criminal: Bonnie and Clyde, Public Enemy with Jimmy Cagney. It’s not a new thing, and I find it very attractive as a writer because it gives you something to write. All characters have to have a problem, otherwise there’s no story.
Personally as a moviegoer there seems to be a big thing about making your character sympathetic in the first act at the moment, and people get a bit freaked out if they’re not made sympathetic. But I just wouldn’t have the energy in me to write that story, because it wouldn’t give me anything to write about personally. Maybe it’s because I’m not a good enough writer and I need the bone to chew on kind of thing.
Wright: Yeah, it definitely is a trend where you definitely get notes a lot about people…yeah, there’s definitely a thing within studio films – and independent films – with all films where people financing are just nuts about people being likeable. That tends to where you get a lot of films that are bland because your heroes aren’t allowed to make mistakes anymore. That’s what the whole of your film is about, somebody making amends through a heroic act.
There’s very little exposition in the film. How did you want to go about handling the expository moments?
Cornish: Well, my strength isn’t dialogue, if I have any strength. So the thing that I find easiest to write is descriptive action. Edgar’s amazing at dialogue, I think. So I had a bit of a crisis of confidence about that aspect of the script.
The thing that broke that crisis of confidence was very specifically sitting down and watching “Halloween” and examining the dialogue in that and realizing that there’s absolutely no exposition whatsoever. You don’t know what they did yesterday. You don’t know what their parents are like. She never talks about some incident in her childhood that the narrative’s going to provide a catharsis for.
So many movies someone will tell an anecdote and you know, oh, this is the anecdote: “When I was a kid, my dog…” You know what i mean? You think here we go, this is the thing that’s going to resolve or come around or be cyclical. Carpenter just didn’t do that. People only said things that people would say in the moment. For me that makes the characters more accessible.
So yeah, I don’t really have any super clever considered answer to that. But I did have a block about it, and watching Halloween was really liberating because you realize that you don’t need…all you have… I thought, “All I have to do is make it sound real, and then hopefully that should be enough.”
Do you also use other films as templates during the writing process?
Wright: I think it’s different for different things really.
Cornish: I remember you saying on “Shaun” that you only wanted to write dialogue that somebody, a joke, you didn’t want to do jokes that sounded like a writer had spent 20 minutes thinking of the line. You only wanted to do a joke that a person could realistically have thought of.
Wright: Yeah, actually Spaced is different from Shaun of the Dead. Sometimes in Spaced people have extremely erudite or witty ways of saying things, the ease in puns. Yeah, that was one of the big rules in Shaun of the Dead was that nobody could come out with a joke – because you don’t come up with jokes on the spot. It just doesn’t happen. So people react naturally. So all of the humor in Shaun of the Dead is reactive; they’re not making funny comments about what’s happening. So that’s it really.
But I think that’s a good thing to do with most – not just first films – but most films is give yourself some strict rules, and maybe you’re allowed to break them in one scene. I’ll tell you what, the Taxi Driver rule is this: if you had a rule, you’re allowed to break it in one scene. In Taxi Driver that whole film is from Travis Bickle’s point of view except the scene with Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster, which then completely breaks that – having a dance.
Cornish: I did a thing, I’ll tell you what I did for the dialogue in Attack the Block is I figured out the story in treatment form. Then I got an illustrator friend of mine to draw drawings of various plot points. Then I went around loads of youth clubs in South London, talked to big groups of kids. I talked them through the story. I showed them the images, and I said to them, “What would you do if this happened? OK, then this happens. What would you do? Then this happens.”
I recorded everything they said. We went to 20 or 30 of these groups with 10 to 15 kids in each, recorded everything they said. I went home. I treated it like foreign language course, like Linguaphone or something. I put headphones in, and I typed it all out. So I ended up with three massive files of debates and reactions.
Then my first draft I built out of it. So a lot of the lines in Attack the Block were actually said by real kids – “too much madness for one text” – those are real things real kids said in response to my narrative. Because I not very street; I’m a tiny bit less street than Prince Charles and I could not have…I had to be authentic, so I had to go to the source.