Joe Cornish interview: Attack The Block, monster design and British sci-fi on a budget

As his directorial debut Attack The Block arrives in cinemas, we met with Joe Cornish to chat about the making of the film...

Even though Attack The Block is his directorial debut, Joe Cornish is far from a newcomer. As the taller half of the Adam & Joe comedy team, whose eponymous television show was an integral pillar of Channel 4’s late-night output in the back end of the 1990s, Cornish would lampoon films of the day, creating elaborate movie parodies and deconstructing genre tropes with a cast of toys.

More recently, he has made cameo appearances in Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, before collaborating with Edgar Wright on two projects, the elusive Ant-Man feature, and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Tintin film.

All this has led to Attack The Block, the supremely confident sci-fi action film which sees an alien invasion land in inner-city London. With the bobbies otherwise occupied by the assorted explosions and hijinks of Bonfire Night, it is up to the council estate’s local gang of hoodies to take down the extraterrestrial interlopers.

We had the chance to talk with Cornish ahead of the film’s release this week, chatting about crafting genre flicks on a budget, being a geek, and designing iconic monsters.

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Attack the Block has a very good, one-sentence pitch: ‘aliens invade a South London housing estate’. Out of those two aspects – the sci-fi genre and the setting – which came first?

They came simultaneously, really. You know, I really love low-budget, high-concept movies. I always have done. Directors who try and bite off more than they can chew. And I’ve spent my whole life thinking up movie pitches. When I was a kid, I had fake fantasy film posters all over my wall, and one of the things I loved doing was thinking of the tagline. So that tagline came to me pretty early.

And one of the things I loved about American movies in the 80s was the way they fused realism and fantasy. You know, E.T.’s kind of like a Ken Loach film, or a Mike Leigh film, fused with a James Cameron film or something. Those American movies set in suburbia, where fantastic things happen. So totally central to the idea was that combination of urban realism and fantasy.

Speaking of biting off more than you can chew, you made this film on a relatively low budget, yet it still looks fabulous. How did you go about doing that?

A lot of that’s down to Big Talk and the people they put around me, and how hard everybody worked. A lot of it is down to Tom Townend, the cinematographer whose first big feature this is, who just did a brilliant job with very few resources. I don’t know, I don’t think there’s any simple answer to that.

We just were ambitious. I’d been waiting to do this for a long time, I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a child, and I’m 40 now, so I’ve been waiting. I was waiting until I felt I was good enough at screenwriting to write something that was worth doing, and I was waiting until I felt confident enough as a director to be able to execute it well. And I thought I might only be able to get one shot at this, so I might as well aim high, just in case it works. Just in case I can pull it off.

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And I think if we have pulled it off, and if the production value and the richness of the film feel bigger than the budget, then that’s due to a lot of individuals working very hard, and giving me a great deal for not a lot of pay, probably. [Laughs]

It certainly feels that way, even in the design of the aliens themselves. Just by focusing on the neon green jaws, that seems like a great way of having maximum impact while cutting down on the design and CGI costs of a big special effect monster.

Certainly, yeah. I knew they had to be practical. I knew we couldn’t afford CGI creatures. And I wanted them to be practical, because I love the practical work in movies that I saw when I was growing up. I wanted to use some digital, but with a lightness of touch. I always feel digital is best used to enhance what’s already present, than to create it from the ground up.

And I had an idea pretty early on in the process, of how to do the creature, and it was based on memories of the ring wraiths in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. I remember seeing that as a child, and there was an exhibition on a barge in the Thames of how they did it, and there was a little video in that exhibition that showed the live-action footage, then the rotoscoped version. And I was fascinated by how something three dimensional became two dimensional on film.

Whatever it is, film is basically, or was, two dimensional. Actually, 3D films are still two dimensional in a way, because they’re on plains, a lot of them.

And the other thing that inspired me was the wolf at the beginning of 300, that’s presented as almost like a Chinese shadow puppet, and it just struck me that that would be a visually interesting, economical and achievable way to do the creature. And we tested it way in advance of the shoot, six or seven months in advance. And Tom Townend shot that test, and we were excited by the results.

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So the finished monster is my design, and then Terry Notary, who I met on Tintin, who is a very brilliant creature performer, who did the movement for the viperwolves in Avatar, and the Hulk and the Silver Surfer.

He worked with Spectral Motion, who do the creature work for Guillermo del Toro’s films. They designed this terrific costume-suit, and then we shot that, and then there’s a little bit of enhancement by a company called Digital Negative, and a very brilliant European company called Fido. So the end result is a combination of practical, with a little bit of digital. But hopefully it looks unlike anything anyone’s seen before.

The design is almost immediately iconic, with just the glowing in the darkness.

I’m a cartooner, you know. I spent most of my school years not listening, and drawing. And I used to love drawing stuff from movies. I was very good at the Ghostbusters logo. But I think you’d have hard work drawing monsters in contemporary movies. So I wanted my monster to be a little bit graphic and sort of cartoony, and drawable.

This is a very competent, confident film, especially for a first-time feature director. Of course, you went to film school and have been working in television and short films for some time, but you’re also, as you say, this life-long film geek. How important is that interest in films to your filmmaking process?

I think the whole ‘geek’ thing is an interesting thing, isn’t it. Film enthusiasts used to be called ‘buffs’ and it used to be quite a respectable pursuit, but for some reason we’re called ‘geeks’ now. And that’s not bad, I don’t mind it, but it’s not like sites like yours or Ain’t It Cool are not interested in anything other than genre movies.

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You guys will advocate any movie that you love, so for me, you guys, and I include myself, we’re film enthusiasts, we’re film lovers, we’re not necessarily ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’. I mean, I totally know what it means, especially in the context of the name of your website.

So the whole thing is inseparable for me. I love film. I love European films. Attack The Block is as influenced by Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien, which is about a teenage boy who joins the Nazis in occupied France, as it is by Carpenter and Walter Hill and Joe Dante. I didn’t want my film to be a particular tribute to, or make reference to any individual film, it’s a result of everything I love about cinema.

So do you think some of the confidence that comes out on the screen comes from your lifetime enthusiasm?

Oh, definitely. I think if the word ‘geek’ does have a meaning, it means that you’re so obsessed with it that you do it yourself. This film is an extension of everything that I’ve ever done, whether it be the toy movies, the stupid sketches with Ken Korda or my peculiar misconceived student films at film school, or the videos that Adam and I made while we were at school. It’s all the same, really. So I wouldn’t really separate them.

This sense of escapist sci-fi in a realistic setting, that’s something that isn’t very common in the British film industry of late.

Edgar [Wright] and I were talking about this… Britain’s very good at fantasy cinema, and very good at gritty realism. But we do not necessarily fuse the two particularly often in the way that, say, Spielberg did in E.T. And, yeah, it’s what I wanted to do. Shaun Of The Dead is the exception to that rule, as is Hot Fuzz.

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And Noel Clarke’s movies are as important to Attack The Block, too. Kidulthood was the first movie to show that a movie set in this milieu could be commercial, and that there was an audience for this sort of stuff. I always find it difficult to analyse any trends like that, in retrospect, because I’d be bullshitting, really.

Attack The Block went down very well at SXSW in America. What’s your take on all that, especially with these reports about a US release requiring subtitles?

I think that was something somebody mentioned, then it got picked up by another site, and it became a story. Which was good for the film, because we love people talking about the film! But I think in truth it probably won’t happen. The film plays very well to American audiences, and we’re pretty confident that it’ll be cool.

And Sony Screen Gems, which picked it up, couldn’t be more enthusiastic and behind the film. So we will work with them in whatever way we need to, to get the film out there and get people to see it, but neither they nor we would compromise the integrity of what is in it.

And I guess that whatever country you’re in, there’s an equivalent inner-city culture.

And you know, we made a particular effort to make this film accessible to foreign audiences, and British audiences who aren’t necessarily familiar with this language. We use a limited vocabulary of about 10-15 words that are used repeatedly in different contexts.

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So the film is designed to teach you the language as you watch. So I really don’t think it should be too much of a challenge for people, and I would like it if the accents were treated as a science fictional, popcorn, fun element to it.

We’re sci-fi enthusiasts, we know what Na’vi is, we know what Klingon is, we know where Bespin is, what Hoth is, what dilithium crystals are. We can handle a bit of street slang!

Joe Cornish, thank you very much.

Attack The Block is released this week. You can read our review here.

You can follow Michael on Twitter here, or read his myriad bloggery here.

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