Thus far in 2011, there’s yet to be a more energetic, thrilling movie, in or out of genre, than Attack the Block. From the relative novelty of its setting (even to many U.K. audiences) to its dazzlingly charismatic cast of unknown (for about the next five minutes) actors, to the elegant simplicity with which its malevolent alien invaders were designed, to the bangin’ soundtrack, Attack the Block is about as fun as fun gets. All the more impressive, it was the feature writing and directing debut of Joe Cornish, whom I (along with a few other writers) had the chance to interview at New York Comic Con this past Thursday.
Cornish talks as fast as his characters do, with a slightly better-educated and less-slangy version of their South London accent, hailing as he does from much the same neighborhood he depicts in Attack the Block. He bristles slightly at the suggestion, from one of the other writers, that The Block is “a war zone”: “I wouldn’t call it a war zone myself… other people may think it’s a downbeat place and many other movies show that kind of environment as a signifier of urban deprivation, but for the kids who live there it’s home… It becomes a war zone because of the aliens… I didn’t want to make a gang movie, I didn’t want to make a movie about kids beating each other up or stabbing each other.”
I asked if the bright, vivid, warm color palette employed by Cornish and cinematographer Tom Townsend had any bearing on the sense of “the block” as the kids’ home, and he said it did, continuing, in reference to the council estate itself: “The interesting thing about this architecture is that it was built in the 50s and 60s in a huge spirit of optimism and futurism. These designs were seen as this utopia that would solve the slum problems in postwar Britain. If you look at original documentaries or footage taken at the time of when these buildings were initially opened, they seemed like science fiction. Since then they’ve flipped and become, you know, heroin addicts slumped in corners and stuff like that, so I wanted to bring it back to that imaginative, optimistic, futuristic feel, and the color was very much to do with that. We wanted it to look like almost a 60s Disney film, to look like kind of Mary Poppins.” (If you’ve seen Attack the Block, that comparison is very funny).
The conversation then turned to practical effects (i.e. actual objects and events physically present on set) vs. CGI (computer-generated imagery): “We never had the budget to do CGI creatures, but I didn’t want to. As a filmgoer I find digital monsters very ‘same-y.’ I don’t understand this obsession with hyper-realistic detail. All the movies I loved, whether it was Gremlins or E.T. or Critters or Predator, I believed those creatures. They felt like they were there. They were somehow simpler and more imaginative. And hell, I could go home and draw them. You can’t draw the dragon from Harry Potter without a fine art degree. I wanted to do a movie with a monster that was sketchable. We used CGI to actually take away detail. It was half to do with resources, but mainly to do with wanting to get something original aesthetically and something that was to do more with the old school effects that I love.”
When asked if naming his protagonist Moses had any religious implications, Cornish demurred: “I knew [things] would be read into it, but I think sometimes that’s a nice thing about having quite a minimalist scenario, that it can become allegorical or metaphorical and people can maybe see stuff in it. That’s always a strength of any good little lo-fi, sci-fi movie, whether it’s Night of the Living Dead, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Children of the Damned, those beautifully boiled-down allegorical scenarios that are capable of containing lots of different interpretations. The name of Moses came form one of the first kids I spoke to in research and I just liked the name. The other thing I liked about that was I liked the idea of his parents naming him that, it spoke to me of the… the hope and faith parents have in a kid to name him that, and I thought that would juxtapose nicely with where we found him at the beginning of the story.”
Further conversation included Cornish naming John Carpenter and George Romero as influences on his directing, the desire to include as many different things people told him not to do in the movie as he could (most notable being having a multi-cultural cast with a black hero) because he might not have a chance to make another movie: “I got one shot. If it fucks up, at least I tried.” When given the signal that our time was up and the official interview ended, we conversed briefly about upcoming projects Cornish has coming up—we didn’t get a chance to discuss his plans, as Cornish told IFC.com, for sequels and a possible American remake of Attack The Block—which include his work on the script for the forthcoming big-screen Tintin adaptation, a connection made by Attack the Block executive producer Edgar Wright, a close friend.
Before all that, though, and the main reason Cornish was speaking with us at Comic Con, is the U.S. release of Attack the Block on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 25. It has, we were assured, subtitles for anyone unprepared to deal with heavy accents and esoteric slang, as well as many other special features (among which a very in-depth “making of” featurette) prepared with great care, all of which are quite enjoyable. Trust.