Joe Cornish doesn’t seem to be particularly affected by the weight of expectation. As he sidles into a suite at the Soho Hotel for what must be the umpteenth interview about his megahit-in-waiting Attack The Block, his mood can best be described as ‘chipper’. Bringing the same wry yet wide-eyed presence that he has long given to British audiences on both television and radio as one half of the indomitable Adam & Joe, he is a character able to flit between social commentary and fan boy enthusiasm. As an interviewee, he’s insightful, and a lot of fun.
A hit at SXSW, and due for a huge release in the UK, Attack The Block already has the whiff of sensation about it. “The idea comes from my love of 80s monster movies like ET, Gremlins, Critters and Tremors, all the stuff I loved growing up,” Cornish says of his directorial debut, which pits a group of hooded teenagers against an alien invasion of a Brixton tower block. “Also gang movies that I loved when I was a teenager, like The Warriors, Streets of Fire and Rumblefish. I had never seen a film like that happening in the area where I grew up. Britain was quite good at doing realism and at doing fantasy, but seldom fused the two together.”
Attack The Block does just that. Beginning with the mugging of a nurse by a gang of ‘hoodies’, it turns expectations on their head by making those teenagers the heroes, forcing them to team up with their victim to defend their homes against an invasion by huge, hulking monsters. As well as being a lot of fun, it’s also a markedly assured debut feature, especially as most of the film’s teenage cast had never worked on a movie. Cornish explains how he just learned to go with it. “As a first time director you are the least experienced person onset, but you’re expected to be in charge. It took me a few days to understand that, but once I got on top of it having those actors was fantastic, because they were just as enthusiastic and as passionate as I was. Every experience was new for them as it was for me, and it felt like a big adventure.”
When you watch a film it’s often easy to tell whether it must have been fun onset, and Attack The Block has that feeling in spades. “I’m a huge fan of 80s movies,” says John Boyega, who stepped up from theatre work to play Moses, the film’s lead. “I can’t believe that an urban film from Britain pays homage to those kinds of films.” Of the endlessly affable presence of Nick Frost, star of Sean of the Dead and probably Attack the Block’s most recognisable cast member, he simply says; “We had a wild time.” The feeling from the more experienced cast members seems to have been mutual. “You’d be a right miserable git not to!” says Jodie Whittaker, when asked if she had fun making the film. “They brought an energy that was really fresh and lacked a sense of vanity. It felt like you were back at high school, and Joe was the same. He’s a 42-year-old child. He’s just brilliant to be around”. Cornish’s childlike enthusiasm wasn’t the only thing to impress. “It was so unique to be part of six people’s debuts, and it’s really special to be a part of something that stands alone in British cinema.”
In keeping with the cinematic inspirations for Attack The Block, one of the most striking aspects of the film is a lack of CGI. “I often feel there’s an iPhone app for digital creatures,” says Cornish. “They often look the same, and I was excited to try and do what they used to do in the 80s, when a special effect would either be a puppet or a model and you got the sense that somebody had made it. I also wanted something on set with the actors, so that when they’re attacked they’re really attacked.” The result is refreshingly analogue, with the cast being chased by gigantic beasts, played by men in suits and sporting luminous fangs. “It was a big wolf, gorilla looking thing,” says Leeon Jones, who plays Jerome. “They were scary. When they are jumping on people they were really doing it.”
Another element that helps create the throwback feel is the phenomenal soundtrack from Steven Price and Basement Jaxx, who weave a percussive, synthy undercurrent to the action. “The soundtrack is massively important,” says Cornish, obviously animated by the question. “I’ve read that Tarantino doesn’t use them because he doesn’t want someone to affect the tone of his work. But experiencing it firsthand it’s incredibly powerful. I felt amazingly luck that we got Steve, who composed on Lord of the Rings, and Basement Jaxx, who are a Brixton based and whose first gig was at the foot of the road where we shot the opening sequence. South London is usually seen as downbeat, but I wanted to make an upbeat film and there’s something very upbeat in everything they do, a sort of smile in their music. The pitch was that John Carpenter and John Williams had gone round to Roots Manuva’s house and got very high! I think they nailed it.”
Attack The Block is by turns frightening and funny, with a subtext about the myths surrounding teenage gangs. “We tried to take some of the words they use to describe these gangs, like feral, amoral, vicious; and make those clichés into an actual creature,” says Cornish. “In some films you get the victimisation of characters who are children, and who come from situations where they don’t have the advantages that you or I might. Personally I’m uncomfortable with the way they are presented, so I wanted to redress that balance by pitting them against actual monsters.” Nick Frost agrees. “There is a social commentary, which is a brave thing to do in a horror-comedy,” he says. “It’s got this element of talking about the society we live in, where people are demonised just because they wear hooded shirts. But what Joe is saying is that they’re just kids, and they get frightened.”
That commitment to the reality of these characters extended to language and accents, on which Cornish spent many months achieving authenticity. “I went to loads of youth clubs and youth groups around South London,” says Cornish. “I talked to hundreds of kids in groups about the story and listened to everything they said, and went home and transcribed it time and time again until I thought I had enough of a grip on it to write it myself.” He then tried it out on the cast. “They were able to contribute and adjust,” he says. “My background is in lo-fi production so I’m used to doing everything myself, and it was a process of learning how much talent there was around me and how much other people could contribute.” It’s a trick he learned from a master, having recently worked on the script for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Tintin adaptation. “It’s amazing to see how collaborative Spielberg is,” he says. “He’s completely open to suggestions from anyone, and that lifts everything you do because you want to get the best out of everybody around you.”
“We came in and finished up the final draft and we put in our own little ideas and character traits,” says Franz Drameh, who plays Dennis. Frost is more forthcoming about his input. “Everybody got a say on what they thought of their language in the script, if they could feel themselves saying it and if it worked and resonated with their character. Me, Joe and Luke Treadaway spent an afternoon writing four little scenes for Luke and me to do. It’s always nice when you get to do that. Like when I did Paul, there’s such an evolution from the first draft, and if I’m not involved somehow I don’t want to do it.”
The effort paid off, as Attack The Block has more of an ear for urban speech than any recent mainstream British film. Talking to the younger cast, you can sense that it speaks to where they come from. “I haven’t received a script before that’s been so on point,” says Drameh, one of the film’s few experienced actors. “I watched a lot of The Wire,” says Boyega, “and I asked questions around my estate trying to get the essence of the character. Some of us have lived in South London all our lives, but there’s a difference between living there and being part of the madness that goes on. It’s about the boys as human beings, and to get that you had to have this South London swagger.”
The authenticity of the film has led to suggestions that American audiences might require subtitles, an idea that to Cornish misses the point entirely. “It was important that it is accessible to anybody,” he says. “We simplified it a bit, and made sure we had a limited glossary that we used, designed to teach you through context. If it works you’re going to have old people like me using it!” Frost is even less forgiving to the idea. “I think it would be stupid, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t happen. I think that presupposes that American audiences can’t be bothered, but they are smart and savvy and as hungry for culture as we are. I think it would be a terrible shame”. Luke Treadaway agrees. “We have The Wire coming over here and we understand it. A Clockwork Orange has its own lexicon but by the end of the film you understand. If you don’t know what getting merked is the first time you will by the third time.”
Accents are just part of Attack The Block’s wider subtext. Treadaway plays Brewis, an upper middle class buffoon who enters the block to buy ‘jazz herbs’. Hilarious when attempting gang speak, he is also there for a bigger reason, and is partly based on Cornish himself. “Kids like that do perpetuate the dealing of drugs. The demand for that stuff and the method of distribution is stitched into this socio-economic subculture, and it does take a lot of young people down with it,” he says. “I was as guilty as anybody in my twenties when I would go to these estates and you would get withering looks from neighbours, who would know why I was there. I would feel ashamed, and rightly so, because actions have consequence. But there are still aliens running around to lighten the mood!”
Indeed, the film is never weighed down in social commentary. “It rang true, but it didn’t seem to weigh it down with gritty ‘realness’,” says Treadaway of the balance the film achieves between authenticity and comedy. The result in the end is something charming and enjoyable, if not entirely successful. But even when it doesn’t work Attack The Block is never less than utterly endearing, and it is thrilling to see a British film being so ambitious. It announces the arrival of a filmmaker with huge potential, as well as some promising performers.
“I think there are some genuine future stars amongst that cast,” says Cornish. “They are a testament to the message of the film: that they are brilliant kids capable of amazing things”. So, it seems, is he. Cornish is reluctant to discuss his future, but certainly won’t be rushing into the next project. “I’ve waited this long to do this so I’m not going to go and do something rash. I’m aware of all the time, care and attention that we put into this film, and I wouldn’t want to rush into anything.” It’s clear, though, that the world is at his feet. Frost puts it simply; “I think he can do whatever he wants. He’s proved himself. The sky’s the limit.”
Attack The Block is out now in the UK