Love it or hate it, alien invasion movies are here to stay. Since the subgenre’s emergence in the 1950s, films about extraterrestrial threats have been a Hollywood mainstay, resulting in mega-budgeted productions both wicked (Independence Day) and putrid (Battle: Los Angeles). This summer, Tinseltown’s most influential super-producers (i.e., Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) have attempted to reinvigorate the somewhat stale trend, with a nostalgic throwback to the great alien flicks of the early ’80s (J.J. Abrams’ Super 8) and a mash-up of otherworldly villains and western antiheroes (Cowboys & Aliens, in theaters this Friday). Though both films are entertaining, neither one feels like the shot of Martian blood needed for proper rejuvenation.
But all hope isn’t lost. This Friday, in limited release, the independently made and enormously fun Attack The Block will finally hit theaters after months of festival acclaim and overwhelming online buzz. Written and directed by English comedian turned filmmaker Joe Cornish, it’s a rapid-fire action flick that marries alien invasion cinema with fiendish glee of ’80s-era John Carpenter movies and the sly British humor of Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz (which makes sense, since Cornish is close friends with director Edgar Wright).
Attack The Block centers on five South London inner-city teens whose mugging of a well-off woman gets interrupted by, that’s right, an alien invasion. Instead of cowering in their bedrooms, though, the slang-spitting delinquents fight the invaders (inventively unique-looking creations described as “big, gorilla wolf motherfuckers”) head-on. Fast-paced, often hilarious, well-acted, gory, and at times poignant, Cornish’s characteristically British feature debut is a crowd-pleaser that’s unlike anything else in theaters.
Complex chopped it up with Cornish for an in-depth chat about the film’s origins, how he went about conceptualizing the flick’s refreshingly singular aliens, why he now loves to use “murked” in conversations, how he nailed the language and demeanor of trouble-making English youths, and the life-changing influence of Die Hard.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)
Complex: Ever since Attack The Block first screened at SXSW this past March, there’s been a ton of hype surrounding the film. And I’ve got to say, it didn't disappoint.
Joe Cornish: Cool, I’m very pleased to hear that.
How does it feel to have all of this stateside hype around your little, homegrown sci-fi flick?
It’s amazing. It’s terrific that people have responded to it so emphatically. Really, it’s a modest British production. It’s true to its roots, and it’s set in a very distinct place and sticks to its own slang. It’s not a massive, blockbuster, big-budget thing, so it’s really quite rewarding that people seem to get it, particularly because it’s inspired by so many American genre movies. It seems like American audiences see that, and get what we were trying to do.
Tell me about those inspirations. How’d the initial idea for the script come about?
Well, the film has been in my head for ten years, really. I had a little mugging experience myself, where I was robbed by some kids not dissimilar to the ones in my film, years and years ago. That made me start to become fascinated by the characters that did it, really. And the other thing it made me think about was, “What if my robbery had been interrupted by something fantastical? Something from a sci-fi movie?” And that reminded me of all the movies I loved while I was growing up, like E.T., Gremlins, Critters, and Predator and stuff, where they kind of blend quirky realism and fantasy.
There aren’t many British films that try to do that, so I wanted to give that a shot. So it was a combination of my fascination with the character of these kids who had mugged me and also my love of these American monster movies, really.
Why did it take 10 years to get Attack The Block made?
I always have loads in my head, and this is just the one that came to fruition, I suppose. And the other thing I loved about it was I wanted to do something a bit ambitious for my first film; I wanted to do something with chases, explosions, and effects, because I really admire movies like The Terminator, or John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. Movies that come early in directors’ careers and are ambitious and want to toy with blockbuster imagery on a small level. So I was waiting for an idea to come along that hit those boxes really, and this was the one, I think.
Attack The Block is definitely a small movie that’s big in scale and execution. Was it difficult to get people to support you, being a first-time director with such a massively ambitious idea?
People were certainly…. Yeah, not everyone was one-hundred-percent sure that it would succeed, but I think you always have that degree of cynicism around you when you’re taking a big risk and trying something that’s ambitious. But once the ball started rolling, everyone was totally on board. I was fortunate to work with Big Talk [Productions], who produced Edgar Wright’s films [Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World]. I had a relationship with them, so they had confidence with me. And, also, they’re good at making genre films; they made a Michael Bay-type film set in West Country, and an epic zombie invasion film set in London, so they’re confident about genres.
Yeah, so I had a lot of support from them. But I think on a first-time film, where you have a lot of creature work, effects, and stunt work, and you’re trying to do something a bit different, you’re definitely going to have some doubters in the mix. But, hopefully we’ve proved them wrong. [Laughs.]
The film doesn't waste any time. Within minutes, we see an alien attack, and the action never lets up from that point all the way through to the end. How important was it for you to give the film such a breakneck pace?
That was very important. We always wanted to make a movie that was around 90 minutes—that was my ambition. I just wanted to keep it moving all the time. I’m just interested in action, and character development through action; I’m not enormously interested in long dialogue scenes. That’s what I enjoy in films: visual storytelling, action, movement, people doing things, showing who you are by their actions and choices rather than by their words.
Again, the way the first Terminator is structured, the way E.T. is structured…. All of my favorite movies just get in there and get on with it. You pick up information about the characters on the fly; movies I like never really stop to tell stuff. Assault On Precinct 13 is an amazing example of that; it doesn’t have great blocks of expositional dialogue, and it doesn’t have characters telling you about their past or their childhood. It’s just kind of moment-to-moment action, and that’s what I wanted to do.
The film’s vibrant soundtrack, a blend of recognizable hip-hop and British grime beats, plays a huge part in that. In what ways did you want the score to assist the film’s momentum and overall feel?
Yeah, it was really important, and there were a couple of things that I particularly didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to score the film with Dizzee Rascal singles or the latest grime tracks; I wanted to have a properly composed score, because that’s what I like in adventure movies. And then we also wanted to evoke John Carpenter’s music, the electronic scores that he wrote for his films, and then we wanted to evoke John Williams, that John Williams-esque orchestral stuff (heard in nearly all of Steven Spielberg’s films and countless other classics). I felt like that’d really fit quite well with the fantasy stuff, the scenes with the aliens, and then we wanted the John Carpenter style to match with the energy of the gang.
So it was both of the Johns, Williams and Carpenter, jamming together—that was the pitch. And we managed to get Basement Jaxx to get involved, and they’re actually from the particular area where the film was shot. We also got this guy Steve Price, who’s worked on The Lord Of The Rings and different films like that. I’m really happy with how it turned out; it’s a really detailed, quirky, rhythmic score, but the action always drives the score, never the other way around.
And it also incorporates one of my all-time favorite rap songs: KRS-One’s “Sound Of Da Police,” which is definitely appreciated.
[Laughs.] Yeah, the film has some delicately placed needle-drops and existing records, but they’re always listened to by a character. There’s never a pop song on the track that isn’t being listened to by someone in the scene, so the existing songs are all character-driven, too, which I felt was important. That particular song is listened to by Brewis [Luke Treadaway], the kid who’s not from the block, and is only there to score weed, but, at the same time, fancies himself as being just as cool and credible as the kids in the gang. So the KRS-One record seemed like one that he’d listen to in order to feel tougher while on the block. It’s some pretty good old-school hip-hop.