Interview: "Attack The Block" Writer-Director Joe Cornish Talks Shadow Aliens, English Thugs, And Project Slang

The English filmmaker explains the influences and motivations behind this summer's best sci-fi flick.

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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. AbramsSuper 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.


There have been movies recently that haven’t delivered anything exciting or original in terms of alien design, but the aliens in Attack The Block are really badass, as well as unique. Their design is simple, yet still very intimidating. Where’d you draw inspiration from when it came time to conceive them?
Well, we knew we couldn’t afford to create CGI aliens, so we had to figure out how to do it in a more lo-fi way. But I thought that was an opportunity to try some of the techniques I loved in movies when I was growing up, so I thought it would be good to do a little bit of puppetry, make it practical, and have something actually be there on set with the actors.


There’s no short answer to this, really, because there are lots of different aspects to it. There’s the physical aspect to it, the design aspect, and the effects aspect. But, to put it in a nutshell, we tried to make something that purposely lacked in detail. Lots of CGI monsters are obsessed with surface detail, and making everything super realistic, which is weird to me when aliens aren’t necessarily real—to strive to make them realistic seems a bit odd to me.

So we kind of tried to take away detail, and make them interesting because there wasn’t that much to look at. Your brain has to fill in the blanks with my creatures. All you can see is this fur-line, and you can feel this alarming, rapid-moving, deep, deep blackness. They hide in shadows like sharks hide in water, and they smell this pheromone like a shark would smell blood in water. We actually nicknamed them “Shadow Sharks” on set, while making the film. We made sure that we lit each scene with deep shadow.

The finished result is a combination of CG and practical effects, but we used that CG to, like I said, remove detail rather than add it. So we actually use CG to erase rather than enhance.

That’s interesting. Were there actual actors on set for the cast to play against?
Well, you know what? I don’t know if I want to tell you. [Laughs.] It’s kind of like a magic trick. I’m excited that people can’t really figure it out—I think that’s a bit rare, isn’t it?

Definitely, and that’s what makes the aliens in your film so impressive.
You can usually say, “Oh, that’s a puppet,” or, “Oh, that’s CG.” But with these, I challenge people to figure out where the practical stuff stops and the CG stuff starts.

Often in genre movies, the filmmakers will only show the audience brief glimpses of the creature, but in your film they’re front and center, whether it’s in slow-motion, or frantic speeds, or even looking directly into the camera.
And that’s the cool thing about the aliens being silhouettes, as well; almost being shadow puppets. You can’t really figure out what their exact shape is until you’ve seen it from enough angles. So even when we’re showing it, we’re concealing it, because it’s all shadow. So, yeah, I didn’t necessarily want to do the thing where you withhold the monster for the first half of the movie.

I love the movies Critters and Gremlins, where the filmmaker doesn’t waste any time before revealing the monster, and then they start freaking you out through quantity and stuff. We didn’t want to conceal the monster until the very end, and then everyone’s disappointed; we wanted to get it out early on and then get some different energy into the scenes by having it present, often in numbers.

Even more important than the aliens are the kids themselves. When you first started writing the script, and you wanted to get the feel of how these kinds of kids talk and act, did you spend a lot of time on the block doing firsthand research? Or were you already familiar with their culture prior to starting the film?
Well, I’m a lot older than those kids. [Laughs.] I grew up near where they’ve grown up, but I had a much more comfortable childhood, so I did a lot of research. I researched even before I started writing the treatment, and that entailed just talking to people I know, talking to people in that neighborhood. I live a couple of streets away from where we shot the mugging scene, actually; I’ve lived there all of my life, so I’ve been around that environment, but never directly in it.

I did months and months of research, and talked to hundreds of kids. I talked them through every aspect of the story. It was really important to me that a kid who’s from that environment and saw this film could connect with it, and think that it's authentic and respectful. So, yeah, we did a huge amount of research.

Was it hard to nail the slang? The film is incredibly slang-heavy, so much so that some American audiences are having difficulties following all of the dialogue.
Yeah, but it wasn’t hard—it was fun. That’s the aspect of it I love; I love how young people develop terminology and languages that adults aren’t supposed to understand. I love the way that language evolves like that. If you read Dickens, or Chaucer, or any kind of period British novel, the language will always feel a bit different.

This film is an attempt to record what’s happening in language today, really, amongst young people. It’s a little bit heightened, a little bit exaggerated, but it’s also part of the science fiction flavor for me. It’s a bit like A Clockwork Orange. So, yeah, the movie has its own lexicon, and it’s designed to teach the audience that lexicon. You might feel a tiny bit disorientated at the very beginning, but very quickly you start to pick it up, and midway through the movie you kind of don’t notice it anymore. By the end, you should be ready to hop on a plane to South London, put on your hoodie, and kick alien butt with the best of them. [Laughs.]

The Clockwork Orange parallel makes perfect sense.
Yeah, that’s one of the things that inspired it. I studied that book [written by Anthony Burgess, and later adapted into a movie by Stanley Kubrick] in school, and at first it was like reading Greek or Latin or Russian. You think, “Oh, man, I’m not going to be able to deal with this,” and then about ten pages later, magically, you start to understand it. Similarly, by the end of my movie, you’re much more deeply involved and, hopefully, don’t even realize that it was written in that language.

Do you have a favorite slang term that you learned while working on the movie?
Oh, so many! [Laughs.] I like Moses’ [John Boyega] stuff; I like “Allow it.” Phrases like that can be used in all sorts of different ways and contexts. What else do I like? I like Brewis’ attempts to join in, with him saying, “Take enough,” and “fo shizzle,” and stuff like that. I like it all. “Shift,” and “murked.” I think it’s all great.


The young actors who play the central kids are all great. Was this a difficult film to cast?
You know what? It wasn’t difficult, though it did take a good amount of time. We saw about 1,500 kids. We had a brilliant casting director called Nina Gold. It was exciting, they’re all relatively inexperienced, and that meant that they were completely un-cynical, and un-jaded, and massively enthusiastic and energetic and competitive. There are loads of talent out there, so it was a really entertaining process.

Wait, what am I saying? “Entertaining process”? [Laughs.] But it kind of was; it was a fun process. We really put them through the ringer; each one came to 10-15 auditions to get their respective part. There was improvisation, and we gave them scenes from plays to read. Mixed them up, tried them in different combinations and in different roles. I’m so proud of what they did. They worked so hard, and most of them had never even been on camera before. I’m really proud of them.

It seems like they picked up the slang-heavy dialogue very easily, too. These kids are all from that area initially, right?
Yeah, they’re all London kids. Some of them are from very close to where we shot the film and where the film is set. None of them are thugs, though. [Laughs.] They’re all actors, and they’re all creating parts. We tried to base their parts on the energy of each actor. When we cast it, we looked for kids that were close to the energy of what was written. So they were correcting us about the slang, actually. There was a point where I just handed the script over to them and we went through every single line; I just said, “OK, make this on-point. Make sure it’s exactly right.” They were really our advisors on that front; when it came to the language, they were teaching us, not the other way around.

All of the kids are strong, but the actor who plays the gang’s silent, brooding leader, Moses [John Boyega] really stands out.
Yeah, and he’d never been in a film before. We found him in a play in North London; he was on stage for about ten minutes, but there was already a buzz around him. The casting director had found him, and it was pretty clear that he was something special. When we saw him on stage, he looked right and he had the right energy, and when we met him he was clever, ambitious, smart, and dedicated.

In his first audition, he was much more verbal than the character in the film, but he and I quickly had a discussion about how Moses is an internal character, and how he’d have to perform him mostly through the eyes, and John really grasped onto that. He was excited by the opportunity to play an internal. I think he does an amazing job—I think he’s gonna go places. There’s not going to be anything stopping him.

The first time we see the kids, they’re mugging an innocent woman, which sets them up as bad guys, but gradually they become heroes. Their heroism is just a reaction to what’s happening around them. It’s not like they go through some jarring, collective personality change that doesn’t feel natural.
Well, the whole point of the movie is to show that these kids are, to a greater or lesser extent, products of their environment. They have to develop this skill set to survive, and it’s a skill set that can be used in a bad way, or, by the end of the movie, in a heroic way. That’s the idea of the movie; we don’t want to sugarcoat it. We don’t present what they do at the beginning of the movie as anything but bad.

It’s a story that shows that even someone who’s made a mistake has an opportunity to redeem his or herself and do good. I’m interested in the ambiguity of it, I’m interested in the moral gray areas, and I’m interested in having a movie that’s driven by an antihero. So it’s supposed to be a little bit provocative. I kind of find movies that are completely morally black-and-white to be a tiny bit fake; I think the world is more interesting than that. People’s characters have more shades of gray for me.

To that point, there’s a great visual cue near the end, when one of the characters enters Moses’ bedroom and sees his Spider-Man bedsheets. You wouldn’t expect such a tough, street-hardened thug to sleep in that childish sort of way.
That’s the idea, yeah. I’m pleased that you picked that up. The story, in addition to being about aliens with glowing dark teeth, bike chases, and all of those good times, is also an exploration of his character. The kids start off as anonymous in ways; you don’t really know how old they are, or who they are, and then this chase movie operates to basically strip their layers away. Then, you see more colors in their characters, and you get the sense that they’re just children, really, having to survive in pretty extreme circumstances. They make mistakes, but at the same time they have lots of potential for good.

Yeah, we kind of hold that reveal about Moses until the end on purpose, really. It’s also interesting to see how audiences respond to him, what conclusions they draw about him, and how ready they are to see him as human, someone with dimensions.

Without spoiling anything, it's also refreshing to see how you don't let the kids off the hook just because they’re, well, kids. In other movies of this kind, the entire gang of youngsters would survive, but that’s not the case in Attack The Block; kids die, graphically at that. The film does a great job of not lying to the audience; if this situation was really happening, it’s pretty unlikely that all five of them would emerge from it unscathed.


That’s very well put. I completely agree. Plus, again, without speaking too heavily about what’s basically a fun monster movie, the fact is that it is kids who are dying out there, in real life. They’re not being killed by monsters—they’re basically being killed by each other in South London. I think nine teenagers have been murdered this year so far. So, it is a real thing. In a satirical and metaphorical way, we’re trying to show that young lives are at risk.

We certainly didn’t want to do that stalk-and-slash thing where someone makes a moral mistake, or takes drugs or has premarital sex and gets punished for it by the killer; this is a kind of environment where death is kind of random, and, often, people will die for no logical reason. It’s just a moment-to-moment struggle. So we didn’t want to be schematic about that—we wanted to keep it real, and keep it unpredictable.

That’s what makes the film work so well—it touches upon issues such as that, but, when all’s said and done, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun. It should make for some really lively in-theater audience experiences.
That’s really good of you to say, man. It’s designed to be an audience movie, to be watched with a crowd, where people shout, cheer, and boo—all that kind of stuff.

I remember one of the first times I ever visited America…. I went and saw Die Hard in downtown New York, on the Friday it opened. Being an English guy, coming from a place where everyone’s very polite in the cinema and people keep quiet during films, it was a real revelation for me to see how a downtown New York crowd responded to Die Hard. It’s an amazing film, and it really grabs you at the beginning and leads you through this amazing adventure; people were standing up, cheering, and shouting. It was amazing.

I’ve always dreamed that one day I could make a film that might inspire even a little bit of that response. That’s when you know a movie’s working, isn’t it? When people are literally shouting along. So, man, if I can inspire even a fragment of that response, I’d be very, very happy.

Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)

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