x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How Attack the Block started with the director being mugged

The filmmaker Joe Cornish explains why he wanted to build on the experience of being a street robbery victim in a positive way.

John Boyega, centre, plays an unsympathetic but heroic south London gang leader in Attack the Block (2011).
John Boyega, centre, plays an unsympathetic but heroic south London gang leader in Attack the Block (2011).

Tell someone you live in the south London district of Brixton and they'll probably ask, "Oh, when are you moving out?", says Joe Cornish. Born, raised and still a resident of the area which became known for racial unrest in the 1980s, the 42-year-old privately educated filmmaker claims he has spent his entire life defending its reputation. But in 2001, the stereotype that he had always rejected - that the area is rife with violent teenage gangs - was briefly confirmed, when he became the victim of a mugging himself. Rather than giving-up on his home, however, Cornish channelled the experience into his debut feature film, Attack the Block, which opens in UAE cinemas today.

"I was suddenly 'the victim' and they were suddenly 'monstrous criminals' and it felt very artificial," he says. "That's why I wanted to make the film. I wanted to explore why they had done that."

But, as the title suggests, the movie is more than just a portrait of social decay; written by Cornish, it sees a gang, modelled on that which robbed him, bravely defending their tower block… against alien invaders.

"I was influenced a lot by ET" says Cornish. "For me that's an amazing fusion of social realism and fantasy. I was as taken by how real Elliott's home life felt and the divorce his parents were going through, as I was with the alien itself. In Attack the Block, I was trying to do something similar; to merge a grittiness with something fantastical."

The film, which had its premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March and received widespread praise from critics upon its release in the UK, balances comedy, horror, science-fiction and that famous British obsession: class. It begins with a nurse, Sam (Jodie Whitaker), who is robbed at knifepoint by a gang led by an angry hooded youth, Moses (John Boyega) - the movie's unlikely hero. The tagline "Inner City vs Outer Space" elegantly sums up the story.

The work of the US director John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing) informed Cornish's movie more than that of any other filmmaker. The influence of horror comedies of the era, such as Gremlins and Critters, also looms large.

"Attack the Block starts with the stereotype - which unfortunately does exist - and then the movie unwraps the stereotype and shows some dimension to the characters," says the director. "That's why I went back to those 1980s youth movies that were properly dramatic and exciting and respected the intelligence of their audience."

Although he may be the new kid on the block when it comes to moviemaking, Cornish has been a well-known name in the UK since the mid-1990s as one half of the comedy double act Adam and Joe, alongside the actor and comedian Adam Buxton. The pair, who met at school, have in recent years gained a cult following hosting a weekly radio show on the digital station BBC 6 Music. Their long-defunct television series, The Adam and Joe Show, saw the duo interviewing rock stars, engaging in absurd pranks and remaking classic films with stuffed toys in a bedsit, a decade before such behaviour became the norm on YouTube.

"I did think about the expectations of my comedy a lot when I was working on the screenplay. I thought, maybe people would expect me to make something sillier - like a South Park or Monty Python-type thing," he says. "The movies that I love have comedy in them, but they're not out-and-out comedies. American Werewolf in London is one of my favourites and that's a very funny movie, but it's also very scary and real. The best comedy comes as a result of something serious."

Before making the film, Cornish attended youth groups and community outreach programmes in south London in an attempt to understand the events that had led to his being robbed. Interacting with disadvantaged young people - many of whom were still children - he discovered that a startling number were from broken homes where education was undervalued and opportunity extremely limited.

"The bottom line is that, unfortunately, children all around the world find themselves in pretty difficult situations, however wealthy the country that they are growing up in is," he says.

The director believes he took a serious risk by creating an unsympathetic character such as Moses and then setting him on a path to heroism - something that he thinks led to a handful of negative reviews upon the movie's UK release.

"In a lot of films they bend over backwards to make you love the protagonist, by giving them an attractive wife and beautiful children who are then kidnapped or shot. We did the opposite."

The time spent interacting with the area's young people also helped to familiarise him with their patois, which makes up much of the film's dialogue. Although fans of grime and UK hip-hop might be familiar with the intricacies of the London youth dialect, it rarely reaches the cinema in Britain, let alone farther afield. Despite this, the director claims that the predominantly American audience at the SXSW premiere had little problem understanding lines such as "Let's get tooled up, blud. Let's get down there, I'm killin' 'em straight." With the movie going on to win the audience award for Best Narrative Feature at the Los Angeles film festival, it seems he could be right.

Soon after his directing debut leaves cinemas, another film bearing Cornish's name is set to appear - one whose box-office takings could outperform Attack the Block's by 50 to one. He is credited as a writer on The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn - the forthcoming Steven Spielberg-directed Peter Jackson-produced 3D animation, which is expected to be one of this December's biggest draws.

"I finished working on that before I started Attack the Block, so I'm as excited to see it as everyone else, really," says Cornish. But his incredible flurry of activity doesn't end there; he has also completed a script for Ant-Man, based on one of Marvel Comics' lesser-known heroes. It was co-written with another famous friend, the Shaun of the Dead filmmaker Edgar Wright, who plans to direct the movie.

Cornish openly admits to having sought the advice of his high-achieving filmmaking friends when planning Attack the Block.

Spielberg, he says, "was very insistent about the importance of connecting character to action; trying to have everything motivated by character".

He adds: "I've learnt a huge amount from Edgar and a huge amount from Spielberg and Jackson. It's like a sort of fantasy filmmakers' university."

With no shortage of high-profile collaborations in the offing and plans for his next outing as a director moving ahead in secret, Joe Cornish must feel like the days of remaking films with stuffed toys couldn't be farther behind him.