Saturday, 14 May 2011
Joe Cornish interview: Attack The Block (The List, Issue 680)
These are interesting times for British film comedy. Last year Chris Morris’ suicide bomber farce Four Lions presented an intelligent reflection on a thorny problem, while earlier this year Richard Ayoade’s Submarine proved that British comedy could tackle peculiar and poignant as well as the best American independents. Now Joe Cornish, half of cult TV and radio duo Adam and Joe, makes his writing and directing debut with Attack The Block, a joyously exciting action sci-fi that imagines the outcome when a bunch of vengeful extra-terrestrials face off against a gang of teenage hoodies in an inner-city London tower block.
There are laughs on hand, but Cornish also has a serious point to make about his protagonists’ exclusion from society, particularly in the character of Moses, the gang’s hotheaded leader, played by newcomer John Boyega. Moses is the kind of character that has become shorthand in recent British cinema for pure evil, thanks to a spate of ‘hoodie horrors’, including the Michael Caine revenge flick Harry Brown and Paul Andrew Williams’s Cherry Tree Lane. It’s a perspective that Cornish hopes to counter with Attack The Block.
‘This is certainly a reaction to [those] often brilliantly-made and well-crafted movies that I think take a slightly inhuman approach to an issue that, actually, involves very young kids. I think that’s the easy option, to take something in the world that already is demonised and frightens people, and just make it even more scary and horrible.’ Cornish favours a more compassionate view: ‘I don’t think it’s an incredibly radical premise to try and have sympathy for someone who has made a mistake. I think you’ll find it in the Bible quite a lot, and in various faiths; for me it’s quite a simple dramatic premise, and I’d be alarmed if contemporary society decided that it could only have absolutely clean-cut, morally pure characters in its narratives. If you went through the history of art and literature doing that, you’d lose most of it!’
Cornish’s upbeat and engaging manner – familiar from the weekly 6 Music radio show in which he and co-host Adam Buxton frequently collapse in fits of giggles – conveys his positivity about humanity, which is both infectious and very welcome in the often bleak world of UK film. It’s an outlook he shares with his filmmaker friend Edgar Wright, and it is what enabled him to see the potential for science fiction storytelling in these unlikely characters and settings, just as Wright did for zombies in Shaun of the Dead.
‘I totally looked at all these amazing tower blocks that have been around me all my life’ enthuses Cornish, ‘and I thought “wow, these are like huge clapped-out spaceships, or they’re like Nakatomi Plaza [from Die Hard], or the Nostromo [from Alien]!”’ He saw similar cinematic potential in the street slang regularly used by London gangs. ‘I was excited by the language, it was another place where this scenario that’s usually used for downbeat depressing social realism could be taken in another direction, towards all the kind of escapist, joyful, science-fictional things that I love, and I think probably the kids who live in those places love too.’
To achieve authenticity Cornish, who admits to being ‘a tiny bit less “street” than Prince Charles’ spent months visiting youth groups in south London, telling them the story of Attack The Block and recording everything they said, ‘as if it was a linguaphone course and I was learning Italian’. The result of that investment is obvious on screen, with the kids’ sometimes-impenetrable dialogue sounding as far from Cornish’s own precise enunciation as possible. Meeting with those groups had a secondary value too, as it cemented Cornish’s conviction that these ‘hoodies’ were worthy of better treatment on film: ‘We did find some who were quite similar to Moses, who’d been excluded from school or got involved with bad stuff. And they’re not monsters. They’re very empathic, and when you spend a bit of time with them they’re normal and sweet, enthusiastic and bright. But they’ve just been cornered a bit by life, and I think that often the way they’re portrayed doesn’t help with that. Culturally, it makes the problem worse, not better.’
Apart from the imminent release of his debut movie there is another not-insignificant string to Cornish’s filmmaking bow; he is co-writer of one of 2011’s most anticipated blockbusters, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of Tintin, shot in motion-captured 3D and due for release this October. Cornish plays down his involvement (‘really you’re talking to the lowest person on the food chain’) but it raises the question, how did that happen? It was, he says ‘purely about being friends with clever people and sticking with them. Peter Jackson had called Edgar [Wright], because they needed some work done on the Tintin script, and Edgar knew I was a Tintin fan, and before I knew it I was sitting round a table with Mr Spielberg and Mr Jackson.’ And what was it like being slotted in beside the biggest cogs in the Hollywood machine? For Cornish it basically meant ‘very hard work; those guys are very clever and bright, and they don’t beat around the bush in terms of telling you what they think. In a very nice polite way, of course.’
For Tintin fans the prospect of Spielberg’s long-gestating film has been exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure, but Cornish and Wright’s involvement is a promising indicator that this won’t be a mangled studio version of the beloved books. ‘In terms of the [film’s] world,’ says Cornish, ‘it’s pretty true to the books. There are things you have to do to the narrative just because of the way those books were written; structurally they climax on every page, and the characters take a while to get introduced throughout the series. So there’s stuff one has to compress a bit, to make work over a feature-length running time, but I think [fans] will be happy with how faithful it is.’
As for directing again, Cornish has ‘lots of ideas’ and seems firmly bitten by the filmmaking bug: ‘I loved it. It’s all consuming, but it’s really enjoyable. The lack of sleep is tough, but I feel I’ve spent so much of my life being lazy that I can deal with a couple of years of sleepless nights.’
Attack The Block is in cinemas now. Read my review here. This interview first published in The List magazine.