Joe Cornish On His Directorial Debut And Mugging Off Aliens

Fresh off Radio 6 Joe Cornish, of Adam & Joe, talks about his brand new Brit flick 'Attack the Block'.
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Fresh off Radio 6 Joe Cornish, of Adam & Joe, talks about his brand new Brit flick 'Attack the Block'.

The king of chat and chuckles on Radio 6 took a break from broadcasting The Adam & Joe Show to make offbeat sci-fi comedy Attack the Block. A gang of kids defending their ‘ends’ from an invading alien menace bring the laughs in a triumphant British flick from the producers of Shaun of the Dead. Joe Cornish talks slang, aliens and getting mugged off. It’s bare man. Ya get me?

Where did you get the idea for Attack the Block?

It started with a fairly low-key mugging that happened to me nearly eight years ago. So I combined that weird moment as a starting point with my love of gang movies like Warriors, Rumblefish and The Outsiders – films I loved when I was a kid – and monster movies like Critters, Gremlins and Poltergeist. The event definitely traumatised me and made me remember all the places I escaped to in my brain when I was growing up in South London. I used to come out of the cinema and wander the streets of Stockwell and Brixton, my head swirling with gang movie fantasies… It was weird because you would never see films like those set in a place like that. So I thought, wow! How different things could be if an event from one of the monster movies I loved interrupted a mugging. I realised the kids that jumped me looked like something out of one of those films – like bandits or ninjas! Their bikes were like the bikes in ET and their mopeds like the speeder bikes in Jedhi. Then I thought the tower blocks looked like clapped out spaceships like the Nostromo in Alien. And even the maps outside the estates looked like a map of terrain for an adventure. So all the elements were here…

And the silhouettes of your invading aliens look like the monsters on the Space Invaders arcade machines…

Absolutely! It’s such an iconic image and something I wanted to reference. They look a bit like yetis don’t they? I’m a big yeti fanatic. I was born in 1968, which was the year that the Patterson big foot footage was filmed. I’d buy magazines like The Unexplained and fill my head with images of monsters, ghosts and UFOs. Apart from on Doctor Who you never saw any of that shit going down in films in areas that you recognised. So here I am 30 years later trying to make up for it.

I’m sure audiences will get the idea that the slang is an element of the science fiction. Sci-fi is full of phrases that mean fuck all. Do you know what dilithium crystals are?

What was the audience reaction at the SXSW festival in America?

We had no idea how it would go down. It was really nerve racking! We’d only finished it the week before so when it came to the night of the first screening we were comforting ourselves with booze and when the lights went down I was at the back of the cinema in Austin practically curled up in the foetal postion! But 20 minutes in it was clear people were digging it. No one left, went to the loo or started talking so it was great.

Did they get the lingo?

We listened to the kids that we cast and the thing with South London slang is that it’s got quite clear diction. The syllables get pushed and it’s all a bit lazier. I have this thing that North London is quite cocainey, quite rat-a-tat and fast. But South London slang is more of a laid-back marijuana vibe. We also took care to only use about ten different words and in different context so people could understand it. There’s been decades of hip hop culture and I’m sure audiences will get the idea that the slang is an element of the science fiction. Sci-fi is full of phrases that mean fuck all. Do you know what dilithium crystals are?

How did the street casting work?

Street casting is where you wander the streets going up to people saying, “You look interesting!” We did do some of that but everyone we found came from a school or youth group where they had already demonstrated a skill in acting. It’s hard work and you can’t have a kid dropping out during filming or you’re fucked. So we had to make sure the bottom line of enthusiasm and discipline were there. The casting agent visited schools and we saw more than a thousand kids. We checked out their improv skills, gave them lines of dialogue to learn and then we started looking for groups that gelled. So the ones that made the film had to go through ten rounds of auditions… The great thing is that a decade of Pop Idol and X Factor has taught a generation of kids how to audition! They understand failure and rejection, which is one of the upsides of those stupid TV shows.

What was it like working with Nick Frost?

He brought his Frostosity and his Nickness. He’s obviously the biggest name in the film so having his name on it and Edgar Wright’s support was important for raising a budget and getting people to have confidence in the film. Having Nick involved was great because he was, to an extent, discovered by Simon Pegg. So he’s similar to the kids in Attack the Block, he had a natural talent somebody spotted. He’s amazing and was able to help the kids feel secure and build their confidence.

I made awful films at film school. Terrible. Pretentious. Melodramatic! I was interested in horror and suspense but took myself quite seriously.

Did any weird stuff happen during filming on the streets of Elephant & Castle?

It was trouble free. That area has a very unjustified reputation. Maybe slightly more uptown people might look down their nose at those areas but secretly the people who live in them know that they’re actually beautiful and nice so everyone stays quiet about them to keep the house prices down.

What films did you make in your time at the Bournemouth Film School?

I made awful films at film school. Terrible. Pretentious. Melodramatic! I was interested in horror and suspense but took myself quite seriously. But that’s what film school is for – working the idiot out of your system. Maybe I haven’t completely done it yet…

How much of a training ground was the Adam & Joe Show on Channel 4?

Oh yeah! Particularly those stuffed toy reconstructions we would do. We would do three each and help each other with the voices. You’d lock yourself in a room with lots of cardboard and glue and lights and stuffed toys. You’d have a copy of the film your were spoofing and watch it over and over again to figure out the scenes, then find a condensed way of telling the story and set about copying the sets and lighting as accurately as you could. We’d build the vehicles and match the buildings in a kind of cruddy South Park sort of a way. But it was fun! I built an enormous version of the Titanic that was 12ft long just to smash it to pieces!

Would you consider doing a big screen project like this?

I think Team America did it so well. Other people got there before us… But there are furry things in my new film!

What’s you’re favourite sci-fi flick?

I always think the good thing about the Oscars is nominating ten films. The bad thing is choosing one out of them. Do you know what I mean? I love the stuff that everyone else loves. I could reel off a few… Alien, Terminator 2, ET, Starship Troopers, Galaxy Quest… I don’t think I’ve got particularly rarified tastes I just love the good stuff.

In Close Encounters they played a keyboard. How would you welcome visitors from another planet?

I’d do my best to be friendly. In truth visitors from outer space are probably gonna be weird microbes and just get stuck to the heel of my boot.

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