First time feature film writer/director Joe Cornish brings old school aliens back to the big screen in Attack the Block, an R-rated sci-fi action film hitting theaters on July 29, 2011. The film is set in South London and follows a group of inner-city teens who have to protect their turf from invading aliens. And while most of the young actors featured as members of the gang aren't exactly household names (Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, John Boyega, Simon Howard, Leeon Jones, Luke Treadaway, Jodie Whittaker), Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fans should be happy to see Nick Frost as 'Ron', the funny neighborhood weed dealer.
Sitting down to discuss the modestly budgeted film, writer/director Cornish talked about the designs of his aliens, his avoidance of CG monsters, and the challenges involved in delivering his first feature film.
Joe Cornish Attack the Block Interview
It's coming out at the end of July. Did you conceive of this as a summer movie type of film?
Joe Cornish: "Yeah. I wanted to make a mini blockbuster. We're a low-budget movie, we're the little engine that could. We don't have a massive marketing campaign, but perhaps this movie has a little more heart than some of the bigger movies out there. It's made with real sincerity and real passion. It's a proper exploration of real characters in the real world, and our monsters are a little more old-school. They're practical, so it's trying to bring back some of the old-school values of movies that maybe the bigger blockbusters have let go a little bit."
How did the design of the monsters come about?
Joe Cornish: "As a moviegoer, I was feeling a little bit of CGI monster fatigue. It's almost as if there's an iPhone app for CGI creatures. They all tend to look the same and move the same. Their spaceships are always the same. It seems to be me there's room for more imagination in the way aliens are approached. I'm bored with military intervention; I'm bored with silver complicated spaceships. I don't know what the deal is with this obsession with everything being photorealistic. Things were cleverer back then. The spaceships in Close Encounters were made entirely with light, which is a much more artistic approach. And I just wanted to do something bold and brave and visual, and old-school. So our aliens are all about a lack of detail. We actually used CGI to take away detail, rather than add it. Plus, I love all those '80s creature-features like Gremlins and Critters and ET. You know, I loved ET - he was rubber, but I loved him. And there's something about puppeteering, about having a person actually creating the movement. A performer, for me, is always better than animation. When it's put together with live-action kind of thing, I think it works best. So, yeah, we were trying to go old-school."
How important was it to have a social conscious?
Joe Cornish: "It was very important. This is a story exploring this character, this young boy called Moses, who we find in a bad place in his life. Through the story of this alien attack he finds a little bit of redemption. So, no, it was completely important to have that message. It was inspired by John Carpenter's films, like Assault on 13 Precinct or The Thing where you can watch it as just a crazy monster movie, or if you want to engage your brain, if you're that way inclined, there's a little bit of fiber with your fruit to chew on - that kind of thing. That was what excited me about it, a movie that could say something using the language of glow in the dark alien monster attacks."
What was the most challenging thing about getting the film off the ground as a first time feature film director?
Joe Cornish: "Well the challenging thing was probably finding an idea that I felt was good enough to do, and also getting to a place where I thought I could write it well enough. The raising of the money was dealt with by the production company. They were very good, they just let me get on with the script and went out and got the money. But, you know, in the UK there are a lot of first time directors, not many second time directors, and hardly any third time directors. So for me it was very important to be bold and ambitious and brave, and do something that if it succeeded would be different and exciting, and if it failed at least I'd taken a shot. I didn't want to make a talkie film; I wanted to make a film that was about action and was kind of cinematic. So I was waiting for those things to come together."
How much did you know about the teen gangs/youth culture like the one in the film?
Joe Cornish: "Well, I grew up in Brixton in south London where the movie is set. I had a pretty comfortable existence though. I did not grow up in one of those blocks. I had a nice, comfortable existence in a wonderfully mixed area, so I knew more than a lot of people but I still did a great deal of research - months and months and months talking to kids. We did a lot of research, and then when we cast it I collaborated with the kids in the film. They had the opportunity to change the lines. We workshopped a lot of it. So it was absolutely made in collaboration with the actors, and off the back of a lot of research."