NYCC 2011: Interview With Joe Cornish on ‘Attack The Block’


picAt the recent New York Comic Con, Cosmic Book News was invited to a round-table discussion with Joe Cornish, writer and director of Attack The Block.

Attack The Block sees an alien invasion take place at a South London Housing project where a gang of teenagers are forced to defend their home. In doing so, Cornish reveals much about teenage methodology through the central character Moses, brilliantly played by newcomer John Boyega, and his friends. The film is full of everything you would expect from a sci-fi alien flick, but much more. It certainly contains all the action and adventure, but Cornish includes the setting as a major component of the story. As Moses fends off the onslaught of creatures, he reveals to the audience just who he truly is at heart, making for an overall terrific story. The movie is not just about the battle against, but the course one takes when faced with imminent danger — from a teenage perspective set within a poor urban dwelling.

Attack The Block is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, be sure to pick this one up, it’s a guaranteed classic.

The following is the text from the interview with Joe Cornish that a number of writers contributed to. Cornish talks about the importance of the characters involved, the setting, the look of the creatures, the journey Moses takes, and much more — including writing TinTin with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat, and mention of the Ant-Man script.



Image courtesy

I found “Attack of the Block” to be a very character driven movie with the setting being of vast importance, specifically the opening with the aliens landing in the inner city. Would you consider that a war zone in itself, even before the aliens arrived?

Joe Cornish: I wouldn’t call it a war zone myself. We were keen to respect the reality of the environment and show actually how important their home is to those kids. They go to great lengths to protect it, because they love it. Other people may think it’s a down beat place, and many other movies show that kind of environment as a depressing kind of signifier of urban depravation. But for the kids that live there it’s home, and they love it, and it’s their playground, and their childhood.

It becomes a war zone because of the aliens, but a fun war zone of aliens versus humans. I didn’t want to make a gang movie. I didn’t want to make a movie about kids beating each other up or stabbing each other. Attack The Block is pretty fun. In terms of the violence, the worst thing that happens is they try and mug that woman at the beginning, and compared to the amount of violence you see in the average Hollywood film, it’s pretty mild. But at the same time I hope it’s quite ballsy and quite dynamic, a scary and fun kind of thing.

You are talking about how you wanted to portray it as the kids’ home. Was that tied to the decision to have all the colors be just so bright and vivid? Because that seemed to contribute a lot to the warmth. 

JC: Definitely. Yeah, you are right.

Similarly like I was saying, often that the environment is portrayed as a down beat way, that is reflected in the cinematography of many films. I’m not saying it’s the wrong way to do it, just something I wanted to react against. With a lot of movies they desaturate the color and it’s grainy and hand-held, and it’s sort of super down beat and real.

The interesting thing about this architecture is it was built in the ’50s and ’60s in a huge spirit of optimism and futurism. These designs were seen as this utopia that would solve the slum problems in post-war Britain. If you look at original documentaries or footage taken at the time of when these buildings were initially opened, they seemed like science fiction. Since then, they have flipped and become, you know, heroine addicts slumped in corners, you know, dog sh-t in the lift and stuff like that. So I wanted to bring it back to that imaginative optimistic futuristic feel.

And the color was very much to do with that. We wanted it to look like almost a ’60s Disney film, to be multi-colored, to be fluorescent, to look like kind of Mary Poppins [laughs] more than Fish Tank.

I was amazed at the DVD special features. You used so many practical special effects. I didn’t actually think the creatures were there at all when I first saw the movie. Was that originally the idea or did you go into it thinking you could switch it later?

JC: We never had the budget to do CGI creatures, but I didn’t want to do CGI creatures. As a film goer, I find digital monsters very samey. They all feel the same, and I don’t understand this obsession with hyper-realistic detail. All the movies I loved, whether it was Gremlins or E.T. or Critters or Predator — I believed those creatures. They felt like they were there, and they were more somehow simpler, and more imaginative. And hell, I could go home and draw them. You can’t draw the dragon from Harry Potter without a fine art degree. So I wanted to do a movie of a monster that was sketchable and graphic.

So we have a guy in the suit, and the guy is Terry Notary. He is a very brilliant creature performer with a long IMDb credits list of amazing films. Spectral Motion, who do Guillermo del Toro’s stuff, made the suit. A company called Di-Neg and another company called Fido used CGI to actually take away detail on the body, and every now and then to help the jaws. But that was it.

In Attack The Block, if a kid is being attacked by a creature, it’s real. He’s being attacked by the creature.

Even the creature’s mouth’s moved really well.

JC: Well, we needed that, because to get the reflection of those iridescent teeth in the environment is very laborious and time consuming to do digitally. But if you have the mirror on the set, it doesn’t cost anything apart from the teeth. It was half to do with resources, but mainly to do with wanting to get something original aesthetically and something that was more to do with the old school effects that I love.

Why did you do the inner city out of all the settings you could have done?

JC: Because it’s where I live, it’s where I grew up in Stockwell in South London.

The movie wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t about those kids. The movie is about the kids, it’s about the situation they find themselves in. It’s about the energy and power of teenagers in particular. Teenagers are funny, they are strong, they are passionate. They have a very particular way of looking at the world. They are very tight when they get together. And if you don’t care for them and pay attention to them, you can have problems. And if you do, you can have something amazingly positive and strong.

I felt very strongly that especially in the UK, the press and the public attitude toward kids like that is dangerously — negative. Even though I start my film with almost the stereotype, the cliché, that was our basis then to go at 100 miles an hour in the other direction.

That’s why the film exists, it’s the story of those kids. If I set it in a different part of London, it might have been a different cultural mix — if I set it in East London. I was also very excited to give young actors of that age from my area the chance to be in a movie like this. 



I like how you transition Moses from a thug-like mentality, he had no remorse, he was all about respect…

JC: Yeah, but even that is a front. I did a lot of research. The movie is all about trying not to see things in binary terms because you get in trouble, and it over simplifies the thing. Some of the critical reaction is interesting. People who seemed to find it impossible not to think in this binary way, and when you actually talk to young people like that — yeah, they are actually capable of doing bad things, but they are smart, clever and articular. This movie is an attempt to show the full spectrum. 

Moses started off the movie almost as if a criminal, and towards the end he was a hero. Even with Jodie Whitaker’s character, Sam, she even said, “This is my home,” at the end, after she was attacked in the beginning. 

JC: Those were the first ideas. The first idea I had was the very beginning and the very end end. I thought, “Okay, that is my ‘a,’ that is my ‘z.’ Can I get there and can I bring the audience with me?” That was the challenge; that felt like an exciting thing to write. John Boyega is amazing.

Where did you discover John Boyega?

JC: Well, we saw about 1500 young people. We found him in a play in the Triangle Theater in London. He was on stage for 10 minutes. He was 17 when I saw him, maybe even 16. He was just great. He was passionate about acting. He had been acting for about 2 years when we found him.

He was fantastic.

JC: Yeah, he’s quite something, and I think he was going to make it with or without us, but I feel very lucky that we discovered him for this.

It is in a way very much a classic heroes journey for Moses. He starts from humble questionable beginnings to doing great deeds and ultimately saving the world. Did that come from an organic progression or did it come from the literary tradition of a heroes journey?

JC: The former. You know, I know all that stuff. I did the Robert McKee course and I’ve read all those books, but I did the McKee course in my early 20’s. It gave me writers block for about 7 years because everything I wrote seemed wrong. It was like everything I wrote I had to compare to this paradigm and it always fell short. Plus, I was never any good at math or science at school. And it made it feel like math or science. So actually what really liberated me was just forgetting all that stuff, and just writing what I thought felt instinctively — cool. 

The end of the film seems to have a little bit of religious undertone with Moses bringing his people to safety. Was that always initially in there?

JC: No. I knew the sh-t would be read into it, but I think sometimes that’s a nice thing about having quite a minimalist scenario — that it can become allegorical or metaphorical and people can maybe see stuff in it. That’s always the strength of any good little lo-fi sci-fi movie, whether it’s Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Children of the Damned — those beautifully boiled down allegorical scenarios that are capable of containing lots of different interpretations.

The name of Moses came from one of the first kids I spoke to in research and I just liked the name. And the other thing I liked about it was, I liked the idea of his parents naming him that. I liked imaging his parents, that the hope and faith that parents have in a kid to name him that. And then I thought that would juxtapose nicely with the way we found him at the beginning of the story. Plus, as I always say, “My name is Joseph and I’m no good at carpentry.” So, it’s just a name.

Did you intentionally include a sense of nationalism, of sorts? For instance, we saw the part that explained Sam’s boyfriend as being in Africa helping children — and not in Britain. Then at the end, Moses was shown hanging from the British flag.

JC: It’s not actually supposed to be nationalistic. That’s an interesting example — it’s not didactic that stuff, its not polemical, it’s the character saying it. And I thought that is just an interesting irony. I think I may have come across in research or maybe I thought myself. I don’t intend that to be taken as, “Who doesn’t want kids in the third world?” I mean that would be insane not to want to help kids in the third world.

Maybe the word is satire. It’s just poking you in the ribs and making you think. That’s a perfect example of how teenagers say that kind of thing. They know the irony. They are self aware. They know they are being provocative. I find stuff like that interesting and thought provoking, and that for me is a good thing.

It is a very powerful image, this marginalized character holding on to the British flag.

JC: Again, that is based in truth. People do hang flags out of their windows. And that was always inspired by the Spy Who Loved Me, the parachute at the beginning. When I was a kid, I loved British films with Union Jacks in them. 

You are right about that. An element of that — to see a Union Jack in a British action adventure film, but to use it in that way with a black character and with that level of irony I thought was an interesting new way to see it. Again, a little poke in the ribs, a little thing that might make people just think differently maybe for a moment.

There wasn’t a lot of graphic depictions of gore, except with the death of Hi-Hatz. 

JC: Yeah, he needed a big death. He deserved to have his face ripped off. 

Can I ask you about writing “TinTin” with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat?

JC: Well, Steven Moffat, he is a brilliant man. He did the first few drafts and then he had to leave to go and be showrunner of Doctor Who and Sherlock. So Peter Jackson called Edgar, and Edgar knew I was a big TinTin fan. So that’s how I got involved, Edgar got me into it. And it was amazing.

What about Ant-Man?

JC: We’ve written a script we are really proud and we love it. That’s in the hands of Marvel now, and Edgar really. I’m merely a humble writer. 

Cosmic Book News would like to thank Joe Cornish for the interview.

Attack of the Block can be purchased at