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DVDTalk Interview with Joe Cornish
A Chap Off the Old Block: Writer/Director Joe Cornish's Attack the Block
by Francis Rizzo III

After 15 years working in TV, radio and film, British writer director Joe Cornish has finally become an overnight sensation, thanks to his cult hit sci-fi flick Attack the Block, which chronicles the battle between a gang of inner-city London street toughs and the vicious aliens who crash-land in their neighborhood one night. Up next for Cornish is the release of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray (arriving October 25th), the high-profile new Tintin animated movie, which he did a re-write on with pal Edgar Wright, and a co-writing gig with Wright on his highly-anticipated Ant-Man feature film. But first, he took a moment to sit down with DVDTalk's Francis Rizzo III to talk about aliens, anti-heroes and audio commentaries. (Warning: spoilers and foul language ahead!)

Q: Let's talk about two of the big elements in Attack the Block that were problematic for you as far as your feature debut. One would be the actual creatures, which are pretty much the centerpiece of your film, and the other is the blood and gore effects, which is another signature of the film.

A: With the creatures it was very much we didn't have the budget for CGI and at the same time I'm a little bored of CGI in contemporary movies. I feel that the creatures are all a little bit "samey" and there's an obsession with hyper-realistic detail, and you know, I grew up in the '80s so I love Gremlins and Ghostbusters and Critters and E.T and I love practical effects. And I know a lot of filmmakers say that now and often they say that and when you see the film it's all CG, but we couldn't afford CG so that was a limitation that I thought was also an opportunity to go back to that old-school feel.

So our creatures are a man in a suit, this guy Terry Notary, who worked on Avatar, Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Silver Surfer, and he's in a costume designed by Spectral Motion, that does all Guillermo del Toro's work, and then we used CG to actually take away detail and make them into these sort of shadow puppets almost. But that for me was an exciting kind of meeting point of CGI and practical. And I thought by making them almost like two-dimensional animation, I always hoped we could create a creature that felt a little bit old-school but also unlike anything you've kind of seen before.

I really had no idea how people would react to them. When we first showed the film at South by Southwest I had no idea how people would respond to them. You know, I always thought of Attack the Block as like the most terrifying and irresponsible episode of Sesame Street ever made.

Q: You cite Critters and Goonies, and this has been compared for obvious reasons to Shaun of the Dead and District 9, but it's its own beast isn't it?

A: Yeah.

Q: Where did you want to go and what did you want to avoid?

A: Well, you know I'm good friends with Edgar Wright and I've known him for years and years. The guys a genius and he has a very particular visual style and flavor, so I didn't want to be accused of copying or cashing in in any way, so I wanted to make sure I did something different. I was very directly inspired by John Carpenter, particularly, Carpenter, Romero in the sense that Night of the Living Dead, as well as being an amazing zombie movie, has a very interesting racial and political subtext to it, as does Assault on Precinct 13, and I was really interest in...you know, for me the best science-fiction is a way at looking at the present as imagining the future or some parallel reality, and the thing that made me make the film is my concern for the kids that are depicted in it. You know, we shot the film and the film is set in the area where II grew up, and really, beyond being a sci-fi movie, it's actually a quite sincere, heartfelt plea toward kids like that, who I think exist in all cities all over the world, in particularly teenagers, who, when they get together, are very strong. Teenagers have a lot of energy and a lot of humor and a lot of strength, and I wanted to show that if you're not careful and you don't care for them then that can go wrong. And also i wanted to show that in the right circumstances, kids like that, that energy can be used terrifically positively. So that's really why I made the film. It's really all about those kids and it's all about those kids and what the do at the beginning of the film, the bad thing that they do, and it's all about what they learn from that and the consequences of it. so it's really trying to be an allegory in a way.

Q: Do you feel that British film and television, especially genre material, leans more toward the anti-hero than the hero? In the movie, Sam says herself "You're not heroes," and you have things like Misfits and even Shaun of the Dead.

A: Yeah. I certainly think that's probably true. You know, especially with Misfits and Guy Ritchie's films and Jonathan Glazer's films, but I think maybe that's just the advantage of being an independent filmmaker. That if you get it right and you work with the right people, it;s easier to make an unmediated statement. There's less interference and less politics. I'm kind of guessing, because this is my first film, but that's the sense I get. I also think that narrative has become very conservative in contemporary movies. You know, it's very difficult to think of a villain, which is why so many movies are science-fiction or period pieces. It's very difficult to think of a villain in a contemporary movie that isn't somehow politically incorrect or insulting somebody,. And I think personally, movies in the 70s and 80s felt a bit more adventurous in their narrative structure. And a kot of the time when I go to the movies, I feel like I'm seeing the same story over and over again. Not in the detail but in terms of the overall structure, the way the lead character is made very emphatic in the first 10 minutes, in the way the first inciting incident happens at exactly on the 15, the way the progressive complications will happen between act two and act three. I don't know. It felt to me that things used to be a bit more interesting. In literature they certainly are. I don't know quite what it is, but that was the feeling that I got and I was excited to make a film where the lead characters would start off doing something really bad. (laughs) I knew it would freak some people out, but I thought, you know "Fuck it."

Q: We get hardly any backstory on the aliens, but as a storyteller you know the backstory, so give us a little more than we get in the film.

A: Well, the backstory is pretty much what Brewis says toward the end of the film. So here's the thing... they come from either a low-gravity or a volcanic planet. They live on this planet. Part of their reproductive or breeding cycle, they exude some kind of weird substance that solidifies around them like a cocoon, then either solar winds or the low gravity or a volcanic eruption blows them into orbit, the female first because she's lighter, the males because they're heavier, then the drift through space like spores or pollen, until they hit something. And the rest is explained in the movie. I've got a weird picture in my head of this volcanic planet where they live, which is very deep black, charcoal rock, and then the bright glowing embers of the volcanoes, like the design of the film, with fluorescent and darkness. But I don't know whether that's biologically feasible. I'll have to ask David Attenborough. I'll have to use my contacts at the BBC to try and get the team behind the series Earth to figure out whether that's feasible.

Q: They say you should never work with children or animals, and you worked with children and fake animals and special effects. Was there ever a point during the filming when you wished you'd just written a quiet film instead?

A: No. But you know what, that's what Edgar said to me. He said "You've made it as hard as possible." We did all the things you're not supposed to do. Children, animals, stunts, special effects, costumed performers, all at night, pyrotechnics, explosions, slang, multicultural cast. It's everything you're not supposed to do. But I'm very pleased we did. I figured, in the UK in particular, there are a lot of first-time film directors, not that many second-time film directors and very few third-time directors, And I figured if I'm going to have one shot, why not be ambitious and if it fucks up, at least I tried. And if it's in any way successful then it will have been worth it. Plus, movies for me aren't about talk. A good movie for me, you can switch the sound down and it will work,. So I wanted to make a film about movement, kinetics, things happening, action, character development through action. I wanted to make a film about people doing things, rather than talking about them. I think as soon as you make that decision, you end up with all the cool stuff.

Q: All the kids in the movie are well developed and well crafted characters. One of the most memorable moments in the movie is when they rush down the stairs and arm themselves at their particular homes. Did you build full backstories and pare them down?

A: That came from research. In my research I would ask the young people I spoke to, "You're in this situation, and the creatures come down, what do you do?" I got each kid to describe what their home was like, who would be there when they got home, what weapons they would use, where they would find it. So that all came out of real detail. I'm glad you picked up on that, because by the end of the movie you know about the parents of every individual, you know about Brewis and his dad's car, and you know about Sam who's on the phone to her mom at the beginning, so the family environment of every character is revealed as the narrative goes on and that's entirely intentional, but yeah, that all came from research. That's something Edgar taught me when we were writing Ant-Man, when we started all those years ago, he stressed the importance of research and I was like "Research? For a film about a man who shrinks to the size of an ant?" But then you know the way he taught me tio go about doing it was a real revelation to me, and again the whole film is a combination of truth and bullshit. I supplied the bullshit, but then you have to go get the truth, because the combination of the two makes for good balance.

Q: Do you want to talk a bit about your use of color and light? Aside from the advantage with the limited budget, was there a philosophy?

A: Absolutely. We looked very hard at The Warriors and Andrew Laszlo's work. The main driving factor with the movie, is that films set in this environment are usually very grainy. there's this kind of bleak aesthetic that's associated with handheld naturalism, draining the color out. I wanted to go completely the other way. We wanted to make it almost color saturated, like a '70s or '60s Disney film. I looked at the night sequences in Mary Poppins, the extraordinary rooftop sequence with the fireworks going off. Just the pleasure of looking at an image, the pleasure of color and light and irridescence and tonality. We looked at The Thing and the amazing levels of contrast he achieves in The Thing, the bright whiteness of the snow and the darkness of the shadows, often in the same frame. That was how I chose Tom Townend as cinematographer, I specifically looked for someone who could shoot night and keep that same level of contrast without grain. I saw a commercial he made for Virgin Mobile in the UK and it did exactly that. I went on IMDB and found out who shot it and hired him.

Q: Should Americans feel bad about having to put subtitles on?

A: No. I'd love people to put the subtitles on. I thought a bit about that, and I took it home and took special care to go through every subtitle, so they're all edited by me. The one that annoys me is when Jerome says "This is too much madness for one text," they couldn't fit all the words on, so I'm not sure that one exactly verbatim. But apart from that, I took special care, particularly with that in mind.

Q: Lately it seems DVDs and Blu-Ray are offering less and less special features, especially less and less commentaries, and you did three of them.

A: Yeah, sorry about that. {laughs}

Q: Are you a fan of them?

A: I am a fan of them. I mean I thought we had a particularly good gang of people. I really wanted to do one with Edgar, and we go out of our way not to talk about what's happening on the screen with Edgar. It's basically like a kind of podcast. I do radio in the UK and I have a podcast in the UK, so I love radio and audio. The young actors are fucking great and so funny and full of energy, so I thought it would be interesting for people to hear them talk naturally, and see the extent to which they use the slang and all that stuff. It was just good times.

What surprised me was how quickly it happens. Like, before you know it, it's "Oh fuck, the commentaries are at 7 a.m. tomorrow." And so I kind of wanted to plan them more and scruipt shit, but I never got the time so we kind of riffed.

But I know what you mean about DVDs and Blu-Rays becomes less kind of suped-up. But this is a suped-up disc. We've got a really good making-of, like a 58-minute making-of, because I love good making-ofs. I love Fincher's making-ofs . I love the Three Kings making-of. I was watching the making of that French film Point Blank the other day which is really good. So we got a good 58-minutes making-of, three commentaries, a 10-minute thing on how we did the creatures. And we worked really hard on the picture quality, and really hard on the sound quality,. I'm a big home cinema enthusiast. I have a projector and I have a home surround-sound system. All through the production of this movie, i would fantasize about the moment I got home and put the disc in my system. I wanted to make it good. We spent a long time on the sound and I'm very pleased with the reviews in the UK being particularly strong technically on the surround and the picture quality, which I'm very happy about.

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