Joe Cornish is best known as one half of the British comedy duo, Adam and Joe, which segued into such successful series as The Adam and Joe Show, Adam & Joe’s Formative Years, Adam and Joe’s American Adventure and Adam and Joe Go Tokyo.
Cornish’s now branching out as the writer and director of the new science fiction flick Attack the Block, a dark comedy that pits a teen gang against an invasion of savage alien monsters, which turns a London housing estate into a sci-fi playground. It’s about the inner city versus outer space, and the street kids who become heroes.
I read that this movie came about after you really got mugged on the street in England – is that true?
I did. This was nine years ago and what struck me about it was it felt like a very artificial situation. I knew they were local kids, they were very young, they relieved me of my wallet and my phone and they used force of numbers to do it.
It’s a horrible thing to do and it traumatized me enough to spend five years developing a film that explored it. It seemed like a scene out of a bad Michael Winner film.
I just didn’t buy it, I didn’t believe that this young, scared kid was that tough thug that he was making himself out to be. That was one of the things I wanted to explore, and I ended up interviewing kids like that.
How did you tie it into science fiction?
I’m pretty much the same age as the kid in ET so I grew up with all those amazing American 80’s fantasy movies.
It was an amazing period where directors like Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg were making sensitive films for kids, films with amazing performances for kids, and I wanted to make a film like that, and it struck me that what Spielberg did back then was he took social realism and fused it with fantasy.
Britain’s very good at the social realism, we have Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and we’re very good at doing downbeat movies about people living in council housing, and getting depressed, but what we don’t do is what you guys were doing in the 80’s, fusing that with fantasy and giving those kids a fantasy, something to dream about, an adventure to go on.
This movie is me twenty-five years later scratching that itch, and trying to make up for that.
The aliens in it are uniquely looking, how did you come up with the concept for those creatures?
I don’t want to give too much away, because I think we’ve created a creature where you can’t quite tell (what it is) and I hope that’s a rare thing. As a moviegoer, I feel monsters in movies are quite same-y, it’s almost like there’s an iPhone app for digital monsters.
there’s this obsession with photo-realistic detail and it didn’t used to be that way. The Gremlins weren’t super-realistic, but I love them more than I love CGI creatures.
I was in love with ET He’s just a mound of rubber, but the puppeteering is a performance art, it’s very different from animation and can sometimes be more expressive and have more character and have more of a sense of authorship.
We knew we couldn’t afford digital creatures, so I tried to figure out a way to make lack of detail a positive thing. As we could not afford detail, would there be something cool to be done if we actually extracted detail?
So we used CGI to take detail away, so it’s the absolute opposite direction. And talking to effects houses, that’s what they want to do. They don’t want to be given a blockbuster and have two weeks to fix it. They like to take stuff that’s already solid, that can be improved or perfected with CGI. That’s the best use of their craft, when you can’t tell the difference.
How did you cast this? It must have been hard because you wanted kids that weren’t well known.
We started with improv in big groups and then we chose our favorites.
Then we gave them a play to learn and read, we had to check that they could learn lines and be natural and deliver written lines. We wanted to make sure they’d turn up, that they had the stamina, we wanted to get a sense of what their parental background was, because if people are investing millions in a movie you can’t have your actors not turn up or drop out.
What did the kids come up with for the film that you used?
I loved the way they mangle grammar, it’s kind of poetic. But then if read Chaucer or Dickens the grammar’s different, language evolves and the people who are evolving it are the young people. Kids love to invent a language that adults don’t understand and however much you fight it, that’s how language evolves basically and I loved it.
I was looking for fantasy things in this environment that’s usually played for reality, so the costumes the kids wore reminded me of ninjas in samurai movies.
The vehicles they have, the mini-motorbikes, they reminded me of ET, and most of all the language reminded me of A Clockwork Orange and the way that novel works, the way you don’t really understand it in the first five pages, but then by page ten you can magically understand it.
That’s what we were aiming for, but we kept it pretty simple and so far audiences don’t have a problem. I think audiences are smart and everybody can get it and enjoy it.
As ET was one of your favorite movies, did you get to work with Steven Spielberg on The Adventures of Tintin?
I did. It was amazing. I was one of three writers on Tintin; Stephen Moffat, Edgar Wright and myself. And I worked with Spielberg and Peter Jackson, who’s a huge hero of mine as well.
It was scary at first, and then just amazing, but the most rewarding thing of all is when you meet a hero and not only do they live up to your expectations, but they turn out to be decent, clever, grounded, good, smart, sensible and normal.
Then the person is just a colleague, and then you have to check yourself. ‘Oh wow, that’s Steven Spielberg,’ you have to remind yourself. So it was a dream come true and a great privilege.