Interview! We talk to Joe Cornish and the stars of Attack the Block
As you’ve probably picked up by now, we think Attack the Block is the best thing to happen to British cinema since Guy Ritchie died. Oh, has he still not? Bugger. Must chivvy the freelancers, they’ve handy with Stanley knives but awful at keeping deadlines. Anyway, we’ve got nothing but love for Joe Cornish’ debut feature, so we were particularly thrilled to be invited to meet Joe and the key cast for a series of brief chats ahead of the film’s recent release. First up were unwilling heroine Sam and marijuana enthusiast Brewis, otherwise known as Jodie Whittaker (Venus) and Luke Treadaway (Clash of the Titans)…
Jodie, it’s not often that you encounter an authentically unromanticised heroine. Was that aspect of Sam’s character something that attracted you to the role?
Jodie: I absolutely adored that about Joe’s writing – she was incredibly straight, incredibly practical, and a part of the gang – her sex was irrelevant. I didn’t have a bikini on, I didn’t cry a lot, I wasn’t in need of saving and I didn’t have any outlandish powers which I didn’t know about at the start of the film. Joe wanted real people. There’s a tiny little moment when me and [Luke’s character] introduce ourselves, and as they’re the only two characters of a similar age you could think “oh, are those two going to get together?” – and they don’t, because it’s not part of the story.
Luke: Did you not get the sexual tension between me and Nick?
Jodie: Oh, absolutely.
Luke, you essentially play a young Joe Cornish. How did you research Brewis – did Joe give you any tips?
Luke: When we were first talking about the part it was lightly touched upon that Joe had gone to tower blocks to procure the odd jazz cigarette in his youth, but it never felt like a biopic thing. Brewis just stood off the page for me, he was such a well-written character; I’ve taken all sorts from people I know and old friends and stuff. Maybe it glued in a bit, but I think it would have been very weird if it had been more explicitly about Joe.
Obviously, Attack The Block is a pretty full-on action film. Was that something which appealed to you?
Luke: Very much so – it’s unusual to find such an escapist fantasy film which is set in the London we know and love, particularly through the eyes of what the media term ‘hoodies’. It’s really fresh and exciting –
Jodie: And ambitious!
Luke: Really ambitious. We see a lot of films like this coming over from America, but to do something similar in the glamorous locale of Elephant and Castle is genius – you’re taking the very everyday, starting with a shot of Oval tube station and ending with fifty monsters climbing a tower block, and getting there in 88 minutes is kind of a masterpiece.
Jodie: At the beginning, it’s quite a big ask to get the audience to go with the lads because it initially seems like Sam will be the focus, so they have to drag the focus back and by the end you’re willing them to make it through. You meet them as faceless hoodies, but then you have all these glimpses into their home lives and backgrounds – all in the middle of an action horror!
After a brief corridor hover, we trooped into a (much nicer) room for one of the highlights of the day – talking to the effusive and extravagantly-spectacled Nick Frost, who pops up throughout the film as inveterate stoner and lank-haired weedgrocer Ron. He and Joe have been friends for years, and Nick’s regular director Edgar Wright executive produced Attack the Block, so there was a pleasant ‘the boy done good’ feel about the whole thing. Ignoring the fact that I totally forgot my second question and had to burble my way out of danger (I was affectionately called a “knobhead”), everything went rather swimmingly…
How did you get involved with the project?
I wasn’t in it from the bottom, but there was a script and Joe had very kindly written a part for me – as an actor, I was just flattered that someone had written a part for me specifically, so I was in. And he’s a mate, we’ve been mates for ten years or so, so I was chuffed to see what he would do and how he would go about directing a movie – it’s a big deal. I was pleased to do it, and pleased to stand onset and see Joe direct a film. It didn’t seem weird, he seemed perfect doing it, so that was great.
Did you and Joe work out Ron’s back story at all?
We did, we took ages over it – Joe wanted to spend quite a bit of time working out where Ron had come from and why he was the way he was. Ron just wants an easy life – we briefly discussed the idea that he’d spent some time in the military and he’d hated it, and then we hinted at a lost love. You can see he wears a tiny ring round his neck on a chain, and we thought that was maybe from a relationship that didn’t work out. That sort of background helps when you look at the other side of Ron, which is that he’s getting kids to deal weed for him – it’s a very different proposition for an actor. No less appealing, of course, but different. We imagined that he had the weed room already, and then Hi-Hatz [the petty gangster who dominates the block] moved in at gunpoint and said “Right, you can fuck off or you can work from me”. I liked the way that when you see him with the kids he’s a confident Fagin character, but with Hi-Hatz he’s more subservient, he doesn’t meet his eye. I’m only in the film for 18% of the film or so, but that helps flesh out the character.
You’re rocking the most amazing tracksuit and haircut in the film – is that the best look you’ve had coonscreen?
I think it’s the best look I’ve had offscreen, to be honest! I liked the fact that when you’re asked to do a part and it’s written for you, you get more of a say in what you look like. The hair was because we made this between shooting Paul and doing reshoots eighteen months later, so I just thought I’d keep it. The tracksuit was amazing – tightest thing I’ve ever worn, and made from the most inflammable material known to man. There’s also a bumbag in there too, which gets hidden between my gut and the oily blackness of the tracksuit. That was full of stuff as well – it had lighters in it, and secateurs and ties for the plants. They let you muck about a bit and you end up with specs on a chain and go a bit crazy.
The Fagin comparison is particularly interesting, because you’ve got that onscreen dynamic with the boys but they were also coming to the project as first time film actors. What was it like working with them?
It was amazing, really. If anything, I came in late – we did a bit of rehearsal together, then they had three or four weeks onset before I got there. Annoyingly, the first day I was in rehearsal Joe pulled me aside and asked me to give a little speech at the end of the day, because I didn’t train either and it might be useful for them. It was fucking terrible. Once you put your head above the parapet you’re not one of them, you’re a supervisor or something – I could see them all switch off, they were playing on their phones and all that. I just told them that it’s about the crew – just because you’re on the poster doesn’t mean it’s all about you. It’s about the sound guys, the lighting guys, catering, makeup, fucking set designers! When I came in three weeks later I was really chuffed to see all of them knew everyone’s name, and they were having a great time with everyone. It’s the first film I’ve made when I’ve really felt old… it’s easier to feel young when you’re working with older actors. They were brilliant – they knew their lines, they came to set on time, none of them fucked their marks up. I can’t talk like I’ve trained, but what they did can’t be taught.
There then followed a pause of approximately ELEVENTY MILLION YEARS, during which time the Best For Film Bïfrost decided to foul up so nobody could come and play. It’s as if the universe was holding its breath… Once all our normal journalistic cynicism and bitterness had been dissolved by free cake and expensive water, we dutifully gathered around a sofa and gazed in wonder at Joe Cornish, star of the BBC’s Adam and Joe Show and positively the nicest man who has ever directed a South London alien thriller. When he wasn’t busy intimating that our friend Neil at The Incredible Suit was a massive smackhead (he probably isn’t), this is what he had to say…
The aliens in Attack the Block were very distinctive. What made you decide on a) their appearance and b) that they wouldn’t be CGI?
We knew we couldn’t afford 3D CGI aliens, but I didn’t want them – as a filmgoer, I think sometimes you feel like there’s an iPhone app for digital creatures. There’s an aesthetic homogenisation happening for some reason, they all look the same, so I was excited to do what they used to do in the 80s, which was something a little bit practical. When I was a kid a special effect in a film would be either a puppet, a painting or a model. This generation’s kids can probably go home and make what they’ve seen onscreen in a virtual sense, but when I was a kid I used to get really excited about seeing films and then going home and making them. No matter how sophisticated the effects were in old school films there was always a DIY sense. I also wanted something to be onset with the actors – when they react to a window being smashed in there’s no greenscreen, it’s all real. I hope we’ve come up with something that’s a little different from anything you’ve seen before, and that’s more stylish and a little cooler than the slightly generic bigger-budget fare.
Both in a cinematic sense and in real life, what do you think’s scarier – gangs of young people, or invading aliens?
That’s basically the premise of the film. The idea behind the creatures was that we took the adjectives which are sometimes used to describe those kids – feral, bestial, amoral, territorial, competitive, vicious – and make those clichés into an actual creature, then pit it against the kids. Then you get to see that the kids are nothing like that – they’re dimensional, they’re human, they’re as capable of doing good things as everyone is capable of doing bad things. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the way in which children who haven’t had the opportunities you and I have had are often portrayed, so I wanted to redress the balance.
You talk about the influence of 70s and 80s sci-fi, which particularly comes across in the soundtrack. How important was that?
It was massively important – I’ve read about how other directors work with soundtracks, but experiencing it firsthand was very interesting. I felt amazingly lucky that we got a chap called Steven Price who was composer’s assistant on Lord of the Rings, and Basement Jaxx who are a Brixton-based band – their work is so upbeat, and we wanted to make an upbeat film in what is traditionally a downbeat milieu. We didn’t want to use source cues, we wanted to shape the music to the action, so they composed to the locked cut. I’m really excited with what they’ve done; it’s a contemporary score without being ninety minutes of grime tracks, and it doesn’t push you out of the story in the way something scored like a pop video sometimes can. The pitch for the score was ‘imagine John Williams and John Carpenter went round to Roots Manuva’s house and got very high’.
Attack the Block will go down as part of the UK FIlm Council’s swansong. As your first feature, do you think it would have got made without the UKFC’s support?
I’ve got no idea – that’s a parallel reality question, I’d only be speculating. I’m hugely grateful for the brilliant people at the UK Film Council, who are genuinely supportive and enthusiastic and helpful. The Lottery is massively important to the country – it restored my local park, it contributed to my film, it’s a very important thing. A lot of the brilliant people from the UKFC will now be at the BFI, but when I was a kid the BFI allocated the funding so it’s a sort of cyclic thing. However you choose to spin it politically, you’re dealing with people – clever individuals and good brains, and as long as the people are there it doesn’t really matter.
With Joe’s convivial references to “jazz herbs” still fresh in our minds, we finally abandoned Attack the Block Central and returned to Best For Film Towers to discuss our adventures and count the days until we could go and see Moses and Co. defend the Block once more. The film is out now, and if you don’t watch and love it immediately then you’re an utter, utter shit. Off you go!