Rock the 'Block'

Joe Cornish on working-class angst and alien invaders

Joe Cornish
Joe Cornish (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

Don't expect South London realtors to endorse Attack the Block. After all, if its gangs of marauding teenage street thugs don't get you, then the blood-crazed alien invaders will. That does not stop Joe Cornish from calling his directorial debut "very much a love letter to that area."

Cornish's tale of teenage bad boys realizing they are not the baddest thing on the block is a The Warriors vs. Gremlins remix that he has nicknamed "Super 8 Mile." Almost unknown in the U.S., Cornish is a major radio broadcaster in the UK. Like his executive producer Edgar Wright (with whom he is currently collaborating on a fresh draft of Marvel's Ant-Man script) and Four Lions director Chris Morris, Cornish came out of the experimental atmosphere of late-night TV comedy. When Cornish compared Morris' SXSW 2010 black comedy about British Muslims to his movie about kids in high-rise flats, he realized that both films were "about a disenfranchised and demonized section of society." The big difference, Cornish told the Chronicle, is that "in Four Lions, they're picked off one by one by their own explosives, and my kids are picked off by this creature."

For all its intergalactic aggression, the story's inspiration is earthbound. In 2001 Cornish was mugged, something he described as "this weird ritualized situation." When he looked at the mugger, Cornish said: "He was frightened; his friends looked nervous. I thought to myself: 'You probably live around the corner. We're probably into the same music. We're on the same level on Call of Duty.'" The attack inspired the script, which in turn became therapy for that experience. The extraterrestrial element was a natural addition: Growing up in the 1980s, he gorged himself on that decade's cinematic diet of home-invasion monster movies like Critters and Gremlins. He said, "Like any kid, I would project those fantasies into my immediate environment, just like E.T. was an amazing combination of suburban America and a little droplet of fantasy."

To retain a sense of reality, Cornish sought out child actors with little to no stage or screen experience, but with the distinctive South London over-annunciated drawl and a feel for urban life. Yet those same kids are collateral victims of a long-running media scare campaign, with tabloids and politicians tagging a whole generation of inner-city youth as incorrigible criminals. Very few British films truly reflect inner-city poverty or diversity, instead peddling what Cornish called an "ethically questionable" view of some children. He said, "It weirds me out that society's not only calling them monsters, but creating films in which they are monsters and expecting audiences to enjoy that."

So: social commentary, a cast of inexperienced kid actors, and a lot of special effects, including the need for a convincing monster. Even Wright, who launched his career with zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, warned Cornish about the project's scale. For Cornish, that's why he had to shoot for the stars. He said, "The list of first-time directors in the UK is very long. The list of second-time directors is much shorter. The list of third-time directors is very short. ... I thought, 'If I'm going to do this, why not be ambitious?'"

Attack the Block screens on Wednesday, March 16, 6pm, at Alamo Ritz 1.

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Attack the Block, Joe Cornish, Edgar Wright, Ant-Man, Chris Morris

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