Joe Cornish: From Channel 4 to Hollywood (via Brixton)
Joe Cornish has graduated from making toy films with comedy partner Adam Buxton to working with Spielberg. David Jenkins meets him as his South London alien movie ‘Attack the Block’ hits cinemas
Don’t call the new council-estate alien-invasion movie, ‘Attack the Block’, a debut. Instead, take a moment to delve into the archives and you’ll discover that its London-born writer-director Joe Cornish already has a glittering silver screen career behind him.
Take ‘Toytanic’, for instance, his cuddly-toy remake of James Cameron’s epic, made in collaboration with Cornish’s childhood chum Adam Buxton for their Channel 4 series ‘The Adam and Joe Show’. ‘That was fun,’ he says with a nostalgic titter. ‘I built a ship that was the length of two dining-room tables, then I built a three-quarter-sized one – as Cameron would have done – and then I smashed them both up.’ Delve even deeper and you might unearth ‘Speeding on the Needlebliss’, a hard-hitting tale of trigger-happy drum ’n’ bass DJs. Sample dialogue: ‘You don’t know how to dance the fury boogie, you don’t know the needle bliss and you don’t know the prayer of the smack boys.’
Of course, these were piquant parodies. But Cornish, now 42 and the darling of the digital radio circuit with his and Buxton’s worldbeating 6Music show, says that making these shorts gave him solid grounding in visual storytelling. ‘Comedy is a pretty useful thing because you can justify copying as parody. Making the toy movies, we used to get pirate videos of those films and study them really hard. We’d try to match the lighting, the camera angles, the costumes and the voices.’
While ‘Attack the Block’ once again showcases Cornish’s knack for dismantling pop-cultural clichés, it’s a more sincere form of homage. His self-confessed ‘obsession’ with fantasy and adventure movies inspires a story in which a street gang fends off ape-like space aliens with glow-in-the-dark fangs. The film also offers a hearty salute to his beloved stomping ground of Brixton: ‘I grew up in Stockwell and used to go shopping in Brixton. I’d cut through the Stockwell estate, which is notorious. I have a fantasy where a kid from that environment would see this film and react to it how I reacted to “ET”, to walk around this London landscape and project their fantasies.’
Cornish’s eyes fizz with enthusiasm when talk turns to growing up. ‘The first movie I ever saw on my own was “The Black Stallion” at the Odeon Haymarket, and it was amazing. I was about ten, and on the bus home it was like I was on acid or something. My uncle was the editor of the magazine for the British UFO Research Association, and he took me to see “Close Encounters” when I was even younger. For a long time, I took it as read that UFOs existed.
‘People my age grew up in an amazing time. We had the golden age of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, those extraordinarily imaginative movies. We had home video that was unregulated, so during the day you could go and see “Star Wars” and in the evening – aged 11! – you could go to Video Shuttle and rent “Zombie Flesh Eaters”. We got the birth of video games, hip hop. I think “Attack the Block” reflects how hard all those things hit me.’
Beyond this deep-seated love of fantasy cinema, Cornish is mindful of some of the hackneyed elements that litter current genre films: ‘The monsters in “Attack the Block” are a reaction to the trendy CGI aesthetic of hyper detail. As a kid I used to enjoy drawing things like the Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters”. You can’t sketch a “Harry Potter” monster, you’d need a degree and a full set of Rotring pens!’
But ‘Attack the Block’ is more about kids than aliens. Cornish sees the film as an offshoot of the kind of urban youth movie Noel Clarke pioneered with ‘Kidulthood’ and he always thought there was potential for a genre movie in that world. ‘The kids look amazing, like ninjas or samurai or bandits in a western. Council estates are usually portrayed as depressing, but I wanted to hark back to a time when that architecture was used in sci-fi films like “A Clockwork Orange”. The interior of the block might as well be the Nostromo or the Poseidon. The longer I was there, I realised there was no difference between Wyndham House and Battlestar Galactica.’
Even before he started making ‘Attack the Block’ – a process that from conception to completion took two years – Cornish had already supped from the Hollywood fountain, collaborating with Spielberg and Peter Jackson on their motion-capture version of ‘Tintin’, which comes out this year. ‘Well… that’s a nice way of putting it,’ he says, coyly. ‘My contribution to “Tintin” is pretty fractional compared to the size of the brains and talent involved. Edgar Wright and I did two passes on the script, then I did a few passes on my own when Edgar had to go and make “Scott Pilgrim”. And Steven and Peter were involved in every detail. It would be wrong for me to claim any more than a fraction of credit, but it was an extraordinary experience.’
So if purists can refrain from calling ‘Attack the Block’ a debut, they might see it as a watershed film for Cornish, one that demonstrates his chops for clever, commercially minded cinema which, thankfully, doesn’t feel like the product of some listless journeyman with no personal investment in the material. ‘I always felt I got into comedy by accident. I’ve wanted to make films since I was a kid. The thing I like about radio is that they can’t see us. I’m not a brilliant performer. I think I prefer to be behind the camera than in front of it.’
Read our 'Attack the Block' review here
Author: David Jenkins
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