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Joe Cornish and John Boyega discuss Attack the Block

The first-time writer/director and his star discuss the social relevance of their alien invasion film and how you can, in fact, forget how to ride a bike.

By Jessica Johnson |
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Attack The Block
Photograph: Liam Daniel ATTACK PLAN Cornish, middle, directs Frost, right, and Luke Treadaway in Attack the Block.

There has been no shortage of alien-invasion movies this year, but Attack the Block takes a more novel approach than most. Set in a South London housing project, the film begins with a group of kids, led by protagonist Moses (John Boyega), mugging a defenseless woman. Their crime is interrupted when a meteor crash-lands, carrying a hostile alien, forcing the group of delinquents to come to the defense of their neighborhood. We sat down with writer/director Joe Cornish and Boyega to discuss the film.

This is the first feature film for both of you, as a director and an actor. What was that new experience like for both of you?
Joe Cornish: As a first-time director, it was cool to have so many first-time screen actors. It kind of bonded us even though I’m very old and they’re very young. We had that thing that we were all going on this adventure for the first time and that felt really cool. When you’re a first-time director, everyone else on the crew will have had more experience than you. So, it was nice for me to have this little group of people who were as ignorant and naïve and as enthusiastic as I was. I recommend all first-time directors cast as many first-time actors as they can. There’s safety in numbers.

The film begins with a mugging, and I understand you had your own mugging experience.
JC: I did, yeah.

How did you spin that incident into a creative opportunity?
JC: Because the kid that did it was very young and I’m not the kind of person who thinks Oh, you’re scum, you’re worthless. Quite the opposite, I thought, “Weird. I’m probably on the same level of Call of Duty as you. I probably listen to the same music. You probably live in the next block. I’ve probably seen you every week for the last year.” But here we are in this artificial situation that’s like something out of the Wild West. It’s like some sort of weird, street pantomime. That just fascinated me. I knew he wasn’t a monster. I knew he was probably a good kid having a fucked-up day and that made me interested. So, that was how my research began, really. I ended up talking to a lot of kids who’d done stuff like that. Whilst having no sympathy for that particular action—it’s a fucking horrible thing to do and it really stayed with me to the extent that I made a film about it—but, at the same time, I wanted to make a film that showed that that character shouldn’t necessarily be defined by that one action. But, you know, Attack the Block’s a fictional film. It’s a larger-than-life fantasy. So, I never want to get too heavy about it. Certainly, yeah, that was the incident that inspired this flight of fancy.

The protagonist, Moses, has a very compelling heroic arc throughout the film. What were your inspirations in developing him as a character?
JC: A lot of movies set in this environment, in the U.K., start with a good kid and then show how the environment corrupts him. And they often end in a quite nihilistic, depressing place. I can think of American gang movies that do that, as well. Some of my favorite movies: Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood. They tend to have quite a downward curve. They start really exciting and fun and then by the end of the movie—
John Boyega: Everybody dead.
JC: Yeah. It’s a valid story to tell, but we wanted to do the flip side of that. We wanted to start with a kid who is in a bad place. But then, we wanted to go in the opposite direction and take him on an uplifting curve, where he took responsibility, learned the consequences of his actions and realized that he has control over his life as much as anything else does.

How much of the physicality of the role did you do?
JB: I was whack at biking.
JC: That was disappointing. I had my Moses, but he couldn’t really ride a bicycle.
JB: I was really wobbly.
JC: Did you not ride a bike as a kid, though?
JB: I did!

And don’t they tell you that you never forget?
JB and JC: [Laughs]
JC: It’s an age-old expression.
JB: I forgot how to do it. I was just in plays or whatever and I forgot about that stuff.
JC: And then, all the other boys were much better than you and suddenly, his status as gang leader was being eroded.
JB: I had to step that up. But all the running and the climbing, it was really, really fun to do. We had a great stunt coordinator who helped us. We had Terry Notary, who choreographed the fight scenes between me and the female alien. It was all just fun. It felt like I was in Hollywood already.

It was interesting to see the different weapons that each of the characters armed themselves with as they were saddling up. Did you have fun figuring out which practical items could be used?
JC: That came directly from research. I talked to hundreds of South London kids and I talked them through the story. One of the questions I asked them was, “Okay, you’re in this situation, what would you use to defend yourself? What do you have in your bedroom or your house?” All the things that are in the film are real things that people said. The samurai sword thing exists. Kids buy blunt samurai swords on the Internet and they sharpen them on the pavement.

The block, itself, has a particular personality. How did you develop that to add to the environment of the film?
JC: The blocks in South London always reminded me of spaceships. They always seemed like science-fictional spaces. They reminded me of the Nakatomi Plaza from Die Hard, slightly of The Poseidon Adventure or, most importantly, the Nostromo from Alien. So, we lit it in a particular way. Director of photography Tom Townend put these very bright lights on the top of the block that almost look like engines. We developed the sound work a lot, so there’s almost an engine tone in Attack the Block. I shot the film as if it was on a spaceship. And then, we just had fun finding cool angles. I love geography in films. I love the fact that after you watch Die Hard, you feel you know the layout of that building. I’ve never been there, but I feel I know where the reception is or where the cocktail party is. I love movies that give you a strong sense of geography because it makes the action more satisfying.

How important do you think it was to have practical effects with the aliens, as well as any digital effects?
JC: It was really important. We wanted to connect to old-school monster movies. It was important for my cast to have something physically there. It just made the scenes more alive. The attacks are real. When it smashes through a window, it really smashes through a window. Everyone’s being sprayed with glass and screaming and panicking. It just makes it easier for everybody.

Attack the Block opens Friday 29.

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