On the attack

Joe Cornish, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway and John Boyega talk Attack The Block.

by David Graham

Have you ever watched a film about an alien invasion and wondered what would happen if it took place in Britain? When terrifying monsters start falling from the sky and heading for a south London tower block, it's up to a gang of troubled teens to save their neighbourhood. We caught up with Attack The Block director Joe Cornish and stars Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway and John Boyega to get their take on one of the year's most entertaining action movies.

"In 2001 I was the victim of quite a pathetic mugging from some quite young kids," says Joe Cornish, when asked how the film came about. "It made me want to talk to the kid that done it because it seemed like a very unreal situation."

It's worth noting here that Cornish is six foot seven.

"It seemed like a ritual, kinda like a pantomime," he continues. "It was very scary, and what he did in the real world was obviously reprehensible, it was quite traumatic and frightening and really bad, but I've lived in that area all my life and it was the first bad thing that ever happened to me. It seemed very anomalous, so I wanted to talk to that kid to find out why he made that choice. It also started me thinking about the movies I loved when I was growing up around there, the American creature features and gang films that I used to love, and so I started thinking along both those lines. That was how I researched the film, talking to lots of kids in South London, some of whom had done similar things, and by thinking a lot about the movies I loved - ET, Critters, Gremlins, The Warriors, Streets Of Fire and Rumble Fish."

As well as it being Joe's first feature, Attack The Block is also the debut of lots of the young actors. How did John get involved?

"I got a call from an agent, just saying to audition for the movie, so I did and got the part! I felt good, it was exciting to be part of such an amazing film. I wasn't sure about the concept at first, but then I read the script and fell in love with it. I saw it online on one of those custom websites - I saw a really shit synopsis of it, it was like 'chavs VS aliens', they come to a council estate; I thought, 'Yeah, right.' But then I read the script and thought, 'It's amazing, I have to be in it.'"

Given how long Joe has worked in radio and TV, what was it like for him to call 'cut' at the end of his first day of shooting?

"It was fun," the director says. "It's a wishful film for me. I've wanted to make a film since I knew what they were when I was 11 or 12. Whenever it got tiring or difficult, which it did, I would just think, 'Well, this is an amazing opportunity.' It was just exciting and a real privilege. Now I'm 42 and I've waited a while, so it just felt like a big opportunity and I had to do everything I could to make it as good as possible. There was a lot that was surprising about the job.

"I'm a film fan, an enthusiast, I've spent a lot of my career mocking films - I'll think twice in the future because I really had no idea about the amount of incredible hard work so many people put in. I don't want to sound like a dilettante in saying it's hard work, because it's a huge privilege and a luxury and opportunity not many people get, but at the same time, as a punter you really don't understand how much work and dedication goes into things. I now have huge respect for anybody who completes a feature film, however awful it is. It's like having a really particular, vivid dream and then hiring 150 people to realize that thing you have in your head; every detail of it, what a cup will look like or a piece of clothing. It seems like nature is against film-making; the wind is always blowing in the wrong direction, it's like God doesn't want it to happen, it's unnatural, something will fall over, lights will blow. It's a struggle where you have to work really hard but it's massively rewarding, particularly with this film because we had these 11 relative newcomers. That made it rewarding, joyful and exciting every day. John and his co-stars never lost their enthusiasm and passion, and we could all sense that and feed off it whenever we felt it was a tough day."

How important was it for him to use practical effects?

"As a consumer I feel the aesthetic of CGI creatures is a little homogenized," he says. "It all looks quite similar from one film to the other. There's also the ability with CGI to do great detail - as someone who enjoys drawing and art, I don't think that truthful detail is the be all and end all. You can be quite expressionistic. If you saw a special effect in an Eighties movie, it was either a puppet or a painting or a model, and they're the terrain of kids. When you saw a film with those you felt like you could go home and make it, there'd be that point of light; it was about light bouncing off of objects. It's hard with this kind of thing to separate your young mind from your adult mind, but it feels as if I was more engaged in the reality in films then than I am now as an adult watching CGI. I wanted to try and do that again. It was important to me that our creatures were practical, it was important for the performances that something was there to attack them. And obviously we couldn't afford it! But that could be a plus rather than a minus.

"I connected the economy with that stuff I saw in my childhood and saw the opportunity to make a positive out of a potential negative. I'm 42, everyone probably thinks this but I feel I grew up in an amazing time for cinema; all these incredible directors making films for teenagers and adolescents. Things are more segmented these days; horror will be very horrible and sick, family films will be very broad. In the Eighties you didn't quite know what you were gonna get. It was very shocking for the guy's head to explode at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or the language the kids used in The Goonies, it was slightly transgressive stuff you don't get any more."

What was it like to make a film completely set at night?

"It was like being a vampire, really. In the night you're working and in the morning you're sleeping."

"It was tough as well because it was shooting for 6 weeks, starting in February, so it was lovely weather!" says Jodie, nodding to her colleagues. "You guys were amazing because by four o'clock I'd be really tired and a bit ratty."

"That was a lot of sugar!" John puts in.

"You didn't flag at all," says Jodie. "It is weird, but in a strange way it helps because you're in a little bubble, and you can't do anything domestic because you're in such a weird time-frame. You get up and everyone else has been awake for hours, you're having your breakfast at 2pm. I do find it quite helpful though when it's over a long period of time, you've got time to get into it. Usually they tack it all on at the end of filming."

"I enjoyed it," says Luke. "I think one of my first days was walking around in my pants, it was really cold but really fun to be getting arrested again and again in my pants at the Elephant and Castle. We had a long time to get into it and get over the sort of jet-lag of it."

Joe agrees. "For me it felt like after-school fun - you get off at 3.30 or four, do your homework and life would kick in at around five. Our shoot kicked in at about five so when we went in to the studio that felt a bit like a nine to five job. For those first five weeks it felt like a secret, illicit little tomfoolery thing. To shoot at night was very important because I've seen a lot of British council estate movies and I wanted mine to look different. I thought about films I love that have a very potent atmosphere, like Blade Runner or Alien, Streets Of Fire or The Warriors: they're all exclusively set at night, no day photography whatsoever. I liked that proposition because it forced us to think about light in every single shot. We couldn't just bounce daylight, we had to think about every point of light; in the little boys' trainers, in the teeth of the monsters. It was cinematographer Tom Townend's debut, I think he's a genius, he gave me exactly that look, with smoke and backlights. For me, digital modern films in the current climate are so clear and no-one smokes in them (which is obviously good!) - when you look at an Eighties film there's a terrific richness and texture and atmosphere. Sometimes looking at contemporary films is just like looking through a perfectly clear window. It used to be slightly more artful, Tom really connected with that and I'm so proud and excited with what he's done."

How was it for Jodie now being the veteran, leading the show?

"John asked for my advice daily!" the actress says. "But honestly, I felt incredibly out of my depth for the first few days, with the amount of work the others had done during the audition process. We did a lot of rehearsal, indoors and during the day. I had to really step up because there was no stone unturned with the characters the lads had created - their bedrooms, their wardrobe, they'd all helped design them and put thought in every department. It was an incredible experience because I expected everyone to want to be around me all the time since I'd already done so much work. You always remember your first job so it was incredibly exciting; mine was so different (with Venus), it was the complete antithesis of this. But you remember and adore it, it's the most treasured thing because it's before any vanity kicks in, before you have any awareness that you can't really pull that facial expression because you look fat! To be around that energy again for three months was amazing, you get got lost in it again, it makes it brand new for everyone. Obviously, Joe was a first-time director too but it didn't feel like it to us. I'm really proud of it. I was walking past a market stall today where this guy was like, 'There's this film called Attack The Block coming out that looks really good', and I was like, 'I'm in that!' He was like, 'Alright' (you freak!), and I just walked on."

Did Joe have to do lots of research on gangs and how they speak?

"I put a bandanna round my head, listened to a lot of Westwood, we killed a deer in a blood ritual," says Joe. "No, we did lots of research. Obviously I'm about as street as - no, a bit less street than Prince Charles, so we had to make sure I was knowledgeable and being as truthful as I could be about that world. Even though I grew up in Brixton I was ferried off to posh school every day. Once I put together the basic outline of the story, we went to loads of youth clubs around South London, and talked to hundreds of groups of different kids and talked them through the story. Then I'd write a draft and go back to focus on different areas, drawing on lots of people and I'd put my own imagination in too. Towards the end of the process when we cast the young characters, we then involved them going through every line of the script. It's easy to say they're newcomers but there is a range of experience - John had been on-stage, Franz Drameh has a little part in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, but some of them - like Alex Esmail who plays Pest and Simon Howard who plays Biggz - are complete newcomers we found in drama class at school. They are not from the background you see in the film, they are actors, but at the same time if you're young growing up on a block in Central London, you will have knowledge of that world, so it was very important for us to use these guys to help make it authentic. We had to make a film that would play to them, that would seem credible, and even though it's all a bit heightened, a bit movie-movie, a bit exaggerated and simplified, we did work very hard to make it as authentic as we could."

What did the neighbors make of it all?

"The night where they fire the fireworks at the police van, that was next to a big residential street; you find out a lot about those places. They had on-going problems with a group of foreign students who'd rented a house and were having parties every night so there was already quite a tinder-box atmosphere. So when we started chucking fireworks, a proper woman like from out of the Dandy from 1976, she just walked right into the middle of the set with a rolling pin and started screaming, 'Get your tuppence and tae'penny film and fack off out of our street!' She was literally shaking her fist, one of our very nice production people had to talk her down. But y'know what, if someone was filming in my street, I'd be her. I spend my life stomping out into my street, telling people to turn things down. We probably all do. So one makes films on locations entirely at the grace and favor of people who live there.

"We were accommodated very generously by the councils and the areas. We shot in the Haygate estate which is now being demolished, it was pretty much empty so we had this terrific playground where we could do bike chases and make noise without actually disturbing anybody. The council did charge us £100 every time we wanted to take the hoarding off a window, so every time we wanted to put a light behind one, 'Kerching!' for Lambeth council. So I expect to see local education standards rising."

Was he ever worried about alienating audiences with some of the subject matter?

"We talked about the beginning a lot. We were completely conscious that we were starting with a stereotype, but that excited me about writing it."

"Stereotypes are always elements of something that's real," adds John. "When I first heard about the robbery at the beginning, I just thought it was the same old stuff we've been watching from back in the day. But what actually happens is you get to know the characters and the reasons why they are doing these things, what the driving force is. Because of this alien invasion, my character has the opportunity to think back and realize this wasn't the right path to choose. I agreed with it, I was down for the robbery, as long as the reason for it was shown clearly in the film."

"I think that contemporary film stories are quite conservative now," says Joe. "There's a fear of antiheroes - there were a lot more of them in movies in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. I watched the Blu-Ray of Taxi Driver the other day, that's an extraordinarily harsh, grim-grim-grim film compared to what is seen to be edgy now. Like Bonnie And Clyde, or Public Enemy with Jimmy Cagney in the Forties, or a lot of characters in John Carpenter movies such as Assault On Precinct 13 or Escape From New York - cinema has a rich history of antiheroes that aren't designed to be taken literally, they're designed to take you on a narrative journey. That's something that really interested me and that you don't see a lot.

"It surprises me that some audiences find this film so brave. When you go through literature or the history of cinema, if you get rid of any character that's morally ambiguous you get rid of a lot of fascinating characters. We absolutely wanted to challenge the audience; when Jodie's character runs away and we stick with the gang instead of her, that was the moment the script grew from really. We had a feeling the audience would go, 'What? These kids? Really?' We wanted to earn that back and get to a place where you could - not necessarily sympathise with the characters - but to empathise with and humanise them was the whole motor, the raison d'etre of the film.

"I don't think colour has much to do with Attack The Block; there's one little speech that Moses makes in the middle but that's that character at that moment. We did meet kids when we researched that felt so detached, so alienated from society that they did start to believe quite extraordinary conspiracy theories. A lot of kids feel disenfranchised, that was something I wanted to touch on, the idea that a boy or a child could become so disconnected from society and reality, could feel his opportunities are curtailed. That was one of the places where this quite earthy milieu connected with sci-fi, between real social issues and slightly far-fetched science fiction."

How has it felt to get such a positive reaction?

"The reaction at SXSW was fantastic, we had no idea this South London film would do so well playing to a Texan audience. They were a really generous crowd. They connected with the American influences and it was really rewarding that they understood the sociological subtext, the meaning. They weren't freaked out by having to empathize with these kids, they really engaged with it. It was really exciting to win the audience award for Midnight film."

Attack The Block is out in cinemas across the UK this week.

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