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Joe Cornish on Attack the Block

...and working with some guy called Spielberg

Joe Cornish on Attack the Block
08 May 2011

I was seven when I saw the first film that made a real impression on me. It was Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock — a family friend took my brother and I to see it at what was then the ABC on west London’s Fulham Road. In those days, you didn’t get a little BBFC box describing all of the potentially traumatising elements of the film. For 45 minutes, it seemed to be about some girls going on a lovely picnic on a sunny day. Then the rocks began to moan. And the vanishing started. And the crying started. And the terror and panic started. And it scared the living sh*t out of me. And I loved it.

Since then, a lot of my film-watching has been about the feeling that I was seeing things I wasn’t allowed to. It’s probably the easiest social code to get around, to sneak into the cinema or borrow a DVD you’re too young for. In some cases, it’s probably a tiny bit damaging, but in the majority of cases, it’s f*cking exciting. The first AA certificate [aged 14+] film I saw was Cujo, at the ABC Kings Road, with my friend Omar, who was quite progressed in the facial hair department. I just stood behind him and let him buy the tickets. I remember being pretty terrified, thinking I may not be able to handle what I was about to see. Then it turned out to just be a slobbering St Bernard.

When VHS arrived in the early Eighties, there was no certification. So I’d go round to a friend’s house for a sleepover and, instead of getting a babysitter, his parents would give us the video card. We’d go and get Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Exorcist, The Exterminator… For a quid or two, you could get anything. It was a free-for-all. Fantastic. We went for the most grotesque, transgressive images we could possibly find. I don’t think this guy’s mum had any frame of reference. She thought that videos were just these fun things for kids, so I was seeing all these outrageous, freaky things.

You didn’t know what to expect. They would often have surprising gore or swearing in them. I vividly remember not being allowed to see Scanners because of a scene where a man makes another man’s head explode. And then I remember a few months later going to see Raiders Of The Lost Ark — and this guy’s head exploding! I was thinking, “What’s going on? Why am I being allowed to see this traumatising spectacle?”


Incredibly, I was lucky enough to meet the man behind that film years later as I was one of the writers on the forthcoming Tintin film, which Steven Spielberg [pictured right] directed and Peter Jackson produced. For someone of my generation, it’s a bit like meeting your maker. You just have to stay calm and try to hold your sh*t together. If he had started to tell some incredible anecdote about Raiders Of The Lost Ark, my mind would have started boiling.

I loved creature features, whether it was ET, Gremlins, Critters, Tremors or, a little bit later, Predator. I loved the fact that they had outlandish things happening in quite familiar suburban environments. I used to pine for similar things to happen in Brixton and Stockwell, where I grew up.

It was there, about 10 years ago, that I had the idea for Attack The Block. The first thing that happened was what opens the film: I was mugged. It was a very low-key mugging. They didn’t have weapons — their weapon was their numbers. They were very young. They looked as scared as I was. But it freaked me out. It’s a horrible thing to happen, because it undermines your unspoken bond of trust with society. Everyone has the right to walk down the street without being taxed for it.

I thought about it a lot. It made me think about the kids who did it. I thought that they looked weirdly cinematic. They looked like ninjas or bandits in a Western. The bikes they rode looked a bit like something out of ET or the hoverbikes in Return Of The Jedi. The slang they used felt a bit like Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange. And I thought, “Here’s a setting that has only been used for depressing social realism, and actually there’s the toolkit for an action adventure here.” I started thinking about what would have happened if that mugging had been interrupted by the kind of thing that only happened in American movies when I was a kid. What if ET had actually landed at that moment in time? What if it was an aggressive ET?

I was 12 when ET came out — the same age as Elliott in the film. As a kid, films can be incredibly powerful when you find yourself totally absorbed in them. You assume that they’re real. That idea of a life with all the boring bits taken out is so powerful. I can remember the feeling I’d have as a kid when I’d go and see a film on my own in Streatham or Brixton and step out into the outside world. The world would feel electrified and transformed and full of possibility. For a couple of hours, your life would feel like it was sharper and tighter and more meaningful than it was before. With Attack The Block, I wanted to do the kind of thing that American directors did in suburbia in the Eighties. But in the present day, in my suburbia: south London.

Gang movies were hugely important to me growing up and a massive influence on Attack The Block. I loved The Outsiders and Rumble Fish by Francis Ford Coppola. I loved Streets Of Fire and The Warriors by Walter Hill. I went on holiday to Los Angeles when I was about 15 and I bought the Streets Of Fire soundtrack on cassette, even though the film wasn’t out yet. I didn’t really like Meat Loaf very much. But for some reason I became obsessed with that soundtrack. Me and my friend James — good-looking guy, got all the girls; I used to like hanging around with him — we learned all the songs. Man, I loved that film.

Another film I watched on video again and again was An American Werewolf In London. The thing that’s fascinating is that it’s one of the most brilliantly satirical and perceptive films about London, even though it was made by a foreigner. And it was a Hollywood B-movie transposed into London. It’s a comedy horror in the very truest sense. The horror is genuinely horrifying. It’s scary before it’s funny. It’s real before it’s fantastic. The priority is the scariness and the reality.


One of the things that unites all these Eighties films is that anything that was a ‘special effect’ was usually a model or a costume or a painting or a puppet. There was something fantastic about that. Especially as a kid, you felt you could go home and have a go yourself. I watched The Spy Who Loved Me and went straight home and built a Lotus Esprit out of a Corn Flakes box. So for Attack The Block, I wanted my creatures to be there. I don’t want to talk too much about how we did them, because I like to keep a bit of mystery. But when they smash through a window, they really do smash through a window. When they attack one of the cast, they’re genuinely attacking one of the cast.

There are two other films that I couldn’t have made Attack The Block without. The first is Shaun Of The Dead, because it showed that genre filmmaking could once again be successful in the UK. The other is Kidulthood, because it showed that there was a market for the urban milieu.

I didn’t directly copy or homage any shots or scenes from these films that I love, but my subconscious is crammed with a billion films and I’m sure that influences bled through. Although I wasn’t in a gang at school — only the choir.

Attack the Block is in cinemas now