The Badass Interview: ATTACK THE BLOCK’s Joe Cornish On Politics, Kids And Tintin
We're at the tail end of October and the release this week of Attack the Block on DVD and Blu confirms at least one thing: this is my favorite movie of the year. Nothing has arisen that I love as fully as this film.
I got on the phone with director Joe Cornish to chat - our third time getting together this year. I met with him at SXSW, before I actually saw the film, and again in LA when he was doing the US junket. This time he was in New York, promoting the home video release, and we got on the phone.
The previous times we talked it was all pretty general. This time I knew I wanted to get into the political and social aspect of the film. The recent London riots seemed to come out of the same sorts of blocks that are in this film, and so that's where I began.
The last time we talked was when the film was being released in the US, and I had said there was more I wanted to discuss with you about the politics of the movie. In the months after the films release there were these riots in London featuring kids who looked a lot like the kids in Attack the Block. Do you think the reaction to the film would have been different if it had come out after the riots?
I don't know. I think it's impossible to tell. I don't think you can make too many connections. Just because the people look the same doesn't mean they are the same. It's generally wrong to judge people by external appearance - in fact that's kind of one of the messages of Attack the Block, to see beyond clothing and color and class to see the people behind that. I wouldn't want to make that comparison myself.
What happened in London was a really complicated thing, and I don't think anybody understands it yet. I think at the core of it there was a genuine social grievance. I think all riots - and I speak as someone from South London who has lived through four periods of rioting - there's usually something there. There's usually a reason. There's usually some kind of cry for help beneath it all.
But what happened in London was, I think, very complex. It was a cluster of issues. There was opportunism. There was what they're now calling a flash mob, which is a terrifying phrase. I'm not sure there was a huge amount of connection. People were talking about Grand Theft Auto, they were talking about rap music being to blame. There's a line in Attack the Block, 'This isn't about drugs, this isn't about music, this isn't about violent video games.' So I think you have to be careful about making easy connections.
But if Attack the Block is about one thing it's about calling attention to the amount of energy and power teenagers have when they get together, how much potential they have, how important it is to society to listen to them and pay attention to them and meet their needs. And how if society doesn't do that their energy can be quite a destructive thing. But if you do do that, if you care for them and pay attention and include them in society, they're potentially an extremely positive force. That's the theme of the movie, and that's how it would connect to the events of the summer, if it connected at all.
There's so much going on in the film politically. Just the last bit alone - Moses pulling himself up via the British flag - is so filled with meaning. How political was your approach from the beginning, and how much of that just bleeds in because of the subject matter?
It's the whole point of the film. The film wouldn't exist without the story of Moses and the story of those kids. The idea came to me what if you introduce a kid doing a bad thing and then you introduce the alien invasion - can you bring that kid around? Can you bring the audience around with him? Can you dimensionalize him and make him see the error of his ways and make the audience see his potential?
I think all good scifi is about the present, whether it's Godzilla about the atomic bomb or Invasion of the Body Snatchers about McCarthyism. Most good scifi is allegory to one extent or another, and that's the inspiration for Attack the Block. Especially Assault on Precinct 13, which has a very interesting sociological subtext and racial subtext. The great thing about those movies is you can watch them as just escapist genre pieces or pay attention to the subtext. In Attack the Block that was very much about the characters as much as about the alien invasion.
One of the most amazing things about the US release of Attack the Block is that Spike Lee fell in love with it.
The response we got from people who are heroes of mine is amazing. Spike Lee saw it and loved it. Danny DeVito saw it and loved it. Tom Cruise saw it and loved it. I got a message from Drew Barrymore who loved it. Walter Hill has seen it, Joe Dante has seen it.
But obviously Spike Lee seeing it is particularly important. I saw Do the Right Thing twice the night it opened in London and we all talked until 2 in the morning about that movie. I've seen everything he's done until The Miracle of St. Anna. That was really cool, in particular the way he recognized John [Boyega]'s talent, the way he cast John in his new HBO show. That's really rewarding.
We always knew John Boyega was unstoppable, but for someone at Spike Lee's level to recognize that is rewarding. But John was going to do that with or without us, we're just lucky that we got him for his first film. He's the real deal, I think.
I got the Blu-ray and I watched the excellent doc on the making of the film. It seems very honest, and it seems like at times you were at the end of your rope. It seemed very exasperating for you.
It is. Filmmaking - and I've only made one - seems like an exercise in frustration management. It's like Chinese water torture; tiny, fucking annoying things going wrong the whole time. And it's just an endurance test of keeping your cool and staying level headed and keeping on your feet. But you forget the negatives very quickly, and I couldn't complain for a second.
But we did try to make the documentary as honest as possible. I'm a big fan of documentaries on DVDs and I love them when they're kind of warts and all. It's not a puff piece. It's not a featurette. It's a proper little documentary that probably shows me getting a bit fucked off now and again.
Once or twice. It also shows that these kids have unbelievable energy. How did you control it on set? I know that on a movie tons of time is spent waiting around.
It wasn't really a problem. I don't know whether I'm just immature or what or maybe I should have been a teacher. I really, really loved working with them. I love working with young people. I was a first time director on the set so everyone on the crew was more experienced than me, and the fact that my cast was going through it the first time as well was a kind of unifying factor. We were going on an adventure together.
It was all so positive, to be able to give them that opportunity, for them to be so good and what they did and to work so hard. There wasn't a downside, and I hope that comes across in the documentary, about how much fun we had and how hard we worked, and what positivity there was on the set.
Tintin just played for the first time and the reviews are positive. Were you worried or did you know this film was going to work?
It's kind of nerve wracking because Tintin is so important in Europe, especially in France and Belgium. Saying that, Edgar [Wright] and I came on late in the day and Stephen Moffat had done lots of brilliant, brilliant work. Not to mention that Spielberg and Peter Jackson and all the incredible crew and the people at WETA and everybody involved in that film is passionate about Tintin and Herge's work. The goal was always to respect it and honor it while doing what was necessary to make it work as a 100 minute feature film. It pretty quickly became evident that everybody's heart was in the right place. I'm a big Tintin fan, I read those books as a child and read them a 100 times and I think they did a pretty spectacular job. I kind of wish I was nine again to see that movie.
Talking about how scifi is about the present, Tintin's adventures are set very much in his own time, and sixty years later that can seem weird to us. I'm thinking specifically of Tintin in the Congo. Do you think the original versions should be out there or should the books change as our sensibilities evolve?
That's a tricky question. Personally, me Joe Cornish, I don't. I think that's almost historically revisionist and it's important to remember the mistakes of the past. Herge himself went back and altered some of his books. He wrote them over a huge period of time from about 1929 to the late 70s, early 80s. He was writing in an amazing period of European and world history. He was a real cultural sponge, and he would absorb whatever was in the popular culture at the time. You can see echoes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, later you can see the influence of the hippie movement coming in. He questioned his own early work and went back and adjusted that.
The character of Tintin himself evolved hugely through the first seven or eight books. Captain Haddock doesn't arrive until the ninth book, I think.
It's important to understand how the books reflect the reality of the society Herge was living in.
What's next for you?
A slight pause. Radio silence for a bit. I'm working on a new thing, but I want to keep it under wraps in case I change myself or something better comes along. So you can expect an air of tedious silence.