Joe Cornish has been busy lately. In March, the British comedian-turned-filmmaker premiered his directorial debut, “Attack the Block,” at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Sony Screen Gems released it last weekend in North America, but Cornish’s work continues. This weekend, he journeyed to Locarno, Switzerland, where the film played on Friday night to a massive crowd in the Piazza Grande as an official selection of the Locarno Film Festival.
Produced by his colleague Edgar Wright, “Attack the Block” follows a group of lower class South London teens fending off a horde of carnivorous alien invaders. Released in the U.S. the same weekend as “Cowboys and Aliens,” the movie was warmly received as a carefully executed evocation of 1980’s fantasy tales of the “Gremlins” variety. That’s not the only reason Cornish should feel happy now: He and Wright share writing credits on Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn.” Shortly before jetting off to Italy for a meeting, Cornish sat down with indieWIRE to discuss the success of “Attack the Block” as well as the inevitable comparisons to “Cowboys and Aliens.”
When “Attack the Block” premiered at SXSW, you expressed some anxiety that the thick British accents would scare off U.S. distributors. Now that the movie has been released in North America by Sony Screen Gems, how do you feel about that initial presumption?
Well, I don’t think that the subtitle issue was every seriously raised by anybody at Sony or in the U.K. by anybody specifically. It was a journalist who suggested it, and then it got sort of echoed and repeated around websites. But I didn’t mind that; I love anybody talking about the film in any way. There was never a question that it would happen. Clint Culpepper from Sony Screen Gems was adamant that he wouldn’t touch the film at all. He was even resistant to putting Screen Gem’s logo on it, because he loved it for what it was, and that has informed their whole marketing strategy to just put it out there, screen it and let people advocate it themselves – to make it a very honest and direct proposition.
You mean the marketing was very hands-off?
They just wanted to let people own it. So many large movies come to you with a huge marketing campaign and it’s like you have to see this movie this weekend, otherwise you’ll be culturally bankrupt and can’t converse with your friends. I think “Attack the Block” is just something that people can feel they own it if they like. I’d like it to be a film like that. I love films like that, that I discover and can tell my friends about.
Were you surprised that the movie gained momentum on the festival circuit and landed good reviews? An ’80s-style sci-fi action movie set in a lower class British neighborhood isn’t the easiest proposition.
It’s a hard question to answer. When you make something, you obviously have to have part of your brain that’s going, “This could be amazing.” Otherwise, you wouldn’t make it. Of course, there’s another part of your brain that’s going, “This could be a disaster, but it’s worth of shot.” So there’s no single expectation. I have all sorts of random, crazy expectations depending on how happy or tired I am, just like anybody. The fact that it seems to have a little momentum, the fact that it’s here at Locarno and was at SXSW, yeah, it’s amazing for a first film.
Did you expect it to land U.S. distribution?
I didn’t expect it, but I hoped it would. I think the Britishness of the film did put off some distributors, but we were very lucky to find Mr. Culpepper, to find someone as adventurous and as imaginative as him.
You’re very open about the movie’s low budget, and the special effects certainly don’t look expensive – although that’s part of the charm. How did you make peace with the cheap look?
Well, people would say that during the production. The producers were certainly anxious about the look of the creatures, but I kept saying that as long as they look fairly cool and clever enough, I don’t think it matters. Did it matter that the Gremlins looked like hand puppets or that the tips of Yoda’s ears wobbled? Did it matter that E.T. looked a mold? It didn’t. If the story around them is strong enough…an amazing-looking monster is not going to make a film. “Jaws,” one of the greatest monsters movies of the last 50 years, shows that. I think it’s fairly obvious to say that the quality of the monster is important, but it’s not the be-all, end-all. I was keeping my fingers crossed on that being true.
The movie opened in the U.S. on July 29, the same weekend as “Cowboys and Aliens.” Both movies are also screening in Locarno’s Piazza Grande section. What are your thoughts on that pairing?
I think that was quite a clever idea. It wasn’t my decision, but they’re not stupid at Screen Gems. They know what they’re doing. That was a clever bit of counter-programming. Jon Favreau has been very supportive of the film. He introduced one of the screenings at the Arclight, which was really generous. We opened on eight screens [nationwide]. I think they opened on several more. (laughs) So I don’t think there’s any actual conflict. It was just a crafty little way for the film to get some attention in a really crowded year.
A number of reviews compared the movies. Did you read them?
Yeah, I did look at some of those. I haven’t seen “Cowboys and Aliens” yet since I’ve been too busy doing this stuff. It hasn’t opened in the U.K. yet. I can’t wait to see it.
Locarno’s opening night film was “Super 8,” so there were many aliens descending on the Piazza this year.
I think it’s cool for film fans and writers to compare a lot of different takes on an archetype. That can be fun: seeing it set in the late Seventies, in a Spielbergian way; seeing in a grimy, lo-fi British way; seeing it in an old west way.
Re-watching the movie on the Piazza last night, I was struck by how carefully you emulate the movies that inspired you. It’s got a lot of Joe Dante in it.
That’s nice of you to say. I was 41 when I made the film and I’ve loved movies since I was a kid so there’s a lot of stuff in my head waiting to be expressed. I’m a huge fan of Joe Dante and he saw the film. He really liked it. We sent some emails to and fro, and that’s amazing to have a hero like what you do. Walter Hill also saw it and liked it. The fact that Spielberg saw it is incredible.
What did Spielberg say?
He said he loved it. I didn’t push him any further. The conversation switched to other things. I didn’t want to push him in case he had reservations. That was enough for me.
Speaking of Spielberg, had you already worked on his “Tintin” screenplay prior to making “Attack the Block”?
Yeah, I had finished my work on “Tintin” before we started shooting “Attack the Block.” I was working on the “Attack the Block” screenplay concurrently with “Tintin.” I have to stress that I’m a small, small part of “Tintin.” Steven Moffat is the main writer. Edgar Wright and I came in and did a bit of work on it. Plus the names, director and producer are amazing; the material is incredible. Herge’s work is obviously legendary.
Can you talk about the differences between working on a studio script and directing a low budget project?
I always thought that was kind of inherent in the premise of “Attack the Block” because the aliens are something from a Hollywood movie, but they crash-land somewhere that couldn’t be less Hollywood. The initial treatment for “Attack the Block” used to start with the line, “This is the alien invasion in the last place you’d expect to find one.” That’s what appealed to me: To set a Hollywood story in a place you almost were permitted to have fantasies. It’s as if the characters in that world, cinematically, are only allowed to inhabit socio-realist, downbeat dramas. They’re not permitted to play in the Hollywood playground.
Have you screened the film for that community?
Absolutely. It’s gone over very well. Most people seem to understand what we’re trying to do and enjoy it.
Have you received offers on the basis of this movie’s reception?
I’ve certainly got lots of nice, interesting enthusiasm from studios. I have another idea for something I want to do, but I don’t have any game plan. This has all happened quite fast. It’s almost as if we hadn’t had a chance to take a breath.