SXSW 2011: 'Attack the Block' hits Austin hard
Fan favorites Simon Pegg and Nick Frost release their new film "Paul" this week, but in Austin on Saturday night it was another project related to the "Shaun of the Dead" duo and their director pal Edgar Wright that had audiences lined up around the block outside the Alamo Ritz theater: Joe Cornish's "Attack the Block," about what happens when a gang of English thugs encounter some otherworldly creatures.
Though the film is the feature directing debut for Cornish, the British writer-director-performer is no novice. He is well-known in England for the television comedy program "The Adam and Joe Show" and has more recently worked as a writing partner to Wright on "The Adventures of Tin-Tin: Secret of the Unicorn" and "Ant-Man." Wright, an executive producer on "Attack the Block," was in attendance Saturday for introductions and a post-screening Q&A, as were Cornish and actors Frost and Luke Treadaway. Wright collaborators Pegg and Anna Kendrick were in the audience as well.
"Attack the Block" opens with a group of inner-city South London boys mugging a woman. Shortly after, as they wander the streets aimlessly, they come across and kill what seems to be an alien creature. Lugging it around with them, they can't convince anyone of what it is. When vicious black-furred creatures begin to swarm and attack them, things go from weird to worse.
With a wild relentless energy and remarkable nighttime photography, "Attack the Block" is modulated by moments of comedy, but is overall less joke-oriented than one might expect given the filmmakers. It's more a high-energy chase film as the kids fend off suspicious police, gun-toting drug dealers and, yes, extraterrestrial invaders.
In talking about the film during the Q&A Saturday night, Cornish rattled off easily 20 film titles he drew inspiration from, ranging from gang movies like "The Warriors," "Streets of Fire" and "Rumble Fish" to monster movies such as John Carpenter's "The Thing," "Predator" and "Gremlins." In casting the film, he saw thousands of kids and was particularly mindful of the untrained youngsters in 1979's "Over the Edge." Everything -- the casting, the photography, the creation of the creatures -- was designed to push the film to feel as real as possible.
"As much as 'E.T.' is a fantasy film, it might as well be a Ken Loach or Robert Altman film. It's very realist," said Cornish during a brief interview Sunday. "People always talk about [Steven] Spielberg's mastery of action sequences or suspense sequences, but he's an amazing drama director as well. So it struck me that Britain had this terrific realist tradition and no one had ever tried to do what Spielberg did, which is fuse that realist tradition with fantasy. And for me the best fantasy is grounded in reality. The more real the reality, the more convincing the fantasy element is."
As to the question of whether the film might be "too English" or need subtitles for American audiences to understand the brogue-thick, slang-heavy dialogue, during the post-screening Q&A Cornish looked out to the crowd and said, "Can I ask you guys something? American distributors are nervous about language, the slang."
The audience shot back resoundingly that they could understand everything just fine.
"My gut feeling is maybe they underestimate you guys," responded Cornish. "With 20 years of hip-hop culture, with 'The Wire,' did you feel this was difficult? No? Well, tell your local distributors that that's the case."
Though Cornish spoke briefly during the Saturday night Q&A about the practical work that went into the design of the creatures -- strange, wolf-like monsters with moppy black hair and teeth that glow an icy blue -- on Sunday he preferred not to discuss what was shot on set and what was done later with computers.
"I don't really want to talk about that," Cornish said politely. "I'd be happy to talk about that if and when the film comes out, after it comes out. But I would love for people not to know and for it to be a surprise. I think that's kind of rare."
-- Mark Olsen in Austin, Texas
Photo: "Attack the Block." Credit: SXSW