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'Attack the Block' director on killing off kids, 'E.T.' and more

August 2, 2011 | 12:00 pm

Attack the Block John Boyega

While Jon Favreau's big-budget, star-studded "Cowboys & Aliens" earned less-than-rave reviews and what could be described as a shrug at the box office, a much smaller alien movie also released last weekend is quickly becoming a critical darling.

"Attack the Block," the story of a group of inner-city London kids who defend themselves against an outer-space menace, has an 89% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 86 positive reviews out of 97. The film opened Friday in eight theaters, earning $130,000 total and a per-theater average of $16,306 -- a decent start for the modestly budgeted movie starring a slate of first-time and little-known actors.

Over on our sister blog Hero Complex, the film's young star John Boyega, who plays Moses, described his character's journey from hoodlum to hero as he leads a group of teens in their battle against the giant, furry space beasts. It was Boyega's first big-screen role.

"Attack the Block" also marked the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, who co-wrote Steven Spielberg's upcoming comic-book adaptation, "The Adventures of Tintin." 24 Frames sat down with Cornish to talk about "Attack the Block."

Q: It's hard to root for your protagonists at the beginning of the film. They're a bunch of punk kids who rob a lady at knifepoint.

A: There's no doubt that what they're doing at the beginning is a bad thing, and the film is making no apologies. And we knew we were doing something a little bit edgy and a little bit risky to start a movie like that. It's unusual. Most contemporary movies bend over backwards to make their protagonist as sympathetic as humanly possible -- you know, the underdog, the guy who's never quite made it, with the beautiful wife and the gorgeous children, and then they're kidnapped or murdered. But we flipped it around. We wanted to challenge the audience. When people asked me that question when we were developing the script, I would say, "Well, look. You're allowed to hate them." When the title of the movie comes up, "Attack the Block," and that second wave of meteors is coming down, you're allowed to go, "Good. Eat those [expletives]." You know what I mean? But the thing that drove me to write it was to take that energy and then try and turn it round. We're not being cheesy. It's not a huge, soppy, redemptive arc. It's (hopefully) subtle and truthful. ... At the end of the movie, Moses knows the consequences of his actions. He understands that he is in charge of his life. He understands that his choices will directly affect him and his hopes and his potential. So yeah, we've absolutely made it with heart and sincerity, and as a positive story.

Q: What do you think happens to Moses after the movie?

A: I think the rule of the law is pretty strict. I think he would be prosecuted for what he did at the beginning. When the full story came out, I think his positive actions would at least balance his negative actions. But I don't know. I like the ambiguity. I like the question mark. ... You have to bring your own intuition and bring your own morality. That's going to freak out some viewers who are used to everything being laid out for them. This is a movie for smart people, for open-minded people. I like the fact that we don't answer those questions.

Q: Speaking of morality, you kill off kids. The movie would have been good still if you'd let them live. What made you decide to have children die?

A: People are interesting about that. I guess I wanted the film to have real bite. I think it is, in a very comic-book-y way, reflecting a genuine situation in inner cities, a genuine threat there is to kids out there, a genuine randomness to it and a genuine danger. One of the points of this movie is that they're children, and that they're children growing up in really difficult circumstances, and these social problems affect kids, and they're often not culpable. ... I'm a big fan of stalk-and-slash films since the '80s. You know, I loved "Friday the 13th" when I was growing up, and those movies always have characters killed off according to moral transgression. Like someone will smoke weed or have premarital sex, and then they get it. I was interested in having no moral code or no subtext in that respect. So I wanted the audience genuinely not to know what was going to happen next.

Q: You mention slasher films. What other films inspired you in writing and directing "Attack the Block"?

A: Those '80s Amblin movies, especially Spielberg's stuff. It was always a little more gory. The language was a little edgier. It was a little more real than you expected when you went into the theater. You know, the exploding heads in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the guy in "Goonies" sticking Michelangelo's penis on the wrong way up. ... I was trying to make a movie I would have loved when I was 13. And when I was 13, every game I played with my friends, everybody died.

Q: What sets "Attack the Block" apart from other kids-vs.-monster movies, like "Super 8"?

A: I suppose it's a little grittier, a little edgier. It's a little more exotic 'cause it's set in South London. I think one of the main things is that there's no military involved. There's no police involved. It's set in a neighborhood where nobody ... [cares]  and people have to look after themselves. The effects are practical. It's more like an '80s movie, so it's made with the same kind of heart and soul as those '80s movies that I loved. ... For some shots [the alien is] a guy in a suit, for some shots it's animatronic. I took a long time thinking of that design, and it's very much stitched into the look of the film, the way we photographed it. It was something we came up with, really, to get the finance; we had to prove that we could do creatures on this budget. So I worked really hard trying to think of a cool way to do them.

Q: Like glowing teeth.

A: Yeah, that's kind of an "E.T." thing. I'm a big "E.T." obsessive and reading about that movie, the fact that Spielberg put a light source in the creature -- E.T.'s heart light and the light in his finger -- is very effective photographically. It means you can do reveals and switch the light on and off and dim it. So I had the same thing, but in a less friendly way, a less cute way.

Q: You've written screenplays before, but this is your first time directing, right?

A: It was my first time directing. It was amazing. It was a really big privilege to get the opportunity. It was kind of scary because people are taking a leap of faith with you. I would sit down and think, "Wow, people are actually investing millions of pounds in my crazy little idea." So it definitely kind of makes you trepidatious. But it's also a privilege, and it's something I've wanted to do since I was a little kid, and I've waited a long time to do it, so it was cool. It was really good. The surprising thing was how quickly you have to do stuff. You plan for three years, and then you have three minutes, and something will be wrong, like a bulb will blow or the wind will be going in the wrong direction, or the weather will be wrong, or the actor will be in a bad mood. So it's this weird combination of intense preparation and then having to think on your feet. But I loved it. It was really enjoyable.

Q: Do you want to do more?

A: Yes, please! It's addictive, especially with the first film. You get to the end, and only after I'd finished it did I go, "OK, so that's how it works." So now I know the process, I kind of want to do it again and do it better.

RELATED:

Steven Spielberg's 'Tintin' begins its adventure

Review: 'Attack the Block' is geek cinema done right

'Attack the Block' star John Boyega turns a hoodlum into a hero

-- Noelene Clark

Photo: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker and Luke Treadaway in a scene from "Attack the Block." Credit: Sony Screen Gems


 
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