The extraordinary movie Attack the Block opens in Seattle this Friday. The movie takes place in a slightly rundown suburb of London, where a group of teenage boys try to sell weed and struggle to rob their neighbors in order to get by. Amidst this, the gang witnesses a meteor crashing to the ground and soon discovers that it’s just the beginning of a massive alien invasion. With only their mates by their side and some less than useful weapons, they must fight to survive and save the block.
The movie is the feature-film debut of Joe Cornish and stars, amongst others, John Boyega. The two were in Seattle last week to promote the movie. As I sat down to interview them, they were in the middle of a conversation about Bigfoot, a popular creature in our neighborhood. They were curious what I thought of the alleged furry behemoth.
Brian Zitzelman: Bigfoot huh?
John Boyega: He’s into Bigfoot. I think it’s crap.
Joe Cornish: I’m just trying to introduce John to Bigfoot. I showed him the Patterson footage the other night. I have to say Mr. Boyega wasn’t entirely convinced.
(Boyega puts his head on his shoulder making snoring sounds.)
JC: Look, he’s gone to sleep. He’s just faking it.
BZ: How long are you guys in town?
JC: Only until tonight and then we’re flying to San Diego.
BZ: I was going to say you could have time to drive around the state and search for Bigfoot.
JC: I’d love to do that.
BZ: They’ve got a show now about hunting for him.
JC: “Finding Bigfoot.”
BZ: They’re always in helicopters on the search.
JC: It’s true.
BZ: They haven’t found anything shockingly enough.
JC: Yes, but they’re very, very close. I’m sure they are. Just before every commercial break, it’s as if they’re meters away from ‘Squatch.
BZ: You’d think with the technology they’ve got now, they would have found something.
JC: It’s only a matter of time.
BZ: So you’re on the way to Comic-Con after this?
JC: We are.
BZ: Excited for that?
JB: I’m super excited. I think it’s going to be crazy.
BZ: You guys showing the film?
JC: We are screening the film and then we’re doing a panel in Hall H, which is the big one.
BZ: Have you ever been Joe?
JC: I have been, yeah.
JB: I’m hoping I have a chance to get some comic books and maybe a few action figures. I’ve heard I won’t likely have that chance.
BZ: You might be able to. They still do comics there. Are you guys happy to finally have the movie coming out, at least stateside? It’s been out in the U.K. for a few months.
JC: It came out May 11.
BZ: Are there many places left for it to open?
JC: It’s been released all over the world. It’s out in France now and Malaysia. It’s been bought by pretty much every territory in the world. We’ve promoted it in the U.K. and now we’re doing this small tour of the U.S.
BZ: There has been a lot of talk about it for months. You guys went to Austin for South by Southwest, correct?
JC: We did. We premiered it there. We won the audience award for midnight feature there. We were also at the Los Angeles Film Festival and won the audience award for best narrative feature there. We’ve been knocked out by the response, it’s been very exciting.
BZ: This might be an odd question. What kind of audience do you want the film to have? Are you interested in a giant blockbuster movie or getting, what the film feels like it’s built for, a cult following?
JC: This is my first film and this is John’s first film and we’ve always kept our expectations modest. We hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. We used to imagine that the film would premiere in a super-market on one of those little televisions by the detergent section. That’s how we kept our hopes down while making it. The fact that it’s getting a big theatrical distribution, that Sony has picked it up and that people are responding to it so well is fantastic. Obviously, we’d love as many people as possible to see it. It is, you know, a particular movie. It’s a bit different and has an anti-hero at the center of it. It has a bit of bite, while also being a mini-blockbuster.
BZ: It has a really rich humor to it too. It actually has a bit of something for everybody in a way.
JC: Well, obviously John and I, whom I’m much younger than…
JC: We all grew up in the same area in south London. John is from Peckham and I’m from Stockwell. Those are two neighborhoods very close to each other and I certainly feel passionate about that area. I had something to say about with this film about young people in the area. I wanted to capture the way they speak and the dynamics of their relationships, while wrapping it inside a crazy alien chase movie
BZ: I’ve read that the story is based, or inspired, by a mugging that happened to you. How did that evolve from you wanted to tell a story about young people in hard times to that, but with an alien invasion?
JC: I guess it was a combination of two things that interested me. When I had this robbery, it was really unusual. I’d lived there for forty-two years and it’s the only bad thing that ever happened to me there. It surprised me because that’s the kind of cliché and stereotype you hear about the area. Suddenly, here I was faced by this cliché. The kid that did it to me was real young and my feeling was, “What are you doing living up to this stereotype.” I kind of became fascinated by his character and I thought, well, he’s clearly not a monster. He’s not evil, he’s just a kid and there is clearly more to him than just this action. Why would an intelligent, sensible kid make this choice? I got fascinated in his character, even if it did traumatize me a bit. When people cross that line in your own neighborhood, it makes you uncomfortable. I think as a method of escape I started fantasizing about what would have happened had that moment been interrupted by a meteor from space. What would have happened had a 80s monster movie crashed into that moment.
BZ: John, how did you get involved in the film? Was this your first acting experience at all or just in movies?
JB: Just my first feature film. I was actually doing a play in London where I had ten minutes on stage and it just so happened that Joe came and saw me there. I tried out for the part and I just got recall after recall until I finally got the part. I was really chaffed.
BZ: What was the difficulty like going from a ten minute part to a leading role with a wide variety of tones? How did you approach that?
JB: I’ve been in training for a long time. I’ve had plenty of lessons about film acting and theatre acting. I was looking forward to the opportunity to be in a film anyway. When Attack the Block came into my life I was like, “Okay, this could be it.” I just approached it like any other professional actor would. It was comfortable on set. We got a lot of support from Joe and the other boys that were with me. We all supported each other because it was a learning experience for all of us. It was very important since it was the first time for all of us; a bunch of the actors, DP and director. We all built off each other’s energy and guided each other.
BZ: How did the bonding process happen? Did you cast the boys separately or make them do screen-tests as a group?
JC: We saw about fifteen-hundred kids with a huge range of experience. Some kids who had never been in front of cameras before, while other had been on television before. In the end, most of the people we chose had never been on camera before. We had a long audition process. John I found first. I knew he could be Moses soon as he walked in the room. He proved himself very quickly, but we wanted to make sure the gang gelled. We tried all sorts of different combinations. He must have had something like ten auditions or something.
BZ: John, you were always going to be Moses?
JB: I didn’t know. He tortured it.
JC: We kept a competitive atmosphere so everyone would bring the A-game so to speak and keep everyone on their toes. We wanted to make sure they look like a bunch of friends and felt like they had history on screen.
BZ: Was there some kind of bonding experience planned to create that? You always read about groups of people sent off to do training together and using big action weapons.
JB: Wow man, that sounds very Hollywood.
BZ: I know. I assume you didn’t know the other guys too well going into shooting.
JC: We had rehearsal.
JB: Yeah, we had rehearsal, but when we first auditioned we were like, “Can you help me with my lines.” It was just everyone really bonding and being friends.
BZ: How long was the rehearsal period?
JC: We had a couple of weeks. We went through the script as a group and we spent a day on each character. We would all discuss the character and every word they would say, why would they say it and all that. The cast had a chance to change the dialogue if they felt it wasn’t right.
BZ: The dialogue is very, I suppose, unfamiliar to people in this country. It also has a youthful energy. How was it to write that without coming off as an adult trying to sound young?
JC: I did a lot of research involving talking to youth groups and kids from the area the movie is set. I talked to hundreds and hundreds of kids and I wrote down every little thing they said. I tried to draw the dialogue and the slang from reality as much as possible. I approached it like I was learning Italian or French. Also, if you live in London and ride the buses, you’re going to hear this stuff anyway. This is how kids talk, not just in that area, but all over the world. Young people invent their own language. Plus, a lot of it is American hip-hop slang, so it’s transatlantic. I love it. I think it’s funny and pop-culture-y and cool to listen to.
BZ: The movie has its pop-culture roots and inspirations, but doesn’t call them out in an obvious manner.
JC: That’s because the kids in the film, and the absolute target audience is kids the age of the ones in the movie, they don’t know those films. Those 80s movies are twenty-five years old at least, maybe more.
BZ: There seems to be a fair share of Ridley Scott and John Carpenter influences. John, did you watch any of those movies?
JB: I was highly educated actually by watching channel 5 growing up. Joe did give us a package of DVDs to watch and put Assault on Precinct 13 on there, and The Warriors and a screening of the first Predator. What else did you put on there Joe?
JC: Over the Edge.
JB: Oh yeah. All of that stuff, just so we could get a sense of what the film might be.
JC: There is definitely some Spielberg, Dante, Walter Hill, Carptenter. The thing is when I list the influences, I name so many. I’ve wanted to make a movie since I was a kid. I had a lot of pent up energy and influences to get out.
BZ: How did the movie come about then, besides the inspiration? You’ve been working on television for years. How did you that evolve into getting to make a feature film?
JC: I think it was a nice organic process. In the U.K., production companies tend to do film and television. I had a relationship with Edgar Wright because his series “Spaced” and my series “The Adam and Joe Show” ran concurrently. We became friends and are both big movie fans. I watched him become a filmmaker and I’ve been alongside him during that process. We worked on Ant-Man for Marvel together and we’ve done The Adventure of Tintin. I was just waiting for the right idea to come along and feel confident enough. One day I just thought that it was time to give it a go. I wrote it, gave it to people I knew and Big Talk, the company that makes Edgar’s stuff, they supported me. They made it and took the hard work of raising the money. I think it’s just a question of waiting until I was old enough for people around me to rise to a position where they could enable me. I kind of wish I had been able to do it in my twenties, but on the other hand I’m glad I waited, which let me be a little less anxious and be more confident. Plus, I was surrounded by people who were in positions of authority.
BZ: What was the process like adapting your skills from writing for a television show into a full film? They are different mediums and have different narrative structures.
JC: Absolutely, but film is my first love. I went to film school when I was eighteen. I’ve always been obsessed with the differences between television and film. I watched soap-operas in college and tried to figure out why it was different than a movie. My thing is that film is visual and you should be able to follow it with the sound down. In a good film, if you take your eyes off it for more than four seconds you should miss something. Plus, film being a collective experience, and I think it should be very different. I made this pretentious decision ten years ago to stop watching television dramas because I think it’s structurally different.
BZ: You haven’t watched any?
JC: Nope. I haven’t seen “The Wire” or anything. I know I’m missing out.
JB: The new season of “Single Ladies” is good.
BZ: John, you’ve got one film in the can and another in post-production. Do you have a preference for what kind of work you’d want to do? If you had an option of doing several movies a year versus a television series?
JB: Ideally, it would be feature films. I’d like to be in anything that tells a good story and has an interesting character. I want to approach the roles like a chameleon. I wanted you guys to meet the real me and think, “That’s two totally different people.”
JC: So you want to be in Rango?
JB: Yes. I want to change forms.
BZ: So you wouldn’t want to dig into one role for multiple years?
JB: Well, not at this time. I don’t want to get put in a can and be thought of as just one thing. However, if they want to do a Harry Potter, but have it be Daniel Potter, you know Harry’s secret step-brother, we could do it.
BZ: You want to go wizarding school?
JB: Yeah, for sure. I’d be a bad-a** wizard.
BZ: Would you prefer to do big-budget movies? This one isn’t big-budget, though it has a large scale feel.
JB: You always want to do a mix of indie films. They have a rich quality when it comes to stories and characters. Then you get these big-budget scripts full of CGI and stuff, and I’d rather not just go with that. Anything that tells a good story though, I don’t mind doing it.
BZ: What got you into acting?
JB: I don’t know. God given.
BZ: Well, how long were you in theater?
JB: Well, I started training in a youth group. I then went to drama school, usually twice a week where they give you lessons and put you up for work at the same time. So, I got an agent from there and move over to here. One thing led to another. I don’t know how it all happened. As far as I’m concerned, I was just watching DVDs the whole time and then my life just changed.
BZ: Have you worked on your American accent? There have been a lot of articles lately about how all of the big heroic characters are being played by Brits. You trying to get one down so you can be the next Superman?
JB: (In a flat, Midwestern accent) No, not Superman. (Back to his British accent). Yeah, it’s really weird actually. I was asked this in a Q&A and they said, “Is your American accent good? We want to know if it’s good so you can be in our movies.” It’s weird how you can spot the British actors in these things. It’s great though and all part of acting; I would love learn various accents.
JC: We’re just taking revenge for Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. It’s weird though, because acting is acting and its all there for the story. It’s odd how people will ask them if they are like their character. For me, it’s all make believe, so whoever is best for the part is what matters.
BZ: One last question. The budget for the movie isn’t small, but it’s not massive either considering the variety of things going on in it. What benefits do you think came from working like that?
JC: Hopefully, necessity is the mother of invention. We tried to be ambitious about it and find cool, low-fi ways to do cool things. The movie is a mini-blockbuster with monsters, chases and effects. I guess that’s one of the things that connects the film to the 80s movies I mentioned. The effects are practical. We use CG in a kind of modest way to enhance the practical stuff. The films I love like The Terminator or Duel or Besson’s early works are ambitious, but their resources are quite modest and they have to be clever about how they deal with their problems. It makes things more personal.
BZ: Did you keep that in mind while writing the script?
JC: Not really, though I was conscious that it would be good for a first time movie to be shot in one location and to have a reasonably limited cast of characters. No, I just wrote the film I wanted to write and was lucky to get Big Talk behind. We had an eight-million pound budget, which is pretty good.
JB: Pretty good for just a student film, right?
JC: Thanks John.