Thursday 27 July 2017

Street wise

James Mottram

It's lunchtime in London's Soho, and the first press screening of Attack the Block is about to take place. The room is packed and there's a palpable buzz in the air.

This, after all, is the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, one half of cult TV and radio comedy The Adam and Joe Show. Not that the expectant crowd are here because of that. Rather, at 42, Cornish is fast emerging as one of Britain's brightest film talents. To come are a movie co-scripted for Steven Spielberg and a comic book adaptation with Edgar Wright. But for the moment, he's here to bang the drum for his so-called "hoodie horror".

Nervously, Cornish gets up in front of the audience, explaining that he wrote Attack the Block because he always wanted to see the sort of Hollywood movies he saw in the 80s but set "on the mean streets" of south London, where he grew up. Admittedly, given his parents were well off enough to educate him privately at Westminster school, it's hard to imagine exactly how mean his street was. The film's council block setting, he fully admits, when we meet the next day, was entirely alien to him. "To no extent whatsoever," he says, dramatically, "am I claiming any first-hand experience of living like that."

A mix of street humour and heart-pounding action it may be, but Attack the Block stems from his love for the rough'n'ready areas of Stockwell and Brixton, where he grew up and still lives. "You do end up spending a little bit of your time defending it to people who live in classier areas, and that's always annoyed me, because I passionately love that area," he says. Yet one of the inspirations for the story -- which sees a bunch of teenage thugs take on an invading hoard of aliens -- was a violation of that love-in. Seven years ago, Cornish was coming home when a lad less than half his age mugged him.

"It made me want to talk to the boy who'd done it, because he was so young and the situation was so artificial," reflects Cornish, sitting across from me in a brightly lit room in the Soho Hotel. "I thought, 'I probably see you in the park everyday, we're probably on the same level of Call of Duty. We probably like some of the same music. Yet we're here in this weird pantomime, with you masked'. Then I started to imagine what would happen if this mugging situation was interrupted by something fantastic. So that was very much the inspiration."

The film begins with such an attack, as a gang -- led by the bullish Moses (John Boyega) -- rob Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse. At this point, audiences could be forgiven for thinking they're watching the latest example from the emerging sub-genre that has sprung up in the wake of the Noel Clarke-scripted Kidulthood -- the so-called 'hoodie film'. "I've got absolutely nothing but respect and admiration for the guys that make those films," says Cornish. "I couldn't have made my film if Noel Clarke and co hadn't made their films."

Attack the Block is not about angst-ridden adolescence, though. Like the recent Hollywood efforts Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles, it's a full-on effects-driven alien-invasion story, albeit swapping the City of Angels for Stockwell. As he mentioned in his intro, it was films from the 80s that he wanted to replicate. "I used to love in particular suburban, urban fantasies," he tells me. "Films like ET, The Terminator, Ghostbusters and Gremlins." Not that his own aliens -- black-as-night creatures with evil-looking fluorescent teeth -- are either as cuddly as ET or as cheeky as the Gremlins; rather, they're carnivorous killing machines.

Cornish, who studied film at Bournemouth University, is certainly a devotee of the craft. He presented Radio 4 film programme Back Row back in 2003, until he quit. "I couldn't stomach it anymore," he explains. "It was midway through that Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock film [Two Weeks' Notice] ... I found myself sitting in a preview theatre, at nine in the morning, sitting behind Ben Shephard, who was telling someone about the detox he'd been on and the enema he'd got. And the curtains opened and a Hugh Grant romantic comedy -- that I would never see in a million years -- started. I just thought, 'I can't do this anymore. It's going to crush my love of film'."

Attack the Block aside, you can best see Cornish's affection for cinema on The Adam and Joe Show, which lasted five years on Channel 4 before re-materialising on XFM radio and, currently, BBC 6 Music. Back then, with the show filmed in a mocked-up bedsit above the Body Shop in Brixton, he and his partner Adam Buxton, who he'd met at Westminster when he was 13, were parodying movies, using cuddly toys. Just check out YouTube for hilarious efforts such as 'Toytanic', 'Toy Trainspotting' and 'American Beautoy' to see Cornish's unique humour first-hand.

If The Adam and Joe Show brought him a cult audience, it also put him in touch with other like-minded filmmakers. Back in the late 90s, while Cornish was working for Channel 4, so was Edgar Wright, directing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who takes a support role in Attack the Block) in the groundbreaking comedy Spaced. Cornish befriended them all -- going as far as grabbing a cameo in their hit zombie movie Shaun of the Dead. Even before this, he started collaborating with Wright on a treatment for Ant-Man, a lesser-known insect-sized superhero from the Marvel Comics stable.

After Shaun of the Dead hit, Marvel urged Wright and Cornish to deliver a script. Only this year have they finished a second draft. "Marvel have been extremely patient," laughs Cornish, who seems a perfect fit to work with Wright. Both seem to possess an innate commercial instinct for genre cinema that too few of their countrymen share but that Hollywood adores. Little wonder Wright suggested Cornish for the forthcoming Spielberg-Peter Jackson adaptation of Hergé's famous comic character, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which stars Jamie Bell as the eponymous hero.

"Edgar and I were working on Ant-Man at that point, and we'd just finished a draft," says Cornish. "Peter Jackson approached Edgar, looking for some help punching up the script, because Steven Moffat had written the first few drafts, and was going to go and become the show-runner on Dr Who. And so Edgar called me and asked if I knew about Tintin. And I'm a big Tintin fan. I have been since childhood. And I was extremely lucky that Edgar called me in to help him out. But our contribution is fractional compared to the sheer weight of brainpower involved in that production."

With Lord of the Rings' Jackson producing and Spielberg directing, that's quite a pair of filmmakers to be working with. "Very exciting," Cornish says. "Unbelievable. I've been jammy. I can't quite believe it's happened." Given how influential both were on him growing up, it must be quite a head-spin for a radio presenter with just one film credit to his name. "I put it out of my mind who they were in order to function," he says, "but every now and then Spielberg would say, 'When I was making Jaws ... ' and suddenly my mind would freeze."

As for a follow-up film to Attack the Block, Cornish says he has an idea but he wants to let it "percolate" while he and Wright finish Ant-Man, and he and Buxton see out a 12-week run of their show that will culminate at Glastonbury. But, in the way Pegg and Frost recently took to the US with their own alien effort Paul, would he consider setting his next film in America? "Yeah. I don't rule anything out," he says. "But I do love London, and I'm interested in doing cinematic things in London. I think there's a bit of a gap in the market." Those south London mean streets may yet have more stories to tell.

Attack the Block is out this week, see review page 9

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