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Director Joe Cornish attacks with a blend of heart and humor in his feature debut

Matthew Odam
Actor John Boyega, left, and director Joe Cornish visit Austin to promote 'Attack the Block,' first shown at SXSW in March.

Comedian Joe Cornish has enjoyed a modest level of fame and success in his native England as a writer, director and performer on British radio and television, but for the past 20 years he has wanted to make a feature-length film.

With "Attack the Block," in which a group of adolescents in South London defend their neighborhood from an alien invasion, Cornish unleashes an intoxicating blend of quick-witted humor and sincere social commentary. The film had its world premiere at South by Southwest earlier this year, where it won an audience award in the Midnight Features category.

Cornish gained inspiration for the film that nods to '70s and '80s classics such as "The Warriors" and "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" after being the victim of what he calls "a pathetic mugging by some very young kids" in his South London neighborhood of Camberwell in 2001.

Cornish visited Austin last week with teenage actor John Boyega, who plays Moses, the anti-hero in "Attack the Block," to talk about finally making his first movie, his appreciation for Austin and working with unknown actors.

American-Statesman: How did the mugging serve as the jumping-off point for your film?

Joe Cornish: It was the only thing like that that had ever happened (to me). And I am not down with the stereotypes that are perpetuated about that neighborhood. I know for a fact they're not true. The media tries to present troubled kids in those areas as kind of monstrous and inhuman, and they're very intolerant and there's a certain amount of prejudice. London is very, very mixed. ... All of these people are living door-to-door but yet separated by perception. There's nothing real to separate people; it's all just perception that's doing it and certain types of media exacerbating that problem. I was fascinated by the kid that did it. I thought, "You're no monster. You're probably on the same level of 'Call of Duty' as I am; we probably listen to the same music. Why are we doing this pantomime?" I feel a huge amount of compassion and love for my area and especially the children who grow up there.

There already have been comparisons made between your film and another film that, less an homage to Steven Spielberg, is more of a note-by-note cover version of a Spielberg movie ("Super 8"). How did you make sure your film maintained its uniqueness?

It's probably a result of the quantity of influences. The fact that I've waited for so long, and there's so much cinema that I love in my head. I made sure I never deliberately referenced any shot. And the key with "Attack the Block" is it was absolutely made with this generation in mind. My fantasy was for someone in that area to see it and for it to have the same impact on them as "E.T." did on me. So we were never interested in references. Plus, I can't be confident that that generation knows any of those movies. I had to make it completely stand alone. And I was careful to avoid any one film. I just did it from instinct. I've waited a long time to do this. I spent 20 years as a frustrated filmmaker, and I just let all of that stuff seep into it subconsciously, I guess.

You say you gave your young actors a bunch of older films to watch in preparation for the shoot. What drove your selection process in terms of which films you gave them?

I gave them "Over the Edge," "Aliens," "The Warriors," "Predator," "Assault on Precinct 13" - I was just trying to give them the flavor of the film and the tone of the film. In the U.K. there's a quite a lot of what they call "hood movies" in films like this and an environment like this. The one thing that was different about ours was it was combining that with these fantasy elements.

Kind of heroic fantasy elements

Yeah, our movie isn't real. It's a fiction; it's heightened. I just wanted to give them a taste of that flavor, that kind of larger-than-life thing. Plus, the style of the way those movies are made, they're not kind of run-and-gun movies; they're not shaky-cam. They're not "Saving Private Ryan"-influenced. They're old-school. Their shots are composed; they're held for a long time. The rhythm of the cutting is different. The mood is different. The lighting is different. They're almost more comic-booky and colorful.

I am sure there was a learning curve with this being your first film. What did you find was the biggest challenge?

The speed you have to do it and the disparity between the length of time you get to prepare and think and cogitate and ruminate, and then when you're on the set how fast you have to execute all of those plans. You'll plan a great shot for months and months and years, and you've had it in your head for a decade and you get on the set and you've got 30 seconds because the time is running out. And something will be wrong or some prop will be wrong or the weather will be wrong, and you've just got to think on your feet. But I started to really enjoy that combination.

With few exceptions, you used a cast of almost entirely unknown actors. None of the children will be recognizable to American audiences. What led you to that decision?

I love movies where you don't recognize the performers. That's what I love about European cinema and indie cinema; you can invest more in it because it seems more real. I also wanted to make the characters look like the ages they played. I find it creepy in movies when 26-year-olds are playing 18-year-olds, and you can see they've had a close shave and put heavy foundation on. And I thought it was an opportunity to provide a new generation with a new set of faces. That's the beauty of culture — it renews itself constantly, and a new generation is always coming up and they're looking for people of their age who represent what they feel, to project all their fantasies onto.

John, was there an added sense of camaraderie knowing that you were working on your first film with a director who was making his first movie, especially a director who seems to have such a strong connection to his childhood and such a great sense of humor?

John Boyega: It was definitely a feeling of us going on a journey together. Each day was a new experience and a new lesson to each of us. We made mistakes at the same time and learned about how it really, really goes. We also got time to kind of sit back and crack jokes. (Joe) was so boyish. He was just like a kid — directing the film with a Wolverine action figure (hanging around his neck).

Joe, you have said something to the effect that this movie would not exist were it not for Austin. Can you expand on that?

Joe Cornish: This movie was conceived and filmed and made in London. Through happenstance, it was kind of born in Austin. We showed it for the first time to an audience in Austin. It wasn't focus-grouped. It wasn't tested; we made it completely on instinct. So it was scary. So to show it at SXSW, which is a very smart and very informed genre crowd, we didn't know what was going to happen. We had no idea. This is just a cool place, and it happens to be where we first showed the film. So there will always be kind of a weird, wonderful connection between South London and Austin, Texas.