"We were doing something people don't do in the U.K. that often," said writer/director Joe Cornish about the thrilling alien invasion film Attack the Block. "We were trying to make an adventure film, a fantasy film, a chase film."
Working with a meager £9 million (roughly $14 million), Cornish smartly chose to rely on his superior script, innovate direction and an excellent cast for the seemingly impossible task.
"[Executive producer] Edgar Wright said to me before we started, 'Joe, you've chosen everything you're not supposed to do in a movie. You've got kids, animals, night shoots, creatures, effects, explosions, stunts, chases and newcomers. You've even a dog in it.'"
Rather than focusing on the expensive whiz-bang effects and explosions of Hollywood blockbusters, Cornish followed in the early 21st-century footsteps of low-budget, grassroots science fiction films such as District 9, Moon and Monsters.
After mugging a young nurse named Sam, a group of South London teens witness a small meteor crash into a nearby car. While searching the vehicle for valuables, an alien—a 3-foot-high being that looks like a hideous skinless baby—bites gang leader Moses (John Boyega) and runs away. The boys give chase, eventually catching and killing it. Wielding their trophy, the thugs return to their South London block, an urban, public housing apartment building. Soon terrifying creatures—each a cross between a large dog and a small bear with pitch-black fur, no eyes and glowing white teeth—hunt the scared young men. In desperation, they eventually turn to the savvy Sam to help keep their wits and sanity.
One of those "newcomers," Boyega, whose previous experience consisted primarily of stage productions, talked about the working atmosphere. "We were a young cast, and we all had that vibrant energy. We were very enthusiastic to do it. Everybody had big talking. The production team really showed—I don't know if they were putting it on—us that they knew what they were doing, and we totally trusted them. But I'm a teenager, so I'm naive."
Cornish initially lacked the same bravado. "It was nothing but nerves and fear. I was experienced in TV, but I always wanted to make a film. I'd been waiting 20-25 years to do this. So, yeah, I had a huge amount of trepidation, ambition and expectation." But he quickly overcame those anxieties. "It was an adventure for all of us. Plus it was just fun. It was aliens and chases, so it was nothing too heavy. It was kinda like play."
Inspired by low-budget, high-concept '80s science fiction films, Attack the Block initially centered around Cornish's own 2001 mugging experience, but it quickly evolved into a treatise on modern block life. "The interesting thing about London is that it's very mixed. You'll get a millionaire living next to someone on housing support," explained the director. "They'll shop in the same shops and walk the same streets. There are all these different types of people, all these backgrounds, all these socioeconomic positions. They are separated by these kind of fake barriers. I was interested in using an alien invasion to bring those different characters together to point the commonalities between people rather than the differences."
"This is a new side of London, a new kind of energy," added Boyega. "People aren't educated about that side of London."
"I absolutely wanted to make a 90-minute film," elaborated Cornish on the brief (by modern movie standards) 88-minute running time. "We were aiming for 90 minutes because that's the kind of movie I love. I'm not down with this three-hour thing. I don't like to have to select when to go to the bathroom during a movie."
Filmed in an 11 brisk weeks, Attack the Block included six weeks of night shoots on location in the blocks. "I realized that a lot of my favorite films are all at night or in the dark: The Warriors, Evil Dead, Blade Runner and Alien," shared Cornish. "I like almost real-time, contained narratives. They take place over one night. It's more claustrophobic and moment-to-moment action. Characters never tell you what happened yesterday, what's gonna happen today or about something that happened in their childhood that you know is going to be repeated at the end of the day."
Cornish employed a mixture of methods for creating his unique aliens. "As a filmgoer, I find monsters in movies samey. They seem to have a very similar aesthetic. I wanted to do something that connected to the old-school monster movies I loved." Remembering an exhibition on Ralph Bakshi's version of The Lord of the Rings, he opted for rotoscoping as one of the techniques. "[The effects] are a combination of animatronics, people in suits, a bit of puppeteering and lots of different techniques. The CGI was used actually to take away detail and augment. Terry Notary, who was in Avatar and The Rise of the Apes, did the movements for us. He's the best quadruped runner and performer."
The style lead to realistic combat sequences. "When these creatures are attacking John, they are properly attacking John. He got bruised up and bitten. He was running scared for real." Boyega, 17 during production, added, "I told Mom that, and she wasn't happy."
"I'm amazingly pleased that people understand and enjoy it," commented Cornish on the film's unexpected success. "I'm amazingly proud of my cast. I feel enabled. I feel I might have a chance to make another one. That's all I ever wanted."
Attack the Block opens in the US on July 29 in limited release.