The director of Attack The Block and co-writer of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin tells the young film-maker behind The Inheritance what he learned from making his first theatrical feature
Charles Henri Belleville: How are you are feeling emotionally, now your film, Attack The Block, is finished, is out there and has had its run — at least in the UK. Where are you now?
Joe Cornish: Not having anything you can hold in your hand is a bit weird, isn’t it? You work developing it for four years and then you work really hard making it, and then you release it… it was very odd the sensation of knowing the film was playing in cinemas all around the country and not physically being there. But thrilling at the same time.
CHB: What would you say was the hardest part of the whole process?
JC: The thing that was the biggest surprise was how quickly you have to work. We had action and chases and effects and stuff, and lots of things to get right. When I was growing up as a film fan, I saw film-makers as these great artists like oil painters who considered everything they did. And you do, you get the pre-production to think about everything. But when it comes down to it, you end up with 30 seconds to do something that you’d planned for years. The variables will be off, something will not be as you imagined it, and you’ve got to fix it all in three minutes. But that’s exciting as well, to have to think on your feet. Nothing will be quite as you expected it.
CHB: I edited The Inheritance for about six months, at night, in the middle of doing another job… probably not ideal. The one thing I think I did have, though, was control.
JC: I had a lot of control, Big Talk were great and I was lucky. But I really like notes. Because to me, film is a thing that needs to play to crowds and I found it really instructive and useful to show the film to people and hear what they thought. Then again, I thought I was kind of finished on the first assembly. And it was a real education to me, how much you could do in the edit. We did passes on entire characters. We would do a couple of days of just looking at one character, at every line, every take. I would have huge charts that I would do and I would have the line on the X axis and the delivery on the Y axis and I would score each take, that particular line on that take. They were young performers and their energy levels would vary. That just comes down to time — to have that time to do that, it’s a luxury. Just learning how to change the dialogue of each scene by cutting to someone’s face — that was an education, learning how much you could change in the edit room.
CHB: And the sound mix — was it exciting to hear it all come together?
JC: We had to work hard in the sound mix because we had music and explosions and creature noises. And it was tough to make it all punch through. Because the sound is the storytelling in many ways, don’t you think? I wanted to do an old-school score, the movies I loved when I was growing up had proper scores. Plus I’d never seen a movie set in South London with a proper score.
CHB: Coming out of Attack The Block a little bit, you’ve been working with Spielberg on Tintin. What did you take from that and bring to Attack The Block?
JC: Confidence. It made me confident to stay in that job. And being convivial with people at that level was good for the self-esteem and confidence. It was amazing the quantity of ideas those guys would come up with, the amount, and very un-precious. Very relaxed and respectful and articulate — very grounded and sensible. None of the craziness you read about in books, just very professional and getting on with it. And they listened, Spielberg and [Peter] Jackson. You wouldn’t bombard them but you felt that if you had something to offer, you’d be listened to.
CHB: I’m intrigued to find out how long was the development process for Attack The Block. Being a sort of studio movie, did it go through a lengthy process?
JC: I was lucky in that I had good relationships with everyone — [producer] Big Talk, [financier] Film 4. I was very angry and combative in my early 20s because I had made short films and I felt cut out by the industry and I would write angry letters to Time Out magazine. So I spent a lot of my early 20s in a grumpy, ‘let me in’ sort of mode. I was working as a runner for production companies and I felt like I was close but a million miles away. One of the nice things is that just over time, people who worked with me have ended up in positions that by being friends with them you’re friends with companies as well. So it didn’t feel like an adversarial thing, a studio set-up, it felt very collaborative, and I suppose also because Attack The Block is a low-budget, high-concept sort of film, it was always very clear what it wanted to be. There was never any confusion about what the story should be or what we were aiming for.
CHB: I don’t know about you, but I’m watching more films than I ever did before.
JC: Yes, definitely. And making a film changes the way you watch things. In that sense, my brain has changed completely. You realise that it’s not easy. Even just to make a film that makes sense is hard. And that’s what to think about critics and people who are negative — you don’t respond to it; let them say what they have to say. But you know, deep down, they have no idea.