Tuesday, 29 November 2011

LSF 3: In Conversation with Joe Cornish

After the Edgar Wright session there was a half hour break until the next one - In Conversation with Joe Cornish. So I'm hanging out with the very lively Adele Kirby who has been given permission by the festival organisers to get some short podcast interviews from speakers for use on another website. Cool.

Adele wasn't at the festival last year but I was. And more importantly, I knew where the Green Room was - the room the speakers get to hang out in for a bit of peace and quiet. So being the helpful fellow that I am, (and sniffing out a chance to get backstage passes) we trotted off to see who we could find to talk to. And we enter the building the Green Room is in, and who is sitting in a little Starbucks, all on their own, but Chris Jones, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish.

I'm not a shy person. Especially when I'm in this sort of environment. So we went straight in there, told Chris who Adele was, and was ready for a private chat with Edgar and Joe. Nor, it should be said, do I get particularly tongue tied when networking. However I wasn't expecting Adele to get her recording device out, wave it in front of Edgar, and go "so Jez, what questions do you have for Edgar Wright."

Cue gormless stare and birds tweeting. I really don't remember what I said. Some stupid babble about admiring his work, how old he was when he broke into the industry, how old he was now and what he has already achieved. Honestly it was awful. It was particularly ironic considering Edgar had spoken in his session about what it was like meeting and working with Spielberg - and how he didn't just blab about how much he loved Raiders but tried to connect with him on a shared love of film, David Lean movies, etc. And no disrespect to Edgar - but he's not Steven Spielberg. I mean I loved Shaun of the Dead, and liked Hot Fuzz. But I mean honestly, I just stood there like an idiot.

So here's a tip from me. You know you're going to the festival. You know by and large who is going to be there. If you have trouble sleeping like I do, spend some time lying in bed at night in the few days before the festival thinking about what insightful cool stuff you would said if you happen to bump into, see, stand next to in the toilet (use with caution that one) Speaker X, so you don't end up looking like a moron.

However I did get to apologise in advance to Joe Cornish, that if he saw me leave half way through his upcoming session, it wasn't because he'd bored me into an early exit, it was because it was Friday afternoon and I had to get home in time for the Sabbath. He was very magnanimous about it.

So hear are my notes from half of being In Conversation with Joe Cornish:

Joe was mugged in 2001 and had the idea for Attack the Block in his head for about 4 or 5 years. He got money from the Film Council and Film4 to develop what at that stage was just a 5 page outline and a 'mood book.' Joe loves to sketch and grew up in the eighties surrounded by that style of marketing. He'd created a book that tried to capture the feel and look of the movie and pitched with that alongside the outline. When we go to the movies sometimes all we see is the movie poster, the tagline and the premise. Joe began from there and fleshed it out from that starting point.

Attack the Block is a pretty straight forward chase movie so once he had figured out the inciting incident, why the aliens were chasing the kids, how to trap them in the block, and how to get the trajectory of going upwards, the rest was filling in the detail that was greatly informed by research.

Joe knew he had to go out and research that world. He grew up around those areas but would be lying if he said he came from there. He went to loads of youth clubs and sat down with a group of young people, switched on his tape recorder and talked them through the story. "You're coming home from football practice and you see this..." and Joe had visuals of the aliens sketched out by a friend of his in urban environments. And the kids just responded. Joe let them talk it out and asked questions; what would you do, where would you go, how would you defend yourselves, who would you want to defend, who would you be less interested in defending, if you went home to get something to defend yourself what would it be, who would be at home at that time of day, etc.

And once he'd done that they identified the pairs of friends who were sparking off each other in those larger groups and went back to talk to them again in smaller groups, often just asking about their lives, their interests, what was in their pockets, what they like on TV.

Because in part, Joe was terrified of actually sitting down and writing the damn thing. But also because Graham Linehan had once told him not to worry about not writing and to wait until your brain bucket is so full of stuff that you can't not write. And you never know what might be relevant to the story when you start working your way through it.

He filled up two A4 files of verbatim transcripts of what those young people had said to him and he typed it up himself, as if learning a foreign language, to get the slang and the rhythm right. He talked to people who had been mugged, talked to residents in the tower blocks. So when he was writing, if he got stuck he could pull something out of reality to help him out, and not have to make it up. But it was when they cast they were also testing the dialogue as the real acid test.

Obviously the movie is heightened reality and slightly simplified so it travelled abroad. Joe was aware that fantastic movies like Trainspotting and stuff from Shane Meadows has struggled in this respect (often using subtitles even in the US!)

There are two types of alien movies - there's withhold the monster type, which Joe loved in the eighties but there was a point in the late eighties where it started to get stupid because the creature was built up so much when it was finally revealed, it couldn't possibly live up to expectations. So the other sort is to reveal the monster early but play on the multitude. Similar to Gremlins, and perhaps the difference between Alien and Aliens. Joe wanted to start with a withhold the monster type thing, but show enough - and then play on the multitude later on. And that's kind of how Zombie movies work too. So they had to come up with something they could show, but not too much, and that's where the shadowy type thing came in. Joe knew they couldn't afford CGI creatures so in part it was a budget thing, but also as a film goer he was bored of movie aliens. He likes the real stuff, like Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, or in Gremlins. And as a kid it wasn't like he didn't believe in those things. In fact maybe even more so because they were actual physical things that were there. So in Attack the Block they had a guy in a suit, and then used low fi CGI to actually remove detail, rather than add it. But it was a big sticking point in development. People often asked how are you going to do this and all these creatures. So they had to kind of prove it could be done.

There were still things they couldn't afford to do. There was a sequence of them fighting the aliens up the side of the block in a kind of Errol Flynn balcony type thing and they had scouted locations and story boarded it and about a month before the shoot realised they couldn't afford it. And it was tough then for Joe to maintain the momentum and geography of the story. But he was reading a book at the time about the making of Star Wars and an anecdote that George Lucas wanted a planet for Darth Vader and a separate spaceship - but they couldn't afford both. So he combined the two. And Joe reckoned okay, if the Death Star can come out of a budgetary restraint, then he could figure out his thing. But it was really like a maths problem and he hates maths. Was always better at creative writing.

Joe took a Robert McKee course when he was 24 and read all those books - but they actually gave him writers block because it made him feel like everything he wrote was wrong somehow. And every time he wrote something he would compare it to some sophisticated template and it wouldn't fit - and that actually held him back for years and years. He felt somehow he wasn't good enough etc. But working with Edgar on Ad Man really taught him to forget all that. He reiterated Edgar's advice - don't let it be a chore. If it becomes a chore then you are doing something wrong. Why not enjoy it? Or, maybe a better question, why are you not enjoying it?

And unfortunately, that's round about where I had to leave.

I was back at the festival on Sunday and the first session I went to then was Hollywood Pitching, with Jonathan Newman, Stuart Hazeldine and David Reynolds.

No comments: