Premise: A teen gang in South London defends their block from an alien invasion.
About: Attack The Block has gotten a lot of love recently as it won the audience award at the South By Southwest Film Conference. Writer-Director Joe Cornish is the creator of the iconic “The Adam and Joe Show.” This is his debut feature. Nick Frost stars. Shaun of The Dead and Hot Fuzz writer-director Edgar Wright executive produced the picture. Here’s a Film School Rejects interview that talks about a lot of the screenwriting aspects of Attack The Block.
Writer: Joe Cornish
Details: 113 pages -- 2nd draft – further revisions – April 21, 2009 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
Quick question before I start this review. How come every single successful entertainment person in England is best friends with each other? Can I get someone from England to explain this to me? It’s like everybody not only knows everyone there. But they all spend Christmas together as well.
I wasn’t surprised when I heard this won the audience award at SXSW because it just sounded DIFFERENT. There aren’t enough ideas that genuinely sound different these days. But this was putting a whole new spin on the “trapped in a room with a monster” sub-genre. The heroes were all wrong (they’re young punks on BMX bikes). The location was all wrong (a block? Not exactly “trapped.”). The construct here had just a unique enough spin to it to set it apart from all its predecessors, yet still feel familiar. And as I’ve said many times before, that’s exactly what you’re aiming for when you come up with your movie premise.
Having said that, I was eager to see how this would read on the page. Although I'll defend to the day I die that the script has to be good in order for the movie to work, the intensity of the creature feature formula never plays on the page as well as it does on screen. A lot of the fun comes from seeing our characters attacked by monsters, and no matter how perfectly you describe your monster on the page, it’s never going to be the same as seeing it onscreen. That’s usually a good thing though, because that way we can concentrate on what really matters when reading the script: the story and the characters. So I guess the question is…how are the story and the characters in Attack The Block?
It’s South London. A city block. Public housing. Not the kind of place you want to be spending your Saturday evenings. This is where we meet Sam, a mousey pretty girl on her way home from work. But she doesn’t get far before being mugged by a band of teenage hooligans who run the block. Oh yeah, those hooligans would be our heroes in the story, and they’re led by Moses, a selfish heartless bully who’s already looking ahead to the next stage of his life, a life of crime.
Before they can really do anything bad to Sam though, a meteor barrels into a nearby street and out pops a creature that looks like a shaved monkey. So what does our gang do? Why they go over and kill it of course! They then go parading around the block like cavemen, displaying the fruits of their labor to anyone who will listen.
Problem is, more of these meteors start landing, and bigger creatures, creatures that look like sabertooth werewolves emerge, and these alien monsters, for whatever reason, seem dead intent on killing our hooligans, or anything that gets near them.
You may be saying, “So aliens are invading all of London?” Well, not really. Nobody on the news seems to acknowledge these attacks. Nobody texts or e-mails or calls our characters to talk about these attacks. They seem to be centered only around this block for reasons that are anyone’s guess.
Naturally, Sam is forced to team up with the Hooligans in order to survive, and even though these guys mugged her and are assholes and are annoying and are bullies and are the kind of people you’d want to beat the shit out of if you ever got the chance to, they all eventually become friends, running around “the block,” avoiding and killing off these alien werewolves until there are none left.
Truth? This script is…strange. And intense. And messy. And unsure of itself. And strange. Did I mention strange? All these things, I suppose, are normal when writing your first feature script. The difference is, people don’t usually get their first feature script made. So the story has a bizarre manic energy to it that thrives in the script’s best moments, but falters everywhere else. In the end, it was way too redundant for me and I lost interest halfway through.
Yes, it falls victim to the infamous “wash rinse repeat” syndrome. Get into fight with monster, someone from group dies, run from monster to new location, talk a little bit, get into fight with another monster, someone from group dies, run from monster to new location, talk a little bit, wash rinse repeat.
The repetition of this process – which I admit is more necessary in this genre than others – can be offset IF the characters are compelling and have enough going on. But that was my big contention with Attack The Block. I hated the characters. In today’s “What I Learned” section, I include some of Cornish’s thoughts on “likable” heroes, so I won’t get too much into detail here. But let me just say this. I’m okay with making your hero dangerous. I’m okay with your hero not being perfect. In fact, a character should be complicated. But to make your character a complete asshole who bullies and mugs people and has no remorse about it? I mean come on. I’m never going to like that guy.
And I didn’t like any of the characters in this gang. “Punks” is the proper term for them cause they’re just punks, the kind of kids who would humiliate someone on a city corner without a second thought. And these are my heroes? A bunch of assholes? This MIGHT work if a few of our heroes try to change over the course of the story, but at least in this draft (which is admittedly an early one) that isn’t the case. It wasn’t until page 100, actually, that two characters (Sam and Moses) sat down and had a real honest to God conversation about their lives. And it’s quite simple. If I’m not rooting for your characters, I’m not interested in your story.
And that’s why I can’t recommend this. While there may be irony in Attack The Block (the people who usually do the attacking are being attacked) there’s no humanity in Attack The Block. There are no real connections, real feelings, real issues. It’s just people running from monsters or getting shredded by monsters. Sam is an attempt to make some connection with the audience, but she’s dragged along almost reluctantly, as if Cornish knew he needed one decent person on this ride to offset all the cruelty.
Look, I’m sure this plays much better on screen where you’re digging the kills and laughing at the absurdity of it all. And if you’re not as sensitive as I am about how big of dicks all these punks are, you might find yourself laughing at their ongoing commentary of the situation. But in script form, where something more is needed to draw the reader in, it doesn’t offer enough.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Cornish and Wright were asked in the Film School Rejects Article about the daring choice of following antiheroes as our leads. Here’s what they had to say: Cornish: Yeah, I guess that was just because I liked those films. That was very much a John Carpenter-y thing. Specifically Assault on Precinct 13 where the character who’s locked in the prison, he’s a murderer. You don’t know what he’s done. You don’t specifically know what his crime was. Snake Plissken, he’s not a good guy. He’s on death row, isn’t he, or he’s a convict. Vin Diesel in Pitch Black. I mean, any film about bank robbers, any film about a criminal: Bonnie and Clyde, Public Enemy with Jimmy Cagney. It’s not a new thing, and I find it very attractive as a writer because it gives you something to write. All characters have to have a problem, otherwise there’s no story. Personally as a moviegoer there seems to be a big thing about making your character sympathetic in the first act at the moment, and people get a bit freaked out if they’re not made sympathetic. But I just wouldn’t have the energy in me to write that story, because it wouldn’t give me anything to write about personally. Maybe it’s because I’m not a good enough writer and I need the bone to chew on kind of thing. --- Wright: Yeah, it definitely is a trend where you definitely get notes a lot about people…yeah, there’s definitely a thing within studio films – and independent films – with all films where people financing are just nuts about people being likeable. That tends to where you get a lot of films that are bland because your heroes aren’t allowed to make mistakes anymore. That’s what the whole of your film is about, somebody making amends through a heroic act.
Carson Reaction: All true, but you have to know how to offset the character's bad traits with good traits so that the audience still roots for them, which I did not feel was the case in Attack The Block.