John Boyega Attack the block film
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Entertainment

Ten Years of ‘Attack the Block’: An Oral History of South London’s Sci-Fi Hit

How a low-budget film set on a council estate became one of the best alien films ever made.
Nana Baah
London, GB
May 10, 2021, 8:00am

You can usually judge a film by it’s tagline, and “A teen gang in South London defend their block from an alien invasion” sounds like the kind that goes straight to DVD and is only mentioned again in whispers on forums for those who ironically love shit cinema.

Instead, Attack the Block is in the upper echelon of films that have come out of Britain, featuring a cast that includes Jodie Whittaker and Nick Frost and gives us John Boyega’s on-screen debut. Even now, ten years on from its original release on the 11th of May, 2011, it still holds up. 

Taking place on bonfire night, the film follows Sam (Whittaker), a nurse, and the group of five kids; Dennis, Pest, Moses, Jerome and Biggz, who mug her before teaming up with her to defeat the aliens that have descended on their South London estate. 

Released in 2011 after the success of films like Kidulthood and Adulthood, it is exactly the kind of film that would also turn into a cult classic. But blending a classic British genre with sci-fi is a difficult thing to pull off. Here, writer and director Joe Cornish, along with some of the cast, tell the story of how Attack the Block came to be. 

THE PREMISE

Joe Cornish (Writer and director): It took ten years for the idea to sort of coalesce, and it was inspired by getting carjacked by these kids outside of my house in South London. It struck me as such a weird situation at the time. It was so artificial, like something out of a movie. I thought about how cool they all looked in their masks and it felt like being in a scene from a Western and everyone was just role playing. I thought ‘what would happen if a meteor fell out of the sky and hit the car? How would that change the dynamic?’ Suddenly, the kids who I was frightened of, I’d probably want them to have my back in that situation.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Jumayn Hunter (actor, plays Hi-Hatz): When I read the title, I thought ‘OK, this is some hood thing like Kidulthood'. I missed the audition for Kidulthood so I couldn't kick start my career at that time, but when I clocked that the genre was sci-fi I literally lost my shit. I was sitting smoking shisha in my friends house, there’s about 20 of us, and I’m in my own zone freaking out. I’m like this thing that just came through, the genre mix is mad! This is going to be mad, you just don’t mix hood stuff with sci-fi. It was exactly what I wanted and in my head I thought, God, if I don’t get to be in it, at least just let this be as good as I hope it will be because I really want to watch the final product. 

Alex Esmail (actor, plays Pest): When Joe Cornish first said that's what it was before I had even read the script I was a bit like, ‘OK…’. Going into filming, even once we had the roles and stuff, a few of us thought it was going to be a bargain bin movie. But at that time I didn’t understand how good of a writer Joe was and how well it would work out. It was naivety.

Attack the Block film still 2011

Attack the Block (2011): Dennis saves Moses

INFLUENCES

Cornish: We wanted to make it look like a comic book and put fantasy cinema in a place where fantasy cinema wasn’t usually allowed to go. I'm a big comic book fan and as a first time director, I found that a very useful way to visualise the film, plan what cool frames would be like, and what were the people and objects would look their best.

I was inspired by Walter Hill and John Carpenter's movies, like The Warriors, Assault on Precinct 13 and Streets of Fire, which are all set at night and do really cool things with psychedelic colours at night. Most British films are set in that really grim, gritty, depressing environment, but we were making a sci-fi movie so we wanted it to be escapist and otherworldly. We wanted to make the tablet look like a spaceship and the mopeds look like Speeder bikes from Star Wars and, you know, like, put the green light of a traffic light behind the cloud of exhaust, and make it look like the smoke from the Wicked Witch of the West. 

CASTING

Hunter: A guy I hung out with was like ‘I’m going to put you forward for [a role] that I think you’ll be really interested in’, which turned out to be Moses. Then Nina Gold, who is the best casting director in the UK, gave me a shout as well. I run down there on the day – I haven’t learned the lines and I’m half an hour late, everything that could have gone wrong that day went wrong for me. So in that moment, I was like ‘screw inhibitions’. Then Joe [Cornish] was like, ‘don’t go anywhere you have the part’.

Cornish: As soon as Jumayn came in to audition, we knew he was the guy. He's such an enthusiastic and passionate person. He's so fucking good. We were very, very lucky to find him. He really brought the character to life.

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Esmail: It was my first bit of professional acting you know, I was 15. I found out about Attack the Block through my drama college. They came in and auditioned us at one of our lessons. We played a load of open-ended drama games with us and some of us were going to be considered for the film auditions. 

Franz Drameh (actor, plays Dennis): I had just turned 16. I had only done a small, small role in Hereafter which was directed by Clint Eastwood just before Attack the Block and a few TV roles here and there. There was the usual rounds of auditions and at that last audition everyone who was going to be in the film was there, like, auditioning for their respective roles, and we all found out together, which was crazy. It was in the spotlight building in Leicester Square and I remember running down the stairs cheering with Simon Howard and Alex Esmail after we found out we all got parts in the movie. 

Attack the Block film still 2011

Attack the Block (2011)

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Joe Cornish: I wrote an outline of the story that was probably about 12 pages with a little chapter headings. And then I got a friend of mine, who was an illustrator who did comic strips, to do about five comic book images for it. Then on big bits of polyboard I had blown-up images of photographs of street kids in South America who are holding up fake alien carcasses. 

For Hi-Hatz, specifically, I was watching a lot of Channel U at the time. It was one of the first TV stations to show grime and hip-hop around the clock. He was actually based on a real rapper called Pound Sterling who just seemed really unintentionally funny. Like he was really trying to be really hard, but was inadvertently quite silly. 

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For the boys, I went around loads and loads of youth clubs all over London and switched a tape recorder on and settled groups of young people and said ‘imagine this happened’. I went home and transcribed it and ended up with two massive binders of interviews, full of all sorts. As the different characters emerged, we went out to try and find the characters. We tried to find the boy that was as close to Moses as possible.

Attack the Block film alien still 2011

Attack the Block (2011)

THE ALIENS

Esmail: It was mostly practical effects. It’s absolutely insane. The guy who wears the suit, Terry Notary, is an absolute legend. It was genuinely scary. It wasn’t just a dude in a bright green suit that’s got to have effects put on it. The suit was really big, black and furry and the head had glowing green sharp arse teeth on it. In real life it looked like what it is.

When I got chased by the aliens before my leg got bitten in the film, I really got chased by a thing running on all fours that runs a lot faster than I do. Terry had these two arm extensions that allow him to run like a gorilla. It’s scary man. He’s a really nice, soft spoken guy from California but he’s amping himself up to chase me like, ‘I’m gonna get you bitch’ and they’re all like ‘Alex can you run a bit quicker, he’s actually going to get you’. 

Cornish: My cartoonist friend actually came up with the idea for the green teeth, which we then figured could be glow in the dark, probably, just from those plastic vampire teeth.

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The idea for them being ultra-black came from my black cat. They look really beautiful when they’re backlit, just like silhouettes. So we had people in suits and rubbed out all the reflections, so it was just a black shadow. In the 80s, the old Space Invaders video game in arcades had an illustration of the aliens and even though they're standing on two legs they're just silhouettes. So yeah, it was just it was just sort of keeping my eyes and ears open and gathering influences and that sort of idea forming.

Drameh: There was an element of realism to it. It's one thing to run away from fake aliens when you're working with green screen and CGI, but when it’s physical everything changes. They can’t really see as well in the suits, so if you stop they will charge at you. Terry can really move on all fours. It’s no joke. 

Hunter: During production I refused to see the aliens because I wanted the first time I saw them in the movie to really be the first time I saw them. So my reaction was 100 percent genuine. Joe started rolling the camera, didn’t tell me, and said there was a power cut or something. The lights went out and then this thing nipped round the corner toward me and I freaked out! My natural response was to start shooting blanks. I was like ‘What the hell is that? Oh my god!’

Hunter: They made a cast of my head for when my face gets ripped off by the aliens. I think at some point they were selling them on eBay. They made my whole chest and head as a robot and told me to make some faces and they would make the robot do those faces, which was so creepy. Then they put it next to me and superimposed it into the film. That scene was insane. Never done a scene like that before. 

BEHIND THE SCENES ON SET

Drameh: It was most of our first films, so everyone was kind of just having fun. We would play video games all the time and there was a lot of rehearsals and stunt training, so we got to hang out a lot and all of us just became really fast friends. So the chemistry that you see on in the film is real. We would pull pranks on each other. It was hilarious filming, it’s really one of the best jobs I've ever done to this day. 

Esmail: There was quite a lot of time on set to just talk, so a lot of time we spent working on more intense backstories for our characters and just silly things that really helped us understand what we were doing. I feel like all of us were very passionate about the project, so it was really easy for us to throw all of our energy and our ideas towards it and our characters. 

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Hunter: It’s still Top 5 of anything I’ve worked on, in terms of the people who were on set and being able to play around. It was too much fun. I still talk to them. We used to dick about on set, even Joe [Cornish]. He was the most childish of all of us. He was pulling pranks on us and sending out dumb emails and stuff, he was hilarious. It was a really good experience.

Cornish: When I went to see the actors on the days of their death scenes, they were always really bummed because it meant they weren't in the film anymore. Often they would just come back in, even though they were finished, just to hang out with with all the others. They did genuinely form a tight bond over the shoot.

Esmail: I remember when we shot Franz’s [death] and there’s the shot where we’re all looking down at the dead alien and him and we start crying. When they called cut, we came off and we couldn’t stop crying. We were blubbering like idiots for ten minutes and couldn’t turn it off. It was emotional man. 

Attack the Block film still 2011

Attack the Block (2011): Hi-Hatz listening to "Get That Snitch".

MUSIC

Bassment Jaxx featured on the Attack the Block soundtrack, but an original song created by composer Mikis Michaelides for Hi-Hatz, a rapper who only listens to his own song “Get That Snitch”, which quickly became a fan favourite. With lyrics like “I am so cold, blud I shit snow/ And I piss ice” it’s no surprise.

Cornish: With “Get That Snitch” the brief was to write a song that seems real, but if you look at it more closely it’s ridiculous. If you heard it from a car from a distance, you’d think ‘oh that's quite good’, but if you actually pay attention, you realise it's the stupidest song ever written. 

PRODUCTION

Joe Cornish: We were ambitious, you’re not supposed to do aliens, car chases, explosions and action sequences in low budget British movies. Lots of people told us we weren’t going to be able to do it with that budget, but we said fuck it. I just have to credit the crew for doing a really good job with that. 

Attack the Block film still 2011

Attack the Block (2011)

THE MESSAGE

Drameh: It’s one of the only films where I've actually been able to kind of just use my own voice, my own dialect, in a film. It’s refreshing, but it's funny how you know you’re young, like 15 or 16, you don't really think into the politics behind it so much. At that time, if there’s Black people in the film, they’re the token kind of thrown in, so it was really refreshing.

Esmail: When we first started doing press, one of the things we got asked about a lot was how we’re creating empathy for these characters when they’ve mugged someone in the first place. I’ve spoken to some people who don’t feel that way and I’ve really compelled them to watch the film again with more open eyes because they’re missing something. 

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Hunter: Race is a big thing in everything now, so the fact that it was accepted for what it is and wasn’t looked at in a negative way, like trying to make the kids look bad because they’re Black or something. Plus there was enough diversity in the group to represent most of London. I’m very glad that it didn’t look like a stereotype in any way, but I think that’s down to the genre that it is and the way that it was shot and everyone’s individual characters.

I really loved the group of girls in the film too. It’s one of the first strong women scenes I’ve seen from UK cinema in my generation. That was a big thing for me. Not only are they defending themselves but they saved the boys too.

CULT STATUS

Cornish: I’m amazed that it’s stuck around for this long, because it didn't do very well at the box office. But then it really took off on home video, or when it was shown on TV. Then as John Boyega’s career took off that gave it another boost. You know, you make a film and put it out there and really it's on its own kind of journey, so it's fantastic that people still watch it and like it.

Hunter: I love that not everyone knows about it and that there are still people to experience it, but it’s not us pushing it. It’s the people that love it. People will recognise me from it to this day. One time at the airport some dude, a security guy, comes up to me and he’s screaming with a gun in his hands and I’m scared but he’s like ‘No! Big fan! Attack the Block!’ I’m like ‘oh my god, please don’t do that to me.’

ATTACK THE BLOCK 2? 

Although some of the group of boys succumbed to the aliens, Joe Cornish mentioned a rumours about a sequel on the Script Apart podcast.

Cornish: John [Boyega] and I have talked about a sequel. He came over to my house a few weeks ago, before this last lockdown, and we sat together in the garden talking for hours and hours about it until it got dark. Don't hold your breath though, it took ten years to write the first one.

Esmail: John had an idea which, to this day, I still think would look so amazing. The invasion has gone London-wide, the ones that get us go and get their masters, then we work out that they’re coming back. We didn’t work out complete story kinks, but we had an overarching idea of it becoming this whole humans versus aliens thing headed up by some of the characters that survived the first one.

He had this shot of a load of us lot, with about 30 or 40 more people from the South London area, and the shot would be us coming across the bridge to Parliament all on BMXs and motorbikes with a meteor shower behind us as all the aliens came down.