Film Critic Matt Taylor had a chat with the director of upcoming The Kid Who Would Be King, Joe Cornish, and chatted about everything from Marvel to Patrick Stewart.
Writer and Director Joe Cornish is in a cheerful mood when we meet, and little wonder: the man who made his name with cult sci-fi movie Attack the Block has made a new film that promises to win him an even wider following. Entitled The Kid Who Would Be King, it’s an imaginative reworking of the King Arthur legends: think old-school magic in a modern setting. It sounds like a lot of fun (and my review confirms that it is) and it turns out Cornish had a lot of fun making it.
‘Lots of fun,’ he tells me with a smile. ‘You know, making films is very hard work. It surprised me when I did it for the first time how hard it is, just because of the pressure of time. When I was a film watcher, rather than a maker, I thought that you had ages to think about everything, and I didn’t realise that making a film is like a sort of high-pressure episode of Supermarket Sweep,’ he laughs. ‘Do you know what I mean? Where it costs a lot of money per second, so you’ve really got to move very, very fast. There’s never enough time or resources, so it’s always a sort of kick-bollock-scramble. But yeah, it was really good fun because it was an idea I’d always wanted to do, so there was an element of, sort of, wish fulfilment in the making of it, for me.’
While the legend of King Arthur is a story that has been passed down the centuries, Cornish’s story lends it a new flourish, with a plot he has been carefully nurturing since he was twelve years old. ‘I knew about the sword in the stone through the Disney film, through John Boorman’s Excalibur, and I think even if you don’t know about the legend of King Arthur, most people understand the device of the sword in the stone. And I was always thinking up ideas for films when I was a kid, and I’d just seen E.T., which is about a normal boy for whom something extraordinary happens, and it occurred to me that you could make a sort of British fantasy adventure film by having a modern kid discover the sword in the stone. It seemed to be like a quintessentially British thing; very cinematic, with a big history of legend and film behind it; and something very simple that everybody knew about. And in the 80s, movies were kind of – there was this term called the “high-concept movie”, where it’s a very simply dramatic device you could say in a sentence, and then everything kind of grows out of that one simple device. And even when I was 12 or 13, I thought, “wow, that would make a really good high-concept film”. He says that he has been in active production on the film since roughly 2015, after he and Edgar Wright stepped away from Marvel’s Ant-Man film (more on that to follow).
We talk about the cast, with Cornish keen to sing the praises of its five young lead actors – not to mention casting director, Jessica Ronane. The former have never carried a feature film before and brought with them, Cornish says, an ‘excitement [that energised] the whole process.’ He compares it to his time on Attack the Block, as both shoots were ‘like being a teacher in a school that the pupils really, really want to be at’. The process of finding the five kids was the usual approach of a nationwide casting call for auditions (initial audition tapes used the milk money scene from Stand By Me) that were examined by Ronane, who then chose the best to screen to Cornish. From these, Cornish chose the best to move forward, a system based on ‘complete meritocracy’, where ‘everyone gets the same shot’ regardless of background or acting experience.
It’s no surprise that he’s also thrilled by his two veteran actors, Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Ferguson. Stewart plays an older form of the wizard Merlin, and is wonderfully crazy. Cornish wrote the role with Stewart in mind, aiming for an antithesis of the traditional cinematic wizard: ‘You don’t mess around with that kind of actor; you aim high, and we were lucky enough that he was up for it. And, you know the thing about Patrick is that he knows all the other wizards: Ian McKellen, Michael Gambon – he hangs out with wizards, so his main thing was … he loved the script, but he didn’t want to do what everyone else had done. He didn’t want to be your standard pointy hat/white beard wizard, so I reassured him that this was a very different take on Merlin … he’s the kind of person that if you saw him in the street you might be a bit worried about him, calling social services or something. He arrives in the world naked and acquires all his clothes as he goes along, so he’s wearing this crazy hodge-podge costume. We gave him hair, and as we know, Patrick Stewart is one of the most famous bald people in the world, so we gave him crazy hair, and he grew a lovely stubbly white beard. And he was brilliant, you know, it was amazing to work with an actor like that: to direct him, and then go behind the camera and watch him reading your lines, that’s a real trip.’
He is also a big fan of Ferguson, who plays the film’s villain Morgana in a deliciously over the top performance. Cornish says he sees her presence as ‘popcorn-y’: ‘I think she’s got a really interesting energy on screen in all her characters. She’s very sort of gung-ho. She hasn’t been in a bunch of romantic comedies or anything, she’s usually in thrillers or action films which is really cool. And she just feels … like a movie star to me. I met her, and she hadn’t even read the script, and so I just talked her through the story in a two-hour meeting, and like you say she’d never played a storybook villain like this, and she loved the idea of shape-shifting, of scaring kids, of playing a larger-than-life character. I’m very lucky that she was up for being in it.’
In fact, the whole experience of making the film is one Cornish describes as a ‘dream come true’, fuelled by a desire to recreate the movies he used to watch when he was younger – what he calls ‘movies for kids, starring kids … [that have] gone away slightly’. Inspired by movies such as Time Bandits, E.T., Explorers, and The Black Stallion, he aimed to recapture that ‘very powerful’ feeling of ‘movies for kids, with kids … with a real sense of jeopardy that … is missing from animated kids’ movies.’ He misses being ‘able to recognise the world in which something is happening, and then for fantasy to enter that world’ – with The Kid Who Would Be King, Cornish has by far surpassed his aims.
We move on to talking about some of his other projects, past and present. Among them is his upcoming Snow Crash, an adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel of the same name. Cornish reveals that it is now no longer a movie, but a TV series, as Paramount passed on it in favour of the live-action Ghost in the Shell remake, ‘for better or worse’. Stephenson is on board as a consultant/‘godfather’, but is understanding of the different mediums of novel and television, so is ‘very hands off’. The series is currently in development between Amazon Studios and Paramount, with no current release date.
Arguably sci-fi is Cornish’s speciality: his first feature film, Attack the Block, is a London-based alien invasion film that has gained a large cult following since its release in 2011. If, for some reason, you haven’t seen it, it’s available to stream on Netflix, and is well worth your time. It starred largely then-unknown actors who have since gone on to do big things: Jodie Whittaker plays the current iteration of the Doctor in BBC One’s Doctor Who; John Boyega is one of the leads in Lucasfilm’s Star Wars sequel trilogy; Franz Drameh portrays superhero Firestorm in The CW’s Arrowverse shows; Michael Ajao has completed a run of a play called The Fisherman in Edinburgh that has recently transferred to the West End; and Danielle Vitalis is set to star in a TV series about the Windrush generation. It’s a source of genuine pride for Cornish – who clearly keeps a close eye on what his former actors have been up to since their breakout roles: ‘They’ve all gotten where they’ve gotten through their own talent. I opened a door for them, which they ran through using their own, you know, legs [laughs].’ That was always an aim of Attack the Block, to ‘give a launch pad to young talent’, which Cornish sees as ‘fantastically rewarding’. When asked about a possible sequel, he tells me that he and Boyega occasionally talk about it – they both seem to feel that ‘there’s something … cool about visiting those characters some years later, seeing where they’d gotten to in life’. He also confirms that there is nothing concrete in place as yet; it is ‘just talk’ at this point.
Particularly fascinating is hearing Cornish talk about his experiences with Marvel Studios, both prior to and after his exit from Ant-Man. I ask if he would ever consider going back to a big studio to make a franchise movie, and he says that he would: ‘I think Marvel’s changed a lot, and there was all sorts of political stuff going on within the company, the company was changing a lot, you know. We were working on that project for years and years, and I think they’ve actually gotten better at working with directors.’ He cites Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok as an example, saying that ‘you can see that level of authorship’ within the more recent Marvel Studios films.
He says this change was the reason he and Wright walked away from the project: ‘Edgar and I started on that movie … right at the beginning of that company’s birth, at a time when they were trying to elevate comic book movies by bringing on auteur directors. And their criteria changed a lot over the years, and that precise moment was a difficult one, where they really wanted to do their own thing, so I think it was the best thing for Edgar to walk away.’ It’s a comment that isn’t unheard of; Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins walked away from Thor: The Dark World after Kenneth Branagh had passed on the project, and Joss Whedon made some very public complaints about the studio’s want to shoehorn the Infinity Stones into his Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron – but really, that was the least of that movie’s problems.
Perhaps most interesting of all, though, are Cornish’s next comments: that he is able to fully envisage Wright’s version of the film, because he still has a copy of their original script. He maintains that it ‘would have been incredible’, and I fully believe him when he says this, but he sadly cannot share any details about the unproduced script, even when pressed. He does, however, mention that ‘a couple of deleted scenes on that Blu-ray … are actually quite close to [their] script’ but the issue he finds is that ‘Edgar’s scripts kind of have to be made by Edgar. Because when he writes a scene, he doesn’t just write the scene, he knows how he’s going to shoot it, he knows how it connects to the previous shot and the subsequent shot, he knows how that sequence connects to an earlier sequence and a later sequence … It’s so stitched together, that it’s interesting watching another director direct his script without his technique.’ There’s no doubt that Wright’s cinematic technique is among the best in the business, meaning that, without it, the deleted scene in question ‘doesn’t work’, in Cornish’s eyes. He stresses, however, that he does ‘enjoy’ the finished film, as it is ‘very much Peyton’s movie and there’s a lot of stuff that does work’, despite its being ‘very different’ from his and Wright’s original vision for the character.
With award season upon us, meanwhile, I ask him who he’s backing for Oscar victory, to which he replies that he ‘love[s] all the movies’ and ‘[doesn’t] really ‘get’ awards’: ‘I don’t really understand them. I was the presenter of the film show on Radio 4 one time, and I tried to do a little piece about how silly awards were; because the right movie never really wins – d’you know what I’m saying?’ I do; the previous night has seen Rami Malek’s mediocre Freddie Mercury impression beat out Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Steve Coogan, and Viggo Mortensen at the BAFTAs, a result I am still, several days later, unhappy about. Cornish makes an interesting comparison here; he cites the ‘power of awards’, and their ability to ‘turn art into sport’ – and he will happily admit that he’s ‘not a sports fan’.
He’s happier when asked about his favourite movies of 2018, a question that yields two surprising answers; Border and The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then Bigfoot. Border, in Cornish’s own words, is ‘about a border guard who can smell guilt. It’s a European movie, it’s based on a short story by the same dude that wrote Let the Right One In, and it’s absolutely excellent and I highly recommend it.’ Border is screening in select UK cinemas from February 14th.
His next pick, however, will be trickier to find; The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then Bigfoot is currently without a UK home media release date. Nevertheless, Cornish says that he ‘really dug it’. He describes it as ‘a low-budget movie, but a very ambitious one, and I’m a Bigfoot fanatic, so I … it’s a much more sophisticated film than you would believe from the title. Really cleverly done, I found it really moving and exciting, and I thought as a debut movie it was really, deeply impressive.’ If you needed a reason to see it other than its title, there you have it.
It remains only for me to ask him about his dream cast, living or dead – and Cornish doesn’t disappoint. His first pick is James Mason, because he ‘love[s] listening to the sound of his voice.’ His second is Alec Guinness, who Cornish rightly describes as ‘amazing’. The name of his third choice evades both of us, the only description he can remember being ‘the female lead in Hitchcock’s Rebecca’. We both struggle for several moments before one of the PR people present comes up with an answer: Joan Fontaine, who Cornish feels is ‘beautiful in [Rebecca], and incredibly good’. His final pick is based on a movie he watched several days prior called Damn the Defiant, ‘this big, cinemascope, technicolour, sea-faring movie’ with Dirk Bogarde at the helm, who is ‘amazing in that’, according to Cornish. Our interview ends with us both struggling to count the number of actors he’s just listed: as we descend into laughter, we eventually agree that it was four, not three.
It’s a fitting note on which to end, laughter having underpinned our whole encounter. Earlier, Cornish had said he had me pegged as a man ‘who liked childish fun’. After meeting him, I think it’s safe to say the same goes for him too.
The Kid Who Would Be King is in UK cinemas now.