Joe Cornish has returned to the big screen with his sophomore feature The Kid Who Would Be King, seven years after impressing with his directorial debut Attack the Block.
The council estate set sci-fi comedy boasts some impressive alumni; John Boyega is now an integral part of the new Star Wars franchise and Jodie Whitaker has become the first female Doctor. For Cornish, though, his career hasn’t been quite so high-profile despite his first film’s critical acclaim.
After a brief stint on Ant-Man with Edgar Wright, and then penning a few Hollywood scripts as a writer for hire, the British filmmaker knuckled down and got to work making his modern-day Arthurian adventure a reality.
The film centres on a young schoolboy called Alex (Louis Ashbourne-Serkis) who must unite with friends and enemies, and Merlin (Angus Imrie/Sir Patrick Stewart), in order to stop the witch Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) rising up and taking destructive control of the world.
The film, made for £46 million, was released in the US last month and only made £5.5 million its opening weekend.
“You always want stuff to do well, I think my job is to make a really good film,” Cornish told Yahoo Movies UK. “And it’s fantastic that audiences have responded and critics have responded. It’s tough out there.
“So that opening weekend is always brutal, but there’s a long long life ahead for any movie.”
Read the FULL interview with Joe Cornish below…
YAHOO MOVIES UK: So why has it taken so long to make your second movie?
JOE CORNISH: Well I did Attack the Block in 2011 and then I went straight into writing Ant-Man with Edgar. We worked on that for a couple of years until Edgar decided to exit and then I wrote some screenplays for hire in Hollywood for stuff that eventually didn’t get made. then I started on this in about 2015. I actually started researching in 2012 but started writing it for real in 2015, got it financed in 2016, pre-production 2016-2017, 2018 post-production and we’re just at the very beginning of 2019.
So things take a while, you know, especially when you’re making a film like this, which is not a franchise. It is an original story. It’s obviously got Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Ferguson but is mainly led by unknowns. It’s a movie for kids that is not animation and it’s not a superhero movie. So this is an anomaly really, it’s the kind of project that’s very tough to get made. So you know, that took a little while as well.
YM: How has this process compared to making your first feature?
JC: Well, Attack the Block took a while to get off the ground but nobody asks you with your first film because there’s no other film to measure it against on the sort of achievement calendar. This is bigger, it’s a bigger scale. It’s a big studio movie. The sets were bigger the action sequences, a greater scale to them. The cost is bigger, the number of locations so it was all you know, and it was a good experience in terms of making a big effects movie as well, you know, but really, all filmmaking does sort of feel the same as you probably know. You’ve never got enough time, you’ve never got enough money. All the elements are usually working against you. Everything’s falling over and going wrong so it’s always a sort of race against time and resources to get something done.
Attack the Block was critically-acclaimed. Could another reason you took a while to play the director again have something to do with the high expectation to deliver a worthy follow-up?
I was approached about a lot of franchises and it’s always very tempting and flattering, but I always have to ask myself: do I think I can do a better job than anyone else? And on a lot of those franchises, the fear is that the brand is bigger than you are. So you might just be a cog in the machine and there was like one franchise in particular.
You know, Rian Johnson, who is a friend of mine, had an incredibly good experience on that and made an amazing film. You know, it’s tougher for other people. Moviemaking is a very very expensive business. And so it takes no prisoners and I think if you’ve authored something, and it’s your idea, you’re central to its birth and you’re bonded right into the middle of it in a way that if you do a big franchise, the franchise is always the most important thing. Not to say that if I found something I thought I could do really well, I wouldn’t do it. But that’s the thing; I think you have to find something you’re really in love with and something that you feel, ‘oh, I’m the person to do this’.
That’s an interesting attitude not often associated with male directors. Do you think that comes from a place of being a bit older than most who are starting out in the role so are more cautious?
Yeah, I mean, I guess someone like David Fincher who made Alien 3 and had a tough time with that then came back with Seven and he was a lot younger than I am so yeah there’s definitely sort of less time on my clock to f**k up but I do think it’s a question of: can I stand on that set and feel completely comfortable and in control?
I think any good director would ask themselves that. I’m lucky to have an amazing producer, Mira Park, and people around me who can really kind of protect me so it’s a really complicated, difficult business and there are no easy answers really – it’s all a game of roulette for everybody.
So did you have a lot of freedom on this?
We actually had really smart notes from the studio[Fox], really clever bunch of people around me from the production company. There was never any sense that we weren’t doing anything other than what we thought was the right thing.
Alfonso Cuaron said recently about working with child actors for Roma that he didn’t give them the script. What was your situation like?
My actors had the script! They knew the whole script and for me, that’s important because you don’t shoot a film in order, as you know, so you have to be able to say to him or her, “okay remember that you did this just before and you’re about to do this just after.” You have to always describe the moment in the context of the surrounding moments so for me it’s important that they know where in the story they are.
How did you go about writing dialogue for children?
Just my immature brain, I love Mario Kart.
I love Mario Kart but not sure I would have learnt how to do a handbrake turn on a car because of it!
Yeah it’s a little bit of a stretch I’m not sure [the character Kay] would have learned the hamburger turn!
I like that Rhianna Dorris is in it because this is a film could have easily been four boys on an adventure.
I thought a lot about it being a girl who drew the sword and I thought well, really, if I was super hip that’s what I would be doing. Loads of movies now choose to have a female protagonist for one reason or the other. I thought it would make a difficult semiotic thing for the title and the legend and all through the movie, you’d be really foregrounding that gender issue in a way that might be a bit tiresome.
And I also thought that the real thing I wanted to say was, it was not really about what sex you are, it was about birth rights and context of birth and lineage and hereditary privilege. And I thought that was the theme I wanted to express in this film. So it probably kept it cleaner and clearer to make that the big sort of clash at the centre of the movie rather than a gender switch against the legend or something,
There is a fair bit of political messaging in the film, did the kids pick up on that and asked you questions because these days the younger generation seems far more switched on.
You know it’s pretty lightly done in the movie. There’s one shot at the beginning where you see a bunch of headlines that could be at any point in history or time but no, the kids they were aware of that. And then there’s a line that Merlin has in the chicken shop where he says, “look at the world outside your window, it’s lost and leaderless,” that really connects to the legend of Arthur. He arrives in Britain, which is a broken and divided society where all the different tribes are warring against each other. And he unites the country around a round table. So that’s inherent in the myth. And I think whenever you told it, it would probably have resonance to politics.
As a 12-year-old there was a nuclear Armageddon threat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood was singing “Two Tribes,” when I went shopping in the West End there would be IRA terrorism announcements. So I think however much as a child you try to escape into fun and games there’s always a little sense in your consciousness of the state of the adult world but this movie is trying to make a positive statement and tell children that they can change all that. They will grow into a position of power where they can have a different attitude and make it better.
It’s been out in the US already and earned pretty good reviews but the box office hasn’t quite matched. Does that concern or affect you?
You always want stuff to do well, I think my job is to make a really good film. And it’s fantastic that audiences have responded and critics have responded. People really love the film. It’s tough out there. It’s a world of big branded franchises, and especially kids movies are a very competitive area. You know, all movies are for kids now; superhero movies and animation, it’s also mixed up now. But the good thing about movies is they last for a long time, and people come to them and view them in all sorts of ways.
So that opening weekend is always brutal, but there’s a long long life ahead for any movie. There are loads of really terrible movies that do really well and there are loads of examples of the other way around. And, you know, Attack the Block was not a big box office smash, but people still talk about it and maybe more so than they talk about films that did better than here at the box office. So, you know, what matters is that it’s a good film. And it’s a miracle that this film exists.
Fox is the studio behind this film but with the Disney merger, it could mean money is cut off to them and will stop a film like this being made. What’re your thoughts on expanding corporations swallowing up studios?
I think Hollywood always changes and there are collapses and mergers, stronger studios and weaker studios. It’s not predictable. I mean, the industry is changing, the different ways that people can view stuff is changing the sorts of films that people watch. I’m an optimist about cinema because I think people like to leave their house and I think there’s no better way to see a film.
I wish there were more original stories out there, but I’m just as satisfied with a really good franchise movie as anybody else. I think it’s all change all the time and for that reason, there’s always hope. It’s a shame that Fox is being acquired because it’s such a famous logo, such an amazing studio, but I think at least in the medium term, it’ll stay alive as a brand within Disney.
You mentioned early a few films that you had written but had never seen the light of day. Can you tell us about them and why they’ve been shelved?
I adapted a very famous science fiction novel called Snow Crash. It’s a big ambitious kind of cyberpunk thing, that I did while I was writing Ant-Man, and that is now morphed into a TV show that we’re currently still working on and hope to make. There was a movie called Section 6 that have Jack O’Connell attached that was about the origins of Mi6, a sort of spy thriller set between the wars. That was really good, but I think the studio was worried that it was historical and again, not a franchise, but it happens all the time. Look at Steven Spielberg’s IMDB page. There are about 50 projects. You have a bunch of stuff, the hit rate will be, one in however many and you just keep your fingers crossed that one of them will go any certain time.
What’s different is when you’re a writer-director, so if you’re a director who will direct other people’s stuff you have more choices, if you decide you’re going to be a writer-director then you pick your project you write it and come hell or high water you try and make it and that’s when it can take a little bit longer.
With Ant-Man it certainly seemed like the final film had retained a lot of the tone and humour of yours and Edgar Wright’s original script and Peyton Reed said: “the spine” was still there. Can you tell us which bits were yours?
He’s right the spine is still there, that the basic setup, the basic story, lots of the last 20 minutes is. I mean lots of it’s from us but then a bunch is from Peyton and Paul and the writers that came in after us you know all the Marcroverse stuff.
I think they call it the Quantum Realm now.
Oh so the Quantum Realm was an addition, a lot of Michael Pena’s sort of stories that spin-off was an addition, so the finished thing, I couldn’t put a percentage on it but there’s a bunch of our stuff in there. I’m always excited especially that fight in the bedroom. I can remember sitting in my house in Stockwell and writing that scene where the guy picks up the carriage and throws it at him so when I turn on the telly and see that I think ‘oh wow.’
The Kid Who Would Be King is in cinemas this Friday, 15 February