There’s a 2012 article from The Guardian that begins with the lede, “Attack the Block director Joe Cornish is going to be a busy filmmaker in the next couple of years.” When I spoke to Cornish this week, I read that line to him and he couldn’t help but laugh.
That Guardian piece was written in the months after his alien invasion movie Attack the Block became a critically acclaimed cult hit and introduced the world to John Boyega. At the time, Cornish was attached to both Rust and Snow Crash. In the years that would follow, Cornish spent a lot of time working on Edgar Wright’s version of Ant-Man that eventually fell apart. And his name would be mentioned alongside other big franchise movies like Star Trek Beyond (which would be directed by Justin Lin). But, as the years passed, we never got another Joe Cornish movie, until now, eight years later.
You may not even realize right now that Joe Cornish is the director of The Kid Who Would Be King, a story of a young boy who finds King Arthur’s Excalibur and, along the way, meets a whole host of supernatural characters, which includes Merlin, who is partially played by Patrick Stewart. Cornish says the team is hesitant to promote a movie aimed at kids as coming from the director who made a gory alien movie. But you should know, with Cornish at the helm, this is not your normal, everyday kids movie. As Cornish explains, he wanted to make a movie more in the vein on something like E.T., where the movie isn’t pandering to kids, but, instead, remembers what it’s like to be a kid.
Ahead, Cornish takes us through the last few years and explains why and how it took so long for him to return to directing.
So take me through this, why have we had to wait so long for your second movie?
Well, I went straight onto writing on Ant-Man with Edgar Wright after Attack the Block and we actually wrote on that together until I think early 2014. And Edgar had brought me on that movie many years ago, so I felt very loyal to him. And while I was doing that I wrote a draft of Snow Crash. I also worked a lot on Rust. But, as with many projects in Hollywood, for one reason or another they didn’t quite have the traction to get going.
And then immediately after Ant-Man ended suddenly, I was then attached to a movie for Universal called Section 6, that was a really good movie with a really good script. And then I started this movie in about 2015. So, time flies, you know. And also it’s not unusual for ambitious projects to keep one busy for a while. But then when they get to the final hurdles with the studios, studios are very conservative at the moment, as you know, and it’s not unusual for stuff not to make that last hurdle.
The other weird thing that happens is you take a meeting for a movie, just to broadly discuss it, then suddenly the trades publish that you’re doing it. And then sometimes you decide not to do it for reasons of your own. You take a meeting and you go, “Oh, okay, well maybe this isn’t for me.” And then the trades go, “Oh, Joe Cornish didn’t get that movie.” And often the case is, well, Joe Cornish didn’t think he was right for that movie. Do you know what I mean? But certainly, I would very much not like to take so long between this movie and the next movie.
Attack the Block is beloved, so I think that’s part of it, too.
Well, I appreciate you saying that. But you know, from my point of view, I could have jumped into a massive franchise or something, but I wanted to be cautious. I wanted to make sure I didn’t run before I could walk. And also I would rather take a bit of time and do something that I can really own than rush into something that maybe ends up being compromised or gets into trouble or that I’m not the author of.
Your name was mentioned as being in the running for Star Trek Beyond.
Yeah, I took a couple of meetings with J.J. Abrams and Bob Orci. And, yeah, in the end, I felt that somebody else would do a better job than me. It’s hard not to take those meetings, because it’s really exciting to be offered it.
And if you don’t take the meeting, people stop calling.
Right. I was talking to Chris Miller and Phil Lord about this. And they call it the thought experiment. That it’s always worth doing the thought experiment. Take the meeting, find out a little about it, have a think about it, and see whether you feel it’s something that needs you or something that you could really commit to and do from your heart for three years or four years or whatever it would take. But then sometimes, as soon as you go in for that first meeting, someone from your agency calls Variety, or something, and says, “Cornish is up for Star Trek.” And then you decide, “Well, this would be better done by someone else.” And then it’s, “Cornish has lost Star Trek.” And you’re like, “No, all I did was leave the house.”
“All I did was leave the house” should be on a t-shirt.
Yeah, in the future I’ll try not to leave the house.
Since Attack the Block, John Boyega has filmed three Star Wars movies. And it’s not lost on me that you got to be in The Last Jedi…
Right, I think I really carry that film. But, you know, I think actors can make a few films a year. Directors, it’s not as frequent as that. There’s no arguing that I should have made something a little faster, but I’m glad that what I did make is something that comes from the heart. And I could have easily fucked it all up, you know. The other thing to remember is Attack the Block did take a little while to gain traction. That movie was not well distributed. It made a big impact in the industry and among film buffs.
Yeah, like in my little world it did well right away, in people who write about movies for a living it got a lot of attention, but if I remember correctly you’re right, well of course you’re right, but it took a little bit for mainstream audiences to go, “Oh, wow, this is something”
People are surprised when they learn you directed The Kid Who Would Be King.
Attack the Block was a movie mainly aimed at older teenagers, even though I appreciate it played really well to film fans as well. This is quite specifically a movie for kids and their parents, and hopefully film fans as well, or people whose brains can go back to that place.
I’m going to argue with you. I went in thinking it would be for kids, but I found myself loving it.
Appreciate that, man.
I think it’s a movie that a lot of people are going to like.
I hope so, but from the studio’s point of view, they don’t wanna freak people out by going, “From the director of Attack the Block.” And parents go, “Uh-oh, weed smoking, people’s necks being ripped out, people saying fuck every third word. I am not taking my kids to that.”
Right, Warner Bros. didn’t market Aquaman as, “from the director of Saw.”
Yeah, and they don’t go, “From the director of Hostel,” for The House with a Clock in its Walls. You have to tread carefully, so we’re encouraging them, and we’ve come up with this line that says, “From Joe Cornish, the director of Attack the Block, a movie for kids who rule.” You know, something that makes it clear that it’s for kids, but hopefully that’ll be happening soon. But you know what studios are like, they’re very cautious. They put, “From the makers of Percy Jackson” on the trailer. I was like, “Not one of my favorite movies, but for them it’s a massive hit.” And to make a movie a hit, you’ve gotta do more than appeal to people like you and me, for better or worse.
The Kid Who Would Be King is framed around a lot of King Arthur mythology, but it’s got a Fellowship of the Ring vibe.
Yeah. A little. It actually comes from when I was 13, so many years ago, when I saw E.T. for the first time. And I was a similar age to Henry Thomas, the kid in E.T. And that film, like many people, had a massive effect on me as a kid. And then the same year I saw Excalibur, John Boorman’s Excalibur. And it’s an amazing film, obviously. It’s set in such a fantastic weird past, but it feels futuristic. It feels like science fiction and it’s so gory, and baroque, and sexy, and mystical. Anyway, so the two had a big effect on me, E.T. and Excalibur. And when I was a kid I was always thinking of ideas for movies and painting little fake movie posters and stuff. And this was one of my ideas: to make a movie about a normal kid like Henry Thomas, like Elliot in E.T., who instead of finding an alien found the sword in the stone.
With this film, you’re essentially making a kid’s movie, but at the same time you avoid a lot of the pandering stuff that usually goes into a movie marketed as, “and something for the parents, too.” How?
Well, I appreciate you saying that. I think something weird has happened to the industry since we were young. So there are kind of adult children. And I count myself in this, people of our generation have been turned into adult children. Because we watch superhero movies and so many blockbusters are designed to appeal to everybody, from 8 years old to 48 years old, right? And a lot of them are based on brands or IPs. A lot of them are full of meta jokes and a layer of comedy for adults and a layer of slapstick for kids. A lot of them are CGI and a lot of them are like giant dress-up sessions for middle-aged actors in spandex.
And then at the other end, you’ve got movies for very young kids, like the Illumination movies, or movies about dogs that talk or whatever. So this kind of movie sort of vanished. A movie that is specifically for kids of a particular age. And when we were young we could go to the movies and see live action movies about us in the real world having incredible adventures. And because so-called grown-up movies have vanished – they’ve disappeared to television, and blockbusters have soaked up what used to be the family movie – there’s a weird void in the market, which is a real shame for me. When is the last time a 9 or 10-year-old saw themselves on the screen in a fantasy, action-adventure movie rather than an adult actor, or a cartoon character? The early Harry Potters are an exception. But I don’t know. Personally, I miss it and I wanted to do a movie like that. Again, I felt there was a gap in the kind of themes for that kind of thing.
That’s interesting. There was E.T., Goonies, even Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Well, again they’ve turned into adult children movies, really, haven’t they? They’ve turned into movies that people in their thirties and forties go and see, and that is no bad thing. I enjoy all that stuff as much as anybody else, but there’s something really pure and lovely about a movie that kids solely can own, you know? And I just figured maybe, if you do that, then people like you and me will become a kid again watching it and will remember what it was like to be that age.
Why did you decide to make Merlin a dual role, young and older, between Angus Imrie and Patrick Stewart?
Well, in the original myth it says that Merlin lived backwards in time, and I could never figure out what that meant, but I kind of suddenly thought, “Well, what if that means he’s like a Benjamin Button character, he actually ages backwards.” But then I thought, wouldn’t it be great of a particular moment he became old, because the theme of the story, really, is about kids and their role in the future. Plus, it made me think of Time Bandits.
Oh, yes, I love Time Bandits.
Yeah, it’s one of my all time favorites. And that does an amazing thing with Sean Connery, who’s in, what, three or four scenes?
Playing different characters, yes. At the end he shows up as a firefighter.
It’s got such a weird ending that movie, do you remember? His whole family is killed and turned into a little lump of coal, and then Sean Connery comes along and you think, “Oh, he’s going to go with Sean Connery in the fire engine.” But he doesn’t! Sean Connery just winks, the fire engine drives away, the kid’s left alone, standing in the street, holding a lump of coal that was once his parents. And it ends.
And then we hear a catchy George Harrison tune.
Right! You’re right, that’s right. Great movie, though.
I’m assuming Fox wasn’t gonna let you turn Alex’s parents into coal?
No, much as I would have liked to.
Do you know what’s next? Or do we have to wait again?
Well, you have to wait again. But, hopefully, not as long. I’ll try and only leave the house when I really mean not to come back until I’ve made a film.
‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ opens January 25. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.