Joe Cornish Returns to the Big Screen with The Kid Who Would Be King

In 2011, writer-director Joe Cornish won the hearts of movie fans of a certain geeky persuasion with his debut feature Attack the Block. Admittedly, it took a while. Despite the substantial festival buzz and critical praise, the film topped out on a few dozen screens in the U.S. Like many a cult favorite before it, Attack the Block only found its core audience once it hit home video. Eight years later, two of its stars—Star Wars’ John Boyega and Doctor Who’s Jodie Whitaker—have gone on to helm household-name franchises, and Attack the Block itself has come to be regarded as a sci-fi classic-in-the-making.

And finally—finally!—a new Joe Cornish film is hitting cinemas. The guy hasn’t exactly been resting since 2011, having collaborated with Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright on the script for Marvel’s Ant-Man. (Wright was replaced by director Peyton Reed and the movie rehauled, though Cornish and Wright still hold screenwriting credits.) But still, the promise of 20th Century Fox release The Kid Who Would Be King—a modern-day retelling of the Arthurian legend in which a young boy (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) must unite the “warring tribes” of his school to defeat the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson)—has fans of Attack the Block salivating.

In advance of The Kid Who Would Be King’s January 25 release, Boxoffice spoke with Cornish about the film and a topic near and dear to the director’s heart, as well as ours: movie theaters.

This film feels very well-timed; it’s all about unity and hope at a time when the world feels so screwed up.

I thought of the idea for it when I was 12 or 13. It’s a weird coincidence that the myth of the sword in the stone is about a divided country, and everything happens to be a little bit divided at the moment.

Weirdly, when I thought of the idea, that was also a pretty dark period for a kid. Frankie Goes to Hollywood was in the charts with “Two Tribes,” which was all about nuclear war. There was IRA terrorism in London. There were strikes. If you’re a kid, however fun and cheerful adults try and make the world seem, the tensions and anxieties slip through the cracks. Even young people are aware of the state of the world.

And they’re capable of dealing with it. Kids are resilient little creatures, as we see in this movie.

I think so. Pre-teens, especially, have a real desire to be moral and to understand what right is. They have very pure aspirations. I remember, myself, becoming a little more cynical in my mid-teens. But when you’re young, you really want to know the right way to do things, and you want to see that reflected in the world. The movie takes that on, because it’s about chivalry and the chivalric code and all these mythical ideas of how to be a good leader and a good citizen.

A lot of people, myself included, have been anxiously awaiting this film because we loved Attack the Block so much. Can you give me some insight into why this was the film that you made next?

Attack the Block is very well regarded now, I’m happy to say, and it’s really found its audience. But it did take a while. It didn’t get a massive theatrical release in the U.S. It got a mixed reception in the UK, as well. It took a little while for me to be confident enough to really get something else going. That was one factor.

The other thing was that Attack the Block did have a very good response in the industry, and I got a little bit overwhelmed by the number of things I was invited to read and approached to direct. A lot of directors make one little indie film that catches on, then jump into a big Hollywood movie. That felt risky for me, because sometimes you can be overwhelmed by the process. If you’re making a big branded property, you can feel like it’s not your movie. And sometimes it can go really wrong. You could get replaced or something like that.

So after Attack the Block, I just buried my head in Ant-Man, which I was writing with Edgar Wright. We worked very hard on it between 2011 and 2014. I wrote a couple more screenplays in that period. And then, in about 2015, I started work on The Kid Who Would Be King, which took three years to write and make and post-produce. So, there you go. Time flies!

Did what happened with Ant-Man have an effect on how you perceived the industry?

It was nothing but a good experience for me. I had the pleasure of working closely with Edgar, who’s a genius. Both of us experienced the evolution of Marvel Studios from the inside, really. We were passengers on that project within Marvel during the whole evolution of that company.

It was a much tougher experience for Edgar, because he was ready to direct that thing. For me, just to be there was a gift. I would’ve loved to have seen Edgar’s version of that film. I think it would’ve been great in different ways. Even though I really enjoyed the movie that Peyton Reed made. But for someone like me, it’s a privilege to be working in movies at all. So I’m grateful for everything, really, good or bad.

How did you come to find Louis Ashbourne Serkis?

The kids were found by a lady called Jessica Ronane, who works at the Old Vic Theatre in London. She found all the Billy Elliots for the stage productions of Billy Elliot. She did one of those massive casting calls, where you see thousands of kids from every background with different ranges of experience. We ended up with this great cast, which includes a kid called Dean Chaumoo, who plays Bedders. He’d never done anything in his life before. He just spotted a little audition sheet that his drama teacher dropped on the floor at school and ended up doing a fantastic audition.

That little kid is so adorable.

He’s sweet, right? He’s so cute. And then Louis, who’s obviously done lots of bits and bobs in movies and TV. He came in and did a great audition as well. But it was a real meritocracy. We gave them a page from the movie and we stuck them in front of a camera, and the best kid won, whatever their background or experience.

With most people finding Attack the Block on home video, and with much of your earlier work being on TV, I’m wondering: What’s your relationship to theatrical distribution? Is it important to you that your work be seen on a big screen?

I love theatrical. I think it’s the be-all and end-all. Television is a different storytelling form. Movies end. You walk out of that space and you carry with you an experience that had a beginning and a middle and an end. Even if it’s a franchise movie, you know you’re going to have to wait at least a year [for the next one]. So whatever you’ve seen needs to psychologically resonate with you.

A cinema’s a place. That word is an art form, but it’s also a building. Television is a thing that you can carry around wherever you are. Cinema is a place you go to, and the lights go down, and it’s a dreamlike experience. You have to pay attention. You can’t stand up and leave. You give the movie your undivided attention.

So I love it. And I think that it’ll survive. I think people like to leave their houses. People like to have collective experiences. Just as a consumer, I’m a massive fan of movies. Edgar and I go all the time. We love it. We go together. We’ll see everything.

I’d imagine that you’re model moviegoers. None of that “I’m just going to check my Facebook.”

Oh man, no, I’m with you. I really appreciate it when theatrical chains have a little thing they put up before the main feature telling people to switch their phones off. It’s maddening. Because it’s all about not being distracted. It’s all about sitting in a comfortable chair with your eyes pointed at that screen.

One of the differences between film and television is you can pause TV. It’s usually dialogue driven, so you can look away and you probably won’t miss anything. Movies should be like a novel. If you tear a page out or miss a paragraph, you might have missed a piece of fundamental information. It’s no coincidence that some of the most famous lines of dialogue in movies are short, whether it’s “Yippie-ki-yay” or “Play it again, Sam.” They can be three or four words. And that’s just a few seconds, but if you turned away you might have missed one of the most famous movie lines ever. Every second counts in the movie. The whole experience is designed to make you appreciate and enjoy and relish every second.

For me personally, there are films that are emotionally harrowing, and it helps me to be in a theater for those. You have to be almost physically captive.

Yeah, I agree. Sometimes, if a movie’s tough going, you might not stick with it on TV, because it’s too easy to do something else. But sometimes when you get over that little bump, you think, “Wow, I’m really glad I stuck that out, because it really transported me or it really taught me something.”

It’s like a contract you make, isn’t it? I feel the same way about record stores or DVD stores. You’ve made the effort to go. You’ve physically purchased the thing and carried it home. You’ve made a physical and psychological journey to get there. Your investment is greater, and therefore your reward is greater.

What’s the first movie you remember seeing in a movie theater?

My real formative experience was the first movie I saw alone, which was The Black Stallion. It had a massive impact on me. Because I didn’t understand how films were made [before then]. I thought all this stuff had just happened, and someone coincidentally had been there with a camera. The Black Stallion is about a kid, and I was pretty much the same age as him, so it felt very, very personal. That movie’s got real jeopardy, and it’s very naturalistic. It’s one of the best kids’ films ever made. I remember that [experience] being very transportive. I still love, to this day, going to the movies on my own.

What’s the last movie that you saw in a theater?

I saw Bumblebee at the IMAX in London’s South Bank. I really enjoyed it.

It feels like that one got swallowed up by the holiday movie season.

It’s tough out there, right? It’s very competitive. Every weekend is a boxing match. It’s a really fun movie, and it worked really well in IMAX. In a massive four-by-three format, it almost felt like a giant Saturday morning TV show. It’s got really beautiful visual effects. Great ’80s music as well. Tears for Fears. Very loud. Surround sound. I appreciate that, personally.

Related to the market being so competitive: Is that something that’s on your mind when you’re making films? “How is this going to be received? How is it going to perform? Is the studio going to screw me over?”

Definitely. It’s always on my mind. I think it’s very tough out there if you don’t have an IP. And people are more and more risk averse. Nothing I’m saying here is new. Everybody knows that, especially theatrically, the middle ground has dropped out. You have to be huge and spectacular and a franchise, or you have to be low-budget and idiosyncratic.

Both Attack the Block and The Kid Who Would Be King are big audience movies, action-adventure, but they’re original ideas. It’s tough for movies like that. They’re reliant on clever marketing, a good choice of a weekend, word of mouth, and good reviews. I always think, wow, maybe I should do a brand or an IP. But I wouldn’t want to do it unless I felt that I was in love with it and could do a really good job.

You watch a movie like Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, and the Taika-ness of it comes through. You would want to do something like that.

Exactly. Something where it’s a good marriage of sensibilities. But studios are getting better at that. They’re getting cleverer about letting directors put their own stamp on franchises. You can see that in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. You could see it in Thor: Ragnarok. I think audiences appreciate stuff that’s authored.

I hope that people see The Kid Who Would Be King in theaters. It’s a really nice-looking film, especially the climactic final battle.

I was excited to do that. The movie ends with a massive battle that’s about 20 minutes of screen time from beginning to end. I do think you’ve got to give audiences some spectacle to compete these days, so we tried to put landscape and suspense and battles and action sequences. There’s a big car chase at the beginning of the movie, a big horse chase sequence, various big battles.

That stuff’s really fun to do and incredibly fun for the kids as well. They really loved doing their sword training and learning to ride and getting to do action sequences. Same with Attack the Block, with those young actors to get to do moped chases and battle aliens and swing samurai swords. It makes for a very, very good atmosphere on the set when the actors are very into what you’re asking them to do.

What’s your favorite movie theater?

I love the Curzon Mayfair in London, just near Green Park tube station. It has a beautiful big screen and just the right number of seats. It’s a little bit out of the way, so people who go there tend to really want to see the film that they’re watching. You get people who really care about what they’re seeing there.

A lot of the big movie screens I used to go to as a kid have been changed around. I love the Arclight in L.A. Who doesn’t love the Arclight? I love the Cinerama Dome in L.A. I love the New Beverly. I love the Aero [in Santa Monica]. I like the Vue Piccadilly [in London]. I remember every screen I saw every film in. For some weird reason, I always remember the cinema where I saw it.

Rebecca Pahle

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