'The Kid Who Would Be King' Director Joe Cornish On His Love For 'Excalibur' And Putting A Led Zeppelin Shirt On Patrick Stewart [Interview]

The Kid Who Would Be King has been a long time coming for writer-director Joe Cornish. Not only because it's been seven long years since his feature directorial debut, Attack the Block, left us eager and hungry to see his sophomore effort, but also because he thought of the Arthurian story in his teens. After waiting so long to tell his original story, Cornish ended up bringing a tangible and infectious excitement to the movie's playful sense of adventure, similar to Attack the Block.

The Kid Who Would Be King is a modernization with a refreshing absence of irony and a complete feeling of sincerity. It's a kind-hearted kids movie from Cornish that takes its kids and where their story goes very seriously, reminiscent of Spielberg and John Hughes in some ways. The movie wears some of its influences on its sleeve, as Cornish recently told us over the phone. The director also looked back on the release of Attack the Block, as well as talked about Led Zeppelin and the wonderment of John Boorman's Excalibur.

You had the idea for the movie when you were a kid, is that correct?

That is correct. When I was 12 or 13 years old, when I saw E.T. and John Boorman's Excalibur in the same year. This strange meld of emotional sweetness and medieval brutality, and yeah, it gave me the idea to do a kind of high concept movie about a normal school kid who found Excalibur. So, it's been festering in my brain for many years.

Was there a specific moment in time where you thought you finally had to get it made?

I guess after Attack the Block, I had all sorts of opportunities and I sort of dabbled with various big budget projects that I was flattered to be approached about. And I found myself a little bit too cautious to do something on a much bigger scale that wasn't mine. So, it took me a little while, but eventually, I figured if I have an opportunity to do something with a bigger budget, why not do something that's really close to my heart. And, even though this movie is for different audience, it's for a younger audience than Attack the Block. Attack the Block was really a movie for adults and teenagers versus a movie for kids. I thought, you know, it's best to do something that comes from the heart rather than something that's a career move.

Even though you were cautious about those big budget projects, was there a lot of temptation to take one of those jobs or maybe any pressure from people around you saying you should do them?

Well there was no pressure really, just I suppose the feeling of whether I was crazy, whether these things were amazing opportunities and whether I was denying myself an adventure I guess. But I had the refuge of Ant-Man to take with Edgar, because we'd been writing on that thing since before Attack the Block and after Attack the Block came out, we were both still writing on it. So, I worked with him, I wrote the screenplay for Snow Crash and attached myself to a movie called, Rust. I just kept various projects ticking along with Ant-Man kind of being my full time job.

And I guess I stepped out of the circuit for a bit and did observe other directors taking on big projects and sometimes it's a huge success, but more often than not, it can be tricky for people because they have the reputation, but not necessarily the authority if it's a big brand, then it's always the brand that's in charge. So, you know, it's a gamble taking one of those big movies and I felt it would be better to get a bit more experience under my belt before I did something like that.

Does making a movie like The Kid Who Would Be King feel like a gamble to you too?

Yeah, making any movie is a gamble. So yeah, no, absolutely. I think all you can do is do your best to make as good a film as you possibly can for the audience you're aiming at, and then hope that it connects. The truth is, Attack the Block didn't connect immediately. There were a lot of very mixed reviews. Some people found it outrageous that I was in their words, "glorifying criminals." Some people really didn't like it. And it didn't get terrific distribution. It really found its audience in home video and on streaming. Everybody said to me know, that movie was such a success, but the truth is, it took awhile, you know.

And the nice thing about movies is they stick around. The opening weekend isn't the be all and end all right? They have long legs and people sometimes really feel they belong to them over a longer period of time. So, oh I've waffled on for so long, I've forgotten what the question was. But yes, so everything's a gamble. All you can do is make the best film you possibly can I think.

Jack: It's funny hearing about, all that about Attack the Block is like you said, I think nobody talks about those things anymore. It only gets talked about it's a great movie and I feel like ... It feels like that's how time always serves movies like that, that just have an audience.

Like you said, how the movie was distributed and received at the time, it wasn't quite what you were hoping for, but how did you feel as a filmmaker about how well the movie turned out? 

Well, it was really rewarding. I feel it really found it's audience and some people kind of were a bit freaked out by it. It's unusual to start the movie with a protagonist robbing a nurse and then expect the audience to go on this journey with them. It's a risky way to start the film and it's a challenge, but you know the vast majority of people understood what the story was trying to do and really engaged with it. You know, really more so in America actually, because I think American audiences and American film fans have an understanding of genre. And understood really the type of movie it was. But no, it's always really fantastic when you hear from people who loved the movie. But yeah, it did take a while, it did take a while also for me to be comforted that it had found that audience.

How's been connecting with this movie's audience? Did you do a lot of test screenings?

Yeah, we tested the movie a lot. And from the very first screening, even when there were no visual effects in it, the response from kids of I'd say from 7 to 13 was really quite off scale. They really responded to it, and I think it's because they don't see themselves on screen very often. The majority of kids movies are either starring adults in Spandex or CGI characters. So it's unusual for kids to see characters of their own age in a live action story. Especially involved in battles and questing and adventures and big scale action sequences.

So, from the very first screenings, we got a really strong response from kids. I'm pleased to say that has really stayed constant. You know, if kids go see it, they really seem to dig it. Very young kids, might get a little bit scared and then you know, but by and large, it seems to play really well.

Kids probably aren't used to seeing themselves in a big action scene like the one in the third act. Shooting with all those kids and with everything going on, how challenging was it planning and shooting that big final battle

Well, yeah it was a big challenge. I knew I wanted it to end with the big battle sequence with an army of 200 school kids in armor and this massive army of undead Knights, attacking their school. So it was just a process of breaking, storyboarding really carefully, choreographing, logistical planning. We drew a map of the roof of the school and drew a map of where the corridors were and all the classrooms and gymnasiums were. We drafted it out all out logistically. We did computer prelims so that we had the whole sequence in very rough form, CG animation and then we just worked our way through it bite by bite.

Very brilliant second unit director, called Paul Jennings, he and I worked together very closely. But you know, that kind of thing is a real pleasure when you've got young people doing it. Because they're so excited to do it. Similar to Attack the Block how excited those actors were to get on mopeds and wield Samurai swords along the walkways of that [inaudible]. Like all these school kids we had in list to get to put on armor to get those shields, to get that battle, that great big winged demon and fight the undead Knights in the corridors and stuff. So there's always an atmosphere of great safety, but also everyone's having a great time and I hope that comes through in the movie.

I really enjoyed seeing Sir Patrick Stewart wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt. After you cast him, did you just think you had to put him in one? 

Well, no, I always loved that ... Oh man, I'm just gonna have to check on my iTunes what the track is, because my mind's gone blank. But, you know Led Zeppelin is a band full of lots of ancient British mythology and the track is ... Oh, it's called "No Quarter." That track called "No Quarter" that I really love and it has Arthurian references in it, so I always thought it would be cool if he wore that t-shirt, and then I was a bit put out when they used Led Zeppelin on the Guy Ritchie King Arthur movie. I thought, damn. They got there before me. And then I thought, fuck it. I'll just use it as well.

And that's also kind of a Terminator 2 homage that way that my Merlin emerges from beneath the stone, in Stonehenge naked and acquires clothes from people as he journeys towards Alex, his destiny. Yeah, so that was the idea.

That's great. I wanted to ask more about the influence of Excalibur. Was that movie often on your mind during this?

Very much so. Excalibur is an extraordinary film. It's a kind of fantasy movie that is set in the past that's so other worldly that it feels like the future. It feels like science fiction and it comes from that era of sort of classical sci-fi that also belongs to the movies like Krull and all those movies that really combined sword and sorcery with science fiction. But the lines are blurred between the two of them. There's Hawk the Slayer, and you know, all those 80's movies where there was a thin line between the future and the ancient past.

And the way it uses landscape, the way it uses mysticism, the way it uses music, the gore in it, the eroticism in it, the violence in it. It's an incredible film and I saw it when I was very young so it had a really strong impact on me. And yeah, that was the one movie we all watched just to try and get that same feeling. Because it had an amazing ... It captures this sort of sense of chivalry and nobility and the source of aspirational nature of those Knights incredibly well. But it also shows how their battle was, so yeah, it's a real influence for me.

Both your movies have such a good, fun sense of adventure. I've heard you talk about Steven Spielberg quite a bit as a reference, but having worked with him on The Adventures of Tintin, was there anything you maybe learned from him as a director?

Let me think. What did I learn? Well, I'm an 80's kid, so I feel like I've been learning from Spielberg my whole life with every movie he's made. I would be flattering myself to say that I didn't learn anything directly from him, but you know the way he combines naturalism with fantasy. The way his movies are set in an identifiable world, especially those 80's movies and then combine them with my fantasy. In "Tintin" in particular, the way he used the cameras is incredible because he's liberated from the physical constraints of having actual dollies and cranes and equipment there and he's able to put the actual camera wherever he wants and the way he moves it in some of those action sequences is incredible.

I guess in "Tintin" it was the ... There was something about the tone where it stays light and funny and there's a lovely level of banter between all the characters, but yet the mystery and the forces moving forward always, and that was a real challenge in the writing of that to keep it sort of light while also keeping the propulsion going. I was a very small part of "Tintin." It was Edgar and Steven Moffatt and Peter and Steven, and they're pretty amazing people to get to work with.

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The Kid Who Would Be King is now in theaters.