Joe Cornish on 'The Kid Who Would Be King,' Rejecting Hollywood Franchises

Credit: Roy Rochlin / Getty
Joe Cornish

After his buzzy debut had Hollywood snapping at his heels, the British director instead stepped back, turning down a few major offers and now returns with a contemporary take on the Arthurian legend.

It’s been eight years since Attack the Block, the darkly comic, genre-blending indie sci-fi film in which a gang of youths battle ferocious alien creatures in a London tower block and the film that first introduced the world to a pre-Star Wars John Boyega (not to mention a pre-Time Lord Jodie Whittaker).

Alongside its soon-to-be interstellar cast, the film lit some rocket fuel under the career of its debut director, Joe Cornish. Already a cult hero in the U.K. thanks to his long-running comedy pop TV series The Adam & Joe Show with childhood friend Adam Buxton, Attack the Block soon had Hollywood snapping at the heels of the hot new filmmaker from across the Atlantic, and someone who had already dabbled in the big leagues with co-writing credits on the Steven Spielberg-directed The Adventures of Tintin and Ant-Man, both with another longtime friend, Edgar Wright.

The offers quickly landed, and they were meaty. Cornish was soon in the running to direct Bruce Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard. He then looked set to board the Starship Enterprise for Star Trek Beyond, the first choice of J.J. Abrams after he dropped out to focus on another galaxy far, far away (and with Boyega). Eventually, neither project took his fancy.

Instead, after taking some time away and seeing some of his friends, he now returns with Fox's The Kid Who Would Be King, an uplifting family-friendly action-adventure that transplants the Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone to contemporary London (but without the blood, swearing and drugs of Attack the Block).

Ahead of its release on Friday, Jan. 25, Cornish talks to The Hollywood Reporter about filling the gap for live-action kids movies, turning down some of the biggest franchises around and how it all could have turned out so differently when he was left alone in a seedy Times Square cinema as a child.

Where did this idea to make a contemporary Arthurian story come from?

This was actually an idea I had as a kid when I was about 12 or 13, and it came from watching E.T. and John Boorman’s Excalibur.

I actually saw E.T. when I was in New York and my mum took me on holiday. It had a massive impact on me, sitting alone in a grotty cinema in Times Square. My mum was jetlagged, so she just took me into a cinema and said to a completely strange man, "Oh, keep an eye on my son" and then she went back to my hotel and went to sleep. So my life could have been very different! I could have been absorbed into the seedy underbelly of Times Square, aged 12. But luckily I survived it.

Then back in London, in 1982 it was time when there was no certification on VHS videos, so people of any age could rent anything they wanted. So that year I saw Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Exorcist and also Boorman’s Excalibur, and that had a huge effect on me and I thought, wouldn’t it be a great story to have a British kid who discovers the sword in the stone. So it’s been swimming around in my brain for many years.

So why did Attack the Block come first?

I always thought this needed to be quite big and spectacular. And I always had the idea to have a big battle scene at the end of a school under siege. In fact some of those ideas I did intend to do in Attack the Block, which I wanted to have a big fight sequence at the outside of the tower block. But in the end we couldn’t afford it. But there are some similarities between the movies — kids with swords, big buildings, fantasy creatures, a siege situation. But this was always bigger and more spectacular and I think needed a bit more of a budget and a bit more experience before I did it.

Did this feel like a sizable step up?

I did. It was a much bigger production with much more special effects. I really wanted to try my hand at something a bit bigger. I was offered a lot of franchise movies after Attack the Block and didn’t feel ready to take on that process yet. So this was a good way to have a go on my own terms.

And it’s significantly more family friendly than Attack the Block. What made you decide to go in that direction?

It was only motivated by the idea, really. It was an idea I felt really passionate about when I was a kid. I really didn’t think about it in terms of a tactical career decision. It was just the idea I was most passionate about. And I thought if I’m not going to do a big franchises or take one of these assignments then it’s better to do something that’s come from my heart, and you can’t get closer to the heart than something you thought of when you were 12.

And also I felt there was a bit of a gap in the market for a live-action film for kids, starring kids. My generation had so many action-adventure films with kids in them that we could see at the cinema, whether it was E.T. or The Goonies or Stand By Me… we could see ourselves in these movies and I felt that that kind of film was missing.

Nice to see Adam (Buxton) have a cameo, and this time not just as a voiceover (in Attack the Block he narrates a documentary).

I definitely feel I should put him in every film I make. I had his voice in Attack the Block, in this I’ve got his upper body. If I get to make more films eventually I’ll show his whole body and then maybe in more than one scene. I guess at the end of my career I’ll do a sort of film like The Mule or The Old Man and the Gun where he actually stars, but in his late 80s.

Not sure if this was my Brexit-addled brain overthinking things, but there were a few references to a "leaderless land" that seemed to reference the U.K.’s current political climate. Was this on purpose?

Well, it’s half design, half coincidence. The Arthurian legend does have this idea in it that the land is leaderless and all the tribes are warring and Arthur unites the country around his round table. So there is the legend.

But I’ve been working on this over many years and there’s never really been a time, especially in Britain, where I haven’t felt a bit like that. It always feels rather leaderless. But there’s no doubting that at the moment this idea of there being old resentments and evils lying dormant that we thought were in the past having re-emerged and the idea of people needing to be unified, is more concurrent than it might have been to previous generations.

But it’s a big, fun action-adventure movie so I wouldn’t want anybody to think it was some sort of political diatribe. It’s about an army of kids fighting a big dragon — make of that what you will!

After Attack the Block you were suddenly this hot new director on Hollywood’s radar? What was the experience like?

Well it was very thrilling and also very confusing. It was like a thousand doors opening at once and it became very difficult to decide which one to walk through.

So I had the excuse of stepping away and working on Ant-Man with Edgar because we were still very much in the throes of finishing that for Marvel. And that was a little bit of a cautionary experience in terms of jumping into a big movie that wasn’t something I had authored, so I did step away for a bit and watch the industry, and observed some of my friends taking big blockbusters and some of them getting a bit battered and bruised and some thinking that the film they ended up making wasn’t necessarily theirs, but some of them having huge success. And then eventually I figured it would be better to do something of my own. But I took a long time and I hope I don’t take so long next time.

Along the way you famously turned down gigs directing A Good Day to Die Hard and Star Trek Beyond. It must be tough when you’ve got such tantalizing big films being dangled in front of you …

It is, but I think you’ve got to be careful to not be star-struck and seduced by the glamour of it. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in various capacities in Hollywood long before Attack the Block, on Tintin and Ant-Man, so I had a bit of a sense of the reality behind the veneer.

And I’ve been a film fan long enough to know that the expectation and reality aren’t necessarily the same thing. And that when it comes down to it, filmmaking is very hard work, it’s extremely expensive, it’s quite ruthless and very competitive. And as romantic and idealistic as it is, it’s also very stark in many ways.

So I just wanted to be cautious basically and didn’t want to dash my ship against the rocks of a franchise that was beyond my control. But this is a bigger movie, so you become more prepared and you need more experience. Edgar did the same. He increased his budgets quite gradually and I think that’s a more sensible thing to do really than maybe just jump straight in.

So is that what you plan to do with your next project?

Yes. I think so. I have no idea. I may just rashly jump into some huge thing.

How does it feel to have been involved in introducing the world to the force that is John Boyega?

Well it’s a great privilege, but what’s that quote, "you don’t launch people, you just open a door for them." And we opened a door for John and he bolted through to great acclaim, and he’s fantastic and the charisma we saw in him when we first auditioned him is there for the world to see. He’s a brilliant actor, and I’m very proud to have had a little bit to do with his arrival on the scene.

How did your Star Wars: The Last Jedi cameo come about? Was that through John?

It was purely Rian (Johnson), who’s a friend. He knew he really needed someone out of focus in the background to really make the film work. He’s a clever enough director to know that a louche-looking rebel soldier, leaning in a slightly camp way against a tower, would make or break his film. And then he spread his net to find the perfect man to fill this role, and he knew that Cornish was the guy. So we negotiated an extremely high fee and eventually I agreed to do it. But I definitely carry that film and am the man responsible for all its success.

I hope the irony of those comments comes through on the page.