Joe Cornish on the Brexit parallels of ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’
British director Joe Cornish’s previous film, the urban sci-fi action picture “Attack The Block,” came out in 2011. While not a box office hit on its initial release, it has gone on to cult status for its genre savvy. (It doesn’t hurt it was the film debut for future “Star Wars” actor John Boyega and also starred the first female “Doctor Who,” Jodie Whittaker.)
Now Cornish returns with “The Kid Who Would Be King,” a sharp, playful tale that brings the myths of Arthurian legend into the present day.
“Attack the Block,” about a group of urban youth who must defend a tower block building against an alien invasion, had a rowdy energy and offbeat charm.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is something rather different — a warm, inspiring adventure film for children.
In the movie, a young boy named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of actor Andy Serkis and actress Lorraine Ashbourne) discovers the legendary sword Excalibur in a construction site. This sets in motion a fierce battle against the medieval sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who awakens an army of the undead. Assisting young Alex is the wizard Merlin, played as a youngster by Angus Imrie and in an older form by Patrick Stewart.
Cornish recently got on the phone from London to talk about his new film.
It’s been a few years now since “Attack The Block,” and in that time, your name has been floated for a few different projects. What have you been up to?
Well, I’d like to say I got stuck in a cupboard or something. That would be a good excuse if I got locked in a basement for five years and couldn’t get out. No, I’ve been pretty busy. I worked on “Ant-Man” as soon as I finished “Attack the Block.” I’d been working on that with Edgar Wright for many years, and I felt a strong loyalty to him to really see that through. And while I did that, I worked on various screenplays and developed various projects, but really it wasn’t until I started on this one in about 2014, 2015, that I knew what I really wanted to do next.
I’d dabbled with a lot of big studio movies and stuff, but I always felt a little bit trepidatious about doing that. I felt I might be biting off more than I could chew or that I might get out of my depth. And I also saw some of my colleagues make big blockbusters and some of them not really feel that the movie that resulted was theirs. Edgar obviously jumped off “Ant-Man,” and other friends of mine got other directors coming in to finish their movies and stuff.
So I spent some time observing and really felt I needed to be cautious and also really try and get a bit more experienced with a bigger movie on my own terms before I did that. But It’s incredibly good fun to go to L.A. There’s nothing I like more than swanning in through the gates of a studio and feeling like I’m really part of the myth of Hollywood by taking meetings there.
With “The Kid Who Would Be King,” what was the inspiration for the story?
Well, the story was something I thought of when I was a kid, when I was like 11 or 12. I was really obsessed and I used to think of loads of ideas for movies and design little posters and stuff, and one of them was inspired by seeing “E.T.” and John Boorman’s “Excalibur” in the same year, when I was about 12, I think.
I thought, wow, it would be a good idea to make a movie where a normal kid, a bit like Elliot in “E.T.”, discovers the sword in the stone. So a kind of scenario where a normal suburban childhood gets affected by this fantastic thing coming into it. It’s been sort of festering in my brain for many, many years.
What made you come back to it?
The interesting thing about Arthurian legend is it’s like the original blockbuster, and even if you don’t know the details of the story, it’s got all these incredible narrative devices that are really memorable, like the round table and the sword in the stone and the lady of the lake, Merlin the magician. All these traits that are really kind of embedded in people’s mind, and I’ve always thought that it would be cool to take them and bring them into modernity, and I’d never seen anyone really do that before.
Of course, the other thing that’s interesting about the legend is that Arthur arrives to save a divided country. The Britain of the 5th century when the legend is set, is a country of warring tribes who are divided, that’s desperate for leadership, and, weirdly, that seemed to have a resonance in terms of the contemporary situation in Britain and all over the world, really, as well.
So there was the idea of there being these ancient evils that are dormant, that we think we’ve moved beyond but are actually still there, ready to be awoken. And then, just finally, the wish fulfillment, the idea that a young generation could actually fight off and unify against all these conflicts, felt like an inspirational and exciting story to tell.
The movie grapples with how to bring tradition into the present and that you don’t have to throw it all out, you can improve things. Was that something that was interesting to you, that dynamic between tradition and modernity?
I guess I’m interested in the idea of civility, which seems to have vanished a little from public discourse recently. I also think that children, especially preteens, are very keen to know the right thing to do. They’re very keen to understand what’s good and bad and they’re very keen to see it reflected in the world. I also have a terrific affection and optimism for the young people. I think “Attack the Block” was also trying to see the good in a societal group that were usually painted pretty negatively.
This movie as well is trying to show the potential for good in the new generation. So I suppose it’s me being optimistic, and also making kids feel that they’re part of history. And their part is the evolution of society and their part is that sense of continuity with all these ancient myths and legends and historical ruins and archaeological finds. They kind of own and inherit all this history and culture, and if they don’t like it, if they feel that our generation are screwing it up, then, they have the ability to fix it. And I hope they will. I hope they’ll do a better job.
How do you feel if people see this as some kind of Brexit allegory?
It’s kind of inevitable, I guess. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It is a kids’ movie; it’s not overtly political, it’s not “Vice,” and it’s not a Michael Moore movie. It’s a big, fun kids’ movie with undead knights and chases and battles and trees that come to life and dragons and kids. So it ain’t heavy. But the funny thing is when I thought of the idea, which would have been in the early eighties, I think you could have advanced a similar case.
When I was growing up, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, was in the charts with “Two Tribes,” which was about the threat of nuclear war, there were strikes, there was Thatcherism, the IRA were bombing in London. You could have, I think, advanced a similar case for the world being in a pretty scary place and not to belittle or diminish how it feels now, but especially when you’re a kid, however much you try and retreat into fantasy or play or however you try and protect kids from the state of the world, it always kind of creeps in, whether it’s through movies or posters or newspaper headlines or a glimpse at the news on TV.
So I think it’s good to address these things in kids’ media, you know, so that they maybe have a way to think about these things in a way to feel empowered. But, in a way, not a lot has changed, really, since the early ’80s and now.
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