James Moran interview: Cockneys Vs Zombies, UK film, Statham

James Moran tells us about writing Cockneys Vs Zombies, making Honor Blackman swear, and a possible sequel…

For writer James Moran, it’s been a while since his work has been on the big screen. Of late, he’s been writing mainly for television, but in the weeks ahead, both Cockneys Vs Zombies, and Tower Block, will be heading to cinemas. He’s been telling us about what he’s been up to…

You came to Cockneys Vs Zombies after work had already begun, I understand. Can you tell us how you got involved? Matthias [Hoene, director] asked me to write it, but I was frantically busy with TV at the time, so had to turn him down. About a year later, they had a script, but it wasn’t the direction they wanted to go, so they asked me to start from scratch and take over. That meant I had a clean slate, based on Matthias’ original pitch that had tempted me in the first place. I met up with him and the producers, wrote up a ton of notes about all the crazy things I’d want to see in a zombie movie with this particular title, and god help them, they trusted me to go and do it.

Also, I had compromising photos of them all.

What were the particular challenges of this one as a consequence of the wheels already turning? Normally you’d have a few drafts before people get antsy, but because they’d had to start the process again, I really had to hit the mark right off the bat. I was aware that there was more pressure, but I ignored that and just tried to have fun with it. It helped that Matthias was drawing tons of random zombie ideas, too, so I was able to pick and choose some of the cool images. Thankfully I got up and running fairly quickly, so they were happy.

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On the surface, it looks like you’re treading ground walked by Shaun Of The Dead before you. How do you go about differentiating the story you want to tell? We were very aware of that, and I worked hard to make sure we didn’t tread on its toes. We all love Shaun, and zombie movies in general, and wanted to keep ourselves honest. I binned several scenes that bore even the tiniest resemblance to anything in Shaun – no pubs, even! I knew I wasn’t deliberately copying anything, but wanted to be overly cautious. Basically, I kept the title as my touchstone – anything that fit the world that title suggested, and didn’t have any crossover with Shaun, stayed in. It’s more of a celebration of the East End, the spirit and the people who live there, so I think we’ve managed to tell our own story. I also tried to come up with several zombie moments that haven’t been done before.

The film was made at a testing time for British film, with the demise of the Film Council. Yet you’ve got two films you’ve penned coming to cinemas just a month or two apart. How did it happen? As you can probably guess, the Film Council had absolutely no interest in a film called Cockneys Vs Zombies… From what I hear, the new version is trying to have a wider mix of projects, so I’m optimistic. But it’s actually a decent time for British film – if you make genre movies at or below a certain budget level, and make them good, then you have a very solid chance of making a profit. Tower Block just happened to come together at around the same time as Cockneys, so it can be done. There are lots of British movies being made at the moment, good movies, the hardest part is finding space in the multiplexes and getting people to go and see them.

How different was Cockneys Vs Zombies to your last film experience with Severance? Very different! I was treated very well on both, but on Severance I was a total newbie, and had no idea how the business worked. This time I was able to focus on the end product a lot more, something that can be tricky if you’ve just sold your first film – you think it’s everyone’s job to put exactly what’s on the page onto the screen, and it doesn’t always work like that, which can be a bit of a shock. Locations fall through, budgets change, time runs out, etc etc. You have to be flexible, improvise, and be part of the solution. So I was a much more skilled member of the team this time. You learn so much on every single thing you do, and I have plenty more to learn.

The other interesting thing for me was that I actually felt like I belonged – I was the writer, I knew what I was talking about, and was a professional who deserved to be there. On Severance, I always felt like I shouldn’t be there, that I’d won a competition or something. Not their fault at all, just my insecurities and inexperience.

You’ve talked in the past about how the writer is so much further down the pole than they would be on a television show. Was that your experience again here? How hard did you have to fight to protect the material? I’ve had a few bad experiences since Severance, which were partly responsible for me staying away from movies for a while. Matthias and the gang talked me into coming back, and I think the best thing you can do as a writer is find smart, creative, nice people to work with. They were fantastic to me, and kept me involved all the way down the line – all I want is to have my opinion heard, they are then free to ignore it or use it or whatever. But I think it’s always best to hear everyone’s opinion, especially the person who actually wrote the script and knows the story inside out. To their great credit, they were incredibly inclusive and cool. It was all about the movie, there were no egos.

I think most of us would have liked to have written dialogue for Richard Briers at some point in our lives. How did the cast come together? Did you refine your screenplay once you knew who was in which role? I always knew that Alan Ford would play Ray if the timing worked out, so that was written for him. After that, every time they told me which new cast member they’d got, it was like Christmas. They’re such an amazing, diverse cast, with so much brilliant work between them, it was an absolute dream. The great names kept coming, and coming, and then finally Richard Briers was the cherry on top. After the readthrough, I did more polishing to try and fit the lines to their rhythms and speech patterns, and added in some more stuff. Honor Blackman’s character didn’t have much swearing, and she made a joke about it, so I gave her some f-bombs and a bigger gun. I think she was happy!

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If it does well, might we be seeing Cockneys fighting Aliens yet? We’ve joked about what the sequel title would be, and we do have one lined up – but it’s just a title at the moment. Then again, so was this one, originally! We don’t have any definite plans, unlike those filmmakers who insist “oh, it was always meant to be a trilogy”, but we’re not totally against it if the right story comes to mind. At the moment though, we’re managing to surprise people, but you can’t do the same joke again, so why ruin it? Unless of course it makes 200 million and they back a truck full of money up to the door, in which case, I’ll be paying you to edit this interview so I don’t look like a greedy hypocrite.

You directed three episodes of web series Girl Number 9. Has that whetted your appetite? Definitely, yes, I’m very keen to direct a feature, and I’ve been slowly moving chess pieces into place for a while. But that had no effect, it was just a chessboard in my house, so I started talking to producers instead, which seems to be working better. I did a short for FrightFest last year, I’m doing another one next month, and hopefully I can get a feature off the ground too. I’ve got a couple of things I’ve written, and if they don’t let me direct them, then nobody can have them!

What projects are you involved with at the moment, that you can talk about? Another zombie movie, Silent Night Of The Living Dead – again, I couldn’t resist the title, and it’s a different type of story, directed by Paul Davis, and we’re referring to it as Gremlins meets Fulci, if that gives you any idea of the territory it’s in. I have several more movies and TV projects in the pipeline, but nothing I can mention yet. I’ve been in development for about three years, and it’s only now starting to pay off, with these two movies and then hopefully more things soon. Watch this space!

Pick us five zombie movies that we should have seen? Okay, well I won’t list the obvious ones, because if you haven’t seen them then I don’t even know how to even relate to you as a human being – like Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead (original and remake), Return of the Living Dead, Braindead, Zombie Flesh Eaters, etc etc. So I’d pick some of the lesser known ones that not everyone might have seen: The Horde, a marvellously crazy French movie, Fido, a lovely, heartwarming Canadian movie, Dead Meat, a really fun Irish movie, The Dead, a recent, cool British movie filmed in Burkina Faso, which looks like a lost Fulci project, and the hilarious Dance of the Dead, which kicks all sorts of arse.

And what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

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The Transporter, every time. Vintage Statham, good story, and fantastically inventive fight sequences that go on forever. I won’t hear a word against it, or against Statham, and I will have an oiled up fight with anyone who disagrees. Crank is a very close second, because it sets up its insane rules and then sticks to them right to the very end, with Statham flinging himself into it with gusto. And Snatch is third, because it’s great fun and showcases his surprisingly deft comic touch, which people should let him use more. Yeah, I love Jason Statham, what of it??

James Moran, thank you very much!

Cockneys Vs Zombies is released on 31st August.