Joe Cornish on ‘learning the ropes’ of making blockbusters

The Kid Who Would Be King director and self-confessed 'movie geek' talks about stepping up to 'big' movies

Joe Cornish is back. It’s been eight years since the small-screen comedian turned big-screen writer/director released his last movie, Attack The Block – a teens vs aliens sci-fi-horror-comedy that launched the career of Star Wars’ John Boyega and gave future Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker some serious genre credentials.

This time around, Cornish has gone the full-on fantasy route, throwing a group of suburban school-kids into a modern-day take on the legend of King Arthur. The Kid Who Would Be King is a film he pitches as E.T. meets Excalibur, about “a normal boy” who discovers the sword in the stone. “For about a thousand years I’ve nurtured that idea in my brain,” he says. “And finally I got the opportunity to make it.”

Cornish tells Den of Geek that there are “definite similarities” between the two films when we catch up with him in London ahead of the release of his unashamedly kid-friendly second movie. “They both have gangs of kids taking on high-stakes adventures,” he says. “But they’re also very different. There’s much less swearing, less marijuana smoking and not so many throats ripped out in this movie…” He laughs. “But there is more action.”

He’s not wrong. From zombie knights with flaming swords and combat-ready tree creatures to a dragon-morphing sorceress (played by Mission: Impossible’s Rebecca Ferguson), there are plenty of otherworldly threats to plague the film’s young heroes – resulting in a host of large-scale, effects-heavy set-pieces.

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A core cast of young ’uns with strictly limited filming hours; ambitious action sequences full of complex VFX work… The Kid certainly wasn’t an easy prospect. So, how did he cope with the souped-up logistics? “You just have to plan the living shit out of it,” he says. “The main limitation is the time you get on set with the kids – it’s something like five hours a day. A lot of directors shoot overtime, but you can’t do that with kids – when the clock stops, the clock stops.

“It’s a logistical challenge, but on the flip side, the rewards are massive, because you’re not dealing with actors for whom it’s just another day at the office. This is a fantasy come true for the kids, so you get a real energy on set. And their imaginations are so fertile that it’s quite easy to say, ‘OK, you’ve got a zombie knight on fire coming at you at 100 miles an hour down the street – go!’ And they can just switch it on.”

That energy proved infectious for the film’s adult stars too, most notably Ferguson and Patrick Stewart, who plays the film’s older incarnation of Arthur’s magical pal, Merlin. “Having young people in every scene does change the atmosphere on a set, because everyone has to behave themselves and be a good person,” Cornish explains.

“I imagine it might be a little more grumpy on a set full of middle-aged men in spandex. But Patrick was very invested in the notion of taking these legends and making them contemporary, because he’s a very knowledgeable classical actor who wants to make that sort of stuff relevant for young people.”

Ferguson, meanwhile, was so enthusiastic that she fitted her scenes on The Kid around her schedule on Mission: ImpossibleFallout, which was filming on another stage at Leavesden Studios at the same time. “That was a long, tough shoot that had a big hiatus when Tom [Cruise] injured himself,” says Cornish. “It meant that Rebecca’s schedule was quite unpredictable and she often had little periods of downtime, so she’d stop being Ilsa and pop across to our set and put on her vine-y dress and be a wicked witch. She loved it. She hasn’t really played that sort of part before, and I think she relished it.”

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The Kid Who Would Be King certainly sees Cornish edging even further into blockbuster territory. And even though he describes the day-to-day production of a film of this scale as “relentless”, it was a challenge that he grabbed with both hands.

“I’m a movie geek,” he says, “so I’ve spent my life watching behind-the-scenes documentaries. Even if it’s a particularly tough day on set, I love it because I feel like I’m in some making-of documentary that I watched when I was a kid. It can be gruelling, but it’s an absolute privilege to be doing it.”

So, does this mean that we could see Cornish at the helm of a big-budget studio tentpole soon? One of those middle-aged men in spandex movies, perhaps (he did co-write the screenplay for Marvel’s Ant-Man, after all)?

“I mean, this is a pretty big film, but yeah, I would love to make a big fuck-off film,” he reveals. “I was offered a few after Attack The Block, but I felt it would be unwise to go straight into a giant movie without having learned the ropes a little bit. The risk is you get sidelined or you get fired or someone else secretly takes over, or you direct the drama while someone else does all the action. So I thought this was a fairly good intermediate project – a large-scale but handleable way to learn those processes.”

And while Cornish is currently working on “various things”, he says that he “wouldn’t want to hex anything” by revealing what they might be. “I’ve got a couple of scripts that are close to ready to go, and I hope to do something soon,” he says, then chuckles. “Or maybe I’ll have another eight years off…”

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The Kid Who Would Be King is in cinemas now.