Ancient legend meets modern-day school-children in The Kid Who Would Be King, the latest rip-roaring adventure from Attack the Block filmmaker Joe Cornish.
Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy) plays Alex, an unassuming 21st century 12 year old who comes to wield the Sword in the Stone under the guidance of the mystical Merlin (played as a youngster by Angus Imrie and as an old man by Patrick Stewart). Alex must form a new group of knights in order to battle the threat of Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) who is poised to bring her evil forces into the world.
The movie is released in the UK on 15th February and we were delighted to catch up with Joe to discuss its mythological themes, the extensive planning that went into the imaginative action sequences and why he needs to cast Pierce Brosnan in his next film...
For fans of Attack the Block like me, it's been an agonising eight-year wait for your next movie.
Has it been eight years? No – seven years 10 months! Can't let those extra two months become a year!
Point taken. Although you've worked on several major Hollywood projects as a screenwriter in the intervening years, what was it about this particular story that lured you back behind the camera?
It's a movie I've wanted to make since I was 12 when I fantasised about being a filmmaker. I used to come up with all sorts of nutty ideas and paint the posters and paper my bedroom walls with them.
I thought it would be good to make a movie about a normal boy who found the Sword in the Stone. That felt like a really good high-concept British fantasy movie idea. I've thought that since I was 12 and I guess after Attack the Block and after finishing on Ant-Man, I had the opportunity to do something bigger. So, this was the one I started working on.
One of the delightful conceits of the movie is that Arthurian mythology and archetypes find their reflections in modern-day concerns and characters, be it the nature of chivalry and heroism or the pervasive influence of lies and deception. On that basis, why are Alex and his band of knights the right heroes for a young audience today?
Well I think it's unusual for there to be a film where the young people can see themselves in the action. Most films for youngsters these days are superhero movies starring adults – I guess Tom Holland is one of the youngest ones out there but he's what, in his mid-20s?
It's unusual to have a cast of children in a film for children because of the superhero movies and animation that exists for that audience. So, I was excited about doing that, making a film that connected to the films I loved when I was growing up, in which I could see myself. And I guess it's that wish-fulfilment thing, really, that feeling of being powerless as a kid. The feeling that you're about to enter into a world that's beyond your control. The feeling that adults are screwing it up a bit.
Perish the thought...
Yeah. It's the wish fulfilment of getting that power and having those battles. Forming an army, having chases and all that cool stuff.
Do you hope that younger audiences in particular will take that empowering message away from the film? Because young people are getting a bad rap at the moment aren't they?
Yeah, well both of my films are very optimistic. Attack the Block takes a young street criminal and turns him into a hero, one way or another. And this takes these nobody kids who are scrapping among themselves, while struggling and dreaming, and empowers them.
I very much hope people will be cheered up by it. It's an optimistic film that is a fulfilment fantasy, ultimately, for kids.
Interestingly, Attack the Block was defined by its urban environment whereas in this, the nature of the storyline allows you to get out into these beautiful British historical sites such as Tintagel Castle. Speaking as someone from the south-west, I thought you captured it beautifully.
Ah, so where are you from?
Torquay, so I'm not from Cornwall but it's not too far away. Was it a liberating experience filming in those areas?
It's lovely to shoot on location. And I love injecting reality with fantasy. This country has so many incredible ancient historical sites. All you have to do is scratch the surface of a car park in Leicester and you're itching Richard III's nose.
There are ancient stones like Stonehenge, there are incredible ruins of castles – you don't need to go to another planet or a universe of superheroes to find incredible mythology. It's right here on our doorstep. I wanted to take contemporary kids by the hand and excite them about all this stuff that's within reach.
Because in the film you have that lovely intersection point between the mythological and the modern, including the use of road signs as shields. Were there any such concepts that didn't make it into the final edit?
Yes, I had an image of Merlin riding a stag. When the kids do their trek across the countryside, I had a scene where Merlin was on the back of a stag. And he says, "Anybody want a ride?" and they all look at the stag and they go, "No thanks". In fact, that was an idea that came from the son of a friend of mine. I told him about the film and he drew that image. I just wish I could remember his name so I could give him props...
Clearly this is the story of story that relies heavily on the camaraderie between its young cast. Yet I imagine they all had to go through an awful lot physically, particularly in the choreographed battle sequences. How much rehearsal time went into all of that?
Well the action stuff is a matter of choreographing, so we had a brilliant team and the kids did all sorts of physical training. They also undertook fight training and learned how to ride horses. They learnt to be attached to harnesses and studied all the different sword fight routines for the final battle, as well as the battles with the walking trees and the demonic horses.
So that's just a question of putting the time in. Then we had a bunch of dramatic rehearsal time so they could get comfortable with each other and comfortable with their parts. So, we had maybe six weeks of rehearsal and intensive fight training with them.
I'm a big fan of film score music and I really enjoyed the soundtrack by Electric Wave Bureau, as I felt it amplified the story's themes of chivalry and heroism. Is music important for you in the creative process?
Definitely. I love themes and I love to come out of a movie humming a theme. That's one of the reasons why, on both of my movies, I've gone to pop artists for the score. Because they write great hooks, including Basement Jaxx for Attack the Block. In that instance we took that little thing to a composer and you expand it and stretch it and wrench it and do variations on it.
And it was the same with this – we took it to Damon Albarn, Mike Smith, Suzi Winstanley and Nelson De Freitas who form Electric Wave Bureau, kind of a music collective. They've come out of Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and the Queen and they provided these incredible melodies. I particularly loved the theme when Alex is reunited with his mum – it's just so lovely to be supplied with these hooks.
You hear them in a very simple form initially and you imagine what you can do with them. We were all humming it during the edit and humming it coming out of test screenings. I feel very proud of that score.
The 'and finally' question: given you elevated his performance in Taffin to cult status on the Adam and Joe Show, would you cast Pierce Brosnan in your next movie?
[laughs] I would love to work with Pierce Brosnan! I think he's a really underrated comic actor. He's got really funny bones and I'd love to see him in more comedy. He's done a couple of funny movies...
Like The Matador?
The Matador, that's exactly the one! He's so good in it. I think he's really under-utilised as a comic performer. That would be an amazing experience to work with him.
Presumably he'd have to say the line?
[Impersonates Pierce Brosnan in Taffin] "Then maybe you shouldn't be living here!" As a director, I could never get him to achieve that level of performance. That's a whole other level. However, I can but dream.
That's all we've got time for Joe, so thanks very much!
Very good Taffin question, thanks!
This interview was organised in collaboration with English Heritage who are organising a series of events to celebrate the launch of The Kid Who Would Be King this February half term at Pendennis and St Mawes Castles. Head to the castles, on both sides of the Fal estuary in Cornwall, from 16 – 24 February and embark on a brand new Castle Quest inspired by the film.
Liked our interview? Click here to book your tickets for The Kid Who Would Be King and tweet us your responses @Cineworld. The movie is released in the UK on 14th February.