Opening TODAY, January 25, 2019, The Kid Who Would Be King gives us an exciting retelling of the legend of Arthur, the sword-in-the-stone, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, and Morgana like nothing we have seen before. Renaissance Magazine had the chance to chat with writer and director Joe Cornish about this very unique spin on a beloved tale. We had such a lovely time chatting that the interview went quite long. Here is a portion of our very intriguing conversation with Joe.
Check out the full interview along with Hysterical History’s review in our March/April issue!
RM: What made you want to make a movie based on the Arthurian legend?
JC: I had the idea for this movie when I was 13 years old. And, that was because I saw two movies which had a big impact on me that year, which was 1982. One of them was Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and I loved the idea of extraordinary things happening to ordinary kids. That movie really affected me. Then I saw a movie called Excalibur by a British director called John Boorman. Spectacular, gory, romantic, surreal telling of the Arthurian legend. It made me think you could do a movie a little like E.T., but instead of an alien showing up it was the sword in the stone that would show up. I have always had that idea and it has taken me many years to actually figure out what happened next.
RM: Except for the animated version of the tale, most of us are familiar with versions of the legend that show Arthur as an adult. But in your retelling our Arthur-analog, Alex, played by Louis AShbourne Serkis, is a 12 year old boy who recruits an army of schoolkids. Tell me about the decision to focus on young heroes and on that pivotal sword-in-the-stone part of the tale.
JC: It seemed to me that the idea of the sword in the stone was a device that could be applied to any time in history. The idea in the legend is that the country is lost and leaderless. It’s divided. Merlin conjures this magical sword in a stone and the person who succeeds is the “once and future king.” So, I figured that doesn’t solely have to have happened once. And, in a way, I thought it was more interesting that it would happen in the modern world because there is already a royal family, and established sources of power, and a hierarchy of government. So, what if a completely ordinary boy pulled the sword. In terms of making it a kid, he was always a kid. It is one of the great things about the original legend, that young Arthur doesn’t know his destiny, his heritage. He’s just a humble boy working as a vassal in a castle who pulls (Excalibur) without even knowing the consequences. It felt like a brilliant high concept story device that could be used in the modern day in perhaps a more exciting way than it was used in medieval times.
RM: As you have mentioned, this is a modern retelling. The hero is a young boy named Alex, along with three other schoolchildren, become his knights of the round table. Can you tell us more about having a modern setting?
JC: Yes, I can! I thought it would be much more interesting for me to pursue a modern story because we’ve seen the ancient version of it countless times…and I think it was done brilliantly in the movie Excalibur, but it’s kind of gotten a little bit tedious in subsequent movies. So, I thought, this would reinvent the whole thing and it would throw up all kinds of cool juxtapositions like what happens to the concept of chivalry when it is applied to modern kids. What is the modern version of a quest? Can modern kids actually put up with a quest or are they too lazy and spoiled and too used to central heating and video game consoles. There were all these types of juxtapositions and incongruities that would arise by setting an ancient story in the modern world.
RM: Two of those eventual knights of the round table start off as schoolyard bullies; Kaye and Lance, They then join Alex is his best friend Bedders on their fantasy-laden crusade. Tell me about that transition for their characters.
JC: The movie opens with Alex’s best friend, Bedders, being given a tough time by the schoolyard bullies and that was important to me because in the original myth Arthur reunites the warring tribes of Britain. And, I felt this was the equivalent of warring tribes in the world of a 12 year old boy. It’s all the little conflicts and bullying and nastiness that goes on between competitive kids on the playground. Those types of conflicts can loom large in the lives of kids. So, I thought it would be a cool challenge to take these two opposed groups of children, Alex and Bedders are heroes who are 12 years old, and the older bully kids, and try to unite them over the course of the story just like Arthur united the warring tribes of Britain.
RM: What elements of the various tellings of the Arthurian legend most inspired you?
JC: The legends, when one actually sits down and reads them, rather than just watches the fun movies, are very involved. They take place over Arthur’s entire lifetime. They involve Camelot rising and falling, all kinds of little side quests involving different knights, Excalibur itself, the Holy Grail, and Morgana. So, I chose the elements of the origin story and then other little ideas within the myths, the really fantastic character devices that have lasted for centuries. The idea of the Round Table is an extraordinarily powerful idea. The idea of the Lady of the Lake is a really powerful idea and amazing image. The idea of the chivalric code is really strong. It was a question of taking the things from the myth that worked as narrative devices regardless of the setting and the time. It’s kind of crazy, considering how old the myth is. It’s this 5th or 6th century thing that everybody knows. It feels almost like the first ever blockbuster with this amazing cinematic, visual language that can be pondered. But, nobody else has pondered it in modernity, really. So, it seemed like a big opportunity.
RM: Excalibur being drawn from the stone gets the attention of Morgana who is now making plans for a comeback to the mortal realm. She raises an army of long dead knights and warriors. Morgana and her dead knights have been waiting underground to emerge and take over Britain. Tell me about the choice for this army of the undead.
JC: There was an amazing thing in Britain when they found the body of Richard III and that seemed like a crazy thing that you could be walking around doing your grocery shopping, parking your car in the town center and walking over, by just a few feet, the body of a British king that had been lost. They’re current doing some (road) work around Stonehenge, but they have terrific problems because everywhere they dig they come across these burial sites and artefacts. All over the world, under our feet, are layers and layers of history. (Artefacts) are physically closer than we think they are. So, that was the idea, that this evil villainess could use lava, in the movie, to reanimate them by filling up their ancient veins. Then they pop up from the ground and fight people. Again, going back to E.T. or my other movie, Attack the Block, that collision of reality and fantasy really makes me very happy.
RM: You have re-imagined Merlin. He is both young and old, his young self played by Angus Imrie and his old self played by Sir Patrick Stewart. Tell me about this conceptualisation of such a beloved figure.
JC: Well, Merlin is probably the archetypal wizard in all Western legends. All the famous wizards we know in (Western) legends that are being written in our lifetimes are derived from him. He’s a very complex and fascinating character. He’s not necessarily completely good. He’s a trickster. He speaks in riddles. He doesn’t really have any particular moral or political allegiance. And one of the most interesting things about him, for me, is this notion that he lives backwards in time. It gifts him wisdom. It implies that he has seen the future and he knows the future, but he’s not just going to tell you the correct thing to do. You have to find it for yourself. I thought wouldn’t it be fun if one actually took that literally and he did actually age backward. That would mean that you could have a younger actor playing him, someone who actually felt like they were from the same generation as the gang of kids in the story. Then, I thought, well, he’s a shapeshifter, so he can easily turn into his elderly self almost as if he is young and old all at the same time. I thought that would be a cool way to have multiple actors play the part, which I have never seen done before. I thought that was a cool way to play with that notion and also make Merlin more a part of the team rather than an elderly character who is above everything.
RM: For some of your audience this movie may be their first introduction to the Arthurian legends. What are you hoping they will take away from it?
JC: Primarily, I want them to have a really thrilling, and exciting, and emotional experience. I think it is unusual for a family movie to be on this scale in live action. A lot of other kids’ movies are animation and a lot of them involve adults dressed in spandex behaving like children. It’s unusual to have actual children in a live action, spectacular, big-scale, action-adventure movie. I hope they feel like I felt in the 80s when I watched all those classic 80s movies, a real connection to the characters and the story. If it led them to investigate the Arthurian legends, to think about myths and legends and what they mean and how they are relevant to them and imbue their contemporary lives with a sense of fantasy, and possibility, and excitement that would be great. Because, there’s history everywhere. All these these fantasy stories, whether it’s Star Wars, or the Marvel Universe, or my movie, they all draw on real stories, real experiences, and real history. The names are changed, things are made a bit more colourful, but, really there is so much out there that is every bit as exciting than one could make up. It would be lovely to really inspire young people to explore history and mythology and realise it could play a role in making their lives more exciting.