Ruby Stokes, Cameron Chapman and Ali Hadji-Heshmati in Lockwood & Co. Photo: Netflix
Joe Cornish has “never knowingly” seen a ghost. But, he says, you never really know. “When you leave the room, I might say, ‘I just spoke to Laura Kelly today,’ and they might say… ‘but Laura died last week.’”
A willingness to find the spooky in the everyday bodes well for Cornish’s latest project. As showrunner for the big-budget Netflix adaptation of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co books, he’s been fully immersed in a world plagued by ghosts that can kill you with one touch. As is so frequently the case in Cornish’s imaginative landscapes, our only hope is the heroism and competency of young people.
His directorial debut, Attack the Block, had a gang of youths, led by John Boyega, face down an alien invasion. Next came The Kid Who Would Be King, in which a 12-year-old boy battles demons. Now, in Lockwood & Co, teenagers are the only ones who can rescue society from legions of murderous ghouls.
“I don’t know why I seem to always have kids with swords fighting aliens, zombie knights or ghosts,” says Cornish. “But I think there’s an obvious message, in that older generations are saddling young people with various issues that they haven’t got it together to deal with themselves.”
The real-world parallels are obvious, from Greta Thunberg and the school strike climate protests to the March for Our Lives activists fighting for gun control in the US.
“One of the biggest movies for me growing up was If…. by Lindsay Anderson, about schoolboys who stage a revolution,” Cornish continues. “I think the idea of revolutionary change brought on by young people is a very attractive one, because somebody’s got to do something. And it’s most likely going to be the younger generation.”
Filmed in the gaps between Covid lockdowns, Lockwood & Co coincided with Joe Cornish becoming a father for the first time at the age of 50. His daughter was born just a few months before the UK first closed down.
“We were very, very lucky,” he says of he and his wife’s pandemic experience. “We got to have this really valuable time with our baby. Now her expectations for daddy-time are extremely high.”
He may now be a comfortable dad, but if you go back a couple of decades, Cornish was the youngster upending culture. Alongside his comedy partner-in-crime, Adam Buxton, he was smoking “a lot of weed” and staying up “’til like three in the morning with glue guns and stuffed toys” to create Channel 4’s anarchic ’90s cult hit, The Adam and Joe Show.
In many ways a precursor to YouTube and TikTok comedians, the sketch show was defiantly homespun, commissioned right at the moment when camcorders started to become affordable. To fans, Adam and Joe felt more like our pals than ‘real’ telly stars (albeit a damn sight funnier than most of our mates had any hope of being). “It was really hard work,” Cornish insists.
They’d act out skits with Star Wars figures, trick unsuspecting members of the public with daft pranks and sing comedy songs – including The Robert De Niro Calypso and an immortal tribute to the beautiful game especially for those of us who are clueless on the offside rule. The Footie Song featured the glorious chorus: “Ball ball ball, footie footie footie/ Ball ball ball, football!” But perhaps the most enduring, and ultimately prophetic, segments were their cuddly toy parodies of the era’s biggest blockbusters, including Titanic, Trainspotting and American Beauty.
Post-Adam and Joe Show, the pair went on to host their own 6 Music radio show and have since gone on to separate successes – Adam Buxton as one of the biggest podcast stars in the UK, and Joe Cornish as a writer and director – running a production company with Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright. They still have fun when they get together, though.
“You know,” says Cornish, “it’s actually more fun. The tension always comes when you’ve got those shared stakes, you know what I mean? When you’re handcuffed together like Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro in Midnight Run, that’s when the conflict happens. But now he’s doing really well with his podcast and I’m doing OK with my stuff, so we can come together and talk nonsense, and it’s maybe even more enjoyable than it used to be.”
In a year when Pulp and Blur are already getting back together, could there be another ’90s reunion in the works? “Maybe,” Cornish laughs. “Maybe my daughter can help. She’d enjoy building a massive scale model of the Titanic out of cereal packets.”
It’s an incredible trajectory that Cornish now has real humans to direct on sets that are no longer made from cardboard. Even the occasional setbacks – like his and Wright’s ignominious exit from the first Ant-Man movie (after years attached to the project, the pair parted ways with Marvel just months before the film was made) – haven’t dulled his joy.
“For me, Ant-Man was just a win all the way. I got to work with Marvel Studios for eight years. And a lot of our work is in the finished movie. So that’s incredible,” he says.
“When I was a kid, I dreamt of being on the radio. I used to get my little cassette recorder and pretend I was a DJ. I used to play at being on a stupid TV comedy show. And I used to fantasise about being a film director. By some incredible luck I’ve managed, to one degree or another, to do all three. I’m the luckiest person in the entire world.”
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