James Moran | COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES

PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth

One of the most entertaining British films of recent years was Cockneys Vs Zombies, directed by Matthias Hoene, who had previously only made the ultra-low-budget shot-on-video Hammer Films comeback Beyond the Rave. Despite the title, the film turned out to be amazingly good fun, full of gory moments, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, actually hilarious. Blessed with a cast of British film and TV legends, on paper, it had all the hallmarks of being a disaster (much like the updating of Ray Cooney’s farce Run for Your Wife). However, no matter how many instantly recognisable faces there were on the screen (which included an unlikely band of septuagenarians and octogenarians like Alan Ford, Richard Briers, Honor Blackman, Dudley Sutton, Georgina Hale and Tony Selby), nor how bloody effective the undead killings were, the film may have been cold in the grave had it not been for the witty and engaging script by James Moran. Already a veteran of TV (Doctor Who, Primeval, Torchwood) and having made headways onto the big screen with Severance and Tower Block.

The story follows a group of youngsters who attempt to rob a bank to get the money to save their grandad’s rest home from being bulldozed in an urban redevelopment. While they are in the vaults filling their bags, all hell is literally breaking loose as the streets become filled with flesh-eating reanimated corpses. They attempt to get to save the old folk but find their elders are a still a little handy when it comes to looking after themselves in a scrap.

Taking in satirical digs at property developers, wannabe gangsters and the way old people are treated (or ignored) in our society and thrusting it head-on with the rising of the undead, it’s as perfect as a plate of pie, mash, and jellied eels. With plenty of liquor.

STARBURST: What was it like coming into Cockneys Vs Zombies after the initial story, etc. had been written?

James Moran: There was an initial pitch that Matthias (the director) had come up with, and they originally came to me to script it from that. I was doing tons of TV at the time, and just couldn’t squeeze it in, much as I loved it. A year later, they had a script, but it wasn’t the direction they wanted to go in, so they came back to me and asked if I could start again from scratch, a blank slate. I came in with a more comedic, splattery take on it, a new storyline, characters, set pieces, so it then changed from the initial pitch into something else.

Did you have specific points of reference when writing the script?

I had made a list of all the things I wanted to get in there - basically, if I go to the cinema on a Friday night, and choose to see Cockneys Vs Zombies based on the title, what do I expect to see? I was also very careful to avoid anything that was too similar to Shaun of the Dead, even accidentally - it’d be very easy to copy a successful film, but I wanted us to do our own thing. I took that so far, there was a sequence in a pub that I got rid of because Shaun’s third act is set in a pub! Obviously, we share a similar world, but you have to try to plough your own path, otherwise why bother? My biggest concern was that I really wanted to celebrate the East End, the people, and the locations, I didn’t want to do a parody or make fun of Cockneys or do yet another gangster movie. That’s why they’re not gangsters; they’re not even good criminals, they’ve never done this before and feel they have no other option to try and help their granddad. I also set myself the challenge of coming up with three zombie gags that I haven’t seen before, and we pulled them all off. The biggest thing for me was: slow or fast zombies? I was determined to have slow zombies, and Matthias and the producers agreed, luckily.

 


It’s a dream cast for fans of classic British TV/cinema, what challenges or joys did that bring?

When you write a script, as soon as they cast someone cool, you immediately doubt yourself and think ‘but that part isn’t big enough!’ - and then you do a rewrite for that character. It’s actually a good writing exercise, pretend one role has landed an amazing actor, and retune it for them, and it focuses your mind wonderfully. Make sure that everyone has a cool moment, or a speech, or a great death, etc. - make it worth an actor’s time to turn up and do your tiny budget movie. The cast really was a dream; I couldn’t believe it every time they told me someone had been cast. The hardest thing is seeing all the amazing actors who audition for each part and knowing that only one of them can get the job. We were really spoiled on this.

Did you write any moments specifically for particular stars? That Richard Briers chase scene is particularly inspired!

I wrote Ray specifically for Alan Ford; he was in my initial brainstorm notes, and I told the guys that we absolutely had to have him. Luckily, he was available and liked the script. I wrote it with his voice in mind, I re-watched some of his movies and made sure every line sounded right for him. But I had no idea who would play the other parts, it was more a case of writing lots of fun moments, and waiting to see who would do them, so it was a particular joy to find out that Richard Briers would do the slow motion chase and have an Uzi taped to his walking frame. Although after the read-through, Honor Blackman very sweetly said ‘I don’t swear as much as the others, maybe I’m not allowed...’ - I took the hint, and gave her some more sweary lines, which she delivered wonderfully.

 


What was your favourite moment from the film - the part that really made you proud to have done it?

There was a moment during my brainstorming where I was trying to figure out why they’d rob a bank, and it had to be something that would make us sympathise with them - we have to root for the leads. Otherwise, it turns into a cartoon. Thinking up the plan to save the old folks’ home led to the granddad Ray character, then the other elderly characters, then the slow motion chase. That slo-mo chase is probably the best idea I will ever have, ever. I’ve peaked, may as well pack it in now.

The other thing that makes me proud is putting together what I call ‘a feel-good family horror comedy’. I wanted it to be a fun ride, leave people laughing and cheering and wanting to see it again. I’ve had lots of messages from people saying they watched with their families, kids, and grandparents, who all enjoyed it. Bizarrely, it’s one of the warmest things I’ve written, despite the gore, swearing, and violence...

Did you approach the script any differently than Severance or Tower Block? Playing it more for laughs, etc.

Whenever I write anything, I have a natural tendency to overload it with humour, and then have to pull it back depending on the project. For this, I was able to relax and let it be as funny as it wanted to be. It ended up way more comedic than any of us thought, but it felt right - like I said before, if you see that title and decide you want to see the movie, you’re going to expect a lot of laughs.

The thing I didn’t do differently was coming up with believable characters who react to extraordinary situations in as realistic a way as possible. You have to buy their reactions, their hopes, dreams, and fears, so you have a spine to hang the scares and laughs from (mostly laughs in this case). I always try to do that with my characters, even when things get really silly. And my number one goal in a horror film is having a solid storyline that would be enough for a movie even without the horror stuff happening, which then gets derailed when things kick off. That’s why horror films are harder than people realise because you’re writing two movies at once.

 
image: Owen Billcliffe


What’s harder to write for you - comedy or drama/horror? Film or TV?

It’s all equally hard, or easy, depending on the day. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it drags. If any of them were easier, I’d just do that all the time! Although I do find it takes longer to do anything non-genre because you can’t usually shake things up by dropping in a serial killer, zombie, alien, or explosion.

How hands-on were you on set?

I was on set quite a lot, particularly the first day and any big dialogue days - mainly to watch and have fun, as my job was done - but also to be an extra pair of eyes, a helping hand if necessary. Sometimes they might want an alternate line, or to trim a scene back a bit, so I’d be there to offer up my brain. But that all goes through Matthias - he’s in charge when we’re on set, so I only did things if he cleared them first. You have to have one person in charge or it’s chaos. I also got to be an extra, twice - once as a scared customer in the bank scene, once as a zombie outside the bank. Although my zombie sequence was cut - the other actors were all jealous of how brilliant my acting was, probably.

The film’s a few years old now, has gone down really well, and is about to be screened on UKTV for the first time thanks to Horror Channel, is there anything you’d like to say to people who haven’t yet seen it?

It was made with a lot of love and passion, by people who love zombies, horror, splatter, and fun. It’s rude, sweary, gory, but has plenty of warmth and heart. I’m so proud of what we all did, so turn the volume up, have a drink, get some friends over, and watch with a crowd. If you think you’ll like it, you definitely will. If you think you won’t, give it half an hour and see. Horror Channel is definitely the place to see this, and I’m hugely honoured that it’s going to be on there. The cast are amazing, Matthias directs it beautifully, we’ve got lots of great zombie gags, and Richard Briers with an Uzi. Frankly, if the thought of Richard Briers shooting an Uzi doesn’t excite you, I don’t think we can be friends.

COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES is screened on Horror Channel in the UK on November 4th. Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70, Freesat 138.
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