“Where in Europe Can We Find Some Castles?” David Lowery on The Green Knight
A 14th-century epic poem by an anonymous author serves as the basis for one of the most visually and aurally thrilling movies of 2021 in writer-director David Lowery’s The Green Knight, an adaptation of the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that’s made for adults but casts a spell on the audience every bit as magical as that of classic family films like E.T. and The Wizard of Oz. Dev Patel stars as Gawain, King Arthur’s brash nephew who accepts a challenge from the title character that sends him on a mythic quest which will most likely end with the loss of his head; throughout that quest Gawain encounters strangers, friends, and foes both human and supernatural, interactions that Lowery dramatizes with lyrical beauty and kinetic vigor. The film is simple and direct in its approach and narrative thrust, yet rich in thematic implications and enormously powerful in its emotional effects; Lowery’s episodic structure sneaks up on you, with every character, landscape, and gesture steadily accumulating to yield a profound meditation on the nature of sacrifice, heroism, and identity that is also a classically satisfying adventure yarn. From its opening scene, The Green Knight transports the viewer the way that the best passages in Steven Spielberg or Terrence Malick’s work does, and Lowery shares with those directors a complete command of both the frame and his soundtrack—the layered sound design, as well as the intricate marriage of spectacle and intimacy, make this a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. I spoke with the writer-director via Zoom a couple of weeks before the picture’s July 30 release.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the source material. When did you first discover the poem on which the movie is based, and how quickly did you come up with the idea that you wanted to adapt it into a film?
David Lowery: I read the poem in college. Even then, anything I read, I was always thinking, “Could this be a movie?” So, I’m sure the thought occurred to me back then, because I really loved it. I thought it was a great tale, and I’ve always been very fond of the Arthurian legends. The very first script I ever wrote when I was seven years old was an adaptation of Sir Percival and his grail quest. I really wish I could find a copy of that.
I also love the fantasy genre. I love Lord of the Rings. I love movies about knights and quests. At some point in 2018, I thought I was going to be getting going on my next Disney movie, but that got delayed and I was anxious to make something. A strange confluence of events, involving coming across old Willow action figures and other random ephemera, led me to think that I could make a movie about a knight on a quest relatively quickly and inexpensively. That led me to rediscovering this poem, and one thing led to another, and suddenly I was making a movie that was far bigger than just one man on a horse.
Filmmaker: The quest he embarks on is so strange by contemporary standards. In terms of the adaptation, how do you walk the line of remaining faithful to the spirit of the original text while also making it feel relevant to contemporary audiences, who have a very different idea of heroism than what one finds in this poem?
Lowery: That was the biggest challenge in adapting it: how do you make something as archaic as a beheading game feel noble and chivalrous? It is such a strange concept and doesn’t really hold sway in a modern context. I changed the character of Gawain to make his journey a little bit more traditional in terms of the arc of the hero’s journey. If you have a knight, as represented in the original poem, who’s already done great things, you wonder, “Well, why would he throw it all away for this one test of honor?” Why would he knowingly go seek his own death? And of course, that’s the entire question of the poem. That’s what the poem is dealing with. But I think that for modern audiences, that journey had to be a little bit more binary. There had to be a reduction of nuance, so to speak. Gawain had to start off in one place and get to another, as opposed to being in that place already and just digging into the nuances of it. I changed it, so he’s not yet a knight; he has not yet fulfilled the promise of his heritage, and that automatically catalyzes everything that he goes through on this journey, in a way that is similar but distinct from the original text.
Filmmaker: It seems like you really thought about and dug into every ramification and implication of the original poem, and it shows in the details of the film. What was your research process like?
Lowery: I definitely did a lot of research into the poem, more on a thematic than historical level. We found relatively early on in the process that we just couldn’t afford to make a historically accurate film. We couldn’t get the costumes. We couldn’t find enough locations, like castles to shoot in, that were all of the same period. So, we decided to throw authenticity out the window and let the film exist in a fantasy world. Beyond that, I did a lot of research into different readings of the text and all of the traditions and trappings referenced in it. All the detail that the text contains, it’s so rich; it’s such a window into the way things were done in that age. And there are interpretations of every detail, every line of that poem that have been analyzed and extrapolated from. Just finding that treasure trove of material really inspired me to stay true to the text—even though we were not making a historically accurate piece of Welsh history—and to try to stay true to the details and the thematic content, and put as many allusions the things that I felt were important about the poem as possible.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the castles. What’s the location scouting process like on a movie like this, and where did you shoot it?
Lowery: We shot in Ireland. Basically, we just threw a dart at the wall like, “Okay, where in Europe can we find some castles?” We started in Ireland, but we went to Hungary and looked at other places as well. Ireland just made sense from a production standpoint, a logistical standpoint. I also really liked the sense of legacy that came from shooting on locations that were used in Excalibur and Barry Lyndon, especially Excalibur. We were in John Boorman’s backyard the entire time, and there was a nice symmetry to that.
The lord and ladies castle was the trickiest, because there weren’t that many castles that were well kept enough—most of them are in ruins. Finding more than one that we could use as a contemporaneous set was tricky, and that was where we really started to break the rules of our time period, because we go from Cahir Castle, which is like a 13th or 14th century castle, to this other castle called Charlottesville, which is from the 1700s or 1800s. Trying to make those two fit into the same world proved more challenging than we anticipated, but that led to the fluidity of the time period that we were setting the movie in.
Filmmaker: The most impressive set to me is the set for King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, and it’s especially noteworthy because you’re dealing with iconography that’s been in a lot of other movies, including some very famous ones. What was your approach to that set?
Lowery: That was our one big set. It was the last thing we shot, because it took the first seven weeks of our production just to build that set. We really wanted it to be a set that could sustain a sequence like that and be iconic, because it’s a good 20-minute opening act for the movie. We looked at a lot of reference material, and not only castles—we were looking at monasteries and temples and all sorts of structures that had this grandeur to them that felt bigger than life. If you go to a great hall of a real castle, most of the time it’s just a small room—it feels more like a beer hall than a place where King Arthur and his knights might sit. So again, we’re being historically anachronistic. We wanted to create something that was far larger than life, that felt worthy of the legend. We also wanted the round table to be distinctive. The actual design of it was purely practical, because we wanted the Green Knight to be able to ride right up to King Arthur and to Gawain, and for him to face the Green Knight at the center of the great hall. That suggested that the round table be a broken circle. We knew we’d be in that set for a long time, and we really wanted to make a statement with it.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about your philosophy when it comes to visual effects, because one of the things I really loved about both this movie and Pete’s Dragon is that you don’t seem to be an absolutist. You’ll do old-school practical effects and you’ll do CG, and the combination is really magical for me.
Lowery: I always start with reality. On both Pete’s Dragon and this film, I was like, “Can we do the dragon as a practical element? Can we do the fox as a practical fox? Can we build a puppet?” Sometimes, when you try to do things practically, it can be more trouble than it’s worth. For what we were trying to do with that fox, with the budget we had and the time, it just made more sense to do it digitally. And yet I always start by asking, “How can we do this practically? And how can we shoot this in a way that would make sense to do it practically if we had a fox puppet on set that just had some digital augmentation to it?” That was the same way we started with Elliot in Pete’s Dragon. The other tack I take is that if you have something like a CG creature, that should really be the only noticeable visual effect in the sequence—everything else should be real. So, you shoot that CG creature on location, in natural light, in real weather conditions. That adds to the verisimilitude of the digital effect. If we were to shoot that whole sequence with the fox on green screen, it would all blend together. Your eyes start to pick up on the things that aren’t real. When you have a CG character in a real environment, the real environment lends a degree of verisimilitude to the CG character.
I also just love old-fashioned visual effects. I’m a big fan of model work and miniatures. I love glass matte paintings. I actually talked to John Knoll at ILM early on to find out how easy it would be to do glass matte paintings in this day and age, and he pointed out that it would be a lot more challenging, because not only is it a lost art, we’re also not used to having to think about production the way you have to think about it when you’re using glass mattes. If you have a scene that you know you’re going to expand with a painting, you have to make those choices on set about how long it’s going to last, where the actors are going to go. As a filmmaker, I’m used to having the flexibility of being able to say, “Well, we’re expanding the set there. We’ll paint something in over there. The camera can move. We can do a motion tracking thing.” You don’t have the rules you used to have, so it really requires a different mindset. That being said, at some point I really want to do a movie with a lot of glass mattes in them. This movie has one hand-painted set extension I was very proud of that my brother did.
Filmmaker: That brings up another thing that I like about your movies, which is that they feel organic yet precise – they’re both rigorous and freewheeling. How much do you plan your shots ahead of time, and how much do you just respond to the actors and locations on the day?
Lowery: It’s a combination of both. I have storyboards for this movie that I did for certain sequences, and they provided a wonderful jumping off point. In some cases, I just stuck to them. I think I draw things when I have an idea of exactly how I want something to look, because then I can just show people and be like, “Here’s what the shot is going to be.” I also really love just responding to things, and think I’m better at doing that, but the flip side is that it takes time. It’s hard to do try different things out when you have a very short shooting schedule. You’ll see an actor do something and say, “That gives me an idea. Let’s try shooting it this way.” A lot of the scenes in this movie were born of decisions the actors were making that I then responded to; a good case in point would be Sean Harris’s big Christmas Day speech, when he walks around the round table. When I wrote that, thought that he would just stand at the head of the table and give this big boisterous speech from one spot. And he walked in the day before we shot it for rehearsal and suggested, “Well, why wouldn’t I just walk around the entire table? It’s a circle. All of my knights are here, and I’m addressing all of them. So I would just walk in a circle around them.” That was a brilliant idea which, of course, then changed the entire plan of how we were going to shoot and our schedule and everything.
But those are the things I love responding to. When an actor has an intuition like that, I will just follow it. Generally, I love giving them a long leash to try those things out. That’s a luxury for me, to be able to watch a great actor like Sean bring an idea like that to the table and capitalize on it, because he definitely made that speech far more momentous than it would have been had he just stayed rooted in one spot. It really gave him a chance to dig into the character. Every bit of that journey he makes around the table is broken up into little chapters, and you can see him making little decisions and changing things. When he gets to the center and makes eye contact with Gawain, the rest of it then plays differently. He built a lot into that, and none of that stuff was in my mind when I was writing it. That was not part of how I envisioned the scene. But as soon as he brought the idea to the table, it all clicked. And I realized, “Okay, here’s how we’re going to shoot it. Here’s what the scene is now about. Here’s how it’s going to be staged. I hope we have time to shoot all the coverage.”
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about post, because the sound and editing are extraordinary. I can’t even articulate what it was, but something about the sound design just sucked me in from the start and immersed me in the movie in a way that’s really rare.
Lowery: I worked with Johnny Marshall, a sound designer in Dallas who did A Ghost Story and The Old Man & the Gun. We spent a lot of time on all three of those films just hanging out in his home studio, in his garage, figuring out a shorthand. What I love to do with sound design is to fill every second with something, and then if there’s ever a complete silence it’s very noticeable. I find that it’s the best way to engage audiences, more so than the visuals; I love finding sounds that can underline moments, or underline themes, or draw out a theme, or enhance a moment of silence. There are some cases in this movie where there are very obvious anachronistic sound design choices, such as when Alicia Vikander is talking about the color green and you start to hear all of these natural sounds. You’re literally hearing what she’s talking about. Even though she’s in indoors, sitting by a roaring fire, you’re hearing the sounds of nature, overtaking all of the other sounds, like the crackling fire and whatever other sounds we put in there.
But then there are other more subtle sounds, like a well-timed baby crying in the background of a certain scene, that you would never consciously pick up, but which underscore a very specific moment in the movie. There’s no baby on screen, but you’re hearing that, and it causes you to process what’s going on in a slightly different way. I love finding sounds like that. I love finding little details on a sonic level that can enhance the storytelling. Johnny and I and the folks at Skywalker Ranch spent a ton of time just seeing how many of those we could put in the movie and how deep we could get with all of that layering.
As for the editing, all I can say is that it was a challenge, far more than I anticipated. The script was 80 pages, the first cut was two hours and 45 minutes and I hadn’t even put in all of the scenes at that point. It was a real challenge to find the rhythm of this movie, and to find the right cadence and to figure out what needed to be there, what needed to fall away. It was something that I worked and worked on, and I wouldn’t let it rest. I just could not let this movie go, and I think I drove a lot of people crazy in the process of just consistently reworking scenes. Johnny Marshall being one of them—I think we did the first pass of the great hall scene in June of 2019 and finished it, did the final pass, in October of 2020. We did so many versions of this movie, and none of them were that different. It was always just trying to draw out the themes, trying to get everything to land the way it needed to, trying to honor the original text as best I could and trying to make the movie function as an experience that would resonate with audiences.
It was something that I felt a great deal of responsibility to, because of this text. The text upon which the movie is based is something that matters a lot to me. I feel very protective of it. I wanted to do it justice. I feel like I scratched the surface of it with the movie and hopefully scratched the surface well, but even now there’s one scene in the movie that got cut and I’m still thinking, “How could I fit this scene in?” It’s a really great scene, and it just doesn’t have a home right now. Every now and then, I’ll pop open the edit and still see if I can figure out a way to slip it in there.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.