The Green Knight is not your average adaptation of Arthurian legend. David Lowery’s sweeping take on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight brings the fantastical and bizarre into focus as no other adaptation has done—all of it accompanied by a lingering dread. The word haunting comes to mind. Gawain (Dev Patel), a messy young man who emphatically does not have it together, volunteers for a morality game when the mysterious Green Knight blusters into King Arthur’s court on Christmas. The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) asks for someone to deliver a blow upon him if that someone will receive the same blow one year hence.
What follows after Gawain steps up for this challenge is his quest for honor and self-worth. It’s a sprawling, quiet tale that extends beyond the translations of the poem in imaginative ways. Nerdist talked to David Lowery about telling Gawain’s story, the pacing of his journey, and the many films that inspired The Green Knight’s look.
Nerdist: This Gawain is kind of the antithesis of what you expect an aspiring knight of King Arthur‘s to be. So why Gawain and why this take on him?
David Lowery: The “Why Gawain” is probably best summed up in that I read the poem in college and, in seeking to make a fantasy quest film, I just thought, “Why not go back to one of the greatest texts in medieval history and see what I could draw from it?” It was almost a cavalier decision to adapt this. I didn’t know what I was undertaking. But I soon realized how dense this text was and how I realized it wasn’t something I could take lightly. So I really just dug in head first and hopefully did some degree of justice to the original poem, but it was a very whimsical decision. I just thought, “Oh, I like that poem. I like the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I want to make a movie about a knight. Let’s just start there.”
Yes, sure. It will be a great time.
Yes. Here we are now. What we did with the character, I had to change him from the original text because I just felt that, when you read a 14th century poem, you read it with certain caveats in mind. You know that there’s a different understanding of what honor and chivalry mean than how we would define those terms today. The quest that Gawain goes on—the one that defines him—is oddly archaic when you try to relay it to a modern audience.
If you try to explain to someone that you were given the option of either striking a blow on this mythical knight or not, and if you do strike a blow on him, you will have to receive the same blow one year from now… If you try to make that work without really digging into it, people are, “Well, why would he go? Why would he do that?” It makes no sense in a modern context.
I felt that the way to solve that problem and to make it clearer was to give Gawain more of a traditional hero’s journey; have him start from nothing and become something. We didn’t change his heritage—he’s still King Arthur’s nephew. But I decided to make him sort of a future knight who’s not yet reached his potential. He’s a young man who is still living at home with his mom, a clear case of failure to launch, and the journey he goes on is defined by this covenant he makes with the Green Knight, unintentionally. It’s a less nuanced version of the character than you’d find in the poem, but that more black and white depiction of Gawain, the more binary version of him, I think, allows the story to resonate more profoundly for a modern audience. I’m sure there’ll be medievalists who are very disappointed that I did that, but I think it just is going to work better as a movie.
Luckily, Dev Patel makes Gawain immensely likable.
Gawain’s journey has a lot of quiet moments, and when he does have encounters, they hit harder. Can you talk about the pacing and developing his quest?
It all came pretty naturally, and it was all there in the first draft of the script. I love watching people travel across landscapes at great length. It’s something that I’ve always been a fan of in cinema, whether it’s in a Béla Tarr movie, an Andrei Tarkovsky movie, or a Gus van Sant movie. I love long shots of people walking, so I always knew that was going to be a part of it. Even before I knew I was going to make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I knew, “I want to make a movie about a knight on a horse and there’ll be lots of long shots of him just riding across epic landscapes.”
That, to me, is very cinematic and very powerful, and I could watch that stuff all day. We definitely shot a lot more of him just trudging across these landscapes than what’s in the movie.
Something that struck me when we were in the sound design process: my music editor said, “This movie is just so quiet, just like all your movies. They’re all so quiet.” And I was, “What, are you kidding? This movie is wall-to-wall dialogue.” To my mind, this is the talk-iest movie I think I’ve ever made. But to me, it really was. I was making a movie that was just speech after speech, monologue after monologue, conversation after conversation. This was like my version of a David Mamet play or a Tarantino screenplay. And then, in the sound design process, everyone was, “Nope, it’s still pretty quiet. You’re still sticking to your guns. You make really quiet movies.”
I think that’s just part of the essence of my work, I guess, is that I like to just linger in silence and to have those moments where no one’s speaking, where no one is communicating verbally. I want those sequences to hold as much sway as the dialogue or as the conversations or as the interchanges between characters. Those are the scenes that I find the most engaging, both in my own work and other films. I love watching characters in between conversation. I like the space between words and I always—even if I think I’m making a very talk-y movie—I guess I’m always going to find ample room for contemplative silence.
The Green Knight doesn’t look like any other film adaptations of Arthurian legend. What influenced you as far as other Arthurian adaptations or medieval fantasy films and making this something different and special?
We definitely watched Excalibur. And a lot of our locations—we shot in all the same locations of Excalibur in Ireland and that wasn’t even intentional. Sometimes we’d be just shooting somewhere and we’d realize, “This was an Excalibur set.”
That’s one of the few good ones!
It’s the best one, and it’s weird how it’s the only one that has tried to tell the entirety of King Arthur’s legend. Le Morte d’Arthur is such a wonderful text and everyone always starts with the sword in the stone or the beginning of the legend, but I love that Excalibur encompasses all of it. I’d love to see a new version of that. But the ones that influenced me the most were probably… I’ve spoken at great length of my love of Ron Howard’s Willow and that movie, which I saw when I was seven, still holds great sway over me. I think it’s a masterful movie. Still a great fantasy movie. That was one that, from the very beginning, I was, “This is going to be Willow with a lot more walking.”
We looked at that a lot. From day one all the way through post-production, we were referencing Willow, whether it was for visual effects, or for matte paintings, or for the way we were using the designs of the armor, it was a constant reference point. And then, there were other things: Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my all-time favorite movies and there was a lot of opportunity for us to reference that or to look at that for influence.
Then there’s Andrei Rublev, the Tarkovsky movie was one that we looked at early on and thought, “If we could do something that feels as authentic as this, we’ll be on the right track to doing something great.” And then we realized there’s no way you can make that movie now; it would cost $300 million and we’d never pay for it. We decided to not set our sights on that. We moved back towards Willow and left Andrei Rublev behind—but still, that movie lingered in our minds as we were planning things. There’s a lot of imagery that I had from that movie in my lookbook and it definitely held sway over us.
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is another movie about someone on a horse traveling the landscape. I definitely thought about that a lot. And there’s this movie called Hard to Be a God, this weird, medieval sci-fi movie from Russia. It’s a really hard watch—brutal and really unpleasant—but that was another reference point for certain things here.
And… well, one of my favorite Arthurian movies is Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. That was kind of what I initially thought this would be. I thought we would make a movie more akin to that—it has one of my favorite movie posters of all time. But ultimately the movie wound up being far closer to Willow or The Lord of the Rings. That’s the type of Arthurian legend that I think I can make—that stripped down, authentic version of it.
The Green Knight arrives in theaters on July 30.