It is important to understand the classics and, for many in Western Culture, the Arthurian legends are one of a group of tales that represent the classics of literature. One such classic tale, as I most recently came to learn, is the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, a tale that is categorized as a chivalrous romance. While rooted heavily in fantasy, there are significant horror elements such as how the beheading game (a classic folktale trope of the period) is used against Gawain as a test of his honor by the immortal Green Man. Heavily laden with themes focusing on chivalry, temptation, honor, and more, writer/director David Lowery had the hefty task of crafting an adaptation of the tale that a modern audience would invest in. Thus, we have THE GREEN KNIGHT.
Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings had the pleasure of speaking with writer/director David Lowery as well as actor Dev Patel. where they discussed everything from being inspired by the 14th-century poem, how the design of the titular Green Knight was created, and more.
Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with me about THE GREEN KNIGHT. David, to start things off what was it about the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” that caught your eye?
David Lowery: The thing that stuck with me when I first read it in college, all the way up to now having made the movie is it’s a traditional Knightly quest. It’s a story about a Knight on a quest and yet the quest he’s heading towards his own death. That is the ultimate goal. He’s setting out to accomplish nothing but his own end and that is really powerful to me. It’s incredibly moving, it’s incredibly powerful, and it is right in line with my main inquiry as an artist, as a filmmaker, which is how do you reconcile the inevitability of our existence and the inevitable end that will come to us all.
For you Dev, how was it preparing for this character, and what type of research, whether it was on your own or with David went into understanding Gawain?
Dev Patel: My process as an actor…if I’m lucky enough to land a director like David in a story like this it’s like real submission. You just offer yourself up to his world. Really, he’s a great guy and it feels free range on the set. You really feel like you have a lot of room to explore and do what you want. And then, all of a sudden, you’ll step back or you’ll walk past a monitor and you’re like, the cogs all fit into place, I’m exactly where I need to be for this composition that he wanted. And that’s a real testament to David. But a lot of it is being on the horse and feeding the horse. It’s the costumes, a lot of that dictates the environment. It’s a trial by nature of this young man’s journey and I really was plopped into nature.
Speaking of which, there’s a scene featuring you alone in the woods with your hands and feet bound to a rope. What was that experience like?
Dev Patel: It was actually really fun – it worked really well didn’t it, David?
David Lowery: It turned out perfectly. That was our first week of shooting and I was like, oh wow, that worked out way better than I thought it would [Laughs].
Dev Patel: You want to show the behind the scenes of that cause you know, I’m lying down and then as the camera’s spinning we quickly get up and I’m still tied so I’m just hopping [Laughs]. It was so great.
David Lowery: That was the moment in the script where I think the script said like…he spends five minutes trying to fall across the ground. In the movie, it’s maybe a minute or 45 seconds, but nonetheless, it feels like real-time. We’re going to stop and watch this guy try to free himself in real-time and it’s going to be funny and awkward and sad and scary all at once. It was all those things, it was an amazing thing to watch.
The design of the Green Knight is astounding. How did the concept come up? Was it done digitally? For you Dev, what was your experience like acting alongside the Green Knight?
David Lowery: I briefly toyed with the idea of using like puppetry or animatronics to create something that was more inhuman, but ultimately I just felt the best thing we could do is to get a really good actor and design some prosthetics around him that would allow his performance to shine through. Ralph Ineson was there on set wearing that there were no digital effects whatsoever for the Green Knight. It’s some amazing makeup designed by Barrie Gower who did a cast of Ralph and just built this amazing…I did some sketches early on of what I thought he could look like and then Barrie took those and then extrapolated upon them. I’m a big fan of Treebeard from Lord of the Rings and I wanted the Green Knight to sort of be a cousin of Treebeard. Ultimately, we wanted to make sure that the performance came through. Ralph was there acting through all that makeup and I really can’t believe how well…. what he’s wearing is so uncomfortable and he was miserable on set, but even though he’s got like thick contact lenses that he couldn’t see through, you can still see the twinkle in his eye at the end of the film. It’s really a marvelous wonder to behold.
Dev Patel: I remember seeing him at the screen test and it was like meeting your rival. You could just stand next to [the Green Knight] and marvel at the sheer detail of this, everything about it is was amazing to behold and [Ralph] has got this amazing presence. I remember at breakfast you could hear when Ralph had arrived, the voice of destiny has arrived at the breakfast buffet [Laughs].
Dev, when you forming this character in your mind, were there aspects of Gawain that you could see yourself in? Dev – when you were playing this character, did you look at him and see aspects of yourself?
Dev Patel: I think I could see a lot of myself in him. One of the things reading the script was I just really could relate to my journey as an actor in this industry and being an ambitious young man. It made me question a lot of things about what I put my body through to go there and what does it all mean? It’s that quest for greatness or ambition or whatever. He’s this young guy. His ego gets pounded. He’s dealing with issues of masculinity and he’s quite feeble in a lot of places. It’s quite an exposing role as well because you run the gamut. You introduce him as someone that’s quite well off and then very quickly you strip off all of that.
I could go on and on talking about THE GREEN KNIGHT with both of you but unfortunately, it’s time to wrap up with one final question. David, what are you hoping that modern audiences will take away from this 14th-century poem?
David Lowery: I hope that they come away with a consideration of the value of integrity, of personal integrity. That’s what I saw as the hook for me in adapting this cause I could make it a movie and make a movie that’s about a character striving for personal integrity, which is something that’s very important to me. I think it’s very important for everyone to consider and so I would hope that comes through. I hope that that resonates, but I also hope that people enjoy the adventure. I hope that they enjoy the ride because as unusual and strange as this movie is, we didn’t want to make an adventure movie. We didn’t want it to be a classical Knightly quest. I hope that when audiences sit down to watch it, they’re ready for the ride and that they appreciate the strange and unwieldy detours that we take them on and come away feeling as if they’ve been on an adventure, even if it is a quite unusual one.
For more on THE GREEN KNIGHT, check out our review here. THE GREEN KNIGHT arrives in select theaters on July 30th.
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