Can Guy Ritchie make King Arthur cool again?
With 'Legend of the Sword,' the 'Sherlock Holmes' director attempts to revamp the medieval icon.
Back in the days of yore — specifically July 2015 — EW brought you the first look at Charlie Hunnam as a gritty, wisecracking sovereign in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. A year and a half later, fans are still waiting to see the former Sons of Anarchy star pull the sword from that stone.
EW caught up with director Guy Ritchie, who’s putting the finishing touches on the special effects for the film (set for release on May 12), to talk about the delay and how he planned to make King Arthur a hero audiences in 2017 will care about.
Read the complete conversation and see new exclusive images from the film below.
We last spoke about a year and a half ago. Where are you in the process right now?
As of five minutes ago, it was the last visual effects meeting I had, so I am at the end of it, as of five minutes ago. It has gone on for some time.
The release date shifted three different times. What was the main reason for the date changing?
The date kept shifting, I think, simply because of competition. We could have wrapped up a year, but since we didn’t have to wrap up a year ago, you keep this visual effects things going on so that you can get the best out of them. But it’s such a crowded market out there, trying to find a weekend that you stand half a chance in is tough. That’s the only reason.
Did the shift allow you to do anything other than take more time with the special effects?
I quite like taking some more time because I can see the trouble people find themselves in by forcing a visual effect, which really does need more time. We’ve had the luxury of sitting back. If we did not have that luxury, your visual effects aren’t going to be there. We’ve had a year, haven’t we? We’ve have a year to improve them, and today is the last visual effects meeting. It’s a year’s extra work.
This King Arthur started as three different projects, including one you were developing. What was different about your initial project?
This is the one, essentially, except in this one we’ve got 300-foot elephants. Though really, that’s the only difference. It’s the same story, but this one has more of an element of fantasy in it, which is consistent within the tone, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same story.
Your big idea was to bring this guy down to the street level, right?
Yeah. I quite like John Boorman’s Excalibur, and I think Boorman touched on things that I thought, “Oh, I’d like to have a go at that.” He did a pretty good job at some aspects of it. It’s a genre that’s hard to tackle, and I wanted to tackle it.
What makes it a hard genre to crack?
All genres are hard to crack if you’re familiar with a particular genre. It’s easy for a filmmaker to stay within the genre he’s familiar with. It’s more challenging when you get outside of that. You have to use reference points that you’re sympathetic to. What is a reference point to King Arthur that you’re sympathetic to. The only thing I could think of is elements of Excalibur. There wasn’t anything to copy, right? I have opinions about what they got right, what they didn’t get right. So now you’re going, “Well, you have to run that gauntlet. Are you funny? Are you unfunny? Are you funny and serious?” All of that takes a while to find your tone and your voice, and it’s challenging, like in Sherlock Holmes. That was a genre I hadn’t tackled before, so you have to find a voice within that. So it’s challenging, and you doubt yourself. Then you’re confident and you doubt yourself and you’re confident again. For me, I’m trying to think of a film in the genre that I really like…. And I’m quite quiet on that. There isn’t too many. There are elements within different films that I really like, but as a whole film, there’s not one I can think of.
What has kept you from liking the genre?
It’s just my sensibility. I understand that it’s not a language that speaks to me. Game of Thrones speaks to me. I understand Game of Thrones. They turned it into an exciting genre, so it’s trying to find a voice within the genre. We’re not “f—“ing and “c—“ing every 30 seconds, which is hard to do in a PG. Game of Thrones came up with their own voice, and they stuck to it. It was bold and identified. So it was me trying to find a version of that, a PG version, not of Game of Thrones, but it’s of that world. It’s fantasy, so it’s 500 to 1,500 years in the past. So I’m sort of stuck in that world, so there are aesthetic correlations. It’s trying to find a voice that speaks to you, or there are aspects of that genre that appeal to me. Now I’m going to try to make the whole thing appeal to me.
What the big challenges with handling this character specifically within a big studio framework of today?
The challenge really is finding a tone that a contemporary audience can relate to and that you believe works. That’s it. There is no other challenge. There’s your story. You like the story. We’re in with the story. Now it’s a tonality that needs to be consistent. It’s finding the voice of the genre and the tone of the genre. That’s the only challenging aspect of making a film. I’m not bothered by all of the other stuff.
When does that come in? At the script stage?
You’d like to think that it comes in the writing, however, there’s a momentum to films. Maybe when you see this, you’ll understand it. There was a two-hour, 20-minutes version. There’s a three-hours version. And there’s the one-hour, 50-minute version. The one-hour, 50-minute version is very different from the three-hour version. The film eventually finds its own voice and rhythm. Once it has found it, it’s found it. You could be wanting to make a certain film at a certain rhythm and the film wants to make a film at its own rhythm. In the end, it’s about finding the film’s rhythm. Then it just changes everything. It changes the tone. Jokes that weren’t landing at three hours, suddenly land at two hours. Action scenes suddenly find a voice that was previously muddy by its longevity. I quite like the idea of long-winded movies. My movies never want to be long-winded. In the end, I always have to roll over to the fact that they move quickly. This was no exception to that.
Did the change in release dates give you a chance to mess with the edit more?
That really doesn’t make any difference. Honestly, it’s the technical aspects. With these movies, the visual effects are so heavy. That’s 50 percent of the movie, so 50 percent of your budget is visual effects. If you get a chance to do those properly, that’s really the advantage of not being in a rush. Other than that, the film finds its pace. Well, it will. There’s a gun to your head when there’s a release date. If there’s a gun to your head, you find what needs to be found.
Do you think audience expectations have changed in the last 10 or 15 years?
Yes. Film, like everything else, is subject to fashion. If you watch how films were made 15 years ago and watch how they’re being made now, the tonality is totally different. We’ve moved toward technically exponentially, so you can get away with visual effects from 15 years ago. But you have a broader tapestry, which means you can be more ambitious about the visual effects. In turn, it affects everything else. Once you change the tone and rhythm of one thing, it affects the tone and rhythm of everything else.
What did having Charlie Hunnam mean for that task, of updating Arthur?
To be fair to Charlie, Charlie won the role because he paid for his own flight. I wasn’t even thinking about Charlie. He wanted to be screen tested, and he won it, as did Astrid [Berges-Frisby]. They won it through the good, old-fashioned route.
What did you need from the guy who was going to be your Arthur?
I need someone who was going to understand my vision and have a similar disposition. I needed to realize that we were going to be on the same page, so that anything I said was going to mean something to him. I needed him to trust me. Those things were conspicuous in Charlie.
How does the model of a bad guy change when your hero changes?
I don’t know if you know what our bad guy is up to in this film, but he’s not up to normal stuff. He’s not a conventional bad guy, our bad guy. Maybe that’s reflective of the time we’re in. Not necessarily, I would have thought. He’s playing with the dark side and can incarnate into quite scary things.
I know that Jude Law’s villain, Vortigern, is Arthur’s uncle. What are the other dynamics to that relationship?
I think they’re similar in origin. It depends if there’s a negative connotation that comes with the word ambition or hunger. Let’s say that hunger is the positive one and ambition is the negative one. They, in theory, should have been the same guy, but one’s ambitious and the other is hungry.
How does Arthur feel about his power?
It’s the difference between the ability to handle power and the inability to handle power. If you’re ambitious in life, there’s no avoiding at some point having more authority over others. The question is which part of your personality does it nourish. That’s really what this story is about. Arthur is going to be powerful, but the question is can he handle the power. Are you corrupted by power, or are you not? He’s a product of his environment. He’s not a conventional good guy. He’s a squirrel trying to get a nut in the environment that he’s brought up in, so he must be judged in the environment he’s brought up in. So much of what a character is to me is whether he’s charming. Do you like that character? It’s amazing what you can get away with when someone is charming.
What do we like about Arthur?
His intelligent humanity, I’d say. He knows how to straddle the line between being hungry without being corrupted by that hunger. At the same time, there’s no version of him being squeaky clean. He has to get on with it. You have to move forward. As momentum takes you forward, he picks up the least amount of dirt, as elegantly as one could hope to do in his ascension. So really it’s a question of, you’re going to get dirty, but can you elegantly negotiate with that filth? Life is a dirty business. Can you remain dignified during the process of life?
This is an origin story for Arthur. To what extent does the movie end with unanswered questions about his character?
Learning doesn’t stop, does it? I think if he ticks the requisite boxes in the evolution of his character, then inevitably, there’s going to be more left. There’s plenty of work to be done.
Originally, this was pitched as possible cinematic universe for the Knights of the Round Table. What would excite you about going back?
As much as anything, I enjoy the process of filmmaking. Going back to Sherlock was very fun. Going back into this would be great fun. I like the world. I like Charlie. I liked everyone I worked with. It’s just a world that I’d like to stay within for a while. It’s not like there aren’t enough stories to be told within the mythology of Arthur and all of the characters within it with Merlin, with the sword, with Guinevere, with Lancelot. There are lots of untapped narrative still to be dealt with.
King Arthur (2004)