David Lowery on his quest to make the marvelous medieval epic The Green Knight
David Lowery started with a knight and a horse. The writer-director of A24's upcoming epic The Green Knight originally set out to make a simple medieval tale, inspired by the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But as any good knight knows, even the most straightforward quests can have unexpected dragons and detours.
"The finished movie is far bigger than what we set out to make," Lowery admits. "We wanted a film that felt as epic as Lord of the Rings but was completely unique in the way the story was told."
Dev Patel (Lion) stars as Gawain, a young slacker eager to prove himself in his uncle King Arthur's court. He finds his chance when he's challenged by the monstrous Green Knight, but when their Christmas Day wager turns deadly, honor dictates that Gawain must embark on a journey that will almost certainly end in death. As he leaves the safety of court and ventures into the wilderness, he encounters swindlers, noblemen, giants, specters, and one very mysterious fox.
Before The Green Knight hits theaters on July 30, Lowery opens up about his long quest and how he brought his unconventional knight's tale to the screen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know that you first read the poem years ago. What was it that made you eventually decide, "Hey, I think there's a movie here"?
DAVID LOWERY: I read the poem in college, and by reading it in college, I mean I probably haphazardly skimmed it because I had so many texts to read that freshman year. [Laughs] I knew the story vaguely. I was also, as a child, a huge fan of Arthurian lore. The very first script I ever wrote was an adaptation of Percival and his Grail quest, so I've got a history with this material, in a way. Back in the spring of 2018, I had another project I was going to get ready to make, and it was delayed. So, I just wanted to make something else, and I was just thinking about things I could make quickly. I had a great experience making A Ghost Story, and I was like, what's another simple film I could make?
I was thinking, Maybe I could do something with a character on a horse, going on a quest. So instantly, I just thought about the various Arthurian quests, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight instantly came to mind. It had been at that point probably 20 years since I had read it, so I ordered a copy off Amazon and started reading it, and I just started writing it as I was reading it.
I was like, if for nothing else, it would be fun. It wasn't something I was thinking too much about. It was more of an exercise, but by the end of it — as with anything you invest time and energy into — I had become personally invested in it. And really, all of a sudden, I had this script that was very strange and unusual, as anything based on a 14th-century poem would be. It felt very personal to me in ways that I haven't quite figured out yet. It also had grown quite larger than my initial concept of one man on a horse, traveling a landscape for 90 minutes. I thought that this would be a very tiny, indie movie, and it had quickly grown to a point where I thought, This would be a really exciting movie to make, but I don't know anyone who would finance anything this weird. And thankfully, our friends A24 were up to the challenge.
I love the poem because it's obviously very much of its time, but it also has these universal themes about ambition and loyalty that still ring true today. What was it about the poem that resonated with you, hundreds of years later?
The idea that one's honor or integrity is more valuable than one's life or legacy was really interesting for me. That's something I think about a lot. I think about posterity and how anyone — myself included — will be viewed by the generations to come. I always am thinking, How will history look back upon me? How will history look back on my generation? How will history reflect upon the things that I've done? And in my case, that is generally the movies I've made. But also, how have I supported myself as a human being? Those are questions I'm always thinking about, and somehow, this quest that Sir Gawain goes upon was an illumination of that. The idea that one's own worth, one's own honor was so valuable that maintaining that was more important than just continuing one's own life.
And the idea that he would knowingly embark upon this quest, knowing that he was probably going to die at the end of it, because that was the right thing to do, based on the code of conduct of the day — that was really meaningful. I felt that there was something modern about that, the way that can be twisted to reflect what is often perceived as valuable in our culture today. It was hard for me to ever put that in words because talking about codes of chivalry as they apply to medieval lore, it doesn't really hold water today. The idea of the beheading game, it's really hard to put that in a script and have it make sense to a modern audience. Yet once you embraced that concept, it really had a relevance that I felt was worth digging into. And hopefully it resonates with audiences when they see it, even if they don't quite know why it's resonating.
What was it about Dev Patel that made him the right person to follow on this quest?
When I wrote the script, I wrote the character of Gawain as pathetic as possible. [Laughs] I really made him a spoiled brat. I took a lot of the worst tendencies of myself — the version of myself that never wanted to move out of my parents' house, all of my laziest qualities — and I put all of those into the script and then made them even worse. One of the notes I got back from my producers early on was: You've written a pretty unlikable protagonist, so you would really need to cast someone who audiences will engage with regardless.
So I met with a lot of great actors for the part. It was a hard part to cast because there were just so many wonderful options. The first time I met Dev, I just was like, I really like you. I really want to just keep talking to you. I want to hang out. He was such an affable gentleman. I also loved the image of him as a knight on a horse. That image in and of itself was incredibly beguiling. But I also knew that he could do anything in the movie and [the audience] would still be on his side. They would just follow him through whatever came his way, or whatever I had him do.
How did you approach the look and feel of the film? It has this gorgeous, almost painterly quality, and it looks almost like a piece of medieval art. Were there any particular things you looked at for visual inspiration?
Tons of things. We were never going to make a strictly medieval history film. There is no historical accuracy to the film whatsoever. It is completely a fantasy. But in terms of visual references, we looked at everything from Andrei Rublev, which is, I think, one of the greatest movies ever made, and which you could never make now. It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but that was a great visual touchstone for us. We looked at Willow, the Ron Howard film, which is one of my favorite fantasy films of all time. We looked at a lot of '80s fantasy, to be honest, like Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer and Willow. Those were big ones for us because they were fantasy. They weren't tied to a specific time and place in human history, and yet they still felt like a grounded reality.
We looked at Hammer horror films, and then there was this Russian adaptation of War and Peace that had just been restored around the time we started prep. Criterion put it out. It's seven hours, and again, it's a movie that would cost a billion dollars if they made it today, but because it was funded by the Russian government in the '60s, they were able to pull it off. We probably shouldn't have used that as a reference point because it just meant we were biting off far more than we could chew. [Laughs] And then Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, we looked at that one a lot. A lot of Shakespearean references, especially that one.
I know you filmed in Ireland. Was there a particularly memorable day on set?
It's weird because the first half of the shoot was just dreamy. Everything went beautifully. We had one day, the day where Gawain first gets to the Green Chapel, and that particular day was one of the most fun days that I've ever had on set. There's a photo of all of us just laying around in a field, waiting for the sun to get to the right level. It just felt like, I'm here in Ireland with my friends, making on of the coolest movies we could ever possibly make — and then I got really sick. [Laughs]
I was unable to speak, and I literally thought I was dying. It's weird thinking back now. If that happened now, I would not be allowed on set, due to all the precautions with COVID. But I was super sick for the second half of the shoot, barely holding anything together. It was a nightmare. And I'm amazed that the movie turned out as well as it did because I was barely cognizant some days. I had to communicate through handwritten notes. I was like, if I can just make it through the shoot, I might die at the end of it, but at least I'll make it through.
I was going to ask what your biggest challenge was working on this movie, but I guess getting super sick is probably it!
[Laughs] I mean, I'll never try to make a giant medieval epic fantasy quest movie for this budget number again. I'm glad we did it and we pulled it off, but we pushed it as far as we could. Our ambitions were huge, and we mostly pulled it off, but it was definitely a challenge.
I would imagine you would have to get creative with problem-solving: You've got giants and foxes and all these different fairy tale elements, but you also have to keep the tone grounded.
Yeah, I mean, it was funny. The final season of Game of Thrones was airing while we were shooting, and most of our crew had worked on that. It was just so weird to think about how every episode of that season was far more expensive than our entire movie — and we were still trying to do the same thing that they were doing. It was an all-hands-on-deck problem-solving thing, but it was also really fun. I love pushing the boundaries no matter what movie I'm making, whether it's a tiny indie film [like] A Ghost Story or even what I'm doing now, which is gigantic. [Ed. note: Lowery is currently working on the fantasy film Peter Pan & Wendy for Disney.] I'm always going to be pushing the boundaries of what we can do, what we can afford, what we can pull off.
This film was originally supposed to come out last year, before being delayed by the pandemic. Does it feel at all like you're at the end of your own long quest?
There's so many things I probably want to talk about with this movie, but it's been out of my mind for just long enough now that I really need to dig back in and rediscover it. The danger of me doing that is I'll discover some new edit, and I'll start re-cutting it again. So I'm trying to stay away from that, so I don't re-cut it before it comes out. It's a movie that I constantly rediscovered while editing it, and it kept changing and kept growing and kept evolving. Eventually, I had to stop because we just had to finish it. But I feel like if I were just to open it up again and watch it, I would instantly see things that I could do to enrich it even further, or to illuminate the themes even further — so it's a double-edged sword. I probably should not watch the movie again. I should probably not think about it too much. But I don't know. Maybe I'll make a director's cut a year from now. We'll see!
For more from our "99 Ways to Spend 99 Days" summer guide, order the July issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Friday. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
- A fertility clinic visit gives birth to terrifying visions in trailer for horror movie Clock
- Michelle Williams says Dawson's Creek's Grams was the 'first person' to take her seriously
- Jeff Probst was 'never concerned' about airing gruesome Survivor injury footage
- Frannie becomes the predator in Survivor deleted scene