“The Green Knight” is dense, to say the least.
Based on an anonymously written poem from the 1400s now known as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” David Lowery’s film weaves together myths of lords and ladies who love little mind games, beheaded young women who may or may not turn into foxes and, of course, none other than the legendary King Arthur of Camelot. “The Green Knight” is embellished with what feels like an endless number of different accents and chapter titles that appear on the screen in typefaces that force you to slow down or squint. It’s a movie that takes pleasure in confusing its audience a bit, if only to mimic the perpetual confusion faced by its protagonist, Gawain, played by Dev Patel.
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Lowery is aware of all of that. He knew his references would go deeper than most folks will be able to track on a first watch, but that didn’t stop him from maintaining an obsessive writing process that kept him up at night even after “The Green Knight” had begun shooting, debating whether the details in his screenplay were true enough to the fictional 15th century hero and to the new version he was building with Patel.
That’s how Lowery stays sharp as a writer, director and editor. So instead of simplifying the film, he found it some clarity in other ways — in moments of silence, in moments of humor, in the sound of Patel’s voice.
With “The Green Knight” still out in theaters and now available to rent online, Lowery spoke to Variety about his collaborative process with his actors and why he thinks it’s special to feel bored in a movie theater.
In the original poem, the Green Knight is written as a bright green person, but you made him a darker, tree-like figure. That sets up an interesting tension between man and nature in the film. Can you talk about that choice?
It 100% came from my own love of the natural world and that conflict I feel between mankind and nature. It’s something ever-present in my mind. To be honest, it stresses me out a great deal. I spend a lot of time awake at night thinking about the failure of the symbiotic relationship between mankind and nature. And from there, you can extrapolate and bring in religion or government or any establishment that mankind has let define itself and define its relationship with the natural world. As soon as you pick those two against one another — which should never have happened in the first place — but as soon as nature and mankind are pitted against one another, I just see the fallibility and the fallacy of man. And that is something that I can only imagine becoming a more and more central conceit in my work as the world heats up around us.
The original poem isn’t as specific as your film is when it comes to Gawain’s journey between home and the Lord and Lady’s castle. How did you fill in those gaps? What inspired the stories you inserted?
In reading the poem, I just took any little inference to an event on his journey and extrapolated from that. So the sequence with Saint Winifred was derived entirely from one line in a poem where it says that Gawain passed by Holyhead. I googled Holyhead and [found] the myth of Saint Winifred and realized that that was worthy of a chapter in and of itself. It was a worthy step in Gawain’s journey towards integrity. So I borrowed that legend, and it’s canonically true to the text because he did pass by it, but we’re just embellishing a little bit.
Depending on which translation you read, there is a reference to giants and serpents and great battles. And I love giants, so I couldn’t resist putting giants in the film. There didn’t seem to be a place for a battle, but I did think that crossing a battlefield would be a ripe opportunity to reflect upon the darker sides of the legacy that Gawain anticipates for himself. The idea that he might one day follow in King Arthur’s footsteps. [The battlefield scene is] a very deep reference to an actual historical battle that King Arthur supposedly fought in which he killed 960 men, and that’s just a different light than how we normally think about him. We don’t think about the bloodletting that occurred. You think about the chivalry and the honor and the adventure, but you don’t think about the decomposing corpses that were left in the wake of any king in those ages. That was something I wanted to just spend a little bit of time with.
What was your collaboration with Dev Patel like? What did you learn from him?
I learned from him something I learned from almost every actor, which is to trust them. And to know that when an actor truly becomes invested in a role — and it happens at different points in the process for every actor, sometimes it’s very early on, other times, it’s in prep when they’re trying on the costumes, and sometimes it happens early on in the shoot — but once they become invested in the role, they know that character more than I do. And I can nudge them in a direction, and I can push them further or deeper. But I always know that it’s important to defer to them — 90% of the time, 99% of the time.
There was one [day] in particular where I was like, “Should Dev behead the Green Knight with the Green Knight’s axe, as per the original poem?” In the script he used [King Arthur’s legendary sword] Excalibur. And a few days before we shot that scene, I was like, “Dev, I think we should go back to the poem. We should use the axe. I think it’s the right thing to do. The symmetry of that image is going to be profound. And when you return the axe to him at the end of the movie and he lifts it over your head, it’ll bring the movie full circle.” And he told me that so much of everything we had shot had been predicated on his own sense of what it must be like to wield Excalibur for the first time. To be Arthur’s nephew and to be given that sword and to hold it in his hand. And he didn’t know if this performance would make sense if he didn’t have the opportunity to wield that sword. I was like, “Say no more.” He convinced me instantly. When an actor is invested as much as Dev was invested in this role, their conviction is more important than my own whims that may come to me the night before we shoot. Often those whims are right in line with what an actor may want to do.
I can’t imagine it the other way now. I’m so glad he spoke up. He was right and I was wrong. I am always happy to admit that I’m wrong.
In a way, the movie feels full of fairy tale characters, while Gawain feels exceptionally human. We hear him stutter and breathe in a way we don’t get with other characters. Was that contrast something you had written in? Does that come from Dev?
I think we built it together. From the first time I met him, I began to rewrite the script with him in mind. And I’m always interested in taking archetypes and restoring them to a human level. That’s something I’ve tried to do in all my films. And with this one in particular, when we’re dealing with some of the grandest archetypes in Western mythology, I really wanted to make certain that Gawain felt human. It was more important that he felt human than anyone else, and in fact, I think it was important that the other characters remain more archetypal and maintain that level of grandeur. Particularly the king and queen. It was really vital that they remain elevated, a symbol of what Gawain thinks he wants in life. So we definitely tried to rough up his performance. You hear him panting, you hear him breathing, you hear him in pain — probably some of which was real. We really wanted to muddy up the legend of Sir Gawain, and to bring him down to earth as much as possible. And that goes to even the way in which he speaks. The screenplay was written with a very rarefied dialect in mind. You hear that particularly with the king and the queen and with Winifred. But when Gawain speaks, we let him sound just a little bit more like Dev. And the accents — everyone is using a different accent than their own except for him, I want him to just speak, to sound the way he sounds.
Another contrast in the film was when the funnier or sexier scenes came up. What was going through your mind while directing those moments?
The first time Andrew [Droz Palermo], my cinematographer, read the script, he called me and was like, “You’ve done it! You’ve finally written that comedy we’ve always talked about!” It was definitely meant to be humorous. I wanted there to be a lightness. It’s obviously a very heavy movie, but there is great humor to it. And I think the cast hit just the right tone. Ralph [Ineson] playing the Green Knight, my direction to him at the end of the movie was to play the Green Knight as Santa Claus. And he understood exactly what that meant and delivered perfectly.
And then the more sensual aspects of it all come from the text, which is… a very bawdy tale. Much like the Canterbury Tales, which was written right around the same time. It surprised me how modern it felt in that regard. And I didn’t want to make a movie that was erotic, so to speak, but I didn’t want to shy away from that sensuality or that lustiness. So I tried to make sure there was a certain amount of… red-blooded vigor in the film. So to speak. I’m a very — I don’t want to call myself a prude, but I’m blushing right now just talking about it.
Since you edited “The Green Knight” as well as writing and directing, can you explain some of your stylistic choices as an editor? There are some slow, long takes that reminded me of the neo-neorealism in some of your other work, like “A Ghost Story,” but you juxtapose that with some really abrupt cuts, as well as the hard fantasy of it all.
I’m always obsessed with the ebb and flow of a film. I work on that rhythm endlessly in the edit, and a film like this needed that breathing room at times. It needed that sense of immediacy that you get when you’re in an unbroken take for a long period of time. That’s one of my favorite things to do in film, is to impose upon an audience a sense of duration. Because you can derive so much from that. Even if you’re bored in these long takes, that boredom is important to me. And so I really remain steadfast to those. I write them into the screenplay. I make sure that there are sequences that I know will breathe for a little while.
But then in the editorial process, sometimes you need to really pick things up. And in direct opposition to my love of a long extended take, I also love montages. So in this film, there are many sequences where you build up this sense of pace and rhythm and anticipation with a very carefully cut montage, that then immediately breaks, like a wave crashing on the shore, into a long sustained image that will last for who knows how long. And that type of rhythm, I find really beguiling.
I love the way neorealism can take on a dreaminess of its own. Because your mind wanders, and your mind begins to impose its own ideas on these shots when they last that long. I love nothing more than to have a shot that lasts so long, you sort of drift away from it and think about other things in your life. And you come back, and the shot is still going on. And you’ve brought something of yourself to it. That’s one of my favorite experiences in moviegoing, and one that I try to provide opportunities for in my own work.
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