In The Green Knight, the new film from acclaimed director David Lowery (A Ghost Story), the medieval warrior Sir Gawain embarks on a long and perilous mission into the world outside of King Arthur’s court. It is an adventure solemn and strange, marked by fantastical encounters and reckonings with fate and chance. It is, in a way, not unlike the journey that Lowery himself embarked upon in making the film.
Sparked by memories from childhood (when he marathon-watched fantasy flicks like Ron Howard’s Willow) and post-adolescence (Lowery read the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in college), The Green Knight was set for release in the spring of 2020. But then, well, you know. Sixteen months later, Lowery spoke with The Globe and Mail about the up-and-down journey of his epic to movie theatres.
How badly have you been wanting for this film to be released?
It’s weird because when it was supposed to make its way into the world last May, I wasn’t quite ready. I was racing to finish it. As disappointed as I was to have the release cancelled, it gave me time to step away from the movie and revisit it with fresh eyes. I’ve spent the better share of my lockdown re-editing it and redoing a lot of things that I wasn’t quite happy with.
How different a version are we now getting?
It’s mostly all the same scenes, and about 10 minutes longer. I was so caught up in trying to make the movie more palatable and audience-friendly that I was under the mistaken assumption that faster was better. I realized that it’s never going to be a fast-paced film. I needed the themes and story to breathe more. I put scenes back in and reshaped the rhythm. I let the movie need what it needed to be, as opposed to putting it in a box that it didn’t fit inside.
The assumption that we have of directors who have had films delayed by the pandemic is one of frustration. But here, it’s the opposite.
It was definitely beneficial. It gave me time to think. Not just about movies, but about life. But in my case, life and movies are pretty inseparable. I was thinking about how normally, when I release a movie, I never watch it again. I’m done. I haven’t seen any of my movies since editing and mixing them. But here was a weird case where I thought I was done and that didn’t happen. I would never wish a global pandemic on anyone for the sake of creative betterment. But that was the hand we were dealt, and we made the most of it.
Your first exposure to the Green Knight poem was in college, but what I’m interested in is how Willow inspired this film.
I love Willow, and have a complete collection of toys from the film when I was little. I found them in a box a while ago, and just started to think about how fun it would be to make a fantasy movie. I thought it would be something like A Ghost Story: stripped down, low-budget, just a knight on a horse. But I wanted to include aesthetics like Willow: classic hand-painted matte paintings, stop-motion animation. This film exists in a world where things feel grounded, but it’s not our history – an invented fantasy realm not unlike Willow.
The casting of Dev Patel as Gawain and Sarita Choudhury as his mother is interesting, in that there is a kind of colour-blindness in King Arthur’s court, taking place as it does in 14th-century Wales.
It was definitely a case of the performers being the best-suited for the roles, especially in the case of Dev. He was the one I wanted to see on the horse. I didn’t want it to be completely colour-blind and have his mother played by someone not of the same ethnicity, so casting his mother we definitely looked for actors of Indian heritage so it wouldn’t be completely anachronistic. But it was the rare opportunity to make a historical epic not tied to history. You can take these liberties and leaps, and no one should bat an eyelash at it.
This is your second film with A24, which has a certain reputation in the indie-film world. But you also have a strong relationship with Disney, thanks to your remake of Pete’s Dragon and your upcoming Peter Pan & Wendy. What kind of filmmaking demands are placed on you by working with those two different but very defined brands?
I never thought about it until you mentioned it, but yeah, I can’t think of any other distributors today who are so distinct in what they promise audiences. Disney’s been doing that for decades, but A24 has that same cachet in the indie world. Both have been very helpful and supportive in my own sense of self-expression – I get to make very personal movies, movies true to who I am, under both banners. I don’t think people expect that from Disney. But the one we’re shooting now is no less personal to me than A Ghost Story or The Green Knight. Obviously it’s going to be seen by millions more eyeballs. But that audience is going to see something that came from exactly the same creative well as The Green Knight.
The Green Knight opens July 30 in theatres across Canada
This interview has been condensed and edited
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