The Green Knight’s David Lowery on Adapting an Arthurian Legend with Dev Patel

Visually dazzling and thematically poignant, The Green Knight is another work in which filmmaker David Lowery explores his preoccupation with death.

David Lowery is not the best-known filmmaker but he has a solid reputation among moviegoers.

The 40-year-old American artist has spent the last decade oscillating between indie films and beloved studio films, ranging from Pete’s dragon, a live-action remake of Disney for A ghost story, an experiential cinematic meditation on death and memory.

He directed Robert Redford’s last film before his retirement, The Sweet Caper of Crime The old man and the gun.

So it should come as no surprise that Lowery’s latest film is yet another genre shift, a visually dazzling, provocative and sensual adaptation of Sir Gauvain and the Green Knight, an anonymous 14th century poem from Arthurian legend. Lowery wrote, directed and edited the film.

The green knight stars Dev Patel as Gwain, and the film follows a stripped-down version of the character as he embarks on a quest to reach his end after impulsively agreeing to play the game of beheading with the titular mythical creature.

With a cast that also includes Joel Edgerton, Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, and Sarita Choudhury, the film feels like a distillation of Lowery’s artistic goals, which include his concern for the inevitability of death.

Lowery tells about the difficult process of The green knight, how Patel changed the character he wrote and why he never thinks about the end.

I read that before deciding to adapt Gauvain’s poem, you wanted to tell the story of a person in quest. Why does the quest appeal to you as a narrative device?

That’s a bit of a reductive answer, but I really enjoy watching people travel through landscapes in movies. It’s one of my favorite tropes. There’s this Gus Van Sant movie called Gerry and most of the movie is just two actors walking through a landscape without speaking. And I love that.

There is something incredibly cinematic about seeing physical progress in a space environment. At a very basic level, it’s like watching someone dance in a movie.

A quest naturally lends itself to this.

I was like, “If I could make a movie about a knight on horseback going from place to place, that’s all that has to happen.”

As soon as I started digging into that it got a lot more complex and then the original poem kicked in, but initially it was that simple.

And for this trip there are so many beautiful places outside, which must not have been easy to photograph.

The movie was really hard to make, and it was tough and challenging, one of the most difficult movies I’ve made. I never make it easy on myself, I always want to go to tough places, it’s number one on my to-do list in every movie.

“How can we make this more difficult? Let’s go to a place where it’s really hard to shoot.

But I also have to give Ireland a lot of credit, you don’t have to go too far to find an environment that looks incredibly epic. We shot the movie around Dublin and it was a 40 minute drive to a place that feels like it’s on another planet 1000 years ago.

Your version of Gauvain is hateful – he’s a bit of a jerk, he does rash things and makes confusing decisions. Have you ever worried that people might not identify with him or would not want to take the trip with him?

A little. It was one of the things I had intentionally decided to do. And I used the term silly to describe the character. Like, he wasn’t a really horrible person, but he was a bit of a jerk.

I wanted to make sure he could embody those qualities so that he had a journey to take as a character. But I also knew he couldn’t be unbearable. Audiences must have sympathized with him enough to watch the movie because he’s pretty much in the frame.

So when I was shooting the movie that’s what I was looking for, someone who could gain the sympathy of the audience no matter how bad their behavior might be.

When I first met Dev it was instantaneous, I knew he would be someone that the public would side with no matter what.

Because you see in Gauvain a person who has goodness in her, even if she does not yet embody it.

Dev has an irrepressible charisma. Was he always at the top of your list or were there a few different names that you played around with?

I didn’t have a list to speak of, but I met a lot of people. There has been a lot of hemming and hauling on my part because any actor you choose will change the movie. And you think about how that will change when you throw someone.

I had a first conversation with Dev while he was filming David Copperfield’s personal story and I liked him very much and everything he had to say about the film. But I was still thinking of others, watching other actors.

Then as soon as he finished filming, we met in person and the second I met him in person, that was the end of the story. The next day he was in the movie. I couldn’t imagine the movie instantly without him.

How did Dev change this character?

One of them was Dev who wanted to bring more redeeming qualities to Gwain, to bring his naivety to the surface.

At the time we shot it, Dev was in his late twenties and I said, “Play him like he’s in his late twenties but still acting like a 15 year old kid, like somebody. who stopped maturing at 15 and is stuck living in his mum’s house ‘.

Instead of being a really toxic person, which he was more in the script for at one point, was someone who failed to fully jump in.

Then the other thing Dev brought in was Gwain’s desire to achieve something. I remember when we were shooting the scene with the Green Knight he brought something to the table that I hadn’t even thought of, which was that he was standing there in front of all these other knights that he had grown up hearing from hearing. legends.

And the way he would behave when he knew these guys were looking at him would change – his gait, the way he projected himself was always changing.

This is something I hadn’t thought of. The way he behaves with Lady and Scavenger are two different versions of Gauvain. You watch someone discovering how to project what they think others need to see, instead of what they think they should be.

Whether it was through my own silliness, immaturity, or focusing on production design, I hadn’t given it much thought and then watching him do that and talk to him about it, I was so happy that he did. approached from this perspective.

This is why you hire great players, because they can provide that little extra.

Exactly. A big part of directing is hiring actors who will bring that to the table and save you from having to think about it. In all fairness, I probably wouldn’t think about it and the movie would be worse.

When you have a great actor like him or one of the actors in that movie, they bring so much to the table themselves and they make me look like a better director.

Historically and literally, Gauvain was one of those legendary knights of the round table. Tell me about the process of skinning this character so he’s not a hero yet.

One of the great things about the poem is that it’s incredibly nuanced, and it’s also part of a storytelling tradition of all those Arthurian knights who go on quest and have adventures. There is an integrated context.

This allows us to understand that Gwain can be that incredibly noble knight who has done great things and also someone who is sensitive to classic human weaknesses.

Because this movie is coming out in 2021, I felt, perversely, that we needed to have less nuance in terms of characterizing Gwain and let him become the Sir Gwain of legend over the course of the movie. It’s a classic zero-to-hero character arc I guess.

It’s not Sir Gauvain, it’s just Gauvain. He did not become a knight, he has no story to tell. And in doing so, all of these other archaic storytelling traditions fall into place, including the battle with the Green Knight.

It’s hard to understand in a 21st century context, the idea of ​​honor no longer makes sense as it did back then. Those ideas of honor and chivalry that would get someone to play a game like that, chop off a knight’s head, knowing what to expect.

It’s hard to explain to a modern audience, but if you’ve got someone like Gauvain who doesn’t yet know the ropes, it’s a little easier to swallow.

It’s almost as if he’s engaging in the game maybe out of pride or an impulsive urge to prove himself?

He does what he thinks a knight should do. And there is pride in that because he thinks he can be a knight.

But there is also a lack of self-awareness. He thinks that being the abuser is the right thing to do. That resolving a violent situation is the traditionally male thing to do, and you see the second he does it, he knows he’s made a mistake.

I love the idea of ​​unwrapping this ideal, which still persists to this day, that what an action hero should do is kill the villain. Here he tries to do it and realizes that it is not the right way to live.

Then it continues that journey and the end point is meant to be death, which you have explored in your previous work, obviously. A ghost story. Is death a concern for you?

Absoutely. I know I am not alone in this case. There are a lot of artists before me who are obsessed with their own demise.

But I think about it a lot and my place in the world in terms of both my life and my death is something I never think about. And you see that this happens very frequently in A ghost story, and ideas of inheritance.

And then in The green knightht, the question I came to terms with was the idea of ​​”does inheritance even matter if you haven’t lived a good life, and is integrity more important than inheritance?” “.

The answer to that for me is yes. This is the question I wanted to ask with this film.

Is your answer to this question different from day to day?

It’s different depending on the days of my life. Five years ago, I don’t think I had the maturity to say that. I have spent my whole life working to make films and that can be taken as a legacy, as the thing that will survive me.

But they’re worth absolutely nothing if I don’t live my life the best possible way. And it’s more important than any work I do as a filmmaker, to improve myself as a person and as a human being, trying to be aware of my flaws and shortcomings, looking for ways to correct them. And that then spills over into the work itself.

The version of me that did A ghost story, could not have done The green knight – I hope, because I think I have matured to a certain extent.

I definitely grew up around this time and needed to come to terms with new aspects of life that I had become aware of. by myself.

And by virtue of this progression, my perspective on mortality and myself grows, with this feeling of improvement.

[Edited for length and clarity.]

The Green Knight premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, October 27

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