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2020 had very few silver linings, but for The Green Knight filmmaker David Lowery, the coronavirus pandemic-related delay allowed him to reshape his Arthurian epic with newfound perspective after a rather grueling shoot. Based on the 14th-century Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery’s second A24 film chronicles King Arthur’s impulsive nephew, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), and his quest to confront the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) after agreeing to the giant treelike creature’s challenge. Shot in the spring of 2019, Lowery’s cast and crew battled the elements of Ireland’s breathtaking countryside, all while the director endured his own personal ailments. And since the film was originally slated to premiere at 2020’s South by Southwest, Lowery appreciated the opportunity to recover from the shoot and rework his cut with fresh eyes throughout the first six months of the pandemic.
“It took me a long time to get past my memories of how miserable the shoot was,” Lowery tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I had so much fun making this movie, but in so many regards, it was also a nightmare and really, really hard. And as a result, I carried a lot of that baggage with me for a lot longer. Had the film come out last year, maybe you would’ve seen evidence of that baggage on screen in the way that I cut the movie. But because I had time to re-approach it and to redevelop some affection for it and to let that baggage fall away, the film doesn’t bear much evidence of all of that pain now.”
Lowery is just days away from wrapping Peter Pan & Wendy for Disney, and relative to his half-dozen feature films, he already believes it’s his favorite film to date. Most of all, he’s eager to introduce the Peter Pan legend to children of this generation, much like Steven Spielberg’s Hook was the preeminent Pan-related story of his youth.
“I still love [Hook]. And there are things in that movie that are as good as they’re ever going to get when it comes to a Peter Pan adaptation,” Lowery shares. “And there are things that I love about J.M. Barrie’s novel that I had to leave out of my screenplay because I couldn’t do them better than Steven Spielberg did. So I don’t seek to supplant it, nor do I seek to supplant any other Peter Pan adaptation. It is a work that is evergreen for a reason. So I am very happy that my movie will be the Peter Pan that an entire generation of children are introduced to and that it will be the vehicle for them to be introduced to this legend. But I also know that this won’t be the last Peter Pan movie. So all I can do is try to do justice to it and treat it with the respect it deserves… And then one of things I can do is try to illuminate it with some degree of my own perspective.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Lowery also discusses how Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opened the door to his love of Arthurian lore. Then he examines his ongoing relationships with A24 and Disney, and how he’s able to thrive within two very different studios.
So when did you first become aware of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight poem?
When I was very young, I had a certain passion for Arthurian lore that was entirely the result of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That set me on the path for discovering the adjunct legends associated with The Sword and the Stone, including King Arthur’s knights and their various quests, in particular the ones where they set out to find the Holy Grail. And at one point, during that childhood obsession, I wrote my very first screenplay at the age of seven about Sir Percival and his grail quest. And right around that same time, my mother brought home a book called The Arthurian Book of Days, which was essentially a calendar that took the form of an illuminated manuscript. And each day had an Arthurian legend prescribed to it. And the entry for December 25th centered entirely around Sir Gawain and his duel with the Green Knight, which of course takes place at King Arthur’s Christmas feast. So that was my introduction to the story; that was the first time I ever read it. And then during my freshman year of college, we did a survey of all of the canonical texts of Western literature, beginning with The Iliad and continuing on with The Aeneid, The Odyssey and Beowulf. And the final one was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was the first time that I read the poem proper. Although, proper may not be the right word because at the tail end of your freshman year in college, you probably aren’t paying too much attention to the texts you’re reading — at least not as much as you should be. (Laughs.) Nevertheless, the story definitely had an impact on me, and that impact is now born into this film.
The Green Knight‘s photography is quite striking. Did you storyboard the entire film pretty much? Did you show up to set knowing exactly what you wanted to do?
I storyboarded in fits and starts. There were parts of the film that were heavily storyboarded, and others where we just showed up, rehearsed with the actors and synthesized what the actors were doing with what my ideas of the scene were going to be. And then we would start shooting. And in some ways, that wasn’t the best way to go about making a medieval epic because, sometimes, an actor may have an inclination to walk to a part of the set that didn’t exist at all because we couldn’t afford to finish building it. (Laughs.) But nevertheless, that’s how we approached a lot of it. I always love following the whims of my cast, and I really don’t like to define my own vision until I know what they want to do. That being said, there were certain sequences that needed to be storyboarded, whether it was for visual effects or just for the sheer complexity of them. So the scenes with the Green Knight entering the Great Hall, we had storyboards for that. We had storyboards for Morgan le Fay [Sarita Choudhury] casting her spell. Oddly, that was the most storyboarded sequence. Every shot of that was something I drew out. And then very often, the night before a shoot, I’ll draw a series of rough thumbnails of how I think we need to tackle the day. As crude as it may be, when I’m the one doing the drawing, I can communicate far better than me just trying to explain what a shot will be. So it really was a blend of those two approaches, and I’ve continued that on the film [Peter Pan & Wendy] I’m making now. I’ve storyboarded a lot of it, and I always do these storyboards myself. I do a lot of thumbnailing myself, I draw a lot of pictures and it’s always fun to go back to them at the end. With Green Knight now, I’m looking back at the storyboards I drew, and the movie wound up looking a lot like them. (Laughs.) Even down to the color palette, because I often will put color in. But I also am always the first one to throw those storyboards away if a better idea comes into play or if an actor has an idea. I love being spontaneous on set and I love being able to have a plan, but I love being able to cast that plan aside at a moment’s notice. So I got into trouble on this movie a lot with that. (Laughs.) We would come up with new ideas, and when you’re dealing with a period film like this, if you point the camera another direction, you have to be prepared to have set dressing, props and costumes that you may not have on hand. So you can’t just be as spontaneous as you might be in a more modern film, but nevertheless, I tried to be as nimble as I possibly could.
The locations seemed like they put Dev (Patel) through the wringer, which is fitting since Gawain is supposed to be suffering along his quest. However, you also endured your own personal ailments while shooting this movie. So do you think your own individual pain rubbed off on this movie in a way?
I’m sure it did, but I think it rubbed off on my perception of the movie, more than the film itself. It took me a long time to get past my memories of how miserable the shoot was. (Laughs.) And it took a long time for the rose-tinted glasses to emerge, as they always do, for me to be able to look back on it fondly. It was a great time. I had so much fun making this movie, but in so many regards, it was also a nightmare and really, really hard. But I would never complain. It was a luxury that I got to make this movie. I was very grateful that I had the opportunity to make it, but it took far more out of me than I expected. And as a result, I carried a lot of that baggage with me for a lot longer. Had the film come out last year, maybe you would’ve seen evidence of that baggage on screen in the way that I cut the movie. But because I had time to re-approach it and to redevelop some affection for it and to let that baggage fall away, the film doesn’t bear much evidence of all of that pain now. Although certainly for Dev, you can definitely see what he went through. (Laughs.) That’s all loud and clear right there on camera.
So had it not been for the pandemic, your South by Southwest cut would’ve been the final product for the most part?
Yeah, we knew there needed to be a little bit more work done on it after South by Southwest. We were always going to do a couple more tweaks. We weren’t completely done with the sound mix, and there were a couple of visual effects shots that we were still finishing up. The credits and titles also weren’t done yet. But for all intents and purposes, we assumed we had locked picture. And I was a few weeks away from going into production on another movie [Peter Pan & Wendy], so even if I wanted to cut it or make changes to it, I really didn’t have that much time. The last few months of post on this movie, I was editing in hotel rooms in British Columbia while we were location scouting. I cut so much of this movie on a 16-inch MacBook Pro while in this tiny little hotel in the middle of the woods. (Laughs.) I’d wake up in the morning, go location scouting and get back to the hotel and get back to the edit. We were really burning the candle at both ends trying to get it ready. And yet, the movie was good. It wasn’t that it was bad. I can say now with authority that it was a lesser version of it, but you wouldn’t have known that necessarily at the time. No one would have known it except for me. I was always just trying to get more out of it, and anyone who was involved with me throughout the post-production process can attest to this. I just could not let it rest. I was consistently going back and re-cutting scenes and re-interrogating the material, trying to figure out the best way to put it together. If you were to look at the very first assembly of the movie, it’s not that different in terms of the themes being there in the movie and the scenes being what they are on a physical level. The scenes are all kind of the same. The first cut was three hours long, and I quickly cut it down to about two hours and twenty minutes. And then the South-by cut was probably just under two hours, and the movie that’s coming out now is 129 minutes. Somewhere in that realm. So it ebbed and flowed. The rhythm changed and the pace changed, but the scenes themselves didn’t change. Just the way in which I invested the movie with that material, changed. Changing the rhythm of a scene can really change the way in which viewers absorb it and absorb the messages you’ve tried to embed within it. And what I think the extra time editing allowed me to do was just really draw out those themes. So everything I was hoping to accomplish with the film, I was able to bring it to a much greater fruition when I was able to re-approach the edit.
I love films like this which challenge me to engage with the material on a deeper level. So for those people who have questions on their way home from the theater, what do you want them to think about in a broader sense? What direction would you point them in without explicitly defining anything?
I would ask them to consider the weight of integrity versus legacy, and what the value of those two concepts mean to them as an individual. And beyond that, I would invite people to go read the original text, the original poem, which is a treasure trove of thematic content that I think is highly applicable to the world we live in today. There’s a reason it’s been around for more than 600 years, and it’s endured for that long. It’s also held up under so much intense scholarly scrutiny for so long and been subject to so many interpretations. It’s just got a whole lot going on in there. And the greatest compliment I could receive as a filmmaker is knowing that someone has used this movie as a jumping-off point to discover a great work of English literature.
From Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton to Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Barry Keoghan, is it a coincidence that your A24 film cast a lot of A24 all-stars?
I have to say it is mostly a coincidence. I am a big fan of the movies that A24 puts out, and as a result, I’ve grown to know these actors through their A24 movies. I certainly knew Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson before I saw them in The Witch, but it was The Witch that really made me sit up and think, “I need to cast these actors someday.” And I had seen Barry in Dunkirk before I saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer, if my chronology is correct. So I loved him in Dunkirk and thought he was absolutely incredible. But Killing of a Sacred Deer — which my production designer Jade Healy did — she let me know, “There’s this young actor in this film who you need to keep your eye out for because he’s truly incredible.” So on one level, I like to say it’s just happenstance, but on another level, it certainly reflects my own taste. (Laughs.) And there’s a reason why I like working with A24 because everyone there shares my taste in cinema. The one exception, I would say, is Joel Edgerton, who I have been a fan of since Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. I’ve wanted to work with ever since then, but I have to admit, one of the great bits of trivia that makes his casting extra special is that he once played Sir Gawain, himself. That wasn’t the reason I cast him, but once I cast him, I realized that he played Sir Gawain in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur film from 2004. So I just love that little trivial piece of cinema history that we’re carrying the torch for by keeping that legacy alive.
I really appreciate how you bounce back and forth between a major studio like Disney and an indie studio like A24. Is this by design a la “one for them, one for me”? Or do you just follow the stories you want to tell, wherever they may lead you?
I follow the stories I want to tell, first and foremost. I won’t make a film if it’s not something I want to make. But it is certainly a bizarre twist of fate that the two studios that have emboldened me to make the most personal films in my career are A24 and Disney. That’s not something I would’ve expected, nor is it something that I think is explicable. I just don’t know how to explain that. But both studios have allowed me to express myself to the fullest, and they trust me in a way that I don’t take lightly. They support me in a way that I am incredibly grateful for, and the movies I make under both of their roofs are the ones that are dearest to my heart. I’m currently in production on Peter Pan & Wendy, and in so many ways, it will make a remarkable companion piece to The Green Knight. And it’s no less personal, no less strange, no less a film that bears my imprint than The Green Knight, even though it is representative of everything that a Disney film needs to be at the same time. So I feel very lucky to be in this position where I get to make movies that matter to me at both ends of the spectrum and that I can let them sit alongside each other. Everything that I can bring to the table as a filmmaker is alive and well in the films that I make for both A24 and for Disney. So I feel very grateful that I am able to do that.
Well, I really hope that Peter Pan & Wendy becomes this generation’s definitive Peter Pan movie, much like Hook was for mine. That said, I was pretty shocked when I eventually discovered that Hook wasn’t as universally beloved as my childhood bubble thought it was. So where do you stand on Hook?
I still love it. I think you and I are probably of that generation where it’s impossible not to love it. And if you hear the word “bangarang,” your eyes are going to light up. (Laughs.) But I can certainly look at it as an adult and imagine what it was like for my parents to endure that movie, perhaps. (Laughs.) So I don’t think my parents were fans of it. They weren’t fans of a lot of the movies I loved as a child, but I still love those movies now. And there are things in that movie that are as good as they’re ever going to get when it comes to a Peter Pan adaptation. And there are things that I love about J.M. Barrie’s novel that I had to leave out of my screenplay because I couldn’t do them better than Steven Spielberg did. And frankly, there’s a lot of things I can’t do better than Steven Spielberg could. (Laughs.) But there are scenes in Hook that are truly beautiful. And in spite of whatever criticisms people may level against that movie — including the criticisms that Spielberg, himself, has — there is some truly wonderful material in that movie, and it remains dear to my heart and probably always will. So I don’t seek to supplant it, nor do I seek to supplant any other Peter Pan adaptation. It is a work that is evergreen for a reason. So I am very happy that my movie will be the Peter Pan that an entire generation of children are introduced to and that it will be the vehicle for them to be introduced to this legend. But I also know that this won’t be the last Peter Pan movie. There will be another one further down the line, that will have its own value, and there will be children who love that one more than mine. And that’s wonderful. That’s what I love about making movies like this. And The Green Knight is similar. The Green Knight is an evergreen property. It’s not as well known as Peter Pan, perhaps, but it’s a work that has stood the test of time. So all I can do is try to do justice to it and treat it with the respect it deserves; I’m speaking both of The Green Knight and of Peter Pan & Wendy when I talk about this. And then one of things I can do is try to illuminate it with some degree of my own perspective. I can try to bring my own perspective to it and I can try to illuminate it in a way that hasn’t been done before. This is the one chance I have to tell this story, and I’m going to give it my all and make it as personal as I possibly can. But no matter how personal they get, they are still works that will withstand not just the test of time, but they’ll withstand me and whatever I try to do with them. So I look forward to seeing more Peter Pan films in the future, and frankly, I would love to see someone else tackle The Green Knight at some point, though hopefully they give me some breathing room. (Laughs.)
You recently said that you finally feel like you can call yourself an adult, which is a subject that I think about rather often. As a teenager, I thought adulthood would feel much different than it actually does. So how did you break through all this, to where you can now consider yourself an adult?
There is an accumulation of life experience that I think allows one to cross that threshold, and I suspect that it’s different for everyone. My younger brother has always been more grown-up than me, to the point that when we were younger, people thought that he was older than I am. And I think he probably has felt like an adult longer than I have. (Laughs.) Don’t quote me on that, but I suspect that to be true. So I think it’s different for everybody. But at a certain point, one’s aggregate sense of self begins to encompass a new perspective that can only be described as adulthood, although I don’t think it should be limited to adulthood. I still feel like the seven-year-old who was enchanted with Arthurian lore is alive and well within me; I am still that child. But there’s a new layer to me that wasn’t there two, three, four or five years ago. And whatever that layer is — however you want to describe it, however you want to explain it — has allowed me to embrace the idea of becoming an adult. It’s allowed me to embrace, finally, the idea of growing up and to accept the fact that I’m growing up with optimism, humility and positivity. For so long, I would just stamp my foot and refuse to consider myself an adult. I was a very obstinate child through most of my life — my twenties and well into my thirties. (Laughs.) And now finally, while I’m not casting that child out, that child has calmed down a bit and is existing alongside a new version of myself that I’m getting to know. I’m getting to know that version of myself right now, and that’s not a bad thing.
When certain auteur filmmakers change genres, their signature is often so identifiable that, despite the new genre, their latest work still feels like a movie by so and so. But if we conducted a blind taste test of your films, so to speak, it would take a very keen eye to recognize that the filmmaker who made Pete’s Dragon also helmed A Ghost Story or The Old Man & The Gun. So in your estimation, where did this versatility come from?
It could only have come from an absolute love of cinema in all of its shapes, sizes, forms, styles and genres. And there’s a sense that I don’t want to deprive myself of getting to play in any one particular sandbox. I just love too many types of movies. I love too many tones. I love everything that cinema encompasses, and I want to embrace it all in my work. I don’t have a better answer than that. I don’t set out to be a chameleon. I don’t set out every time to make a movie that’s completely unlike the last one I made. It’s never by design. Personally, I can look at my movies and see all of the little connective tissues, and they often feel very profound. They often feel so on the nose that I sometimes worry that I’m just repeating myself, but I know that from the outside, like you described, they seem very disparate and all over the map, perhaps. (Laughs.) And hopefully, they feel somewhat deft in their different approaches to the genres in which they exist. But nonetheless, they all are very different. The one thing that I think binds all my movies together is that they are all fairytales. Not a single one of my movies, to date, exists in a version of reality that I can say I live within. They all exist just slightly to the left of it, and they all have a very childlike perspective. But as I’m sure you’ve heard me say, Peter Pan & Wendy may be the first movie that casts that aside or broadens its horizons, so to speak. It’s certainly still a fairytale, but maybe my point of view is maturing. So it’ll be interesting to see if that’s detectable or not.
The Green Knight is now available in theaters nationwide.
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