Film and TV

David Lowery Goes Medieval in The Green Knight

Dev Patel is Sir Gawain in the new film adaption of  the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Dev Patel is Sir Gawain in the new film adaption of the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eric Zachanowich
Hitting theaters this weekend, The Green Knight adapts one of the iconic tales from Arthurian legend from a mature, thoughtful perspective. However, for filmmaker David Lowery, it brought back childhood memories of a 7-year-old boy sword fighting his brother in cardboard armor.

“Here I am now over 30 years later finally making a feature film that brings to fruition all those early inspirations I had at 7 years old falling in love with Arthurian lore, falling in love with the fantasy genre,” Lowery says. “Obviously, I’m a much different person than I was back then, but I like to think that the 7-year-old who was playing in the backyard humming the Willow soundtrack while he who fought his brother with a cardboard sword would have been pretty happy with this movie, if his parents let him see it of course.”

Lowery’s inclination towards epic fantasy quests has long been in the making. He says that when he was a child he had an “obsession” with fantasy films like Willow, Ladyhawke, Dragonslayer and the PG-rated sequel to Conan the Barbarian (his parents barred him from watching the raunchier first film). When his parents first moved to Irving when Lowery was young, he completed his first screenplay: an adaptation of the story of Sir Percival and his quest for the Holy Grail.

“All of the love for that type of storytelling has been there for the vast majority of my life, and I’ve been utilizing it and playing upon it in one way or another since I began since I was first making films,” he says. “All those films held sway over me, and they spoke to me in the same way that Star Wars spoke to me. I love Star Wars because it’s science fiction, but ultimately it's a fairy tale. I love fairy tales and fantasy and high fantasy like that.”

Lowery’s creative spirit has only skyrocketed since age 7. The Dallas-raised filmmaker first turned heads with his debut feature St. Nick, which took home the Texas Filmmaker Award at the 2009 AFI Dallas International Film Festival. In the years since, his films Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon and The Old Man & The Gun have frequently appeared on film critics’ top 10 lists and drawn serious praise among cinephiles.

The Green Knight is a step into high fantasy that Lowery hasn’t previously explored. The meditative adventure film follows King Arthur’s reckless nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) as he embarks upon a quest to confront the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a terrifying figure who threatens Camelot. It adapts the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the 14th century, which has fascinated scholars and authors (most famously J.R.R. Tolkien) for centuries.
click to enlarge Filmmaker David Lowery on the set of The Green Knight - ERIC ZACHANOWICH
Filmmaker David Lowery on the set of The Green Knight
Eric Zachanowich
Self-professed geek Lowery was introduced to Arthurian lore was at a young age, first through the quest for the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

“That was sort of my entryway into the deeper canonical texts of Arthurian lore,” he says. “I’d seen The Sword in the Stone when I was very young so I knew about King Arthur, but it was really Indiana Jones that paved the way for me to discover all of the adjunct adventures that his knights went on.”

While this may be Lowery’s first official endeavor into the fantasy genre so critical to his identity (although he admits he still hasn’t watched Game of Thrones), he says there have been hints throughout his previous films.

“Despite the fact that I may have never indicated an inclination towards this type of material in any of my previous work, I think the signs are there,” he says. “If you wish to look at Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and read it as a retelling of The Odyssey, that’s certainly an accurate way to look at it. That was a text that I read in the same class where I first read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

The Green Knight’s release has been long-awaited by Lowery’s fans since the project was first announced, and the wait was only extended due to a barrier more fearsome than the titular Green Knight himself: COVID-19. The Green Knight was intended to debut at the SXSW Film Festival last March, but shutdowns delayed the release for over a year.

Lowery says that while the pushback was emotionally draining, he’s pleased that the film is now available to be seen in its intended format.

“I’m so appreciative that A24 remains as committed to the big screen as I do,” he says. “This movie was made to be seen on the big screen. It was to cast a spell over you that only the big screen can cast. I’m so thankful that it’s coming out now at a time where people, if they so choose, can see it that way.”

The long waiting period during which The Green Knight sat in limbo without a firm release date (as was the case with many films because of the pandemic) gave Lowery the chance to reexamine his initial cut.
Before release, he had removed 8-9 minutes from the film to fit “an arbitrary two hours” with a more tightly paced narrative.

“I had become obsessed with the idea of making a snappier film,” he says. “I was worried the film wasn’t as epic as it could have been, so I decided to go in the opposite direction and take out a lot of the worldbuilding and make the entire movie smaller.”

Yet taking time away from the project to shoot the upcoming Disney+ film Peter Pan & Wendy gave Lowery time to reconsider the potential in the footage. He admits that he was “burning the candle at both ends” by editing The Green Knight at the same time he scouted locations for Neverland and Captain Hook’s pirate ship, but it ultimately produced a stronger film.

“I ultimately found that everything I had caught out and thought was nonessential was actually really important,” he says. “The movie is a slow film. It’s not a fast-paced movie in any shape, way, or form, and cutting 10 minutes out of it didn’t change it. It just meant that a lot of really rich material that I think was important on a thematic level had been removed. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to come to my senses and dig back into the cut.”

Although not grateful for the circumstances that offered the opportunity, Lowery says the delay ultimately allowed him to have a more positive attitude toward a film he’s proud of.

“I’m glad that I had the time to re-interrogate the film and to fall in love with it,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with a sense of fear and disappointment in my heart, and once I was able to take this break and step away from it, I learned there was quite a bit to love in what we had made, and give it the time it needed to do what it intended to do.”

Like The Green Knight, Lowery’s upcoming Peter Pan adaptation is another chance for him to showcase his love of fairy tales. On the set of The Green Knight, the elaborate sets and costumes inspired his nostalgia for playing with Willow action figures, albeit now on a much larger scale.

“One of the great joys of making films that are like this is you get to inhabit those worlds,” he says. “When you build a set as opposed to shooting it on a blue screen, you are constructing a reality. For a few short weeks, we’re able to live in that reality. You’ll see people wearing medieval clothes and knights walking by with swords. On the one hand, it feels a little bit like Scarborough Fair, but on the other hand, as soon as the lights go on and everyone starts inhabiting their characters, you really feel like you’re there.”

Right now, Lowery is shooting on a massive pirate ship. While there’s obvious fun in playing on a massive playground, he says the large-scale environments help him get in the right mindset as a filmmaker.

“It transports you as a filmmaker who is helping to create this illusion,” he says. “There’s not that much illusion there, for me. I am transported as a filmmaker getting to see it inhabit these spaces. It’s one of the great luxuries in participating in the film.”

“One of the great joys of making films that are like this is you get to inhabit those worlds. ... For a few short weeks, we’re able to live in that reality. You’ll see people wearing medieval clothes and knights walking by with swords." - director David Lowery

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Although many of the visuals in The Green Knight are handcrafted, the film also makes heavy use of computer-generated imagery, something Lowery first explored with Pete’s Dragon. He says that while Pete’s Dragon helped pave the way, he’s always been fascinated by the use of visual effects.

“For a filmmaker growing up in the age of DVDs, you learn a lot watching extra features, and I spent many hours watching and rewatching all the behind-the-scenes documentaries on Lord of the Rings,” he says. “Those, along with a number of other films, really sort of gave me an intimate understanding of visual effects, and they also helped define my taste in visual effects. Visual effects come in all forms.”

Finding the right blend between practical and digital is something Lowery finds to be critical.

“There are the filmmakers that prefer to shoot exclusively on bluescreen, and there are those that choose to shoot things exclusively practical, and then there are those like myself that try to find the perfect harmony between the two,” he says. “I really love having practical things on set for actors to interact with, or environments that they can exist within, but sometimes there are things that just are better served with visual effects. Sometimes those visual effects are more practical, sometimes they are old-fashioned matte paintings, and other times they are completely computer-generated backdrops.”

Visual effects are important in The Green Knight, as the Fox that accompanies Gawain on his journey was completely created through CGI.

“In the case of the Fox in this film, they’re completely computer-generated creatures,” he says. “With both Pete’s Dragon and this movie, I had my conversations with our visual effects team where I asked could we do the dragon practically like the T-rex in Jurassic Park? Or could we do the Fox practically as a puppet? Ultimately, with the way we were making this film and what we knew we wanted it to look like and the dexterity we needed our creatures to have, computer-generated imagery was the right choice to make.”
click to enlarge Dev Patel in The Green Knight - ERIC ZACHANOWICH
Dev Patel in The Green Knight
Eric Zachanowich
Making that choice is always a conversation for Lowery.

“You’re always looking as a filmmaker; you’re always looking for the right tool for the job,” he says. “In my films, I try to just use everything we possibly could, whether it's something suspended on a fishing line to make it look like it's levitating, or something that's completely computer-generated. We have every type of visual effect in this movie, and I love working in that realm. I love having the tools to utilize and I love knowing how to use them.”

The Fox and many of the digital creatures in The Green Knight are added to environments that are very real. Lowery shot in Ireland at famous sites like Cahir Castle, an experience he says is among the luxuries of his profession.

“You get to go and live somewhere else and join a community and participate in that community and hopefully gain something from it, but if you’re only there for a short while, you get to see a side of the world that few people ever get to see,” he says. “You have the opportunity to climb a mountain that not a lot of people get to climb, and with Pete’s Dragon I got to just travel all over New Zealand, which for me is just Middle Earth. That’s a gift. That’s an opportunity that I don’t take lightly.”

Currently shooting Peter Pan and Wendy in Newfoundland, Lowery says filming in the immersive locations comes with a respect and love for the communities.

“It is very important for me that when we do go there, we leave a positive impact in the community that we’ve participated in and have temporarily joined,” he says. “We always try to make sure that we’re involving the community that we are working with in our films. We want to make sure that we leave them with something that they can look back on fondly.”

Employing local talent is something Lowery thinks is a great opportunity to open the gateway for aspiring young creatives.

“In the case of all of these films, we always try to foster an excitement for filmmaking,” he says. “Maybe there are young filmmakers in these parts of the world that get to have a backseat view to our production that will be inspired to make films of their own. I always want to aid and abet the generation ahead of me in every way that I possibly can.”

Lowery’s respectful attitude is something that bonded him with his empathetic leading man, Dev Patel. Gawain’s earnest chivalry establishes his knighthood, but the character is also in a state of arrested development.

“We approached it mutually as this story of a young man who hasn’t completely figured out who he’s supposed to be yet, and perhaps is a little behind the curve in his development as an adult,” he says. “He’s a man who hasn’t grown up yet, and that’s something that I certainly relate to. It was a very personal aspect of the story to me.”

Lowery says his personal ties to Gawain’s character arc was something Patel was also able to relate to.

“He brings a natural childhood enthusiasm to everything he does,” he says. “He’s so exuberant, and he is such an affable gentleman to be around, I knew that he would capture that side of Gawain perfectly, a young man who is just an oaf. He’s a kid who overstayed his welcome at his mom’s house. I knew that he could play that side perfectly while also endearing himself to the audience.”

Lowery also saw Patel’s casting as a chance for the acclaimed actor to step outside the characters he’s played previously.

“I also knew that there was a side to him that people hadn’t seen, which is this dignified, regal, nobility he naturally has,” he says. “You speak with Dev, he’s just all smiles, he’s just so full of enthusiasm, but in these quiet moments in between conversations, you’ll see who he really is. You’ll see how thoughtful he is, the way he carries himself.”

Seeing Patel wear a suit of armor not dissimilar from his own childhood cardboard creations was something that excited Lowery.

“I wanted to tap into the side of him that really could have been a knight,” he says. “I wanted to see him in armor striding on top of a horse. I wanted to see a crown on his head, because he has a kingliness to him. He’s not your typical hero, I think. He’s not your typical strapping leading man. He has a great beauty to him. I wanted to let him stretch his legs and show a side of himself he’d never been able to before.”

If The Green Knight is a fulfillment of a wide-eyed child’s love of the mystical and epic, Lowery still hasn’t forgotten his local roots. He teases a Dallas connection that local moviegoers will need to look out for when they see the film this weekend.

“If it's any interest at all to the readership of the Dallas Observer, there were about six shots that were shot in DFW, so it’ll be a fun guessing game for local cinephiles to guess which ones they are,” he says. “Only one of them was obvious, but I’m sure the secrets will reveal themselves in time. I’m glad there’s a little touch of Dallas in this very British film.”

The Green Knight is in theaters this weekend.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.