The Green Knight director talks about casting Dev Patel in the lead role

·5-min read
Photo credit: A24 Films
Photo credit: A24 Films

Discovered almost 200 years ago as a mysterious, authorless manuscript, 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has tantalised the imagination of readers across the generations thanks to its mythic imagery and chivalrous romance.

An undisputed classic in which King Arthur's nephew faces off against a magical challenger of men, it's now been adapted into a movie by director David Lowery, whose bank-robber drama The Old Man & the Gun and live-action Disney remake Pete's Dragon are well worth your time.

Teaming up with visual-effects whizzes Weta Digital (The Lord of the Rings and District 9), Lowery has a vision that is both spectacular and macabre, as if the realms of mainstream blockbuster and indie cinema intermingled on the promise of greatness.

From the first moment Dev Patel's bearded Sir Gawain graced last year's promotional footage – haunted by self-doubt before traversing medieval countryside in search of the eponymous creature (played under layers of prosthetics by Ralph "Finchy from The Office" Ineson) – it was clear that the fantasy genre could have a new masterpiece on its hands.

Photo credit: A24 Films
Photo credit: A24 Films

Now, with The Green Knight's lengthy release delay behind him, Digital Spy fired up Zoom for a chat with Lowery to discuss everything from nostalgic influences to audience expectations.

"I wanted to make a quest film," the 40-year-old recalls. "I wanted to make a movie about a knight on a horse going on a journey; I don't know why I wanted to do that, it was just the image that popped into my head and it seemed like something that I could do simply with a relatively low budget.

"So, I had this idea of doing something very, very simple, very stripped down, and I was naturally drawn towards Arthurian legends as a source material for this template. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was one that I loved that I'd read in college and I'd always loved the Arthurian myth.

"I grew up being really into the whole [Holy] Grail mythos, so I just thought, 'Oh you know, I haven't read this since college... I'm going to buy a copy of the poem and read it, and write the screenplay as I'm reading it.'"

Photo credit: Eric Zachanowich / A24 Films
Photo credit: Eric Zachanowich / A24 Films

A "month or so" was all it took from inception to first draft. Before he knew it, a raft of acting talent was interested in joining his ambitious project, but Slumdog Millionaire star Patel's "affability" really made an impression on Lowery during their meeting.

"I wanted to work with actors I hadn't worked with before; I wanted to work with actors who weren't American [and] I wanted to go abroad to make this movie," he tell us. "I met Dev while he was shooting [The Personal History of] David Copperfield and we just hit it off.

"I'd written a character who was relatively unlikeable and didn't have much humour to him, and I knew that if I cast Dev he would suddenly become an incredibly beguiling hero, even though he's not very heroic. Once I'd pictured him on that horse in that landscape, I couldn't imagine anyone else playing the part."

As you may have garnered from The Green Knight's trailers, Sir Gawain's foe is one charismatic son-of-a-gun. Resembling an enormous, emerald garden gnome fashioned from tree bark, this axe-wielding stranger may come to surprise viewers as the film approaches its climax.

Photo credit: A24 Films
Photo credit: A24 Films

"I wanted the character to have a sense of humour to him; you don't necessarily get that at the beginning of the movie, but by the end of it I wanted there to be a twinkle in his eye that is unmistakable," teases Lowery. "I think my direction [for Ineson] at the end of the film was like, 'Play the Green Knight as if he's Santa Claus,' and he nailed that."

Aside from jolly sleigh-riders, the director also namechecks Wes Anderson's stop-motion adventure Fantastic Mr Fox as "always" in the back of his mind in terms of influence – coincidentally, The Green Knight features an anthropomorphic fox too.

One title that "made a huge impact" on Lowery when he was younger was cult favourite Willow.

"This is not a family movie by any means, nor is it a traditional adventure fantasy film, but nonetheless I wanted to make a movie that shared some DNA with films like Willow," he adds.

"I really loved the world that that movie was set in and wanted to just sort of borrow some of the aesthetic templates that [writer] George Lucas and [director] Ron Howard created."

Photo credit: A24 Films
Photo credit: A24 Films

There's a specific mentality he urges cinemagoers to employ ahead of seeing his new movie, though, and that's to "cast expectations out of their mind". Easier said than done, of course, when you consider the first trailer arrived 18 months ago and has accumulated 5.5 million views.

"The one downside of having a year delay is that people have seen the trailer and they've built up an idea of what the movie is in their heads, and I'm terrified that it won't be that," Lowery nervously laughs. "It is a very unique and distinctive thing that marches to the beat of its own drum, and it's not going to be for everybody.

"I think the best thing to do is just go in, sit down and get ready for adventure because it is an adventure. It's a very strange and small, and intimate and unusual adventure, but I don't think it will disappoint people unless they're expecting Game of Thrones... which this definitely is not."

Co-starring as it does the mighty Joel Edgerton, Alicia Vikander, Barry Keoghan, Kate Dickie and Sean Harris, those high expectations might be difficult to shake off.

The Green Knight is out in UK cinemas and available to watch on Amazon Prime Video from September 24.

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