[The following post contains spoilers for “The Green Knight.”]
Ten years ago, David Lowery was a virtually unknown Texan filmmaker pushing his short film “Pioneer” at Sundance. Since then, he has gone on to work on studio projects like Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” and the upcoming “Peter Pan and Wendy,” as well as the Robert Redford romance “The Old Man and the Gun.” Through it all, Lowery has remained an innovative and unpredictable storyteller whose work is steeped in awe-inspiring moments that retain an intimate quality irrespective of their scale. Having made the lo-fi hit “A Ghost Story” after “Pete’s Dragon,” Lowery continues to build a body of work that tips in and out of big-budget filmmaking as his signature blend of sensitivity and enigmatic storytelling deepens each time out.
That trajectory continues with “The Green Knight,” his most ambitious project to date, and an adaption of the 14th-century poem of the same name. The A24-produced movie stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, the wayward nephew of King Arthur. After agreeing to do battle with the mystical creature of the title, Sir Gawain must undergo a strange and perilous journey one year later to confront the tree-like Green Knight, having agreed to let it strike back at him in the aftermath of their first duel. In the process, the plucky adventurer endures ghosts, giants, a strange love triangle, and a talking fox over the course of quest that forces him to confront his own mortality.
Like much of Lowery’s work, “The Green Knight” merges its unusual concept with absorbing visuals and a vibrant soundtrack, resulting in a hypnotic riff on the fantasy genre through his own distinctive lens. Sir Gawain’s quest has been a long time coming to the big screen: A24 originally planned to premiere at SXSW 2020 before the festival was canceled early in the pandemic and the release was postponed. Now, the movie is finally opening in North American theaters (though its U.K. opening was recently delayed again), and Lowery’s ready to move forward. The original setback allowed him to revisit the project in the editing room as he contended with the existential crisis around him.
In a recent phone interview, he spoke about the genesis of “The Green Knight” and how the pandemic forced him to consider his career in a whole new light. He also addressed the constant uncertainty surrounding the future of theatrical releases, including his next big Disney project.
You have been obsessed with the original “Green Knight” text since your college days, but when did you first approach the idea of turning it into a movie?
I didn’t have the idea of turning it into a film until about 11 months before we started shooting it. It was a very sudden obsession. I certainly had always wanted to make a fantasy film. Whether it’s “Willow” or “Lord of the Rings,” I’ve just always loved that genre. At that particular point in my life, I wanted to make a movie about someone on a quest. I thought back to the poem and thought that it would make a good template for a film. I didn’t even know if I’d necessarily adapt “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” so much as use elements from that text for a film that would’ve been something different and completely original. I thought maybe I could make a movie about a knight on a horse traversing the landscape that I could shoot somewhere in Texas. Then I picked up the poem and started re-reading it. That’s when the obsession took hold; I went from thinking it was a jumping-off point to being completely enamored with the text and wanting to translate it to the screen with as much care and affection as possible.
It’s certainly a larger scale than the original knight-on-a-horse-in-Texas idea.
I didn’t think anyone would make it when I was writing it. I didn’t think I could pull together an actual adaptation that’s as true to the poem as this one wound up being. But lo and behold, three months after I wrote the script, we were scouting locations; four or five months later, we were done shooting.
From a practical standpoint, how did you get all these financiers onboard with such an unusual vision?
The poem is such a tremendous piece of work. By adhering to it, even though I did extrapolate from it, the poem did me some favors because it’s so rich. When people read the script, whether or not they were familiar with the original poem or not, they really responded to it. It’s something that has endured for over 600 years. All I had to do was illuminate it and provide a roadmap for translating it to film.
That’s all well and good, but this does not look like a cheap movie. How did you wind up getting the budget you needed to pull off the scope you had in mind?
I was surprised. I didn’t expect it to come together. But as soon as there was a hint of a possibility that someone could make it, I jumped into action. I was adamant that we get it done quickly. I was afraid that they’d get cold feet about it. I was wondering at what point people would realize that we were trying to make something crazy here. When would the interest start to wither on the vine? But I also thought I could make it for less. It’s not the most expensive movie A24 has made. I actually went into it thinking this would be far more akin to “A Ghost Story.”
Really? You made that for $100,000.
Obviously it’s more expensive than that, but I wanted it to have that same sort of experimental vibe, and figured we could do it on a bargain budget. I wasn’t 100 percent correct in that regard. My ambition for the film grew exponentially over the development process. As we were scouting locations, I just kept wanting it to be bigger. Eventually, that got the best of me. It was a case where our vision for the film was ultimately far bigger than the number we thought we could make it for — and bigger than what we did make it for. We pulled off something we shouldn’t have been able to pull off.
So how much did you think you could make it for?
My arbitrary thought early on was that we could make it for about $9 million. That’s how much Jim Jarmusch spent on “Dead Man” back in 1994. I completely did not account for inflation. I just figured, there’s a movie about a guy on horseback riding across a landscape. We could probably do this for the same amount of money. The ultimate budget is still low enough to qualify for the Independent Spirit Awards.
In other words, under $22.5 million. You’ve worked at the studio level a few times now. Obviously this movie wouldn’t have worked within that context. Your movies often don’t have such jarring violence and sexuality; in that sense, this is a more extreme film for you. How cognizant were you of that?
I was writing this in the run-up to the release of “The Old Man and the Gun,” which was the gentlest movie I’d ever made. I was upset that movie wasn’t rated G. I really wanted to make the kindest film possible. But here I wanted to roughen myself up a little bit. I wanted to do something that had to be reckoned with in a different kind of way, that was tougher to digest and that could stick in people’s throats in a way that some of my other films haven’t. I wanted a protagonist who is someone unlikable. One of the initial changes I made when writing the script was the degree to which Sir Gawain is a virtuous knight. I wanted to tarnish his legend and see what changes the story would go through as a result. All of the violence, the sensuality, the lustiness — it all comes from the text, but it was something I was very excited to dig into.
Speaking of the lustiness, it is quite striking to see this character go through a complex, erotic love triangle late in the film.
None of my other films have really required me to address those things before, but this one did. I wanted to honor the poem, which is incredibly ribald for a 14th century text. But I wanted to engage with the sensuality that is a natural aspect of the story. I felt that to shy away from that would be not only doing the film a disservice but robbing myself of a new dimension that I could explore as a storyteller. I’ve never considered myself a prude by any means, but the romances I’ve made never really delved into sexuality that much. This one needed to have a sort of red-blooded lustiness that reflects Sir Gawain and the journey he goes on as a character. I knew that if I made a PG version of this movie, I’d have to curtail that, like so many other Arthurian adaptations. That being said, if you go back and look at “Excalibur,” the opening scene is more graphic than anything in “The Green Knight.” I’m not treading new ground here.
There’s an earthiness to the movie that connects it to many of your other films. But it feels more resonant now, especially in the story of a giant tree attacked by a man, only to find that he’s still at the mercy of the tree. It’s a climate change theme: the Earth strikes back.
If you go back and read a lot of the analyses of the original poem, the first interpretation of the Green Knight himself is that the color green represents nature in a pagan sense: the confrontation between nature and civilization, or nature and religion. As someone who has a very ecological mindset and wants to bring those into my work, I felt that I should lean into that interpretation as hard as I could. The Green Knight is a distant cousin of Elliot from “Pete’s Dragon.” Both films deal on a subtle but important level with the way in which mankind has encroached upon nature and it can take back what belongs to it.
On that note, what has the past year been like for you as a storyteller?
I’m not alone in thinking 2020 was a very existential year, and the deep thoughts that I had over the entire summer were shared by the vast majority of the world’s population. I often found myself thinking, “Is what I am doing contributing to the world in any shape or form? And if it isn’t, how can I change that?” I had moments where I wondered, “Does filmmaking even matter?”
But I ultimately decided that I can’t just quit making movies. And if I’m going to do that, the movies I make better be worthwhile. I’ve always felt that the best I can do for this world is to contribute something that will illuminate goodness within the world. This wasn’t exactly new to me, but it was brought to the surface in a way I hadn’t thought about in a long time. The urgency to reemerge from last year as a storyteller changed the way I was recutting “The Green Knight” as well as the way I was approaching “Peter Pan and Wendy,” which was about to go into production. The film I’m making now is very different. I suddenly understand it a lot more and understand that the currency I have as a filmmaker is not something I cannot take lightly. I can’t let my work be disposable. I have to try my best to make movies that will matter to people, whether as entertainment or something more. That’s never been more important to me than it is right now. Hopefully, that sense of urgency remains.
What changes did you make to “The Green Knight” during the pandemic?
I knew that the themes of honor and chivalry were important and vital for this movie. But somewhere in the post process, I just got too caught up in the minutiae of the movie to remember that. When the movie was delayed and I had the opportunity to get back into it, that was what I wanted to do — bring those themes to the surface in a more recognizable way. The movie got a few minutes longer and the pace changed. Those tweaks were all geared towards letting those themes rise more. It’s still quite obtuse, but I think those themes resonate more now.
There’s a rich paradox at the center of all your movies, including this one, and it’s the idea of loss as both a tragic and profound experience. How do you relate to that concept now?
Loss is a beautiful thing; it’s a terrible thing and a sad thing, but it’s a necessary thing. One day we will lose all that we hold dear. In my attempt to make peace with that, I’ve tried to approach the idea of loss, the idea of death, the idea that all we know will one day come to an end, with a sense of peace and appreciation. I try to find meaning in that loss. I want to gain something from that. Death is on my mind a lot these days. I really try to embrace the goodness of death. I wanted the end of this film to be a happy ending. Maybe Sir Gawain gets his head cut off two seconds after the film cuts to black, or maybe he lives a long life and dies of old age as King Arthur did. But regardless, he will come to an end, he will die one day. What’s important is that he’s arrived at this place where he can face that inevitability with goodness in his heart. That is how I try to approach the world.
“The Green Knight” is obviously a big screen experience. A24 held onto it for over a year to get it out that way. But not everyone is so invested in preserving theatrical releases. You’re currently making a movie for Disney, which is far more focused on putting its film and TV shows on Disney+. How committed are you to preserving a theatrical life for your work?
I’m very committed to it, but also very aware of the landscape. I am not a 100-percent purist in that regard. If “Peter Pan and Wendy” is able to be seen on the big screen, I would certainly endorse people being able to see it that way, but I realize most people will see it on Disney+; more people have seen “Pete’s Dragon” on Disney+ than those who saw it in a theater. As happy as I am that A24 is committed to a theatrical release of “The Green Knight,” I know that it will live on with VOD. I’m not opposed to that. As a moviegoer, I will always choose the big screen. That’s my venue of choice. That’s where I want to see films. But during the pandemic when theaters were closed, I realized that it was more important to see films period than to see them on the big screen. I needed contemporaneous forms of art reflecting the world back at me to help me process what was going on.
What do you make of the current back and forth between studios and exhibitors over theatrical windows?
Ultimately, I hope that cinemas and all the other options for releasing films can co-exist symbiotically. I think release windows can and should change. There should be flexibility. Everything should be malleable. But I do think the movies I make will work best on the big screen. I hope there are big screens left to show them for years to come. That being said, I’m just grateful to see movies. If all the theaters closed next week, I’d be the first one asking A24 to make “The Green Knight” available on VOD. Ultimately, it’s more important to me that people see it that way than not see it all.