David Lowery And Dev Patel On Making History, And Humanizing The Fantasy, In 'The Green Knight' [Interview]

Filmmaker David Lowery loves Dev Patel just as much as we do. Which is a lot, considering how much online film circles gush and swoon over the Personal History of David Copperfield actor.

"I was just really taken with the idea of seeing Dev on a horse in armor with a sword, with that axe, an image that just instantly just like it felt right to me," Lowery told /Film in a Zoom interview with him and Patel for the upcoming A24 fantasy epic The Green Knight.

But more than fulfilling many a person's fantasy of Patel as their knight in shining armor, Lowery knew Patel was someone that audiences could immediately root for. How could we not, after seeing him grow — both as an actor and a person — before our eyes, from a snot-nosed teen on Skins, to a romantic hero in Slumdog Millionaire, to Oscar-nominated actor in Lion? And that's something he wanted to tap into for The Green Knight, in which Patel plays Gawain, a nephew of the legendary King Arthur who seeks to prove himself worthy of becoming a knight of the Round Table. So he rises to an impossible challenge laid down by the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), which leads him on his quest towards his own death.

"The thing that really struck me the most....was that Gawain sets out on a quest, the end of which is his own death," Lowery said. "And that he knowingly is embarking upon a journey that can only end one way."

So if we're going to accompany a person that we know is going to die, we have to like him, right? Not exactly. Lowery had previously used the word "pathetic" to describe his take on Gawain, though he would only call him a "cad" and "naive" with me (and in front of Patel, with whom he was paired for our interview). But he nearly blushed when he described why he wanted to cast Patel and use the actor's natural charms to counteract the character on the page.

"I knew that by casting Dev as the character, the audience would be completely invested in his journey towards that ultimate culmination," Lowery said.

"I love you, man," Patel grinned.

"Likewise."

Read my full interview with Lowery and Patel, in which we talk accents, college papers, and color-blind casting, below.

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David, you had read this poem this is based on way back in college, but what struck you the most about it when you revisit it again as an adult to write the script for The Green Knight?

David Lowery: So many things. I read it at the end of my freshman English class first semester, so I probably wasn't giving it the attention it deserved. In revisiting it, I was struck by its modernism, how contemporaneous the text felt. It did not feel like it's something that was written 700 years ago. I was struck by the language. I read a couple different translations in preparing for the movie and then tried my hand at reading the Middle English and did my best to get a grasp of that with not much success. The thing that really struck me the most again, which was what's captivated me back in college, was that Gawain sets out on a quest, the end of which is his own death and that he knowingly is embarking upon a journey that can only end one way.

All of that is implicit and that really resonated with me. It really tied into all the themes I normally am interested in as a storyteller and as a filmmaker. It haunted me. That's something that I just couldn't let go of. So as I set about adapting it, that was what I tried to hone in on the most. As other elements of the poem rose to the surface or fell away, that was the one theme that I really tried to keep my sights on and put my blinders on to pursue.

Dev, Gawain is usually traditionally a white character in literature and past depictions. This is not the first traditionally white literary character that you've taken on in the feature film role in recent years. So did that put any pressure on you as you approached the role in The Green Knight?

Dev Patel: Yeah. I always feel I'm going to come under scrutiny when you step into something like this, but for me, the opportunity far outweighed what the margin of trolls would say about it in the deep web somewhere. It just was such an amazing opportunity to work with someone like David and the crew here assembled, this cast. The young child in me was so excited to be able to hold that big green ax and wield Excalibur and all those kinds of things that I never dreamt that I would be able to do. But yeah, it was a really beautiful experience being a part of it.

David, I know that this film earned a lot of buzz for just simply casting Dev Patel, both for the color-blind casting and because of his status as a beloved indie actor. But I know, David, that you specifically cast Dev for a specific reason, which was to counter the "pathetic" character you had written for Gawain. Can you speak about why Dev worked for this particular purpose?

Lowery: Dev, you need to turn your microphone off, or you need to turn your video off so I can talk about it without you in the room. I purposely went about writing a version of the character, again, very different from the original text of the poem who is not yet a knight and is failing to live up to the legacy that's expected of him. He's failing to live up to his lineage and he's not growing up. I think, Dev, our first conversation, when we first talked about it, one of the things you pointed out to me was like, "We should probably make this character more likable."

Patel: Yeah.

Lowery: I silently thought back, "Well, one of the best ways to make this character likable is for me to just cast you as Gawain. That'll do the trick all by itself." I was just really taken with the idea of seeing Dev on a horse in armor with a sword, with that axe, an image that just instantly just like it felt right to me. But I also knew that audiences would go along with this character. There are other versions, other interpretations of this character that we could have gone with. We could have made him harder to like. We could've done any number of things and I knew that no matter what, that audience would be on Dev's side. That was really important for me as a storyteller, to have that safety net of having our central character be one who audiences would be beguiled with from the beginning, and who in spite of...

[To Dev] You need to turn your video off. I'm just going to keep heaping on the craze here. But no, it really is true. You need, for a story like this, for a character who we've reinvented as somewhat of a cad and to have a naïveté to him, an exuberance to him that counteracts the more negative qualities, so that we can become invested in his journey and want to see him succeed. My hope was that however you interpret the ending of the movie, that it is a happy ending because he's finally achieved what he needed to achieve as a human being. I knew that by casting Dev as the character, the audience would be completely invested in his journey towards that ultimate culmination.

Patel: I love you, man.

Lowery: Likewise.

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Dev, when you signed on to play the hero of an epic fantasy movie, did you expect at all to play that purposely unlikeable character? Did you play a part in creating the character as we see finally on screen and changing him along the process?

Patel: I really related to him. When I read it, actually, I just really wanted him to succeed. I could see that he was lost and he was flailing at times in the story. Ultimately, he's a very human hero. That's what I loved about it. There was all these ugly qualities that in your usual movies, you would shy away from, but you see his impotence as a man, physically, mentally, everything in a way that I think was... It's quite beautiful. It is this interesting coming-of-age story, period. It's dark, but in David's version, at least, it's a mother sending her son on this quest to grow up, leave the nest. I really related to that. There's this wonderful moment, spoiler alert, and David blends time and it's just... Actually, I shouldn't talk about it, but yeah.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a classic poem of chivalric romance, but its notions of honor and chivalry are a little difficult to convey to modern audiences. David, how did you go about translating those themes and bringing forth that coming-of-age story that eventually emerged within the movie?

Lowery: You hit the nail on the head. By making it a coming-of-age story, it allowed those themes to resonate in a modern context. I think that when you read the poem, you understand implicitly because it's a 14th century poem, that you understand the journey that Sir Gawain goes on. Even though he already is the most virtuous knight in Arthur's court, you understand the fallibility of him and the texture and nuance of that character on the page. But in introducing audiences to the story on screen, because I'm assuming that a lot of people who watched this movie won't have read the poem or won't know it, I really felt that we needed to simplify things and to make it a more binary journey for the character. For a lack of a better way of putting it, I just adapted the zero to hero storyline and have Gawain start off as someone who has not achieved his... He's not become the man he needs to be, and by the end of the film, he gets there.

By doing that, that allowed the themes of honor and integrity and chivalry from the original text to resonate more, I think, clearly for a modern audience. If you were to just try to justify the beheading game with a character of Gawain as he is presented in the poem, already being a virtuous knight who has achieved greatness, it's harder to justify him going on that journey. Modern audience members, myself included, might just ask, "Why is he going to do that? Why would he even chop the knight's head off in the first place? It doesn't make sense." But if this is a character who has something to prove, suddenly that catalyzes the entire journey and as modern as the original poem is, it makes more sense on a modern storytelling level. It was just one of those little changes that I think helped make the movie, I hesitate to say more palatable, but just more streamlined on a narrative level for moviegoers in 2021.

Despite some of those more modern elements, I was also struck by how the film adhered to the poem's Middle English 14th century roots, specifically the dialogue. For example, with the cast, except for Dev putting on... I don't know anything about the actual accents, Celtic accents, Middle English accents... can you talk about that a little bit?

Lowery: I am a big believer in letting an actor be themselves. I never want to presume that an accent is necessary, but in this movie, there were certain instances where it felt appropriate like having Alicia [Vikander] play two characters and we wanted to make those characters distinct, and Sean [Harris] and Kate [Dickie] in playing the king and queen really wanted to honor the Welsh origins of the original poem and that felt appropriate too. For me as a writer, I just love writing dialogue like that. That's just so much fun. I just love... It was a treat to write this dialogue. A lot of that, that cadence is there on the page, but I never went to be beholden to that.

I never wanted to force someone to... It's not a piece of historical fiction. It's a fantasy film, and so there's room for a variance in there. For example, with Joel Edgerton, his accent, we were trying to figure out what he should sound and ultimately, we ended up watching lots of clips of Oliver Reed. There's so many amazing clips of him highly inebriated doing interviews. His performance, I think, is largely based on that because I was like... At first, it started with Ken Russell's Women in Love. From there, I went to Oliver Reed interviews on YouTube. That really was the genesis of his character. That doesn't fit into the Welsh stuff that Kate and Sean are doing, but it did feel very right for that character.

Dev, did you find any particular challenges in portraying the character within this very specific both historical, but also slightly surreal, 14th century England type of setting? Did you also go forth with any kind of challenges with Katie and Sean with the Welsh accents or anything or did you just approach it in your own way?

Patel: Well, I had the easiest journey. Like David said, he was so... It just really brought out the truth in me in a way, but it's like a very meditative experience for me. I found myself really in my body for a lot of the film because you're out in Ireland. As many times when they're setting up camera and I'm just taking a mental picture of what you're looking at right now. Yeah, I was just so overwhelmed by these vistas that we'd find ourselves on, on the top of the feather beds in Ireland, looking out the sea of green. For me, it was a process of being in my body. It's quite a solitary journey. In a way, what I loved about it is we weren't dwelling on the usual clashing of swords and the usual stuff that was... It's way more esoteric and psychological this guy's journey. It was tapping into your own psyche, really. But in terms of accents, like David said, I was there. I'm in luck.

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The Green Knight opens in theaters on July 30, 2021.