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Knightfall showrunner Dominic Minghella on adapting the Holy Grail of Knights Templar stories

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Dec 7, 2017

The Knights Templar were a powerful military order of the High Middle Ages, an elite fighting force that was wealthy as it was mysterious. Its mission: protecting Christian relics. Comprised of a brotherhood of monks, the Templar had a presence around the world for two whole centuries, from its founding after the first Crusade in the early 12th century, to its suppression in the early 14th century.

The new History Channel scripted drama Knightfall begins its story in 1291, with the Templar losing control of the Holy Land in the Siege of Acre. That loss cost them the Holy Grail, which is just about as big a loss as you can suffer as far as relics go. The series explores the complex relationship the Templar had with the King Philip IV of France (Ed Stoppard) and Pope Boniface VIII (Jim Carter), but rather than feel like a history class on the Middle Ages, it balances the chess game of their relationship with adventure and some gruesome Templar action.

SYFY WIRE spoke to Knightfall showrunner Dominic Minghella about the Templar, the search for the Grail and its significance, and the women who navigated this world.

Dominic, you picked a very specific timeframe to explore in Knightfall, near the very end of their run. What was it specifically about this era and the Knights Templar that drew you and The History Channel in to tell?

Dominic Minghella: It was a startling idea to begin at the end of their heyday and I suppose that there would be characters who were questioning who they were and what they were for that I thought might speak to a modern audience. That would mean that I would be exploring real people rather than the people you get a glimpse of at the very beginning of an arc. As you know there can be a very black and white view of the world and I'm not very interested in that. Obviously, you have to get a little bit of that to understand who these guys are. Then to take them to a place more and more sophisticated and nuanced in their points of view. That's the journey that (our main character) Landry (Tom Cullen) is going on when you meet him and is still taking through episode 10.

History had a lot of success with their first scripted drama, Vikings, written entirely by Michael Hirst, who explored the culture and ways of that civilization, but also maintained that it's still a television show meant to entertain first. There's always concern, especially on this channel as to what's fact and fiction.

You're right, I'm a bit of a huge fan of Michael Hirst and not just because of that show, but because of Tudors and the other historical dramas that he's single-handedly written. The guy's a genius and is an absolutely remarkable guy. Over a certain amount of time, that's opened me up to the idea of sophisticated historical drama, that's not hamstrung by Old World Shakespearean dialogue that makes it lean only towards audiences who like a kind of rarified British BBC historical sort of snobby drama. You could do a drama for everybody that is period and I think he has trailblazed in that regard. That give me confidence that we would have enough material if the audience is approving of our work.

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Now he had the freedom to write around history because so little was written about them, but was that the blueprint for Knightfall too?

To a certain extent, he was luckier than I am in that there isn't there wasn't much written about the kind of fine detail of Viking milieu. Whereas ours is 300 years later down the line and it is quite well documented and there are things to get right and wrong. But the flip side is that the Templars had an amazing story and where we find them is a very interesting period in history. The demise of the Templars and what that meant, between church and state, which we play to in Season 1, is rich. There's lots of amazing stuff that is true. What I do have in my favor, is that the scene I'm mining is rich.

Do you feel like you can just follow the facts or do you make it the goal to expand on pockets in the story to make it your own?

We're storytelling first, the history is there, but we're an entertainment show. So we always have to tell our best story, that's a function of what the audience is expect in a six-act drama (with ad breaks). At the end of the day we have to tell a great yarn. Sometimes it's easier to tell a story that's like the history but not quite bang-on.

You'll see in Season 1 there's a trip to Catalonia, that's kind of an allusion to the Aragon state, but we just didn't want to have to be a slave to that particular world. So we chose to illustrate a true piece of history, which is the one that you've seen, the use of Princess Isabella as a pawn in negotiations between different countries. To tell that story better, it's interesting to see there was somewhere else she could have gone rather than just say that the guy in England wants to marry her and she goes to him. To make that more of a story about a young woman being moved around like a chess piece and foolishly having her own desires in the middle of it all.

Your series revolves around the Holy Grail and the men devoted to it, as well as those who wish to exploit it. Let's talk about the different aspects of what the Grail was to different people. First, there's the mythological use.

There's an aspect of the Holy Grail of whether or not it's divine, and could heal you is a significant element of the finale, which I hope is really pleasing. It raises the question and gives you an answer, maybe it doesn't or maybe it does. I hope people will want to talk about that and enjoy it.

The Grail is also of incredible importance then and by definition, we dub the most important thing in modern language as The Holy Grail.

Christian relics were of massive symbolic, and therefore political, importance. The Templars at one time had the Holy Spear (the lance that pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross) but if you had nails from the true cross or splinters from the cross, those were valuable and a sign of God being on your side. That certainly helped demoralize (opposing) armies, or helped them fight harder.

At one point on one of the Crusades was lost to the Seraphin, I think it was the Holy Spear that was paraded around to show that they beaten back the Crusaders. These were big symbols of victory or potential victory. On another level, we're not-so clearly saying to the audience that this is the adventure aspect to our show, there's fun there.

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But you found another level of the Grail that's much further beneath the crust, didn't you?

For me, the Grail and the search for it becomes existential. I think Landry's first words in Paris was in the budget meeting asking, :What are we doing here? If it's not to try take back the Holy Land, then what are we for?” We give Landry a choice to be an ordinary guy having an affair with a woman, or the kind of holy, mythical adventure of going after the Grail. He has this conversation with Pope Boniface VIII to give up this woman, whoever she is, and focus on the big journey, which is to get the Grail. What are our lives for, especially if you're supposed to be true to God and are a fighter?

It becomes a philosophical question, is this the answer? If there was one thing of supreme importance that you could go after, that being the Holy Grail, is that a good life? It's an interesting question and we develop the answer by episode 10, it's not a straightforward yes. If a life spent chasing the most important thing in the world turns out to be not necessarily the right kind of life, then what is the right kind of life? God willing, there's a Season 2, and hopefully we'll get to explore that journey in a nuanced way, given what characters have learned in Season 1. The Templar literally did worry about relics so it's a piece of storytelling fun and it's also an interesting philosophical question. The Holy Grail's got everything.

Did you come across contrasting views over what the Grail was in the official religious view vs. the mythological view vs. a historian view?

Maybe. I suppose I wasn't calling up the Catholic Church and asking them what they thought of the Grail. I don't think we needed to have a fight with anyone about what the Grail really was, because I think we went in understanding that there might have been a cup used in the ceremony that turned out later to be of big importance. I certainly preferred the twin element of it being fun and the philosophy of it over the fight over something literal that probably doesn't bear that kind of scrutiny anyway.

We did confer with our historian Dan Jones and others, but he particularly thought it was a romantic, late medieval invention, the Holy Grail, and not really anything to do with history. On the other hand, what we went for was that in the Bible, there was a cup that Christ drank from in the Last Supper. So it's a rather ordinary cup that was passed around, and not some golden, jewel-encrusted chalice that invoked angels singing and glowing celestial light.

It's interesting that one thing can mean so many different things depending on who's holding it.

It didn't really matter much to me what the exact story of that cup was. It did matter to me a lot that it mattered to the Templars. It matters to our characters. If you could take the Holy Spear into a Paris temple in 1306, they'd all be on their knees. It'd be a massive f***ing deal. So we went with the truth of that, the truth of a real holy relic–these were superstitious times and these were monks, and these were the things they fought for. That's the difference between us and a show that descends advertently or inadvertently into comedy. We're not going down the Monty Python trail, we're taking their world very seriously.

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How much fun did you had exploring the rituals of the Templar, what was surprising in how to portray the Templar.

What was surprising or juicy was the contradiction between being a monk and the fetishism of absolutely unadorned life where you turned your back on everything and given all of your property or land to the Brotherhood and all you get back is a Templar mantle and a cell to sleep in. You have absolutely no property and you're never going to get it back. You're not allowed to do anything without the fear of getting kicked out.

On the other hand you're a Jedi Knight. The Templar are literally the inspiration for the Jedis. You're kind of a superhero and a piece of s*** at the same time. That juxtaposition we do play with. You're saviors of the universe, but if things don't go your way, we'll make you run the gauntlet naked, carrying a heavy cross and have the s*** kicked out of you by your brothers. We've gone for that dissonance between superheroism and monastic nihilism. You're a nobody and you're a god.

What about stuff you wanted to explore but couldn't due to time or the narrative taking precedent?

This is an interesting question in some of the detail of how far to dramatize, as you might imagine. I'm still trying in the process of trying to enjoy some the detail at the way they ate, and the way you were initiated because some people say they were kind of abused or were abusing each other in a medieval hazing. Funny thing happened to us in Season 1 that in the presence of the Grail, and the desire to get it back began to overtake the events of Season 1, in a good way. There wasn't much time to sit down and see what the rules were about sharing bread with your brothers, not having your candle on after dark to read your Bible. There's an amazing rule book written by Bernard of Clairvaux who put his stamp on the order and because of his approval they went from 0 to 60 really, really fast. They started with nine knights, and about 30 years later they're one of the richest organizations in western Europe. It was just extraordinary that it was crowd-funding with the prize of a slice of Heaven. None of that lent itself to us because another version of Season 1 is you go into it with a young boy who's learning how to be a Templar and you learn their ways with him. Instead we chose to go for a more exciting, Grail-chasing narrative to get into.

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Women as a whole didn't have a lot of positions of power in this culture, but you had many characters and stories of real interest, talk about finding these strong and positive stories for women in Knightfall.

Thank you for raising that. I'm from a family of strong women. I've got three sisters who are brighter and live more in the firmament than me. I always feel like, who cares what guys think when there are these amazing women around? It's not a natural fit for me to be writing and running a show that's about guys and swords but it hasn't been very hard to see ways to make the show more accessible to women viewers. Women were around doing important things; being queens and being married off didn't mean you had to be an inert piece of male property. Before the time of our series, there was an amazing band of women in power called the Beguines in the 1200s and they were militant war widows and kind of proto-feminists. The more you look into history, the more you find extraordinary stories of powerful women.

For Knightfall, we went for the opportunities starting with our Queen Joan (Olivia Ross) who binds the story of the church and the state together. If you look up the history after watching Season 1, you'll see some truth to our handling of the story and you'll see why we chose to tell the affair. Princess Isabella (Sabrina Bartlett) as I've said becomes this very fierce character in history. Shakespeare called her the she-wolf of France. So this beautiful damsel-in-distress that doesn't do anything isn't a true reflection of the period. The women were very busy and very powerful and sometimes quite nasty. There's loads and loads for us to play there. It was great to have actors of status as Gina McKee, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Olivia and Sabrina and others. That's something we're having more fun with looking forward into what's hopefully coming next.

Knightfall airs on The History Channel on Wednesdays at 10PM.