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The Green Knight is a fascinating amalgam of old and new, classical and modern. David Lowery's dark fantasy epic, starring Dev Patel as the legendary Arthurian figure Gawain, has drawn critical acclaim since its release for its performances, its clever twist on the beloved original poem, and of course for its stunning visuals. Though it draws on certain clear visual references and influences, and retains Lowery's particular directorial sense that feels equal parts dreamlike, playful, and visceral, it's also safe to say that despite a certain familiarity in its story, The Green Knight looks unlike anything else you'll see at the movies this year.
A key reason for that is the team Lowery put in place to craft the look of the film, including production designer Jade Healy and director of photography Andrew Droz Palermo. For Healy, who's worked with Lowery on smaller productions like A Ghost Story and larger films like Pete's Dragon, the chance to craft a legend alongside the director was an instant yes.
"I'm always up for anything with David, because, it's like... I was just thinking about this the other day, sometimes if you read a script like A Ghost Story, or even The Green Knight, to someone who doesn't know David, like the crew, they're going to go, 'OK. This is interesting…' And I always say, 'Listen, don't worry, David does not know how to make a bad movie. It's going to be great. Like, trust me,' you know? And, I just have complete trust in David that I don't need to read the script before. I'm just like, 'When and where?'"
Healy describes her work with Lowery as deeply collaborative, reaching to every part of the filmmaking process, beginning with designing the film's look through frequent sharing of visual prompts, influences, and preferences. For The Green Knight, that meant everything from the paintings of German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich to the 1988 fantasy classic Willow.
"[David mentioned] The Dark Crystal, and Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Willow, for sure. Other things. You know, I was looking at some Tarkovsky films. I looked at other medieval films as well. I looked at Justin Kurzel's Macbeth as well. And they did some stuff that I liked. But I was really trying to stay away from being too informed by, honestly, medieval movies. So often we looked at movies that just weren't even medieval.
"And we were looking more at just stylized films or different films that we liked the tone and look for, but it wasn't like we were having a huge medieval film fest. We looked at the story and the medieval aspect... it was setting, but that wasn't the rule. You know, it wasn't really the rule for us when we were thinking of the design for the film."
For Palermo, who previously shot A Ghost Story for Lowery and whose other credits include the CBS All Access period drama Strange Angel, the same spirit held true. Certain films, including films with a medieval aesthetic, were inspirations, but they never dictated The Green Knight's final style.
"I think he mentioned Chimes at Midnight early on. He also mentioned Flesh and Blood. But I think I had told him about revisiting The Devils, which I had really liked," Palermo said. "I also went on a long tear of every movie about the Knights of the Round Table that I could see, just to see what I needed to consider, what I needed to position myself, our film against, if at all. Was there any overlap and great lessons that I could learn? And so I went and watched everything that I could find in that realm, which was really informative for me, as well.
"But these references, you just absorb, think about briefly and then when you're on set, you spew it all out in some mixture of everything kind of way, in a way that feels more true to yourself," Palermo continues.
While the film is obviously steeped in medieval design, from the weaponry to the castles to the wardrobe, there were certain choices that consciously moved away from more classical Arthurian depictions. According to Healy, it was always in Lowery's mind that, when the title character (Ralph Ineson) makes his grand entrance at Arthur's court, he would be able to ride right up to the king. That meant a "round table" that was more of a horseshoe than a circle.
"There was never a world where the table would ever be solid," Healy said. "And it's hard for me to even really imagine it solid, to be honest. Like now, it just doesn't make any sense to me in my brain. I think we're just: 'This is the new Round Table.'"
For Palermo, that sense of moving away from more stereotypical depictions of knights included discussions with Lowery about the look of Gawain himself, and the deliberate choice to keep the actor away from any suits of armor, creating a more natural physicality for the character. In those same discussions, the cinematographer also emphasized the importance of a more period-appropriate light source for the film.
"This is largely because many of the films that I was seeing were older but they weren't utilizing candlelight as a real key in the lighting," Palermo said. "And with modern cameras, with the light sensitivity that they have, you really can use candlelight a lot more as a source of light. And I really wanted to try to push that as much as I could."
The Green Knight's heavily stylized look and attention to detail meant that much of what you see onscreen was determined well before the shoot began, but that doesn't mean there wasn't room for improvisation. In fact, Healy recalled that one of the film's most vital scenes — in which The Lady pontificates on the significance of the Green Knight himself — included a last-minute request from actress Alicia Vikander for a deck of tarot cards that she could work with during her monologue. In the final film, it looks like a deliberate, important choice that might have been months in the making. In reality, it was much more spontaneous.
"We made those cards in 24 hours," Healy recalled. "I remember sitting outside the castle with sh***y Wi-Fi, looking for really medieval tarot cards... So I was looking at museums and I was looking, looking, looking, looking, and then I came across these cards. And I was like, 'Oh my God, these are amazing.' And then it's sending them to production, like, 'Can these clear [permissions]?' And then fabricating them.
"And I remember my art director was like, 'What? Tomorrow?' And I'm like, 'It's important,'" she continues. "And then, of course, it's a huge moment in the movie. Those are the thrills of design and the art department where you just roll with it. She's like, 'Cards.' And I'm like, 'Absolutely, we'll figure that out.'"
Whether it's last-minute tarot cards or carefully designed shots that have their roots in the very first production meetings, The Green Knight has won widespread acclaim for its visuals, with more than a few critics commenting that it looks far more expensive than its roughly $15 million budget might suggest. So, how do you make a relatively small-budgeted genre film look like an epic blockbuster? Palermo has some ideas.
"I think, if I had to put it very pointedly, I think a lot of what makes the movie also work is that it's real. A lot of it is real," he said. "We shot on these hard landscapes. We put Dev through the mud and through the wind, then up on mountains, and it's in-camera. And you can always augment things, but if you put a person in front of a green screen, it's never going to feel as real as if you at least have 60 to 70 percent of it being actually real and then augmented.
"And the same is true, even for the giants. The giants were shot. They're real people. We painted their bodies and shot them and then composited them, instead of just creating giants in CG. And I think it's just so important to start at least from something which is real and can be captured, whether or not it's getting composited. I think it's just important that people make these things and make them tangible and real."
The Green Knight is in theaters now.