Guy Ritchie Compares Making 'King Arthur' to War
"The one thing we cannot think about is reality, because your mind is completely set up to not accept reality. It can't deal with reality. It can't deal with truth. It can deal with relative truths, but it can't deal with absolute truths."
I have to pause and be honest with Guy Ritchie: You're blowing my mind, man. That's not a bad thing -- it's just 9am on a Tuesday; I'm strained from an overnight flight rattled by lightning storms; the director of Snatch, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and two Sherlock Holmes movies is preaching transcendence like Hollywood's resident Baruch Spinoza; and our reality-versus-perception debate, a bottomless rabbit hole for existentialists and stoned college kids alike, moves the conversation away from his latest blockbuster, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
"It could be the coffee," he points out.
OK, fair, I'm two cups deep in only 15 minutes, but instead of King Arthur star Charlie Hunnam or the villain, played by Jude Law, or Spanish model Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey's mysterious Mage character, we've segued to unboxing videos. This is a lot to take in.
"The old guard is crumbling," says Ritchie, who has made bank at the box office, but is well-aware that the 17-year-old girl with 2,000,000 YouTube subscribers is vying for his audience's attention. "Isn't everything about living vicariously? Isn't the world of celebrity all about vicarious living? And aren't we all being found out? It's always been that way, but what's quite revealing about this is it's hard to deny the condition of it all. Its conspicuity."
Ritchie grew up in Southern England, thrived as a director during the final bow of the '90s indie scene, introduced the world to Jason Statham, married and divorced Madonna, married and settled down with model Jacqui Ainsley, and has made movies with Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., Idris Elba, and Tom Hardy. But unboxing videos remind him of the biggest lesson he learned in Hollywood: "the fool's errand of trying to live vicariously through others."
Cut to: Guy Ritchie performing the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
"It doesn't make any fucking sense," Ritchie says. "However, once you apply it to what we're talking about, it makes complete sense." And like many classic tales, Luke 15:11-32 is bolder when filtered through Ritchie:
"There's a rich merchant that has two sons. He says to his sons, 'Would you like your inheritance?' The older son says, 'No thanks, dad. I'm going to stay with you. I'm going to be a good boy and I'm going to work for you.' But the young one wants to go and sniff coke off a stripper's tits, so he says, 'Give me all the dough. I'm going large.' The young son goes out and spunks it all. Ends up feeding pigs. He's in a lot of trouble. When he's feeding pigs, the people that employ him to feed the pigs, they won't even feed him the pig swill.
"At this point he realizes he may have made a bit of a rick, so he calls up dad and says, 'Dad, I am so fucking sorry. I think I've made a bit of a boo-boo. Any chance I can come back to wipe your ass?' (Paraphrasing.) Dad, at which point, runs to the gates and welcomes back the incoming prodigal, wasteful son.
"As the son's coming up, the older son goes, 'What the fuck's going on here, dad? I've been great. You fucking got yourself all excited. You've run to see this cunt come back.' And not only that, but he's ordered the sacrifice of the fatted cow. 'You've never killed me a fatted calf before. What's going on with the son that likes sniffing coke off stripper's tits? Why all for him?' 'Because, my son, you'll always be a good bean. But, fuck off, mug. What I'm really interested in is my son that was lost and now he is found.'"
So in Ritchie's mind, each person on this planet is the father, a person's intellect is the oldest boy, and the Prodigal Son is a stand-in for "the evolution of man." The sex and drugs are... just sex and drugs.
"You disappear into the material world living vicariously, trying to find all the razzle dazzle, coke and tits. And then after a certain period of time, you realize all that glitters is not gold and that you want to come home. But where you coming home to? You're coming home to yourself. You're not going home to anyone else. There is no other home. So you then return to the father, at which point the father, being you, the authentic you, as opposed to the spurious you, says, 'Nothing would make me happier.' The intellect, in the middle, doesn't know what the fuck is going on because the intellect doesn't understand the prodigal nature. The only way to glean wisdom is through being wasteful."
More coffee, please.
Ritchie compares his version of Arthur to the Prodigal Son. But out of his mouth, the analogy sounds like a survival tactic. The evidence is all over his movies. The underground crime world of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is chock-full of slow-mo tossing, Statham one-liners, and rapidly pumping shotguns. 2002's little-seen Swept Away whisked him and Madonna off to Malta. Sherlock Holmes turned the detective's sleuthing into an acrobatic act of hyper-logic (complete with explosions). U.N.C.L.E. was the '60s spy-fantasy no one knew they wanted. And now there's King Arthur, a mythological remix of Dungeons & Dragons visuals and Ocean's 11 cross-cutting capers, with Charlie Hunnam as the Once and Future Prodigal King. Ritchie's had hits and flops, critical darlings and cultural targets.
"There really are no losers," he says. "You were lucky enough for someone to give you some money to go and make a film. You were lucky enough to enjoy all the pleasures of making it. It was hard work, but it was pleasurable work. The entire experience was fun, so how the fuck can you lose?"
"The time when I am most at peace with myself is in the combat of filmmaking," he says. "It's war."
The gears are always turning in Ritchie's head, though Big Picture reality -- er, the perception of a Big Picture reality -- falls away when he's making a movie like King Arthur. "The time when I am most at peace with myself is in the combat of filmmaking," he says. "It's war."
The director's "fussy" over those he takes into battle. David Beckham, a pal, makes his second Ritchie cameo in King Arthur ("He's got a sort of star quality, old Becks, doesn't he?"), and with Hunnam, it was all about instantaneous shorthand. He shows me a text change from earlier that morning.
Ritchie: "I'm having breakfast in bed, and I pull back the duvet on the other side. Thought we could have a beautiful morning together."
Hunnam: "Break a girl's heart, why don't you?"
Friends help you question yourself, says the director. Which is why he'll trust his actors' instincts on lines they hate and rewrite his script on set. "Sometimes, I go, 'This ain't going to work,.' There was a romance in this film. The Mage and Arthur. But the film just didn't want it. We tried to nudge it, we tried to nudge it, and then the film just went, 'Can we do something else?'"
The "combat" starts when Ritchie starts questioning the reality of his movies. He says the most painful, consuming part of King Arthur was the music. "[Composer Daniel Pemberton and I] worked on it for three years. Just the music." The soundtrack bridges medieval tones and contemporary riffs in a rambunctious fashion that Ritchie calls the "simple" solution. Ritchie started his career as an Island Records talent scout ("I didn't find anyone"), and his movies often hinge, in his mind, on finding a keystone track. In King Arthur, it was British folk singer Sam Lee, whose music is heavily influenced by Romany migrants he once traveled with. Those songs, that lore, stoked another one of Ritchie's passions.
"I'm into the idea of mythology. I find that sexy and unexplored. It's the esoteric understanding of events, rather than the obvious understanding of events."
Ritchie's macro-view of the world is infectious and dizzying. I ask him about directing Disney's upcoming live-action Aladdin remake, or the possibility of sequelizing The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and we're off on HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis' 2016 documentary screed that uses everything from Egyptian revolution footage to clips from Armageddon to dissect corporate culture. We could be talking about the summer blockbuster he's releasing this week, but this is where Ritchie's head's at, and I can't help but indulge.
"Insanity is given credibility through its ubiquity. As long as everyone is insane, there's no longer insanity. You put yourself through all sorts of pain. I've put myself through a lot of pain. Completely unnecessary. Well, that's insane. But I justify it because you're doing it. And then I'll go, 'It's not just me, it's them.' Ah, well, that's all right then. It's OK to punish yourself. That's hyper-normalization. It's the essence of a narrative."
I sip my third coffee and mull that over. Ritchie doesn't need my next question.
"I spend a good deal of time realizing the futility of getting my knickers in a twist."
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