Why 'The Green Knight' Director David Lowery Took a Big Risk on an Ambiguous Ending
David Lowery and star Dev Patel on their medieval masterpiece's unexpected ending.
The Green Knight is not your typical fantasy movie. Based on the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a chivalric romance set in the world of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the film follows Gawain, a soon-to-be knight who embarks on a quest to prove his honor and uphold his end of the bargain to complete a deadly game. The result is less a swords-and-sorcery action movie and more of a fable in an older, more ancient style of storytelling, where a man's sense of right and wrong is its own reward.
It's beautiful and haunting and at times downright creepy, shot with an appreciation for the lush natural world typical of director David Lowery's films (ie. A Ghost Story), and led by a moodily stunning performance from star Dev Patel. Readers of the source material will no doubt be surprised by the movie's final act, which does away with the triumphant ending of the poem in favor of a more uncertain conclusion, Gawain's fate at the hands of the Green Knight left up to interpretation. Lowery and Patel both sat down with Thrillist to talk Arthurian lore, Welsh landscapes, and how the risks taken with the film's ending pay off.
Thrillist: I have a friend who's really into King Arthur stuff and I texted her immediately after I saw this and was like, "You have to go see it!"
David Lowery: [Laughs] I'm hoping all the medievalists and Arthurians give us a pass on this movie. That's been one of my secret hopes is that with all the inconsistencies and the variations, that we still get the approval of the people who spend their lives dedicated to this stuff.
I actually was going to ask how much you immersed yourself in Arthurian myth and literature. Or did you just go by what you wanted to do with this one particular story?
Lowery: I took a shallow deep dive. I could have done far more research. And the movie came together so quickly, I didn't even get to do all the research that I wanted on even this one poem. But I did enough to where I knew what I was doing. I knew what the repercussions might be for some of the changes I was making, and I knew what I was working with. And I was also terrified that I would not be doing justice to such a canonical piece of work.
I set about adapting this on a whim. And quickly, that whim turned into a great weight on my shoulders, and I realized this is a piece of work that has endured for 700 years for a reason. And if I screw it up… I don't even hope that I do it justice, I hope I just scratched the surface in an appropriate way of the density of the original poem. And I carry that with me, that that's a sense of expectation I put upon myself all the way from the early draft of the screenplay through finishing it last October. Hopefully, there's a lot in there. I'm trying to allude to the breadth of that history, even though we can't include it all. And hopefully it resonates somewhat.
I think that it works in a really interesting way, because you're going kind of diagonally into the story. Dev, what attracted you to the role of Gawain—not yet Sir Gawain?
Dev Patel: A few things. I mean, mainly, the biggest is getting to work with David. I'm such a fan of his work. And he really is, for me, a true auteur and he's a chameleon at the same time, just in the type of films he does. And the script, I read it and had me in a spell. Weeks after there was certain imagery that popped into my mind. I just couldn't shake it. I could really offer myself up to this. [Gawain is] a young guy, he's very flawed. He's going on this doomed quest, and there's a real physicality to that journey, which I thought would be awesome. I could draw a lot of parallels to my journey in this industry, trying to be an actor, and what does it all mean? Trying to achieve an integrity within that ambition.
You shot a lot of this in very vast outdoor spaces. The poem kind of glosses over a lot of the travel and adventure and stuff that he goes through before he gets to the mansion and then the chapel, but here you see all the ruffians and ghosts and giants and landscapes Gawain encounters.
Lowery: I really like movies in which characters walk in their journey across landscapes for long periods of time. I'm a big Bela Tarr fan, big Tarkovsky fan. I love Gus Van Sant. If you give me a 10-minute-long dolly shot of a character just walking, I'll be a happy moviegoer. And then, this is a movie about a person on a journey, and I'd be cheating myself if I didn't just watch some of that journey, watch him go and just trudge across that landscape. But I also like the episodic structure of a quest narrative. I like the stops along the way. And in reading the original poem, there are these inferences to giants and to battles and to serpents. We don't have any serpents, but we do have the giants. And there's a mention of going past Holyhead, which is a place in North Wales you can go to today that is a shrine to a saint who was beheaded, and her head was thrown into a spring, and then according to the lore was magically reattached. And I just wanted to dive into those things.
There's so much resonance with the story we were telling, not just with the beheading, but with the sense of chivalry and honor and respect towards others that I could play into, and so that felt like a natural stop on his journey to just build a chapter out of that. And all of the other chapters are also built on inferences in the text, or inferences from Arthurian lore that are alluded to in the text. I wrote the script while I was reading it, so a lot of times I would come to a line in the poem, like the one about Holyhead and just think like, oh, here's a natural chapter to include, and then I get to the lord and ladies part of the poem and realize, oh, wait, this is much bigger [laughs]. I should also give a lot of weight to this sequence. But yeah, it was really just finding those little lines. And I love that you can use the poem as a map of Wales in that time. You can start at Camelot and follow the entire journey to the Green Chapel. There are enough references to specific geography that you can go on this journey as Gawain would have, and follow in his footsteps, which is a really wonderful thing, that the poem has so much detail that you can actually build a map out of it.
This movie is full of so many beautiful and bizarre sequences that pad out Gawain's journey. Was there a particular scene for either of you that you were really excited for or anxious to shoot?
Lowery: I mean, the whole Green Knight sequence, which was the last thing we shot. That definitely hung over our heads the entire time, because it was just so big and we didn't have a lot of time to shoot it. So, it was incredibly exciting because we were in this incredible set that [production designer] Jade Healy had built. And we had Ralph [Ineson] on a horse and Sean Harris giving this incredible speech, which was also terrifying because we had just a few days to shoot all of that. It was just incredible to see that come to fruition, to just watch Gawain and the Green Knight face off. That's the genesis of the whole story, seeing that initial conversation.
There were no visual effects in that scene, the set was real, the Green Knight was real—aside from when his head gets cut off. And there was a grandeur to it on stage over the course of those three or four days, it was incredible to see that come to fruition. But it was also just terrifying because we were realizing how important that scene was as we were shooting, and realizing, oh, we don't have nearly enough time to shoot this. The pressure cooker was on those days. Dev, I don't know how much you remember of that, all the scheduling difficulties and Kate [Dickie] and Sean both had to wrap to go to other movies, so we had to shoot all their parts first. It was a wild ride those last couple days on set when we were shooting that stuff.
Patel: Two particular scenes. One was obviously the climactic scene, because we're trying to ride so many different emotions, without giving too much away. I felt like I was a little tadpole, I've been swimming up to reach this moment. That weighed on me a lot. And also, spoiler alert, I should say, I guess, but when we cycled through time, and we arrived when [Gawain] is an older king, we shot a part of that quite early on in the shoot. So one of the first things I did, during one day of production, was that. And that was really scary for me, because the physicality and the idea of achieving everything you wish for, or being successful but it's built on a lie, seeing that dream unfold in a negative way, it was really quite interesting. I wanted him to feel broken and jaded, and totally unlike these more physical guys. So that was stuff that I was replaying in my head a lot. And we had a wonderful makeup team to really help with that transition.
Well, your anxiety really paid off, because they're two of the best parts of the entire thing.
Lowery: That whole opening sequence with the Green Knight and the king and the Christmas feast, I spent over a year editing that just to get that right, because there was so much in the script. It's like six pages long and the first cut was 40 minutes. And it was really like this, "oh, we've got to make this land right."
Speaking of the final act, in this film you stop right before the end of the poem. In the original, he gets to go back home victorious and tell everyone what happened. But the movie stops right before that, and instead you get this vision of here's what your life would be like if you failed. Why stop it there?
Lowery: I always told people in prep that if we do our jobs right, we could end the movie with Gawain getting his head cut off, and it would be a happy ending. And I think we did that. I think we could end the movie that way [like the end of the poem], but it would be redundant, spoiler alert, because we've just seen that happen in the vision. And also I just don't think that that image was one we needed to end the film on. I wanted to leave that up in the air. I wanted to leave it up to the audience. Is it like the original poem where he's sent on his merry way with a scratch on his cheek? Or does he meet his doom? I think both endings are applicable. We give equal credence to both interpretations. But regardless of how you interpret the final ending, the final frame, it ends happily, it ends with a happy ending, he gets to where he needs to be. And regardless of whether that means he dies or not, he'll die someday. If he dies, he achieves the integrity that he lacked at the beginning of the film, and that is a good thing. And, therefore, it's a happy ending.
It seems more about his journey to actually understanding chivalry and the right thing to do instead of, here are the rewards that you get after that if you succeed.
Lowery: Precisely. That's exactly right. If that's it, that's what it needed to be.