Here’s a question that most of us will never have to answer: What do you do when you’re working on a film and technical difficulties force you to stop shooting everything you had planned for the day? “Set the star’s head on fire,” said director David Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo of The Green Knight.
Palermo, who also worked with Lowery on his stunning low-key fantasy A Ghost Story, says the first shot in The Green Knight had to be put together on the fly after the day’s shooting plans were scrapped.
“We had an accident with the underwater tank that we were planning on shooting [Green Knight star Dev Patel] swimming in, to fetch St. Winifred’s head,” Palermo tells Polygon. “The water went green with some kind of mold, it was no longer clear. So we said ‘Shit, what can we film? Well, let’s do the dream sequence.’ We had it scripted, we knew we were going to do it, we just weren’t prepared for it. So it came together quite quickly.”
The opening sequence is described by Palermo as “a rather simple shot, just a simple push in,” but the image is haunting and startling: Gawain (Dev Patel), a would-be knight, sits grimly on a throne in King Arthur’s Great Hall, a crown slowly descending from above onto his head. When he is crowned, his head bursts into flames, but he maintains an unblinking stare at the audience. Although it appears that the sequence was created with extensive CGI, Palermo claims that he and Lowery shot all of the elements with practical effects on the day they discovered their water tank was unusable.
“Everything we did was done through special effects on the set,” he says. “The crown descending on his head, so you can actually feel the shadows on his hair, was on a wired system. Then we took Dev out of the shot and repeated it, with a dummy head that we lit on fire, and the two got put together geniusly by [VFX house] WETA. And then we tilt up to the oculus in the ceiling, and WETA put in the starry sky above.”
All of Palermo’s behind-the-scenes stories about The Green Knight have the same quality of meticulous planning colliding with spur-of-the-moment decisions. Given the richly toned visuals and carefully color-coded symbolism, the film’s meticulous thought is visible on the screen. However, the film’s actual shooting and assembly were a mix of instinct-driven experiments and late-game improvisation. Palermo claims that his first conversations with Lowery were akin to a puzzle, with no guarantee of a solution.
He first mentioned he wanted a large format,” Palermo says. “I knew what he was thinking about, about the scope of the visuals, and wanting them to feel very wide. But then he laid down a challenge about also wanting it to feel very three-dimensional. And he didn’t really clarify that puzzling idea, he just floated it out there one day, and I kept prying at it from different angles and moods. [Mimicking Lowery looking over his work] ‘Ahhhhh, that’s not exactly what I need.’ It was a fun thing to pick at.”
Palermo claims that the three-dimensional concept came to fruition after the two men travelled to Ireland together to scout shooting locations. “With the idea that the movie was going to be quite wide, I had very wide lenses with me as we scouted, and that was a really fun way to start making a movie together. I’d take a photo I liked a lot of a landscape and show him, and I could see he was excited about the progress.”
Palermo says location scouting is the best part of working with a director on a project: “It’s really a chance to get to know each other if you don’t already. You can take your time — you don’t need to feel like everything’s super-pressured, and that you’ve got to ask all your questions and give them all your ideas immediately. You’re stuck in a van together for weeks on end, going from place to place. I really just like to get to know a person and understand where they’re coming from for the film.”
That process helped him work out some of the film’s details with Lowery, such as the vivid colours used in certain scenes — red for dark magic, green for natural magic, yellow for a poisonous scene in which nature becomes unnatural, and blue for a melancholy hallucination in which Gawain sees a band of pale giants trudging off into the mist.
“It’s such a big swing, the color,” Palermo says. “I love it. That was a mantra throughout the whole movie: “What is the hard choice here? We should go for it, and we should lean into it really hard. Not every one of them connects, I think we know, but I’m so glad I tried some really tougher ideas.”
Palermo claims that the amber colour scheme for the film’s conclusion was the first choice he and Lowery made.“That look was inspired partially by [cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro at the end of Apocalypse Now, when [the protagonist is] at the end of his journey, and it becomes very hot, very humid, kind of psychedelic. I challenged myself to never look at the film while I was thinking about it, so I just tried to have my memory of what it looked like. And that led me to someplace that excited me, which is so vastly different from Storaro’s look, made it its own unique thing. I wanted it to feel very feverish, so you could question — was it even real?”
The film’s other color-coded shots came later. “With that amber finale color in mind, I worked backward,” Palermo says. “I looked at the beginning of the movie and thought, ‘How can I think about the magic in the film? How can we make the Green Knight feel a certain way? And how can I position other scenes against these two? What’s the palette we’re suggesting?
“So greens are is obvious. It’s the simplest thing I could have done, probably. Greens became the earthy pagan colors, and reds became more evil magics. When Merlin does a spell early in the Great Hall, there’s this red light. I liked that we made that era of Camelot evil. They’ve gone too far — logged the entire forest, clean-cut the whole landscape, and they’ve lost touch with nature. That helped color-code their world as well.”
A large portion of that world was filmed on location. The interior of St. Winifred’s cottage, where Gawain is given the challenge, and King Arthur’s Great Hall, where Gawain first encounters the Green Knight, were the only primary sets built for the film, according to Palermo. Other shots are mash-ups of real-life locations. The surreal cliff where Gawain sees the giants, for example, was pieced together from footage from various continents.
“We shot that in Wicklow on the top of a mountain,” Palermo says. “It’s actually an old 13th- or 14th-century path. In that shot, Gawain is facing what is now the town of Bray. So in the valley below would have been the city, which had to get scrubbed out. Some of it was replaced by WETA, with landscapes from New Zealand. So it’s a weird amalgam of Ireland and New Zealand that they kind of smashed together. But for me, at least starting with something real is so important, as opposed to it being fully generated in a computer. That gives it some texture that you just can’t fake.”
Viewers have dissected The Green Knight’s symbols and relationship to its source material, a 14th-century poem that has been translated and interpreted numerous times, including by Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien. Fans looking for Easter eggs should keep an eye out for two things, according to Palermo. The film gradually adds moss as Gawain travels from the jaded, decadent court to the wilds, where he finds his honour, as a symbol of his return to the natural world.
“With Jade [Healy], the production designer, I was looking for a way to have the presence of green moss be more and more apparent as the film goes on. The first shot after the introduction is largely the gray interior of a brothel, and that courtyard out back, where the building’s on fire. As the camera tracks back, you’ll see the very tiniest bit of moss growing in. That was me thinking, ‘This is where we’re headed. This is the first aspect of where we’re going to go eventually, into this very lush, verdant world.’”
Second, Palermo recommends keeping an eye out for the frames’ edges gradually softening throughout the film.“There’s a lot of light contrast at the beginning, especially in the Great Hall, but the light becomes more and more natural-feeling and softer as the film goes on,” he says. “The lenses become softer. There’s a language in the way the lenses roll off on the sides. It becomes even more painterly and expressionistic. That’s me wanting to push the movie more and more toward psychedelic as we go.”
Palermo points to the first scene after Gawain on the throne’s hallucinatory opening for more traditional Easter eggs. The camera pulls back from a burning village, past a woman on a horse and a man drawing a sword, and focuses on Gawain, who is sleeping in a brothel.
“During that shot, in the courtyard, there’s a drunk guy up against the shed,” Palermo says. “That’s [Tomas Deckaj], our first AD. He really wanted to play that drunk. And Joe Anderson, the cinematographer of The Old Man and the Gun — one of David’s other films, which I love dearly — plays Paris, the man who draws the sword. He just happened to be there visiting his wife. I forget what happened with the original actor, but David was like, ‘Joe, you’re going to get dressed up, and you’re going to be in this scene.’ I’m so glad he was there. It was such a treat for me to see him every time we were coloring the movie.”
Not only because of the last-minute cast replacement but also because of what happened afterward, that dream sequence is another example of how Lowery and his crew mixed planning and improvisation on The Green Knight. Lowery has aided in the unraveling of many of the film’s biggest mysteries, including what happens at the conclusion. The identities and significance of the man and woman in the burning village, who do not appear in the rest of the film, have piqued audiences’ interest. They’re Helen of Troy and her kidnapper Paris from Greek myth, as the credits reveal, and the sequence is Gawain’s nightmare before his lover Essel wakes him up by dumping water on his head.
Palermo claims that before Lowery devised the opening shot with Gawain’s crown and burning head, Paris and Helen’s sequence had been the first shot of the film “for so very long,” after being moved from other places in the storey.
“We could never find a home for this dream sequence,” he says. “Originally it was in the middle of the movie. Morgan le Fay is touching Gawain’s head, and you understand that she’s implanted this vision in his mind, so he would be fearful of what would come if he didn’t succeed on his quest. But then David had the idea to utilize that sequence in the beginning. A friend of his gave him a note that he needed more of a setting of the stage. So David put it there instead. And it does really set you off in a scary, intense way.”
The Green Knight is now available for premium digital rental on streaming platforms like Amazon and Vudu.