From the mind of A Ghost Story director David Lowery, The Green Knight is not your run-of-the-mill Arthurian adaptation. With moody undertones and a thematically ambiguous interpretation of its source material, this cinematic imagining of the legend of Sir Gawain makes for one of A24’s most ambitious motion pictures to ever grace theaters – and is one hell of a big-screen experience. With sweeping, painterly landscapes and believably lived-in medieval dwellings, the world of The Green Knight surpasses reality itself. Compositions are clean and deliberate, but never once feel restricted by their context, nor does their presentation feel tailored to a camera’s inherently false gaze. In imagining this version of Camelot, production designer Jade Healy and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo have captured magic in a bottle and created an aesthetically fine-tuned masterpiece, perfectly synthesizing the essence of its tale into a visual form that feels closer to a delicately deliberate fresco than a casual motion picture.
When The Green Knight was still but words on a page, it existed as a vessel of opportunity for its creative team. For Healy, who has worked on a number of Lowery’s previous films (Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story, etc), the vast possibilities of this film in particular were equal parts exciting and testing. “It was challenging in all the good ways and just really rewarding,” she said in our exclusive interview. “If you know my previous work, it’s very different… sometimes you can get typecast as the nitty gritty, real designer, and I was really excited to step into something different that would push me into a more stylized world.” The Green Knight finds its stride in taking a simple premise and projecting it through a daringly complex creative voice. Palermo, who was Lowery’s cinematographer on A Ghost Story, found this to be one of the most exciting parts of the project. “It wasn’t a film that was just some kind of bland, no authorship, studio version of this story,” he explained. “It was something I could really sink my teeth into.”
The Green Knight adapts its title from the 14th-century chivalric romance ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ which is known from a single surviving manuscript and has since been translated to English by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien. But David Lowery never intended for his film to be a one-for-one retelling of the story, and it’s obvious. “You always start with the source material, but you don’t let that be the thing,” Healy stated, speaking to both The Green Knight and her past experiences with Lowery. “I try not to let the source material influence me… obviously, I read the original poem. I looked at a lot of different art from the poem and from that time period, but it wasn’t really something I pulled from that much.” While holding much respect for its roots, the film itself doesn’t treat the classic text as sacred. Adding characters, adventures, and even changing the ending, Lowery’s version of The Green Knight falls quite far from the source material. “He wasn’t announcing [his changes] to everyone,” said Palermo, of his production experience in regards to the film’s deviation from the tale of Sir Gawain. “We were all just making the film he wanted to make.”
In the world of Arthurian legend, where most fables come with a clear message and moral, The Green Knight offers a major change of pace. Many of Lowery’s script-side changes, including adding new plotlines and character development, created a thematically rich, if vague, outline for the film. “It was never clear exactly what it was,” Palermo revealed. “Even as we were making it, we were having the same discussions that I think people are having now, which are different readings of it. And that was a really fun place to be, to have those arguments or creative discussions within the crew, even as we were creating.”
One of the key uniting aspects of envisioning the final film was finding the real-world palette upon which Camelot would be built. The film features expansive meadows, eerie forests, desolate battlefields, and towering mountains — all of which contribute to The Green Knight’s epic sense of volume and importance. “It’s always a puzzle, figuring out the best location for each thing,” said Jade Healy. “But of course, Andrew [Droz Palermo] and David [Lowery], once they’re out there, they’re so in step with each other that they just go, and I take a step back once they’re there and let them do their thing.”
The film’s assortment of locations and settings feels as evocative as any of its other aspects, and according to Healy and Palermo, that moving quality of the landscapes drove much of their collaborative spirit. “The thing about the way we work – maybe this is not unique to us – but is that it just kind of happens as we location scout, as we’re looking at places and feeling each other out,” Palermo explained. “Do we like this place over another? What is the mood of this scene?”
Even more so than many of its contemporaries, The Green Knight is a film designed around imagery: visual representations of tone, theme, and story that convey information to the audience in simple, yet powerful ways. “[Jade]’s really good at pulling a lot of images and has a real library of stuff that she offers me, so we use those as footholds for conversations,” Palermo said of Healy’s contributions to the film’s early visualization. “We found images that really excited us, but did that image meet another image we were interested in, or another mood or moment? And how could we make them feel [part] of a whole without feeling super scattershot?” This kind of collaboration, however, is still driven primarily by the script; “David gives us these amazing scripts, and there’s so much detail in his scripts that you’re not guessing. You see it, you really do,” remarked Healy. “So whenever I read his scripts, I already see the world, and my job is to sort of translate it and get it on on the page in front of him visually, whether it’s through photographs, or references, or if it’s concept art I put in front of him and the DP and I’m like, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking,’ that’s kind of how we go.” From there, it’s an escalation of creativity and exploration. “It always just starts in one place, with a few images, and then it just grows; everyone’s putting images together.”
This process, a kind of snowballing of ideas and images, brings a lot of interesting concepts to the table. Even before discovering and developing the visual identity of the film, its creators knew that they “weren’t trying to create something that felt really grounding in the real historical feeling medieval story.” Instead, Lowery directed the team down a route that was far more liberating. “We were really looking outside the box of how we would create this world,” said Healy. “We knew we wanted to create striking images and something that wasn’t what you imagine when you think of a medieval movie. We wanted to stay away from those tropes and create something that felt a little bit different, while at the same time felt of that world and sort of steeped in this fantasy, lore, and mythology.” Deciding on leaning into a more fantastical imagining of Camelot and Gawain’s world meant spending “a long time trying to figure out what that was, what that meant, and how we would define this world.” The two were adamant that this kind of exploration didn’t include setting harsh limits of what can or cannot happen, but a lot of experimentation and trial-and-error. “It’s a really fluid kind of fun way of working, because it doesn’t feel like we need to need to sit down at a table and hammer it out,” Palermo affirmed. “We’re gonna figure this out, we just kind of let it go, and then that even happens on set.”
The team found themselves merging fantasy and reality, molding a kind of ambiguously dated world of advanced technology and medieval customs. “[The vague time period] was both a challenge and really freeing,” Palermo continued. “That we weren’t going to be completely period accurate and that something as simple as a camera obscura could exist in our world.” This decision also alleviated some budgetary challenges, which were inevitable when creating such an ambitious film for only 15 million USD. “Because of our limited budget, we couldn’t shoot and have costumes or locations be exactly from the period we wanted,” so instead costume designer Malgosia Turzanska was free to work as she pleased, adapting her designs without the restrictions of period accuracy. “In some ways [it] freed me up from a lighting perspective,” said Palermo. “If there’s magic present, and if history is a little fluid, then I can also take that as a jump-off for myself as well as the way I would like this movie to look, and I can make it feel modern. I can make it feel new and interesting and bold and even poppy, in some ways.”
‘Bold poppiness’ feels well-suited to describing much of the cinematography of The Green Knight; from start to finish, it mixes commonplace lighting techniques with some unconventional stylistic lighting and camera choices, forming an undoubtedly distinct visual identity. “I’ve got to light [many scenes] practically. For most of this movie, we’re using candles,” revealed Healy while describing her production design process. “So we’re talking about where our windows will be, so [Palermo] can light it.” Most films of this genre would stop there in terms of lighting, but Palermo drives The Green Knight forward, not settling simply for goodness, but pushing for greatness.
In one of the most eye-catching sequences of the film, Gawain wanders through the forested wilderness, finding his way through a thickly yellowed fog before stumbling upon the Green Chapel. Though not the only usage of near-monochromatic lighting in the film, here Palermo uses his control of camera and color to great effect, escalating the film’s emotional climax. While Jade Healy said that director David Lowery had “always envisioned this [yellow] color” in the film, it was Palermo who came up with the specific idea of filling the forest with yellow fog. “That was something that I was toying with very early on in my location scouting photos and really wanting his journey to feel very feverish — that he was really descending into the Heart of Darkness,” Palermo began. “I use that phrase because I was partially inspired by Apocalypse Now and the ending of that film in the way that it goes into some amber hues at that point.”
The inspiration he derived from that scene was far more layered than just its colorful presentation. “I was just thinking about that a little bit and the way that [Vittorio] Sturaro and Coppola made that portion of the film feel. It’s so hazy; it’s such a strange part of that film. It becomes kind of surreal, the way he staged everyone in that.” Pulling that level of surrealism into The Green Knight at such a major moment heightened the many other weird storytelling decisions made in the film’s final act. “I challenged myself to never look at that imagery, but to create something based on my memory of it. That was the genesis of that look, and I pushed and pulled and changed it, and what it looked like on set was very different from what it looks like in the finished film.”
The intricate color palette and design of The Green Knight, from feverish ambers to haunting blues, come from the deeply interwoven themes of the film’s story. “I try to look for the themes – what are the themes for the source material? And what are the themes of David’s script?” Healy’s understanding of the script led her to a visual tone that “was very dramatic and stark, and a little modern,” which meshed well with Palermo’s highly stylized ambitions.
But among many bright colors of The Green Knight, it is (unsurprisingly) green that feels the most pervasive, especially when in the presence of the film’s titular antagonist. “One of the biggest themes that I really connected with in the source material was nature and the Green Man, which has always fascinated me,” Healy proclaimed, referencing a common mythological motif in early British folklore and a likely inspiration for the Green Knight himself.
The Green Man, found in carvings, literature, and fables, has long been said to represent a variety of cultural values, such as agriculture or nature. In her book The Land of the Green Man, medieval literature historian Carolyn Larrington described the Green Man as “all that the modern world undervalues, excludes or lacks.” This particular exploration of this mythological figure as an idealistic state of the natural man seems to hold some power in the context of the film itself, which heavily alludes to the Green Knight playing a far more thematically complex role in the plot than as a simple antagonist. In the surviving manuscript, the Green Knight seems far less mystical than his representation in Lowery’s film, depicted as a man in greenish clothing rather than the green-skinned, living, horned amalgamation of trees, roots, and nature motifs played by Ralph Ineson.
The Green Knight’s presence as a counter-culture icon contributes to Gawain’s internal journey, thrusting traditional chivalric, masculine, and patriarchal values into a harsh, critical light. In relating this opposing force to nature itself, the production design of the film adds yet another layer to its narrative. “I was always thinking of how we could create and incorporate these ideas of nature overtaking, always growing over everything, finding ways where you could see little trickles of green coming in through a window, or other ways to add that,” stated Healy, who said she was “just really trying to get into the different mythology of that time.”
Nature’s prying eyes makes for an unsettling feeling akin to paranoia that pervades the entirety of the film. “I would often come up with these ideas, [like] in that little witchy cavern with the mother and the sisters – what if the green starts to grow from the outside in as they’re in there?” Not only does this help to make a world that feels “old, and that [it’s] been there forever,” but also develop a sense that the “story almost feels like it comes from the earth.” Closely related to the presence of women, humility, and general anti-chivalric motifs, nature is the most important piece of The Green Knight’s puzzle, key to unraveling its dizzying narrative and thematic tapestry.
Even after the film was fully shot, cut, and released in theaters, the job of bringing life to the world of The Green Knight was not complete. The film’s video-on-demand release on August 19th demanded new attention to the film’s visual palette – most notably its vivid color rendering and dynamic range. “As a challenge for myself, I was like, ‘I want to make this movie unstreamable,’” said Palermo. “That was a very 2018 thought. It’s such a dark movie, it would be hard to stream. But that was a very pre-pandemic bit of arrogance, and now I want anyone to see it however they can see it… However you want to see, that’s great, and I hope you can see it well.”
In order to ensure the best possible viewing experience at home, there’s a lot of things to prepare. “It used to be that [what you saw in theaters and at home] was a little bit more of a one-to-one. What you were putting on a DVD or Blu-Ray was basically the same luminance as the theatrical – you just knew that it was going to be much smaller.” In the past, this meant colorists would simply boost the brightness in order to enhance small details for a smaller viewing screen. Although today with the advent of high dynamic range (HDR), 4K, and affordable, large displays, many home entertainment centers are significantly brighter and more capable than most projectors outside of laser. “It’s a wider, broader palette of luminance and color to play with,” Palermo explained. In the case of scenes with highly saturated colors, like those with the yellow fog, he found it to even be an improvement over the theatrical version. “What it looks like in theatrical is very different from what it’s going to look like in home HDR, just different flavors of the same idea… I’ll be curious to see, I think the HDR version of the movie is actually perhaps even better than the theatrical version.” Palermo expressed a lot of fondness for the image this process produces, going so far as to tease upcoming projects; “I think the next film David and I do together, whatever that may be, we both want to do the HDR coloring first – shoot for HDR and then work backward for theatrical, actually. It offers us some really interesting, creative places.”
As for what that next project might be? Palermo hopes it’s something a bit more grounded and realistic; “I’m dying for a real drama, about real people and real problems and in the real world. I would just love to shoot something that’s more of a performance-based movie that has room for me as well.” With “another kind of fantasy thing” next up, this seems like it would be a great exercise for him to stretch some other muscles.
Jade Healy is already neck-deep in her next project, Peter Pan and Wendy, another collaboration with director David Lowery. “We’re at the end of it now. My sets are done. I built everything and it’s so fun” she said. “Without saying too much about the film, all I can say is that it’s going to be just the best Peter Pan movie you’ve ever seen. It really is the best Disney remake, I feel pretty confident.”
When asked about the similarities between working on Green Knight and Peter Pan, it was all about money. “David is always pushing for the best,” she remarked. “I think when you start in the indie world, you have a tendency to be like, ‘Okay, we’ll make it work.’ And what’s amazing is now we’re at a place where it’s like, ‘No, we’re not going to make that work. It can be better, it should be better, and we’re not going to settle.’” Working on films like The Green Knight pushed Lowery, Healy, and their collaborators to their problem-solving limits, priming their filmmaking muscles for the opportunities presented on projects like Peter Pan. “They will be like, ‘Keep going. What what else can we do? How do we make it bigger? How do we make it better? How do we make it more interesting?’ And that’s fun when you’re world building and you can just build it from scratch just finding that range. It’s really exciting.” But in the end, filmmaking always comes down to the basics; “it’s all finding the themes in Peter Pan and figuring out how to tell the story. So that part of our collaboration is exactly the same… I feel really lucky to be making that movie during the pandemic and to be with basically my film family: David’s family.”
Arguably the most immediately striking aspect of The Green Knight, its stellar visual presentation will leave anyone reeling, adding layers of importance with every passing frame. The immense attention to detail and painstaking consideration in each moment may go unnoticed by many, but for production designer Jade Healy and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, it is essential in making the best film possible, a testament to their love of storytelling. It is the conjunction of such talent and dedication across all departments – both in front of and behind the camera – that makes for one of 2021’s most aspiring, stylistic, and best films.