A version of this story about the production design of “The Green Knight” first appeared in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
According to legend, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table lived in Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. But stories of Arthur were generally told much later in the Middle Ages and then again in the 19th century, and there’s considerable dispute about whether he existed at all.
All of this means that when director David Lowery and production designer Jade Healy set out to tell an Arthurian tale in “The Green Knight,” they weren’t worried about being true to the time period.
“We really wanted to allow ourselves space to be free with how we would interpret medieval times, and we were not interested in giving ourselves rules,” Healy said. “We did lots of research to use as a base for what we were doing — but the Knights of the Round table live in the audience’s minds, and that’s what was important.”
Even the table itself got something of a makeover in this reimagining: Rather than the usual solid slab of wood, it’s a huge circle that’s open in the center and has a gap at one end so that people can stand in its center. “The way I designed it was specific to the way David wanted to shoot,” said Healy, who made the table the centerpiece of a great hall that was built on an Irish soundstage. “A big, clunky round thing only allows you so much room — and the more research I did, the more I found old sketches and drawings that looked similar. So I was not the first crazy person to come up with that idea.”
The hall that contains the round table was the film’s biggest set and Healy’s biggest challenge, mostly because she was working with a small budget. “It was a big build for the budget we had,” she said. “We also didn’t have money for effects that would extend the sets, and David prefers to shoot everything in camera, so we had to build the whole ceiling and everything.
“We were building down to the wire. In fact, they were shooting on another location as we were building the round table hall, and David texted me and said, ‘I think we’re going to add a couple of days to the shoot here.’ What a relief that was, because we were still building the throne on the day they arrived to shoot.”
She based the look of Arthur’s castle on a French abbey that was “simple and Romanesque,” without the ornate decoration that she wished to avoid. Another castle, located deep in the woods and occupied by a mysterious lord and lady who both shelter and tempt Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain, was more elaborate and even less true to the time period.
“It’s almost futuristic, because it doesn’t take place in the same time as everything else,” Healy said of the sequence. “I worried about that at first, but we talked about it and that’s where we landed.”
One of the film’s most striking settings, meanwhile, came from a fortuitous call of nature. Healy was afraid that she’d have to design and build the chapel where Sir Gawain has his final encounter with the Green Knight — but then, on a location scout in Ireland, Lowery and his crew were about to leave a castle they’d looked at when cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo headed into the woods for an unceremonious bathroom break.
“I was in the car waiting for him, and he came out and said, ‘Jade, you’ve gotta check this out,’” she said. “I thought he was joking, but he had literally found this abandoned chapel in the woods.”
She laughed. “He was on a hero’s journey to relieve himself, and he found our green chapel. It was amazing but too small, so we built a river and a few steps, and did some work to bring it to life.”