It’s a 2021 Year in Review extravaganza! Hosts Gemma and Slim open the Letterboxd Hotline to experts on the three highest-rated films of the year: Matt Singer (Spider-Man: No Way Home), Juan Barquin (Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time) and Bintang Lestada (Yuni)—all of whom take a moment to plead for justice for Barb & Star, woefully ignored in the Letterboxd 2021 Year in Review. Senior editor Mitchell Beaupre and London correspondent Ella Kemp also join for a discussion on Year in Review favorites. Topics include: unabashed crowd-pleasers, rethinking Andrew Garfield, how to comfort a hedgehog, movies and mental health, recency bias, the power of stills photographers, the 2021 film that bypasses Slimfluence, an update on Ella’s relationship status, feelings as a genre, our love for Mike Mills, the influence of The Beatles on 2021 fashion, Gemma’s favorite George Harrison moments, and how Summer of Soul saved us all.
The Green Knight director answers your questions about fox plushies, the magic sex belt, rewatching with edibles, and Dev Patel.
Before we make merry, we made for you a gift. To help us all through our second consecutive Covid-stricken holiday season, The Green Knight writer-director David Lowery has generously and festively answered a collection of questions from you including—yes, ya filthy animals!—a query about *the* magic sex belt.
With The Green Knight, the Texan filmmaker behind Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story, The Old Man and the Gun and a forthcoming live-action adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan delivered one of this year’s best Yuletide films. When the titular Green Knight arrives at Camelot bearing a bough of holly, and a rudderless Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) volunteers for his “friendly Christmas game”, it sets off six nights of psychedelic and psychological meandering in the lead-up to the next Christmas.
It also set off a wave of Letterboxd reviews working to unpack the many symbols and signposts along Gawain’s journey. Being a film lover and list maker himself (we have talked to the Letterboxd holdout before about his secret movie spreadsheet), Lowery was happy to answer a curated series of questions that we collected from you, along with a few of our own.
If you ever wanted to know which Twilight film is the best Twilight film, the three categories of Christmas movies, and how Lowery wrote the fox into the picture, it’s all here—and The Green Knight is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as to rent or buy on demand (and, briefly from December 10, back in cinemas). Enjoy!
We need to ask about Christmas, since you have made the year’s best Christmas film. In the 2,000 years since the birth of the baby Jesus, not many (if any) Christmas films have been set much earlier than in Victorian times. Tell us a bit about The Green Knight being a Christmas movie—with all the family messiness we come to expect at this time of year—and what you wanted Christmas to look like in this fantasy past.
David Lowery: I love Christmas. It’s my favorite time of year, and I was very excited to make a new perennial holiday classic. I don’t know if that’s how it turned out, but it was certainly on my mind going into it. I spent a lot of time thinking about Christmas aesthetics, especially in a medieval context. When I was little, my parents would take me to a Boar’s Head Festival every year, and I imagined a scene not unlike that pageant, with a Camelot bedecked in mistletoe.
But then, as we began to design the film, we realized that many of the visual signifiers of Christmas—the trees, the holly, the greens and reds—were already present in the character of the Green Knight. As per the poem, he even enters the court carrying a holly branch. He is essentially a giant walking Christmas tree, striding into a more traditional celebration of Christ’s birth. So we sort of put all that weight onto him.
Tell us a bit about what lay behind the beautiful Christmas speech from King Arthur (as delivered by Sean Harris), about being the luckiest of all “because I am amongst thee”; of wishing to build bridges with his nephew, Gawain.
The messy familial aspects of the holidays are generally balanced out, for me, by lovely clichés like warmth and love and a genuine desire for togetherness and good will. Who better to espouse that than King Arthur? Sean recognized all the warmth implicit in that dialogue and pulled it out so beautifully, even though I also wanted him to play that part as if he were dying. It was his idea to walk around the table, amongst his court. I remember initially telling the knights and lords and ladies to bow their heads as he passed and he asked that instead they meet his gaze, so he could truly feel as if he were amongst friends.
Do you have a favorite Christmas film?
To my mind, there are three categories of Christmas film: films that are literally about Christmas or Christmas spirit (It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story), films set during the holidays which become Christmas films by virtue of their affectation (Die Hard, Eyes Wide Shut), and films that we simply make a point of watching over the holidays for one reason or another, often out of nostalgia for when we first saw them, at the holidays (The Lord Of The Rings). I’ll pick one of each.
- The Muppet Christmas Carol. I feel like this one is finally making its way out of the best-kept-Christmas-secret category and into the pantheon of classics. It is not only my favorite Christmas movie, but my favorite Muppet movie. And Joel Edgerton in The Green Knight has big Ghost Of Christmas Present energy!
- Fanny & Alexander. This movie! Watching the full five-and-a-half-hour version in one sitting with hot chocolate is a favorite recent Christmas memory. I aspire to have the energy of Gunn Walgren as the grandmother, making coffee at god knows what hour of the morning (although I think they note it in the scene) because celebrations have run long and it’s almost time for Christmas Morning Mass.
- The Royal Tenenbaums. Partially because I first saw it in December, and also because its title sounds like a Christmas carol, and even moreso because it has that Vince Guraldi music in it that is inseparable from Christmas, and mostly because its sense of familial compassion is so strong that it’s almost shocking that it’s not set during the holidays.
You’ve said The Green Knight was inspired by your Willow toys. Where’s our fox plushie for Christmas? (And what would you choose to put in a Green Knight toy line?!) —Sam Russell
I would love a fox plushie myself, so please join me in starting a letter-writing campaign to A24 to make some. As for the action figures, I actually had some custom sets of Gawain and Green Knight figures made as wrap gifts for a few people, complete with ’80s-style toy packaging. If I extended it to a full line, I’d definitely need a Great Hall playset, but I think the even cooler one would be a Winifred’s Pond playset with a limited-edition Winifred figure, with detachable head.
On The Green Knight...
What was your first contact with the original poem? —Nikola Pandurovic
I became aware of the legend in a book called The Arthurian Book Of Days that my mom brought home when I was little, in which the Green Knight was the Christmas Day entry. I first read the poem properly in my freshman English class at college.
What were the most difficult things to adapt from the original poem, and how did you decide what to leave out, pull in or reinterpret? —Beatriz, sofcar, AdrianMoviez
The most challenging thing, right from the beginning, was making the stakes of the beheading game seem credible. It’s all well and good when it’s ensconced in Middle English at the onset of an epic poem, but in screenplay form I kept asking myself: why would Gawain, or anyone else, pick a fight with the Green Knight? Why would anyone accept his terms? Unpacking this problem led to a few of the bigger changes to the text, such as making Gawain a young rapscallion instead of a knight.
I think the most painful omission I made was jettisoning the hunting scenes with Lord Bertilak, which are incredibly vital to the poem. I wanted to keep Gawain’s story entirely subjective, so it just didn’t make sense to include them. But I felt pretty guilty about it.
Could you share with us a page or two of script that show how you took what was on the page and gave us what ended up on screen?
Nothing about the script changed when I continued editing the film during Covid. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the spirit of the movie just got a little more nuanced, while the letter of it stayed exactly the same. The finished film is relatively close to the script, as you can see in the following three pages from the shooting script. It’s largely what you see on screen, but there are little deviations throughout.
These movies are always evolving. We might shoot a scene one way, and then come up with a better approach, either on the day or a little later on down the road. In this case, we shot everything that was written here, but it didn’t feel quite right, and ultimately came up with a better, less ostentatious transition into the Citadel. I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve or elaborate upon what was in the script.
And how did our dear fox friend make its way into the story?
The fox scene is pretty much exactly as written, except that we initially had a little prelude to it in Joel’s final scene, which you can see here. I look at this and am amazed at how much more effective the fox is on screen than on the page!
What was it that compelled you the most about the theme of ‘greatness without honor’? —Jack Moulton
I honestly wasn’t thinking about it in those exact terms. The dynamics I was concerned with as I set out to adapt the poem were legacy and integrity—which aren’t entirely different from greatness and honor, but also not exactly the same. Of course, Dev brings up honor when he’s speaking with Joel by the fire, but it didn’t become an overt talking point for me until the movie’s marketing campaign kicked in.
How did you like Ireland? —River Rogers
I loved it! I want to figure out how to gain citizenship, I think I’m one generation removed from it being a really easy process. And I’m currently procrastinating on a new script partially set there. I can’t wait to come back.
Flynn, Shrey, Thomas and Elias are dying to know the reason behind the giants and three skeletons. Symbolic, world-building, both? Please explain! (Gilgamesh2589 is curious if the scene was inspired by René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet.)
All of the above. I dearly love the giants, and because I love them I don’t want to explain them. I also love skeletons. My house is full of skeletons right now, left over from Hallowe’en, and I hate having to put them away (my wife insists that they wouldn’t be as special if we kept them out all year, but I disagree). I’ve also got Winifred’s skull on our bookshelf, next to a skeleton from Peter Pan & Wendy.
I think from this point forward I’ll be doing myself a disservice if I don’t have at least one skeleton in every movie I make, just so I can take the props home and add them to my collection. But I digress. The human skeletons in this film have different purposes, whereas the giant whale skeleton we briefly glimpse suggests an entrance into an older, more mythological world.
Believe it or not, I hadn’t thought about the Traags in Fantastic Planet, but now I can’t unsee it! When I was looking for visual inspiration for the Green Knight himself, I fell in love with these huge bog sculptures by the artist Sophie Prestigiacomo. Their disposition wasn’t quite right for the Knight, but they eventually worked their way into the look of the giants. It’s not a one-to-one translation, but we tried to capture some of the sad, gentle spirit of those sculptures with our giants.
That being said, Fantastic Planet is one of my favorite pieces of science fiction. I recently recorded an episode of the 90 Minutes Or Less podcast about it. So I’m sure on a subconscious level there was a bit of influence there.
The moment where Gawain gets captured happens at around the midpoint of the movie. The way I saw it, that whole scene reflected the perils of nature and mankind, with everything before that point symbolizing man-made atrocities and everything after that point symbolizing the strength of nature. Was that the intention or am I reading too much into it? —Pramit
I don’t think it’s possible to read too deeply into things. If you can find it, that means it’s there, whether it was intentional or not. But everything you suggest about the bifurcation of the film sounds pretty good to me! That is indeed a turning point for both Gawain and the film (literally and figuratively). The encroachment of mankind begins to fade away after that scene, and Gawain progresses into an increasingly fecund world.
Rewatching can oftentimes make or break a film, so what are the details that you made sure we could only notice on repeat viewings? —Bryce Howe
As a filmmaker, I try to put it all up there on the screen, because I’m not confident anyone will see any of my films more than once. But as a filmgoer, I know that I often miss things the first time around. One thing many people have missed in this film is the Green Knight’s shifting visage in the Green Chapel. I was afraid that it would be way too obvious, but I’ve learned that my worries were for naught. Also, there are a family of bears living in the giant whale skeleton mentioned above. Well worth looking out for.
How can I convince my friend to rewatch The Green Knight? —Max McMinn
Well, if it’s not for them, it’s not for them, but if there’s a chance it might be, maybe see what it’s like with some edibles or something? I should note that I have not tried this myself and that it may just make the movie more sleep-inducing than it already is.
Is there still any chance of an extended cut? What extra stuff would it include? —Zack (and Daniel Rodríguez wants the Criterion edition already!)
I don’t know about an extended cut because I’m very happy with where the movie’s at, but we have a raft of quality scenes that just didn’t fit in the film (including what might be my favorite scene of all) and we’re pulling those together for a special edition that will be coming out at some point in the future. We’ll put some other good stuff on there too. Commentaries and other little odds and ends.
There were rather a lot of questions about the ‘magic sex belt’, which we have left out. Not that we are prudish, but nobody asked a particularly compelling one. So, then, perhaps the question is: “Why do you think these fans are so obsessed with the ‘magic sex belt’?”
We kept laughing on set about how the entire crux of the movie pivoted on a magic belt. We hadn’t made the full leap to calling it a ‘magic sex belt’, but basically, we are right there with everyone, and have the weight of historical discourse behind us. This very girdle has been the subject of discussion ever since the poem was written. The Order Of The Garter in modern British Knighthood even has some roots in this dirty old rag. The Magic Sex Belt runs deep.
On his collaborators...
You have worked with director of photography Andrew Palermo in other movies before The Green Knight. How was this time different? How did you guys work together to find this incredible and unique look for this movie?
Working with Andrew is just like hanging out with a good pal. This time was different only in that we were trying to push ourselves and do something bold and new, which is exactly the way in which every production should be different.
I’m trying to think back now to our earliest conversations. I know I told him that I wanted the movie to look like it was in 3D without being 3D. We decided very early on to shoot in large format (I wanted the movie to be a potential IMAX release), and to use very wide lenses, so that helped set some parameters for the look of the movie. We wanted it to feel huge and deep, and kept looking for ways to synthesize that grandeur with the means we had at hand.
In addition, Andrew takes a lot of photos on our location scouts, and those are sort of the key to figuring out the look of the movie, just in terms of color palette and exposure levels. When we’re on set, we often look for the simplest way to cover a scene, but sometimes the simplest way involves some crazy camera rig or 100 feet of dolly track or something like that.
There’s a lot of creative, surrealist lighting in this movie, particularly in the sequence where Gawain encounters the ghost woman in the woods and has to retrieve her head from the lake. How are the feelings and sensations you want to achieve with those sorts of scenes informing your use of colorful, surrealist cinematography? —Dan Fite Jr.
There’s an alarmingly direct correlation. Images are everything. That scene at Winifred’s is a perfect example. Conversely, there are a number of scenes that we re-shot or cut from the film that didn’t work because the weather or sunlight were working in opposition to the mood we needed. Sometimes we’d try to push through and get to the end of the day and just think ‘well, that’s not gonna work for the movie’.
You’re the writer, director and editor of your film. Are you ever at odds with yourself as the editor and the director? How do you deal with feedback from other editors, filmmakers, and the studio notes pre-release? —Serge the Movie Guy
I am definitely sometimes at odds with myself, especially because the editor side of me is aware that the director me might be too precious about something, and so I’ll go overboard killing my darlings as a result. The cut I had before the pandemic was the result of my editor brain running wild and locking the director out of the room. Or was it the other way around? Either way, it is a sometimes harmonious, oftentimes tortuous relationship. But I love editing too much to have it any other way.
When it comes to feedback, I have a few friends I know I can count on who usually see my movies first. I try to get to a point where I’ve exhausted my own list of notes; I know there’s more to do, but the cut will be at a place where I’ve—temporarily!—taken things as far as I can on my own, and fresh perspectives provide a valuable reset. Notes and feedback are great, but often the simple act of showing a movie to someone recontextualizes it and helps you see it in a new light. This is why going to test screenings is great, but sitting through focus groups or reading comment cards afterwards isn’t always all that helpful. Just showing it to the audience is all you need.
How did the brilliant Dev Patel come to be cast in this role? —The Sound of Vision Podcast
I had a FaceTime with him, while he was shooting The Personal History of David Copperfield. My memory is that he was in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, but I’m probably just making that up. Then I met up with him in person a few months later, when we were both in LA, and that was that—I knew he had to be in the film. Thankfully he said yes!
Is Barry Keoghan fun to work with? —evie
So much fun. So consistently surprising in the best possible ways. I just watched Eternals this evening and loved seeing him there. He came from that set to do a few pickups for us.
Were there any unorthodox film inspirations or particular artists, such as painters or illustrators, who influenced the look of The Green Knight? —Ben Reyes, pen, yiggyfresh
That we had John Waterhouse paintings, images from Andrei Rublev and Willow, and Alexander McQueen gowns in our lookbooks is probably not that surprising. Anyone who knows me would also not be surprised how often the Star Wars prequels come into play as reference points. But at one point in prep, I told our costume designer Malgosia Turzanska to turn to Kylie Jenner for inspiration. In hindsight, that may not have been the most helpful note. Actually, now I’m curious—let me ask her.
Five minutes later: her response, via text.
On his own influences...
Many members (including Jay Taylor-Jones, Josh Cooley, George Keaton, sarah and Jules Thurlow) want to know the films that changed your life, the films that fuel you, the films that inspire you to make visually striking work. So, please list a few of the films that made you want to become a filmmaker, and why.
This is the question whose answer could always turn into an encyclopedia. Star Wars put me on this path, so that’s always going to be there, right up at the top. Edward Scissorhands helped me express myself. Pulp Fiction opened my eyes to a world beyond George Lucas and Tim Burton. Romeo + Juliet pushed me into adolescence, Magnolia ushered me into my first version of adulthood. There Will Be Blood loomed large over my twenties, Sátántangó—twice, in two different decades!—invigorated me when I was weary. Trouble Every Day and Beau Travail got me thinking about the poetics of cinema. Goodbye, Dragon Inn left me super excited about slowing down. Sometimes the cinematic tentpoles in our life burn fast and quick: The Crow was only briefly my favorite film, but when it was, it was important enough to catalyze my life in a significant way.
I’ve realized in the past few years how large Bram Stoker’s Dracula has loomed over the majority of my life. I literally tried to remake it when I was eleven, but it’s only now, close to 30 years later, that I’m realizing how deeply it’s influenced me. I kind of want to write a book about it.
I love good film criticism too. Reading great writing about film inspires me sometimes more than the film that’s being written about. And sometimes reading a press release announcing a new film from a director I love gets my imagination going in a really good way.
As to what fuels me: when I’m at home and procrastinating, I love watching Wes Anderson movies with their commentary tracks turned on. I rewatch his movies more than almost any others, but almost always with the commentaries turned on. I think I’ve seen Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums more often with the commentaries than without. Maybe it’s because Wes Anderson’s cinematic voice and his literal voice are so similar that it just feels natural.
I’ve noticed with both A Ghost Story and The Green Knight especially, there’s a focus on lingering shots that always seem to ask the audience more than a typical shot-reverse-shot. My question is, are long takes ways for you to pay homage (e.g. to Béla Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky) or does it come down to what the narrative calls for? —David
It’s always what the movies need. I love movies that use duration as a narrative tool, but I would never do it just for the heck of it. I love slow cinema, but I am also a very impatient person and I have no attention span whatsoever, so it really has to count for it to be worth it.
Incidentally, as much as I love Tarr and Tarkovsky, it was Tsai Ming-liang whose work really opened up the doors of slow cinema to me. I wrote an essay about his film Stray Dogs in which I talk about this further.
Shashwat has a theory: At least all of your feature-film works have characters going anti-establishment or grappling with the feeling of being left out. Is it entirely incidental, or does it come by design?
This is the first time I’ve thought about it! I’m sure there’s something subconscious at play but I’ve never directly considered this as a running theme. Which probably means it is incredibly accurate. Most of my movies are about people trying to get back home, but I guess there’s an element of left-out-ness that could be drawn from that.
Your segment of The Year of the Everlasting Storm was one of the two (the other being Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s) that didn’t focus on the Covid-19 pandemic but on an unspecified historical plague. What was the thought process on that? —James Espinoza
We were still at the height of the pandemic when I shot that short film, and it was still very much a new thing that was changing every day. I didn’t want to ignore it, but I also was just like, there’s nothing meaningful I can say about this right now while we’re still in the middle of it. I made that movie up as we were shooting it, so it’s very much a real-time reaction to something I didn’t feel I had the capacity to react to.
Who are your favorite up-and-coming filmmakers? —Roman Beresford
I’ve been a bit out of touch lately because I haven’t been going to film festivals as much as I used to. There are a bunch of new filmmakers whose work I love who I’ve worked with or am working with in some capacity: Nicholas Bateman, for example, or Channing Godfrey Peoples, or Ricky D’Ambrose, whose new film The Cathedral just played at Venice earlier this year. There are peers like Stephen Cone who are very prolific and well-regarded but whose work still feels a bit like a secret.
And then there are the filmmakers I don’t know whose work just knocks my socks off and inspires me. One of my favorite films this year was Shiva Baby, but is it fair to call Emma Seligman an up-and-comer just because that’s her first feature? She’s already made it as far as I can tell! Same with Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese—This Is Not a Burial, It’s A Resurrection is his first narrative feature, but it’s on a whole different level.
A lot of my favorite new films are coming out of the horror genre. I’m really excited to see what Jaco Bauer, who made Gaia, does next. That felt like a movie that spoke my language. And I’m a huge fan of Jeffrey Brown’s The Beach House, and can’t wait to see something new from him. And Joko Anwar from Indonesia—I really dig his movies.
Please consult your secret spreadsheet and tell us: what are three films we should watch next? Your chance to shout out any specific up-and-comers for our Letterboxd watchlists.
If you haven’t seen Wolfwalkers yet, please rectify this! Because this is for Letterboxd, I presume everyone has already seen Titane, but if you haven’t, that’s the movie of the year for me. But actually, let me just recommend a double feature I had almost exactly a year ago that was fairly revelatory: Gunda and Time. Two black-and-white documentaries, viewed in that order. The first made me despair for humanity; the second restored my hope in it. Watch those two, and then Wolfwalkers.
What are some favorite films that deal with or allude to contemporary growth/ennui /coming-of-age themes (like living at home for too long when you’re already an adult!) that do this in other times, in other ways than the present?
The most obvious answer is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. And obvious is okay in this case, because that movie is an effing masterpiece.
We had many, many questions about how (in this and other films) you film death, approach death, are frank about death’s inevitability. So, to cut to the chase, we’ll just ask you to read and respond to Jamelle Bouie’s review:
“I just want to say that I was struck by the preoccupation with death throughout the film. Death as an inevitability, death as something to respect, death as an opportunity for life, death as something that—if we are lucky—we will face on our own terms, with our dignity intact. Gawain’s journey is—to me—ultimately about that final point, about whether we lose, or keep, our fortitude as we face the end of what we know.”
First of all, as an avid reader of Jamelle’s New York Times column and newsletter, it is humbling to know that he has not only seen my movie but written something about it. I’m a little bit starstruck. Secondly: his reading of the film is exactly what I intended.
‘The Green Knight’ is back in theaters from December 10, and is also available on demand, DVD and Blu-ray.