While the tale of King Arthur, a young man from the back streets of Londinium (London during the Middle Ages) who grows up with no idea he is of royal lineage and later sets about to claim his rightful crown, has been told for centuries through text and for more than 100 years on film. But never has the tale been told like this. Charlie Hunnam, who plays the mythic king in director Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (in theaters this Friday), describes the film as "the first chapter of the story, a real origin story. There was an opportunity to go a little bit deeper into what that story would look like."
Ritchie adds: "The essence of the legend is a transcendence of self and self-reliance. The journey of the Arthurian legend is to go from an infant to an adult or from a pauper to a king; from being completely dependent upon others to being completely independent. That’s really the essence of the story."
Starring alongside Hunnam are Oscar nominee Jude Law (as Arthur's tyrannical uncle Vortigern who has seized the crown for himself upon the death of baby Arthur's father), Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou (as Bedivere, Arthur's loyal friend), Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (as The Mage), Aidan Gillen (as Goosefat Bill) and Eric Bana (as Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon).
Recently Hunnam, Ritchie and Hounsou sat down with members of the media to take us on an even deeper dive into the making of a film that breathes new life into this world of swords and bravery with the director's dynamic style bolstered by Hunnam's charismatic portrayal.
Defining King Arthur
Charlie Hunnam: I think, for me, the thing that I could relate to most readily and was most excited about is the idea of the cultivation of self-belief and subduing one’s inner demons in order to strengthen one’s disposition to the point of being able to go out and do great things and beat the insurmountable odds. That was the central theme of the film but also something I could relate to and was very excited about.
We spent a lot of time looking at people that are out there in the world doing that, particularly Conor McGregor (Mixed Martial Arts champion). He was somebody that I drew a lot of inspiration from and who Guy and I discussed a lot. I saw one interview with him when he was going to fight Chad Mendes and a journalist asked him what specific challenges Mendes would pose for him, and he said, “There is no opponent. I’m in the octagon by myself.” Which I think is sort of like the Bruce Lee philosophy: you’re in there fighting yourself. It’s all about self-belief and knowing what you’re capable of and if you’re dialed in and focused on your true potential, then any obstacle is going to crumble before you.
Djimon Hounsou: I think being raised in a brothel and coming from the street, it is his humility that makes Arthur a king—a true king. For me, it reminds me of some of our kings from Africa who truly had those magical powers.
Guy Ritchie: It’s a truly international story. I suppose it’s a French story about England, but it’s an international story and it’s a story of everyman.
The Arthurian Legend
Guy Ritchie: My experience with the Arthurian legend is first and foremost from John Boorman’s film [1981’s Excalibur], which I found to be very provocative and exciting when I was ten, and I suppose that influenced me to make a version of the Arthurian legend myself. I wrote my version of this film about five or six years ago and for one reason or another it got shelved because Warner Bros. bought another version. Then there was a third version that came in and it had two things that I didn’t have.
One of the things is that they thinned out the story and as soon as you get rid of eight of the ten components and focus on two of those components then all the sudden you have a narrative you can follow. That was one of their ideas and the other idea was to put a fantastic element into it. It’s my story but it’s got the fantastic element and it’s the thinned out version that Joby [Harold] brought to the party.
Charlie Hunnam: Like Guy, I had grown up really enjoying the John Boorman version of the story and I read The Once and Future King [written by Terence Hanbury White in 1958]. I probably saw the film when I was too young, but I had very liberal parents, so there was a three-or-four year period where I was in that movie every day. I grew up in the countryside and I was always carving sticks into swords. I had one that was my masterpiece that I whittled down from a very large piece of wood into my version of Excalibur and I would spend all day trying to coerce my brother into engaging me into combat [laughs].
But, mainly, I was just excited about the idea of what Guy would do with this world. I’ve been an enormous fan of Guy’s my whole adult life. Just the idea of making this story fresh and young and exciting and accessible to a new audience made a lot of sense right off the bat. I loved Guy’s instinct that it would be slightly more ignoble. I always quote Guy when he said: “We’ve all seen the story of the noble man who goes on the noble quest to become the noble king. Let’s do the opposite.” And that just seemed to be very exciting in the context of this being an origin story and the true story of the reluctant hero, but where that reluctance would come from within that paradigm.
Charlie Hunnam: For me, the greatest challenge in the beginning was understanding the tone because there was a pretty fine needle we were threading with taking the world seriously and the story seriously and giving it the respect that it’s due and also throwing all of that out the window and tackling it with the appropriate level of irreverence and originality. So I felt that in the first couple of weeks there was an ambiguity with the tone and we tried a lot of stuff. I’ve heard many filmmakers talk about this, and it’s certainly been true in my experience, and that’s that the film sort of tells you what it wants to be. And that combined with the filmmaker’s creative True North we found a path and then it started to feel really good. But that first couple of weeks I found challenging, tonally.
Guy Ritchie: What’s exciting for a film director is to take on a challenge that they’re unfamiliar with and I was completely unfamiliar with this genre and of a budget this size. It’s curious though, whether a film costs a million dollars or a hundred million dollars you approach it in exactly the same fashion. The task is to just find a tonality.
Each film has its own voice and as the director you have to steer the head of the tiger. As a creative team, for the first couple of weeks, you remain sensitive to where the film is going and what the tonality is going to be. Once you know where it’s going, you make sure that your head creative guys—the actors—are complicit and consistent with that tone.
The Editing Phase
Guy Ritchie: [Editing] was time consuming. I think we had two years allocated to make this movie and it ended up being three years. My first cut was three-and-a-half hours long and that was me being strict, so by the time I got finished with it I got it down to two hours, but that was honestly just hard work. So it was time consuming.
Djimon Hounsou: [The final film] was quite surprising. Most of the scenes were special effect images in the scenes, so when we went back a year later to do a re-shoot, Guy would say, “Look a little higher, the tower is much taller [laughs].”
Charlie Hunnam: Guy is actually really bold in the editing room. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience where the final result was quite as different from what I anticipated. We were very fortunate to have a big fat budget so we were able to shoot a lot of stuff and Guy works a lot on the fly so we were trying things.
I thought I sort of had a clear idea of what we shot but then I realized that it had to be cut down to time and once you realize that you’re gonna essentially lose 50 percent of what we shot, it was anybody’s guess as to what was going to end up on screen and how it was going to end up on screen because the editing choices that Guy made were non-linear. So I came out of it very excited about the film and I thought Guy and James [Herbert] did a pretty sensational job of keeping as much as they could and reimagining it in a really energetic and exciting way.
Don't Mess With Djimon
Charlie Hunnam: I worked very closely with the stunt team learning lots and lots of choreography. There weren’t any big mistakes or injuries or anything, but one day they all came in limping and generally looking a little beat-up, and I said, “What happened to you lot?” And they said, “We shot a scene with Djimon yesterday [laughs].” So, apparently, Djimon pulls no punches in those sequences.
Guy Ritchie: [Developing the creatures] was the whole creative team. We made the decision that we wanted creatures that exist, so everything is a shift in size. I can get taken out of a movie when it’s a two-headed elephant, but as long as it’s an elephant I can get my head around it. So anything with the fantastic creatures is a shift in size, and we came to that conclusion quite early on.
Charlie Hunnam: I had a horrible experience on Pacific Rim with the most uncomfortable costumes and they were really inhibiting to the action scenes. So I learned the lesson from that, and the costume designer, Annie Symons, was very sensitive to what was going to be required. So there was a lot of thinking about how to make this wardrobe equally attractive and functional. I actually didn’t encounter any trouble, although I think I ripped the seat of my leather strides a couple of times with some overly ambitious moves [laughs].
Djimon Hounsou: My biggest trouble with costumes is that you get [to the set] and you start putting the costume on and it’s really exciting because you’re getting into the character and on the first day of shooting you realize you need to use the restroom and there is not an easy access [laughs].
The Musical Element
Charlie Hunnam: Seeing it with the music was amazing because I thought the music [from Daniel Pemberton] was spectacular. I know that was a real challenge: to tread that line of making [the music] feel accurate for that time period, but also make it fresh and exciting and original. I thought it was one of the most exciting elements of the film.
Guy Ritchie: Hans Zimmer is my go-to-man and he’s also the loveliest man on the planet, but I wanted us to be challenged, so I chose Daniel. I did The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Daniel too. It’s a film in itself actually, the music. There were three components in this film: there was the conventional film, there were the visual effects and there was the music, and each of one of those components took up as much time as the other. So the music was a big deal with buckets of tears and lots of screaming matches.
More to Come?
Guy Ritchie: A film is never green lit until it’s made, until it’s in the can. And you get invested into these things, emotionally, and the overriding fear is collapse and everything else pales into insignificance thereafter. I haven’t gotten over the fear yet because the film still has to be released. But there’s two types of fear: there’s positive fear and negative fear. The type of fear that galvanizes activity is a fear I can live with. All of us hope we will be going back again, and, if that’s the case, there’s such a rich stew with so many ingredients, so we have plenty more stew out there.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword takes over theaters this Friday. Tickets are on sale now.