Brian Helgeland Interview

Writer-director gives 14th Century jousting a roguish rock'n'roll revamp in hip period flick 'Knight's Tale'

Writer-director gives 14th Century jousting a roguish rock'n'roll revamp in hip period flick 'Knight's Tale'

(Some questions in this interview came from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

Stuffy historical purists and "Masterpiece Theater" patrons may want Brian Helgeland's head on a platter after seeing how he's warped the 14th Century in "A Knight's Tale."

But when he set out to make a guitar-anthem-fueled flick about a lowborn interloper (Heath Ledger) in the nobles-only world of tournament jousting, meticulously recreating antiquity wasn't a primary concern for the writer-director. This is an action-adventure built for thrills and goofy grins. So when the peasant crowd watching two knights gallop toward each other in the opening scene start stomping feet in unison and chanting "We will/ We will/ Rock you!", Helgeland is hoping you'll embrace the absurdity and go along for the ride. (It's not hard, the movie is a gas.)

Helgeland has more than a decade of Hollywood experience under his belt as a writer (his screenplay credits run the gamut from "Nightmare On Elm Street 4" to "L.A. Confidential") and a director ("Payback") but you wouldn't know it to look at him or hear him speak. He's like a cross between and exuberant 12-year-old boy and a soccer dad -- a combination that helps explain how he came to be wearing a sling on his right arm while he's traveling to promote his new film.

"Jousting injury?" I joke as he sits down for an interview. He laughs as if he hasn't heard this one a few dozen times in the last week and offers up the story behind his injury.

"My wife wanted to get (our kids) a trampoline. I said, 'They're gonna get hurt.' She's like, 'No they won't.' So we got it. Then I was giving this safety demonstration and..." Helgeland makes a ta-dah gesture with his good arm and smiles.

Q: I liked this movie, but I can't believe it worked! I think you won me over with the "We Will Rock You." I knew what I was in for, but when that scene came along, I realized the spirit in which you were doing it.

A: Yeah, yeah. Well, the obvious thing is that a lot of (the songs) are stadium anthems. But (that was) luck more than anything. Whenever I write a script, I try to find some music to listen to that has something to do with whatever the movie is. It just helps me when I'm writing. But when I was trying to come up with music to play for "A Knight's Tale" and I analyzed it, it seemed the movie was about youth and identity in some ways, and also questioning the powers that be. When I thought all that through, it seemed like that's rock'n'roll, basically. So a lot of those songs were the songs I was listening to when I first started listening to my own music.

Q: So the story came before the gimmick -- if you'll pardon the term. Or was there a modern element in your mind the whole time?

A: Well, there was, there was...yeah, there was always kind of a weird...uh...

Q: It was never strictly a period piece, is that what you're saying?

A: Yeah. For example, I had read a book about tournament jousting, which really was kind of a sport in Medieval Europe. I always thought, what a great world to have a movie in! But I could never come up with any characters to stick in it. So I had not done anything with it for years. (Then) I was coming off a movie I was supposed to do two years ago for Fox -- they pulled the plug on it at the last second because I couldn't get the budget low enough and we couldn't agree on casting. I had to come up with something to write so I could direct again, and I thought I would write a movie about a guy who is a screenwriter and wants to be a director -- which seemed like a good idea for about 10 seconds.

Q: [Laughing.]

A: I was looking at some old notes I had, and I found the idea I had for the tournament jousting. One of the notes was that you had to be of noble birth to compete. So immediately I thought, well that's the character -- he has to be a peasant who wants to be a knight. Then I thought, well, that's the same thing as a screenwriter who wants to be a director. So that whole "change your stars" part of (the plot) comes out of that bad idea.

Q: I thought of (the heroes) as rock stars. To go with the music.

A: Yeah, yeah! In fact, the costume designer -- her name is Caroline Harris -- we were talking about how the group of them (the main characters) should look. We wanted to avoid tights and that sort of thing, which takes you out of the movie sometimes, especially when the guys have tights and the girls have those big cone hats. It makes it alien all of a sudden, and hard to relate to them. And she said they should look like the Rolling Stones in 1970, basically. You know, they got those shirts open and kinda blousy, Renaissance, Medieval -- there's all kinds of time periods going on. So yeah, we tried to make them look a little bit like rock stars.

Q: With each of these elements -- like the costumes -- you have to get it exactly right in a movie like this, don't you? Not too rock star (and not) too period. There must have been a lot of tweaking.

A: At the end of the day, it's just like, a stomach thing. You just see something and you think either that's it or that's not it. There's no formula to it.

Q: Did you happen to have seen "Josie and the Pussycats"? It's about subliminal advertising in teen music, and one of the subliminal messages is "Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon!"

A: Oh, really? [Laughs.] When I cast Heath, I thought he was unknown basically. He was shooting "The Patriot" at the time. Part of the idea was to have a cast that the audience hadn't seen before. I think it makes it easier to accept the world and what I do with it than if you have Matt Damon or Ben Affleck or one of those guys. Then you'd have to get over the fact that it's Matt Damon before you accept him as who I'm saying he is.

Q: You must have gotten some pressure to use some known faces. How did you get around it?

A: I was just stubborn. The studio always had kind of a faith that I knew how to pull it off. But at the same time they can't help themselves. I remember, for the longest time they wanted Drew Carrey to play Geoffrey Chaucer (the poet, who becomes the hero's sidekick). [Helgeland makes a sour face and shakes his head as we both laugh.] Ugh! I would say to them, "Nothing against Drew Carrey, but I don't even know how to respond to that!" It would so take you out of the movie! And they think you're turning down a great idea! Luckily, I could always say the jousting is the star of the movie -- which I never thought was the truth, but you can say things like that to them and they're like, "Oh yeah, that's right!"

Q: Not to take anything away from Heath Ledger, who was great for the role, but for folks without a Teen People subscription, Paul Bettany stole the movie. (He plays a ruthlessly wry and showboating Chaucer, who is first seen walking naked down a country road after literally losing his shirt to crooked gamblers).

A: Yeah, yeah, yeah! I actually wrote the part for him. (The nudity) was really almost as a dare to see if he would do it. I sent him the script and he called me up and said, "You bastard!" And I said, "What?" He goes, "I'm naked. Half the movie I'm naked!" I said, [in a taunting voice] "Yeah? Well, can you do it or can't you?" There was this pause, and then [in a resigned tone], "Yeah, I can do it."

Q: I haven't read "The Canterbury Tales" in some time. Did you have some fun with literary allusions?

A: Well those two guys Peter the Pardoner and Simon the Summoner, the guys that he loses his clothes to, those guys are from "The Canterbury Tales," and of course the very first tale is called "The Knight's Tale." It's not about a jouster or any of that stuff, but the idea is basically that he's out on the road trying to gather material for "The Canterbury Tales" when he ends up with these guys.

Q: I love the fact that they call him "Geoff." I mean, why wouldn't they? But it just cracked me up.

A: That's kind of more serious than it seems, too. One of the dangers of a period movie is that everything gets kind of put up on a pedestal and covered in varnish. But if you lived in 1370, you would still have nicknames. I was an English major, and when we studied Chaucer he seemed like a guy who stepped out of a museum with dust all over him. But he had to be a more kind of out-there guy to write all that stuff. So having no idea, I'm hoping Paul's version of Chaucer is closer to who Chaucer probably was than...

Q: ..than guy in the etching hanging on the classroom wall?

A: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Q: Since historical exactness wasn't a high priority here, what kind of research did you have your cast do? Did you have them geek out at the Ren Faire or anything?

A: I don't think I had them do anything. Just what they wanted to do on their own. I had Shannyn (Sossamon, who plays the love interest) read this little book called "The Book of Courtly Love," which was kind of a 14th Century treatise on love and the rules of courtship, which we tried to actually follow quite closely in their relationship.

Q: Although I noticed that her father was conspicuously absent and she's pretty much running around on her own.

A: Yeah, she's kind of footloose. But that was their only research. (For) everything else they just relied on the script. I did a ton of research, then basically took what I wanted and threw the rest away, trying not to be a slave to it. At the end of the day, it's kind of a fantasy world. It's Medieval, but that's the beauty of movies -- you can create your own world.

Q: Were you concerned about pulling it off?

A: You know, at first I wasn't -- until everyone kept saying, basically, "Are you concerned about pulling it off?"

Q: [Laughs.]

A: I just did what I thought was the right thing for the movie. I didn't really think about it. My editor was right behind me as far as cutting, so I could see a lot of stuff assembled only a day or two after I'd done it, and it just seemed to work. Then it was all instinct at that point. The cast actually helped a lot because they were so on-board. In a weird sort of way, they collectively had done so few films that they didn't have it in them to wonder if it was going to work or not. They were just into it.

Q: One of the things I loved -- and it's rare in movies today -- is that your action scenes are really clearly shot. You can see all the detail. And they're different from each other, as well.

A: One of the weird things was we tried all these things on the jousting (when) we were doing camera tests. We had guys sitting on sawhorses being pulled on trailers, and sometimes running a blue screen behind them, doing lots of inserts with heads getting hit, and it just looked horrible. It looked so fake. The stunt coordinator -- his name's Alan Grath and he used to play for the Rams in L.A. -- he'd done all these football movies, like "Any Given Sunday." I hired him just because he seemed like he understood how to get two bodies flying at each other. And one day he said, " You know what? Let's just have them really joust and we'll shoot it."

Q: A jousting scene has got to be one the ultimate thrills for a stuntman. You must have had them lined up around the block for this movie.

A: Yeah, yeah. The funny thing is, once we decided to joust for real, we were looking for guys who could joust. And that...[shakes his head in bewilderment]. What we ended up with was four main stuntmen on the movie that do almost all the jousting. There were a bunch of guys who'd just get hit, but the guys that really do the majority of the jousting are these two French guys that joust in Renaissance Faires (and) one main guy named Tom DuPont. (He) runs and choreographs the jousting show at the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas. He played everybody! He's William (the hero), he's Adhemar (the rival black knight played by Rufus Sewell), and once the helmet goes on (nobody is the wiser).

He's in that opening shot in the movie, where he's hit in the head. That was an accident. The two lances hit each other, bounced off each other and one went up and hit him in the head, and knocked him out cold in that opening shot. And uh, it was a great shot! So we were always determined to use it. But he got hammered on that. It's a hard thing to do because you're sitting there thinking you're going to kill somebody.

Q: You shot everything at normal speed? There weren't any sped-up camera tricks or anything?

A: Actually we slowed some of it down. The thing about action is at 24 frames a lot of it looks kind of Keystone Cop-y. So we shot a lot of it at 28 frames, which slows it down just enough that it looks real. Or sometimes we shot it slower because sometimes it just goes so fast we had to slow it down. But they rode right into each other. They galloped and went right at it.

Q: I never got tired of looking at the splintering wood (of the lances) flying apart.

A: Yeah! Some of it's real, but we couldn't get then to splinter very much, so we hollowed them out to get them to break where we wanted them to break. Then we filled them with splinters ourselves so we'd get more splinters. We used a lot of spaghetti! A lot of linguini.

Q: [Laughing.] You're kidding! That's great!

A: It was one of those things where low-tech was the answer. We were going to CGI all those splinters in -- we had this whole huge budget for putting splinters in. Then one day the on-set effects guy said, "I think we have a way to get rid of all that." The guy had a lance and he just ran into a wall with it, and it went boom! and all these splinters went up into the air, and I'm like "My God, that's great! What is that?" And he says, "Spaghetti!" [Laughs.]

Q: I think my favorite scene might have been the dance set to David Bowie's "Golden Years." (In this scene a very formalized period dance gives way to the characters boogie-ing down.) That was an amazing feat. I don't know how you made that work.

A: We shot a lot of footage because I had no idea what I was doing!

Q: Did you have a choreographer?

A: Yeah, we did. He helped me a lot. I was like, "Tell me how to shoot it," because he has done 20 movies. The best thing about it was we'd bought the rights to "Golden Years" and...through a connection (composer Carter Burwell) had we got ahold of David Bowie, brought him in and showed him the footage. He was really into it (and) gave us all the tracks so we could split all the vocals away from the guitars and everything. Then (Burwell) wrote the score that blends into "Golden Years" and we mixed the tracks. A lot of people don't even realize for 10 or 20 seconds (that the music has changed).

Q: I didn't. When that scene first started with the period music, I thought, "This strange in the context of this movie with all this modern music to have this really old...oh, wait a second!"

A: Yeah. Part of that whole idea was that if you danced back then you didn't think your dance was some boring, kind of museum dance. You felt like you were dancing to (something as cool as) "Golden Years" -- I think. So part of the idea was to try to get across to a modern audience that...

Q: ...it was hip to them.

A: Yeah! It was a lot of fun, all that stuff.

Q: What do you think the movie's shelf-life will be with this rock'n'roll soundtrack, this very fashionable, almost MTV-like heroine, the contemporary hairstyles and the highly stylized action sequences?

A: I think the movie has a definite pop feel to it, and anything that's pop has kinda got a short shelf life. But William's story and his journey have a timeless kind of quality to it. Hopefully that's the heart of it. But the music and the -- all of it is right on for this movie, but it is a pop thing.

Q: So you're hoping people will look back on it as something they remember fondly from the early 2000s?

A: Right. You know, the studio liked the music, but then they said, "Can't we get like N'Sync to re-record those songs?"

Q: Oh, God! Oh, no!

A: [Laughs.] I never wanted the music to feel cynical. I didn't want anyone to sit there and go, "Oh, they're just trying to sell a soundtrack so they stuck it on." I always felt like that was the music that belonged on the movie.


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