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Castles, Chapels, and Camelot: The Story Behind The Green Knight's Incredible Look

Production designer Jade Healy reveals how she worked with David Lowery to create one of the most visually arresting takes on Arthurian legend ever – and how a quick pee break for one crew member led to an incredible discovery.

by | August 3, 2021 | Comments

Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

The Green Knight isn’t production designer Jade Healy’s first quest with director David Lowery. Among her impressive string of credits, which include A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marriage Story, and I, Tonya, you’ll see Lowery collaborations like the live-action Pete’s Dragon and the existential meditation A Ghost Story. Their latest project together, which has been dubbed by many a “visual masterpiece,” is an adaptation of the legendary 14th-century 2,500-line poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it is a vast reframing of the gallant Arthurian myth for a modern audience.

For those unfamiliar with the medieval text: During a Christmas celebration, a magical, menacing knight who appears to be made of tree bark, vines, and armor arrives to play a game – whoever lands a blow against him must venture to the Green Chapel one year hence to receive an equal blow in kind. The young plucky nephew to King Arthur, Gawain (Dev Patel), takes the challenge and, one year later, travels to face the supernatural foe.

In this exclusive interview, Healy breaks down how she brought to life the fabled sets – the famed Camelot, the otherworldly Lady and Lord’s castle, the verdant Green Chapel – working with Lowery to turn this parable into an enchanting yet bleak and psychologically thrilling adventure.


Crafting A New Look for Camelot

Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

Jade Healy: I spent a long time researching different architecture of the time period and looking at different castles. I was really just trying to find something that felt right. For me, often the design process is seeing it in my head, and then trying to figure it out and put it down on paper. That comes with a lot of exploration and research and drawing.

I found this French Abbey called L’abbaye du Thoronet, and it was so organic and beautiful and Romanesque. It had a simplicity to it. And I wanted to avoid fussiness. Often these sort of castles have so much going on. There are all of these ornate carvings.

As soon as I saw it, it almost felt like a warm womb. It’s got a sand-colored brick and it sort of conjured up images of early Star Wars, which, you know, David [Lowery] is always referencing. It was ancient and modern at the same time. That image was sort of my “Eureka” moment. And then from that I started designing the look and shape and feel. That was how I ended up with this sort of sand and stone color, which changes depending on how Andrew [Droz Palermo] would light, going from a gray-blue to warmish pink colors.


A More Intimate Round Table

The Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

Healy: I was trying to find something that would really encompass the round table. We, of course, were limited by size. We weren’t a huge movie. We had a stage space and we had to figure out how to work within the limits of our space while we were building other sets as well.

Often, as you start looking at castles, [you discover] they’re actually really small. The rooms are quite small because that’s just how they were. So we thought in this room should just be the round table, in a specific chamber that’s just for that. And by building it around the shots that David needed – the entrance of the Green Knight and this Christmas celebration – that’s how we landed on that design.


The Cottage of St. Winifred and Its Surrounds

The Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

Healy: As soon as I landed in Ireland, we got to drafting because we didn’t have that much prep. When I read the script, I knew in my head how it should look, and then it’s always just finding some reference images that are of the period. Based on these images that I found of these old cottages, we built the interiors next to the great hall right on the stage. The exterior facade was built separately in a field, and we built the pond in front of the exterior. Design is always a little bit of figuring out how you can cheat things together. The exterior we found on some land, but it was just a basic structure. Then we went in and added a thatch roof, and we added some wood detail to get it to feel right.


An “Intimidating” Home for the Lord and Lady

The Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

Healy: For those locations we knew we’d have to find them because we didn’t have the money to build something like that. So, we were really looking for the right castle that could be the Lord and Lady’s. When we saw this castle, it was so interesting because it wasn’t [from] the same time period at all. But that’s where we felt we could jump into this magical fantasy realm and create a castle that felt totally different from the world Gawain’s left behind in Camelot. To create something that felt almost like an illusion, a dream.

This castle was decrepit. This interesting old couple bought it and they’re slowly restoring it with the help of volunteers that go and stay there. But there are cats roaming and the top two floors have holes. God, it was freezing cold everywhere. Which kinda helped in a way with the feeling of being in this Medieval time.

But we also wanted to adapt it. The windows were so huge, which I didn’t like, so I wanted to find ways to close them up. So I built around them to create these skinnier windows. I knew I wanted it to be sparse, allowing for negative space. I wanted it to have this unsettling quality in a way that it’s so large and yet there’s not much there. And it’s not homey. It’s intimidating. We wanted to bring in a little bit more blue, and it was really fun to play with these colors that were totally out of the rest of the film – especially the Lady’s dress and the bedding being almost sort of the same color.


The Lady’s Library: Books and An Anachronistic Camera

The Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

It’s so fun. We knew the books were going to be fun to design because while finding these old ancient books, we had such amazing artists and craftsmen in Ireland. Our graphic designers shot all these beautiful drawings, just gorgeous. Amazing.

And then for the camera, it was one of those things in the script where you knew at this point, you were moving into a more magical world because obviously they didn’t have that kind of technology then. So we talked a lot about what that could be. We thought of it being some kind of pinhole camera room, like one of those giant camera obscura sort of rooms, allowing ourselves not to get too bogged down by the mathematics or the science of it. When you get bogged down you start to think, well, how does the light get back there and where did it come from? But those are the things that we allowed ourselves to go, well, it’s magic.


“Guys, there’s like this abandoned chapel back here.”

The Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

We knew we just wanted this very overgrown castle. And, of course, you have something in your mind and if you could build it, there’s always this perfect green chapel, but then we found this one and it really was perfect. The ivy and all those greens were really overgrowing; in fact, we had to cut some of them back to let light in. But then we brought all the moss and all the greens, and we built the river into it. In my mind when I first started designing, I envisioned it as being bigger. But then, in the end, I just really loved the intimacy of that space.

We found the chapel by accident. It was right next to a location we went to scout that we didn’t end up using. We were looking at it for the Lord and Lady’s castle, but we didn’t like it. And then as we were leaving, the first AD went into the woods to go to the bathroom, and he was like, Guys, there’s like this abandoned chapel back here. We were like, What? That’s what I love about the scouting process. You just can’t replicate it when you’re building everything from scratch. We just walked in the woods and there was this beautiful abandoned castle. And it was just how Gawain would have come across it.


The Crooked Tower Comes Together

The Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

That one was really fun because we had to figure out how to create the space, and we couldn’t build on the stage because there was no stage space. It was this creative problem-solving, because I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like, but it’s so hard when you have it in your head yet you can’t build it. That’s the suffering of a designer in a nutshell.

We just found this empty old barn that was near some of our other locations that had like one-and-a-half stone walls. And then the other two walls were wood. But it had an interesting ceiling. I just said, Can I take this wall off over here? And that wall off over there? And then I just started to design. Like we’re going to match, we’re going to build this on the match, we’re going to add the details in the arches to the roof so we can get this medieval roof structure. Then we’re going to build all the medieval windows, and then build this massive fireplace, and then put down a real stone floor.

The Green Knight

(Photo by © A24)

They’ve used that barn for so many movies and for so many different things. And everyone’s like, Whoa, we’ve never seen it look like this before. So it was fun and amazing. Like the fireplace looks so good. It was really, really fantastic.

The exterior location, where Gawain walks up to the crooked tower, there’s just sort of a low wall of this real castle. When you’re scouting, it’s your job as a designer to say, What about over there, those tiny, weird little steps? What if we extended that and that’s the crooked tower? That’s the fun part about being a designer and being able to sort of see the world. Sometimes you see things that the DP and the director don’t, and then you have the opportunity to sort of draw on it and present it. And then when everyone loves it and it makes it into the movie it’s rewarding.

The Green Knight is in theaters now. 


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