Brian Helgeland is the writer, director, and producer of A Knight’s Tale. He also won the Academy Award for best Screenplay for L.A. Confidential. He recently came to Denver to endure a day of questioning.
When I spoke to him he was in good spirits, friendly and talkative, even with his shoulder in a sling and a front tooth conspicuously missing. Heath Ledger’s scowling bad-boy face of the film’s marketing campaign is nothing compared to the toothless smile of this father who tried too hard to impress his kids.
On Trampoline Safety and Dental Care
MM: So how are you?
BH: I’m good, I’m good. I Broke my shoulderblade and knocked my tooth out.
MM: Was it movie related?
BH: No, I was giving my kids a safety demonstration. It went fine and when I was all done, one of them said “how high can you jump?” I’m like “I can jump really high” and my other son goes “I bet you can jump higher than anyone in the world.”
On ’70s Rock Playing over a Medieval Jousting Movie
MM: What inspired the combination between seventies arena rock and the middle ages?
BH: The movie happens in 1372. So it’s the seventies, it’s just the wrong seventies.
Part of it is also the sports analogy — trying to make the audience realize they were as into their sport as we are into ours. The fact is, is if you were alive in 1370 there would be music you could dance to and there would be music you’d hear and you’d go “that’s the music my parents like.”
I think the danger in period movies is they push you away a little bit because you’ve got the girls in the cone hats and the guys in tights and right away, you’re like “that’s weird.” You could enjoy the movie and be interested in it but it becomes hard to relate to the characters, I think. Part of it was to make those characters more relatable to the audience. To say “that music doesn’t go with that time period” is missing the point.
When I analyzed what it was about — the story — it seemed to me to be about youth — identity and coming of age and questioning the powers that be. That all seems to be embodied by rock music. I really feel that for this movie it’s the right music.
MM: Was this movie, in your mind, “let’s make a medieval movie or a jousting movie” and then you had the inspiration to modernize it; or was the whole concept, “people are the same in all times”?
BH: Yeah. We have computers and cell phones and cars, and all that. But they had all that too, they had horses, they wrote things down — I really believe that people have never changed, really. They laugh, they fall in love, they go to war, they never change. I think it’s Plato who said — complaining about how the generation after has no respect for their elders. It’s all like that.
MM: One of the things that I was most impressed with was the jousting scenes. I love stunts; for example, I love Jackie Chan, but I don’t really like the wire-fu kind of stuff. I like to be able to say, “whoa, they really did that.” It looks like you have stuntmen take a lance to the chest.
BH: We did, we jousted.
Before we started shooting we had all these Czech stuntmen rehearsing and they were all brave stuntmen and they all ride really well. They had to learn how to joust, basically.
The stunt coordinator and I would go down and watch them and we’d think “this is gonna look awful.” We tried everything. You shoot the guy riding and that was okay. You’d shoot the guy coming the other way. You put ‘em on sawhorses and have them holding lances. Towing them on a car and getting hit, and faking getting hit, and shoot inserts of their helmets getting hit, and faking that. When we cut it together it almost got worse and worse as we went along. It was really disheartening. Plus it’s got so many cuts in it, trying to hide that we weren’t really jousting.
And then one day he [Allan Graf, the stunt coordinator] came in and said “I think I figured out how we can do it.” He said “we’ll just really joust and just shoot it.” And I thought “we’re gonna kill somebody” and he says “nah, we won’t kill anybody.” Allan Graf used to play for the Rams. I knew he at least he understood two bodies flying at each other and impact and all that stuff.
The guys we had couldn’t do it. So we had to find guys who could. There are experts [on jousting]. We got these two guys who were working a French renaissance fair doing a jousting show and they actually break lances on each other and so we got them. And then we got — as dumb as it sounds — this guy and his partner who choreograph and run the jousting show at the Excalibur hotel in Las Vegas. They all came to Prague and those four guys do all of the jousting in the movie.
On Jousting Safety
The only thing we did was, on the lance we hollowed it out — we knew it was going to break at a certain point. And it weakened it so it wouldn’t break right away. So they’d take an impact but they wouldn’t take the full impact. And in the hollow we made, we filled it up with balsa wood splinters and believe it or not, linguine. So when you see those explosions of splinters. On one level it’s real. We were going to CGI all those splinters in. We had this digital budget for splinters.
On Action (why Helgeland is my new hero)
My whole philosophy of action is you gotta know the geography of it, to see where you are. You gotta be as wide as possible. Once you start going in close, once you shoot a guy in the chest with a thing breaking off, it just becomes this kind of “where am I.”
Someday, I don’t know when, I want to do a cop movie that’s the ultimate chase movie, as far as foot chases and car chases. Relentless car chases. Gotta have muscle cars. Can’t do it with a 2001 Mustang.”
On Chemistry and the fun of Moviemaking
MM: So was this a fun movie to shoot?
BH: Yeah, it was a blast.
MM: Your performers looked like they were having a good time.
BH: The one thing, as a director, I’m not much for trying to manipulate anybody. The only thing I thought was important was that they were all friends, because I thought “I really need to see that on screen.”
I’m not big on doing rehearsals, but I told the studio I needed everyone there three weeks early for rehearsals, and they were like “oh yeah, of course, sure.” They flew everyone out. We had one readthrough of the script, but it was basically everyone got apartments and they really started going out together and going drinking together and going out to eat together. The first day of shooting they all would have just arrived in the last few days and wouldn’t even know each other. Instead, they were all buddies by the time we started rolling.
MM: And you can see that on-screen.
BH: It’s definitely on the screen. You see those guys and wish you could hang out with them. I never saw a group of actors so fond and really like each other genuinely.
On Winning the Oscar
MM: You have won an Oscar. Did that change your life, did it put pressure on you, did it take pressure off of you?
BH: I had just directed my first film [Payback] right before I won. Usually it [winning the Oscar] helps you as a writer because you get access to better material, better directors, stuff that’s more likely to get made, paid more attention to. But since I was already starting to direct, it didn’t. I had left that part of myself behind me.
I’m really happy I won it, but I remember really distinctly walking off stage and looking at it and being kind of almost horrified and thinking “I gotta win another one now because one’s a fluke.” I mean anyone can say, “well, it’s the movie, or he got lucky or the other one really deserved to win, and what has he done since and what did he do before,” and all that stuff. So all I thought was “unless I win another one it’s a fluke” so that was actually a little more pressure.
I used to keep it on my desk and whenever I’d have to start typing or writing, I’d always look up and it would be there. So finally about a year and a half ago I wrapped it all up in bubble wrap and threw it in the back of my closet, with all due respect to it, but yeah, I couldn’t look at it anymore.
If I get another one, though then I can bring it out.
There was one last question I asked Brian Helgeland, and it involves the “easter egg” after the credits. The scene in question was originally part of a montage that had to be cut. It wasn’t actually part of the script, rather, it was the idea of the actors who had become friends.
Helgeland had to fight Columbia because they didn’t want the scene to appear next to their logo. For days, Helgeland fought with the studio to get this snippet included. Memos were written and faxed on the subject (imagine!). Ultimately Helgeland won, and those of you who stick around for the credits can see the results of this great battle.