Lionel Wigram knows a thing or two about escapist fantasies. The blockbuster movie producer has his roots in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, for which he produced the final four films in the multi-billion dollar franchise. Since then, Wigram has kept himself busy at Warner Bros. with a hand in Sherlock Holmes, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them., and the woefully under-appreciated The Man from UNCLE. Now, he’s teaming with his Sherlock and UNCLE director Guy Ritchie once again to reimagine Arthurian legend into a world of broad fantasy and sweeping magic defined with Ritchie’s signature stylistic flair.
Back in summer of 2015, I visited the set of King Arthur at Warner Bros. Leavesden studios, outside of London, where I joined a small group of journalists to tour the elaborate sets and costumes, observe filming, and chat with the creative team. Be sure to check out what I learned on the King Arthur set and read our full interview with stars Charlie Hunnam and Djimon Hounsou.
One of the people we spent the most time speaking with was Wigram, who is reteaming with Ritchie as producer and co-writer for the third time on King Arthur. As a major driving force behind the edgy adaptation, Wigram had plenty to say about why Arthurian legend has endured over the centuries and how they’re redefining that legend into a high-action fantasy epic. He also talked about why we won’t be seeing much of classic characters like Merlin and Lancelot and how the King Arthur franchise, which is looking at a potential six-film run if things go well at the box office, was originally envisioned as a sort of Camelot-style shared universe. Read the full interview below.
What can you tell us that we don’t already know about this movie? How would you describe it?
WIGRAM: I hope it’s the sort of – it’s King Arthur for today’s audience – it’s what Guy and I tried to do for Sherlock and The Man From UNCLE, we’re trying to do with the sword and sorcery fantasy genre. King Arthur was one of the most important stories ever told, for various thematic reasons. We’ve tried to keep those themes, we’ve tried to keep some of the very important tropes, but we’ve also reinvented in various different ways, which will hopefully – Arthur experts will go “that’s fine that they chose to do that, they took the idea in this direction rather than the regular direction” – and we’ve tried to make what we thought – since Excalibur, which was great fun in its day, there hasn’t really been a fun, fantasy adventure, big event version of this. King Arthur is a fairy tale, there should be monsters, there should be magic, and so we wanted to deliver that, because that’s the King Arthur we want to see.
Do you find it surprising that there isn’t one definitive King Arthur movie in the way that there’s the Eroll Flynn Robin Hood, Wizard of Oz…
WIGRAM: I agree.
Why is that?
WIGRAM: I have concluded, having worked on various different King Arthur projects over the years, and tackled that story, and having read Le Mort D’Arthur, and having grown up on those fairy tales as a kid, I think it really comes from the source of it. King Arthur was a bunch of different tales from oral tradition put together, really by Thomas Mallory first – there were other, prior, there was a French romance in the 12th Century – but it was really just a group of oral tales put together into a coherent narrative, which isn’t really fully coherent. What it really is is a series of wonderful stories, different quest stories. Yes, of course, there’s the pulling of the sword from the stone, there’s all that, but then there’s also these different quests, these different journeys. There’s the whole Grail issue, there’s Tristan, there’s all sorts of different stories mulched together. And what it’s really about, is it’s a very interesting examination of the human condition, I think. It’s how ideals and attempts at being civilized are quashed by human emotion, and how the best of intentions go wrong, which I think is very interesting. I think that’s why [those] stories are so resonant, even today.
Interestingly enough, I think it was also a piece of propaganda, as sort of primer for how a knight should be. Imagine in the 13th and 14th Century, there were all these knights and nobles who were warriors. Their main job in life is to go to war and win territory, and that’s how they get rich. Now they’re back at home, in time of peace, what do you with them? What are they supposed to do with themselves? How do you stop them fighting amongst each other? Really its’ about that. The whole courtly love – that’s sort of the original Arthur stories. Ours isn’t quite that, frankly. Ours, there is a character journey for Arthur which we think is important and does reflect the human condition. If you care to read into it you can, but ours is just really a fun fairy tale thing, what can we do with Excalibur? A different way to make it really fun – a magic sword, imagine all the cool things you can do with that – and we’ve got magic: what can wizards do, and all that kind of stuff.
If there are sequels, and the story continues, are the stories you mentioned that are part of the Arthur mythology something you’d like to explore, or will you go off in your own direction?
WIGRAM: I think that we will go off in our own directions, but hopefully with a nod or a wink to those original stories. There’s certain things that we’re based on, so for example, a guy called Joby Harold, who was the person who came up with the original idea for this particular franchise, and his idea was to have separate origin stories for King Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin… I don’t think we’re quite going to go that way, as things change – we’ll see what happens, we’re making the first movie – but if we do get lucky enough to do more, it’ll be slightly different to that, but it will still be the same idea: to give everybody their separate journey, and in the course of the movie we meet our main characters, in a slightly different way from the original story, and hopefully it reinvents them in a fun way. Much as we’ve done with Arthur, our Arthur is very different from any Arthur before. Even though he goes through the same journey, he’s a very different character from the classic Arthur that we know. We thought that was fun, and we thought he was somebody who kids today would relate to.
So instead of being a kid who’s brought up by the local knight, the local squire – he’s the squire to the knight’s son – in our case, he’s brought up on the streets of London. He’s raised in a brothel, he grows up as a street kid, basically. He comes from that place, which is very different, but hopefully more relatable.
Most of the medieval movies tend to be set in the countryside, in the shire or wherever – all those big sweeping landscapes of Lord of the Rings – we do have some big sweeping landscapes, but we’ve tried to make it feel more urban. London has existed as a city since pre-Roman times, so we thought, why not make the most of that, what was London like a couple of hundred years after the Romans had left? What’s left of it? How has the architecture evolved on the original Roman architecture?
Just based on the credits list on IMDb, and that this is the first in what could be a series, is it safe to tell the fans they shouldn’t expect to see much of Lancelot in this installment?
WIGRAM: Correct. We will see Lancelot, but it’s not —
We don’t get his story yet?
WIGRAM: No. This really, again, part of the big challenge – and one of the things about Excalibur that was tricky about it – Excalibur works really well for the first hour or so, but then once you get into the Grail stuff, it feels like you’ve got separate stories, and it requires a very long film to do the whole thing. So we very much decided that no matter what, we were going to track the story of King Arthur, a man who starts out as a nobody, as a regular citizen, and becomes king. Doesn’t know that he’s meant to be king, pulls the sword, and what happens between pulling the sword and becoming king. That’s our first segment.
I think when you cast Charlie it became clear that you were doing something different with Arthur, he’s got a bit more of an edge than we’re used to, what made him the right guy?
WIGRAM: That’s a good question. We read a number of people, and he just seemed right. He’s got amazing charisma, he’s a fantastic actor, and he had the right kind of edge that Guy wanted for that character.
You could have chosen one of several time periods for the setting of the story, what made you go for 200 years after the Romans left?
WIGRAM: I would say that really, our period is a fairy tale period, it’s a magical period. It’s not any specific historical period, it’s not meant to be that, it’s meant to be an imaginary world inspired by certain historical realities. We didn’t want it to be medieval, medieval feels a bit late – not quite magical enough – we felt that while a lot of the images of Arthurian myths are inspired by the pre-Raphaelite paintings that were in turn inspired by the Victorian obsession with the medieval, that’s not really the way we wanted to go. We thought that somehow, slightly pre-medieval would be more fun.
Are there some elements of the mythology where you guys said ‘we absolutely have to stay true to this, and on the flip side, are there elements where you said, this could be really cool and because of the moment we want to flip it and make it a gag?
WIGRAM: The answer is, yes. There are certain things: the sword in the stone, Excalibur, the idea that Arthur starts off as an orphan, as a nobody, and becomes king, and the fact that it’s a struggle for him to become king; even in the Morte d’Arthur he has to fight several battles before he’s accepted by the rest of the nobility as king. We’ve done it slightly differently, but those basic elements are there. Where we differed was really the idea of who Arthur was, and to a certain extent who the characters are who become the first knights of the round table.
We also have his father, we have Uthur Pendragon. Also, our take on the magic is slightly different, in a fun way. Rather than one magician, Merlin, we have a race of magical people we call mages, from which Merlin has come. That gave us more to play with, more scope.
Like you said, it’s been quite a while since there’s been an Arthur film, and it is one of the most famous legends. Why did you guys think it was the right time to do it again?
WIGRAM: Mainly because we didn’t really think there’s been a definitive Arthur film, and we thought there’s so much fun to be had; everybody loves magic. It’s that combination of really profound ideas and themes to be explored in the Arthur story, but you can also combine it with the most fun, entertaining stories stuff you can do with magic, which is great.
When you cast Jude Law’s character I’m curious, because he’s done some villainous roles in the past, but a lot of them have had a comedic tint to them, and I’m curious what made you see him as a serious action villain?
WIGRAM: Jude is a fantastic actor, we wanted a fantastic actor. We wanted someone who could play a villain that had some real, interesting layers that we haven’t seen before. Who’s complex. Finding an interesting bad guy who’s not mustache-twirling it’s difficult to do. To avoid the cliché, we thought we could do it with Jude better. He’s helped us a great deal in terms of evolving the character, and turning it into something that I don’t think you’ve quite seen before. It’s pretty cool.
Is he a sympathetic bad guy, or is he pretty straight up evil?
WIGRAM: I’d say he’s definitely evil, but you understand where he’s coming from. You sort of love him, even though you hate him.
You mentioned Merlin. He’ll still be a character in the film?
WIGRAM: Merlin’s mentioned in the film, referred to in the film. He plays a role.
But the relationship with Arthur is not emphasized?
WIGRAM: It’s not. He influences the course of events in the film, but we’re not going to meet him until later on. If we get to later on, we will.
You were saying that Jude had some involvement in creating his character. I’m curious if that’s true for a lot of the actors, that creating a character was a collaborative process?
WIGRAM: As much as possible we try to do that with the actors. Guy’s very collaborative as a filmmaker, as much as possible we try to have a dialogue with the actors, especially early on in terms of forming their characters with them, working their dialogue with them. It’s more organic that way, and better for everybody, more fun.
This set is absolutely ridiculous, huge, insane. But even with all you’ve done so far, have there been things that you haven’t been moments or things that you haven’t been able to achieve, because it’s too out there, and you’ve just not been able to?
WIGRAM: Ask me at the end. It’s a massive visual effects movie, and a lot of it is going to have to do with how good the rendering of the visual effects are. We have one of the best, if not the best, visual effects supervisors in the world, I’m confident that we’ll get there, but I think that’s the area – I would say in terms of our ambition for the story, and for the characters, we have surpassed our hopes and expectations. I think that’s due a lot to what the actors have brought to their roles, they’ve really been exceptional, especially Charlie and Jude, but everybody, frankly, even some of the supporting characters. So that’s been really a pleasure. Films take on a life of their own, to some extent, as you go along. This one has been really, really interesting; we’ve had some great dramatic scenes between our actors so that’s been very good. And then we’ve done everything we can in terms of setting up the spectacle, and I think it will, again, be pretty amazing, and will entertain everybody in a big way, but we’ll see. That’s always the tricky part, isn’t it? VFX.
Guy’s known for the incredibly fast pace of his films, and the editing and visual style. Has he had to, or has he chosen to tweak that at all, given that this is set in a time that’s so much slower paced.
WIGRAM: The answer to that is that we’re exploring what to do exactly. We’ve given ourselves the option, he’s given himself the option, of doing a straighter version, or the more Guy Ritchie version. I suspect we’ll end up with the more Guy Ritchie version, it’ll be more interesting, frankly. We’ll see.
In that sense, do you think that’s representing the biggest challenge he’s faced so far as a filmmaker, to make that style work in this world?
WIGRAM: Again, we’ll see. It’s a challenge we’re facing at the moment, we’ll see what happens. It’ll be very interesting to see. It can work if it’s a more toned down style, we’ll see if it can work the other way. It’ll be fun to make it work the other way, it’ll be fun to shoot medieval action in a way that feels more gritty, and more immediate, and more puts you in there. We’ll see.
Between this, and Sherlock, and Man From UNCLE, you and Guy are clearly on a bit of a period kick. What are you getting out of making period films that keeps you coming back?
WIGRAM: We feel that they provide an opportunity to have a world that allows you to suspend your disbelief, and buy into the world, but without it actually being real. So we can have fun with the glamourous fantasy of the 60s, we can have fun with a steampunk version of the Victorian era, but somehow, because it’s period, it’s not like today. You don’t quite judge it in the same way, so you can get away with certain things, certain larger than life aspects that you might not be able to in another era. We think it’s a very good way to tell stories, we love period stuff, and we keep doing it.
And you get to make these sets…
WIGRAM: A lot of what we try to do, both as people making the films, and for our audience, is to try to give you a world to escape into. For us it’s all about, it’s not about making gritty, realistic documentaries about life or whatever, it’s about escaping; giving the audience a two-hour escape from their lives, going into another world, having fun, seeing something you’ve never seen before, enjoying it. Coming out of the cinema, going, “I got my money’s worth, that was great. I had a good time, and I went to another world that was beautiful, and scary, and exciting, and all those things. And funny.”
The success of Sherlock Holmes has led to the franchise, presumably with sequels to come. Man from UNCLE is due for release in a couple of weeks time. If that does well, I’d imagine there will be a couple of sequels, and this you’re already talking about doing as a franchise. Are you cloning Guy?
WIGRAM: Honestly, one talks about this stuff and it’s nice, we really do try to take it one movie at a time. We never count our chickens. You have to anticipate certain things just for practical reasons, but in the end you just go one movie at a time, how are we doing? Is it working? Phew, that one worked, they want to do another one, great, let’s have a go. That’s sort of the approach we take. Or occasionally you go, “There’s a good chance we might get to do another one, so let’s think at least about, if we did do another one, what would it be, and where would it go” so you have a vague idea.
What would it be for you, if there was a sequel right after this? Is there any story that you have in mind from the legend that you would hope to tell in the next one?
WIGRAM: I’ve got the vaguest ideas about what the next one could possibly be if we’re lucky enough to get to it.
I’m curious of your thoughts on heroic fantasy. The genre has had a resurgence over the last ten or fifteen years, why do you think there’s such a strong taste for that?
WIGRAM: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Why do these things go around? Is it cyclical? I’m sure Lord of the Rings had something to do with it, I’m sure now Game of Thrones has something to do with it. Again, I think there are certain genres people always enjoy. There’s something about it, there’s something about going into a world where there are certain things you recognize about your own life, but it’s clearly not your own life, it’s larger than life. It’s heroes, it’s kings and queens, it’s superheroes who you can sort of relate to, but it’s a much more exaggerated, stronger version of who you wish you could be, or dream you could be. And I think that’s been storytelling since the Odyssey. Before that.
It’s always been about that, and I think there’s something about that that we like. With all our fallibility and humanity, we like to see people stronger than us both be strong, and wonderful, and heroic, and also fail and be fallible.