It can be a pretty tall order for any filmmaker to adapt the words of Shakespeare to the screen. Australian director David Michod and his writing partner, actor Joel Edgerton, both understood that while making the new war epic, “The King,” starring both Edgerton and Timothee Chalamet as the young king. Their film borrows from the immortal bard’s famous play “Henry V” while they made sure to add their own touches and nods to history.
Director David Michod on re-working Shakespeare for ‘The King’
“Well, when Joel and I first started talking about it, it was obviously, initially, through the prism of Shakespeare,” says Michod. “Because, you know, the greatest writer in the history of the language had stepped so firmly over that territory before that it’s almost impossible for us, impossible for anyone these days, to think about Henry V without thinking about Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V.’”
This story of an idealist who eventually gets his shot at power is one that has been told many times throughout history with credit owed to the endurance of Shakespeare’s words. It was a story both Edgerton and Michod had been wanting to tell ever since Edgerton had cut his teeth playing the role of Falstaff on stage in Sydney.
“It was almost like a career-forming experience for him; it was a much talked about performance,” Michod remembers. “It was a defining moment for him. And so I think it loomed large for him, all these years later. We started talking about it and realized that the movie version of what we might want to do would have to be different, because the plays are written, they’re extraordinary things to read, but they’re written to be performed, to be presented on an Elizabethan stage. Unless you treat that in a very particular, formal way, I don’t think it makes for the kind of cinema that I would want to make.”
In the past, filmmakers and theater companies have presented this story and the conflicts between the British and the French during this time period in a more bombastic and heroic light. This glorification of war was something both Edgerton and Michod wanted to avoid.
“In order to make this film today, it felt necessary that we engineer it in that way. The play, ‘Henry V,’ especially, was written in a very different time. [It] has been presented in the past, very frequently, as a heroic story of great English triumph. It felt really inappropriate for us to make that version of it today,” says Michod.
“And so instead, we became very interested in the idea of generating a different story, a different interpretation of ‘Henry V’ that would be more about how a young idealistic man might find himself consumed by the institutions.”
The idealistic young man they found to play Hal, of course, is Chalamet, who delivers a profound performance that perfectly encapsulates the young King’s transition from innocence towards being drunk on power.
“I really loved the idea of taking that kid from ‘Call Me by Your Name’ and plunking him in the beginning of this movie. You suddenly wind the clock back 600 years and there you are,” laughs Michod. “But then there is a change and then the the great burden of responsibility descends upon him. And, in a way, our version of ‘Henry V’ becomes like a kind of making-of-a-tyrant story. There was something really exciting to me about the idea of taking that kid from ‘Call Me by Your Name’ and turning him into a tyrant.”
Aside from these narrative choices, one thing that sets the film apart from other medieval war epics is that Michod went to great lengths to make the viewer truly feel the panic-inducing and claustrophobic nature of these skirmishes.
“From the outset, I was thinking about what version of that movie would I make? And it was something that, my version was one that hopefully felt earthy and real and human and … otherworldly,” said Michod of the film’s intense center-of-the-action approach to combat.
“Who knows what 600 years ago felt like? That extended to the battle. So when Hal has his one-on-one fight with Hotspur, I wanted that not to be about super fancy sword play, I wanted it to be about two kids wearing trash cans, smashing the sh-t out of each other, heaving for breath and rolling around on the ground.”
“And then when we got to the battle, it felt important to me that you be able to follow characters through it. And I wanted to make sure that I shot the whole thing from human eye level, rather than with drones and cranes. And I wanted it to feel like you were in the claustrophobic panic attack of that kind of hand-to-hand war,” he says. “It felt like that when we were shooting it, especially with Timmy’s fight in the battle … it was frightening for me behind the camera, because it felt dangerous! I felt like I was watching Timmy, the actor, just trying to stay alive, because there are too many moving parts. There are too many stunt guys slipping around in the mud, wearing helmets they can’t see through properly, and in the middle of it is our leading man. And I’ve got to make sure he doesn’t die.”