In 1999 Heath Ledger and Brian Helgeland met for a chat at the Encounters restaurant at LAX airport, where Ledger had a four-hour layover en route home to Australia.
“And he came in with this big tube, like an architect would have his drawings in, except it's really long,” says Helgeland. “We hit it off and everything, and finally I said, ‘Hey, what's in that tube?’ And he said, ‘It's my didgeridoo.’ And I said, ‘Your didgeri-what?’ He says, ‘My didgeridoo.’ And he opens it up, and he pulls this thing out. And a minute later, it's like [didgeridoo noises] in the restaurant. I fell in love with him at that exact moment.”
This May it's 20 years since A Knight’s Tale was first released, and while it didn’t look at the time like a film which was built to last, it remains one of those films with a rosy glow around it. It’s about a commoner who pretends to be a knight called Ulrich von Liechtenstein to make some money on the lucrative F1-style jousting circuit, and it’s never less than A Massive Laugh: a buoyant, joyous, unexpectedly quite moving mash-up of jousting, Chaucer, Seventies classic rock staples and extremely bootcut jeans.
“I think technically it would have been Men in Tights really at that time, 1370,” says Helgeland, who wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale and speaks to Esquire from his home in Malibu. “But the premise was no matter what century you're in, the Seventies are always Seventies.”
At the time, Helgeland was “trying to find something to do, and being in movie jail a little bit”. His last film, Payback, had turned into a bit of a palaver of reshoots and studio interference. Digging back into some old notes, he found an idea about a film based roughly on the life of 12th century knight William Marshal and the tournaments which took sporting noblemen around Europe. The script came together quickly, and while Sony were keen on Paul Walker, who’d just been in She’s All That (“I really liked him, but he was much too American to pull it off”), Helgeland wanted Ledger.
Around Ledger’s commoner William Thatcher are Alan Tudyk and Mark Addy as his equally common mates Wat and Roland, and Paul Bettany as a gambling, showboating, largely nude Geoffrey Chaucer. There were, Helgeland noticed, six months in Chaucer’s life which aren’t accounted for. “So in my head, I thought, that's the six months that he's with these guys.”
On the other side of the tracks are Rufus Sewell smouldering away as Will’s hoity-toity jousting rival Count Adhemar – “a great villain” – and Shannyn Sossamon as noble lady Joceyln, who leads Will through the seven rules of courtly love while maintaining a distinctly modern vibe. “The conceit with her is that she's come from the Nineties to be in this movie with these guys,” says Helgeland.
Everyone stayed close afterwards. “It was unrepeatable,” he says. “And of course, I'm not complaining really about the other films I made, but none of them came close. It's a moment in time I could never repeat again, but which I'm super happy that I had.”
When did Paul Bettany come in?
I had tried to do a movie at Fox that fell apart that I tried to put Paul Bettany in. Paul was in to read with a different casting agent, a different part. And when I was at lunch, he found a script that someone else had left who was reading for me. And he was flipping through it. And he's like, I don't want to read for the movie I'm here for, I want to read for this movie. And so they showed me his tape, some assistant put him on tape, and I'm like, this is the guy, this is the guy. And I couldn't convince Fox to cast him and then it all fell apart – this is like a year before this. And when I wrote Knight's Tale I wrote Chaucer [...] I wrote that part for Paul. He had so much wit about him. I knew he could handle all those speeches and all that stuff. The biggest fight on the movie was casting Paul. The studio wanted Hugh Grant, which would have made it all lopsided. I don't think he would have done it anyway – he wasn't going to play a supporting part at that time. And they kept bringing Drew Carey up in everything – like he could be Chaucer, they wanted him for Wat. It was just like, what is this with Drew Carey? Like, all the other parts can be played by Drew Carey?
What about the rest of the cast?
Mark Addy is the big star actually, because he had just done The Full Monty, and he had come out of that movie as kind of the guy out of that movie. So he was very easy to cast, I was just hoping he wanted to do it, because it felt like he was going to be doing leading man stuff, you know, but he really liked the script. Alan Tudyk had done an off-Broadway one man show that everyone loved. Shannyn was a little bit tricky, because there were a bunch of actresses around that age range who had hit shows on TV. But I got my way. And Heath really liked Shannyn – he was very much my partner on that. And then it was off to Prague to start prepping, because it was an enormous prep with all the jousting. I mean, none of this I knew, [but] no horse will go gallop towards a jousting pole until you've spent four months getting it used to that.
Writing for Geoffrey Chaucer is quite a challenge to set yourself.
He's literate, they're all illiterate. So he has that advantage as far as what he brings to the team. But then I thought he becomes his herald, the guy that just comes out and lists your lineage – this guy, son of that guy, son of that guy. The conceit was he just turns that on its head. And I wanted to combine that with a wrestling announcer or boxing announcer. One of the first things I showed Paul was this guy, Michael Buffer, who does all the heavyweight championship fights: ‘And in this corner! Weighing 952 pounds...’ He's the guy who says, ‘Let’s get ready to rumble!’ And I was just going through all the mediaeval kind of things I had underlined as funny things: ‘He spent a year in silence to better understand the sound of a whisper,’ came out of reading about monks at the time and different things they were doing to amuse themselves. It just became a hodgepodge of mediaeval kind of stuff.
There's a little bit of John Lennon in there too: "Anyone here who's not sitting on a cushion..."
Oh, yeah, Paul loved that because he's a John Lennon fanatic. “Shake your jewellery and the rest of you clap,” or whatever it was. And it's very much of the people. William is of the people, and it's Chaucer's way of saying, ‘What you really don't know about this guy is he's you’, without giving it away.
Did Paul take much persuasion to be nude for a lot of the film?
I think we'd been shooting about a week before we did that [first nude] scene. Paul shows up naked, and they tape a thing around his penis that keeps falling off. And finally, he's like, ‘Screw this. I just got to shoot this, can I just shoot this?’ Heath and those guys are trying not to laugh, you know. But what we're doing becomes part of the scene in a way: you know, this naked guy, and they're all astounded by it, and he's lost his clothes. And he keeps his wit right when he ends up on the ground talking to Alan Tudyk with Alan Tudyk right there, [and] where Heath pulls a dagger on him. It's all comedic, but it's kind of the bravest thing I've ever seen an actor do. Only three people can be on the set today because someone's naked – there was 50 people there [then]. When we were all done, because we were shooting on film, there's plenty of negative where you see Paul completely full frontal naked. And when it was all done, I had the editor, Kevin Stitt, collect all the negative and I gave it to Paul in a big reel as a present. I didn't tell Sony because technically, I'm stealing negative from the studio. Not that they would care, but they weren't informed. I gave it all to Paul and said, "You now control all the negative of view of you naked." He was like, “Thank you very much.”
How did the dance sequence to David Bowie come together?
It was all to KC and the Sunshine Band, ‘Get Down Tonight’. It worked great. And then one day – you'd see when Heath wanted something, and he thought he had to negotiate it. You could see it coming a mile away. He'd have this look on his face. Like, 'Oh, hey, Brian! You're the person in the world I'm most happy to see!' And I mean that in a very nice way. You'd be like, 'Oh, Heath wants to charm me about something, but I'm already charmed'. He said, ‘Can we change the music?’ And I said, ‘Oh, no, I love the way it works.’ He goes, 'I love David Bowie and ‘Golden Years’ I think it speaks more to the story.' Which always is a great way to get my interest anyway. And then I said, ‘Yeah, but we've rehearsed and rehearsed – I can't go to [choreographer] Stuart [Hopps] and say, ‘Well, I'm switching all this, and we don't have time, and no one can learn how to do this crap anyways’, you know?' And Heath is like, ‘Oh no, mate, it's the same beat. It's a little slower, but it's the same beat. We don't have to change the dance.’ I'm like, ‘Well, okay, give it a shot, and we'll put them both up and decide which one we want to do.’
Carter Burwell did the score. To get it to all work he needed all the tracks separated. And we were having trouble with that. And then finally, somebody got them to agree to give us the master tapes so we could split it all up and get a better transition, which you hear in the thing. Carter was onstage in Manhattan and they said the master tapes are coming, they should be there at whenever, three o'clock. Carter gets a call saying the master tapes are here, they're being delivered and the guy wants to talk to you. And he's like, ‘Oh, okay’, and he goes down. And it's David Bowie. David Bowie's brought the master tapes! He said, ‘Let me see it.’ And they brought him in. He made, you know, $200,000 for the rights to the song. They showed it to him and he was like, ‘Oh, that's cool. Great.’ He made a couple of suggestions, and then he left.
It seems like Heath was a really sweet guy.
Yeah, he was. He had just turned 20 when we started shooting, and I was like, 'When I was your age, I was trying to figure out how to get money to get gas for my car'. I don't know how anyone pulls that off at that age. He's the only person who could have done it and that I'd still be talking to you about it 20 years later. There's a bunch of people who could have done it, and then we'd like, 'Oh yeah, I remember that movie, kinda'.
And he could dance. He was the second best rider. Sometimes when his helmet went down, it wasn't him. But a lot of times with the helmet down, it's still Heath doing the riding, even to the point where [when] the [stunt] guy couldn't do something it'd be like, we got to get Heath to do this. He was so physically gifted as a movie actor. He had that Charlie Chaplin kind of physicality.
I don't know who else could have done it. But he was magical in a way. I remember we had a huge thunderstorm once and we all had to leave that big mediaeval set, and it's pouring rain and lightning. I was in my trailer just thinking, how are we going to catch this day up? Once it stops, it's going to be a mud field out there. I'm just like, shit. And I remember looking out the window and there was a hill behind where my trailer was. Heath was at the top of the hill in his riding chaps and his breeches with no shirt on. And the lightning is flashing. And he's like, standing there on the hill like, "YES! YES!" And boom! The lightning's going off, and he's drenched and all excited and dancing around up there. And I just was like, who the hell are you? You know what I mean? It was like, you're not a real person! And so comfortable with himself. And it was just like, I used to dream of being like you when I was a kid, having that confidence. He was unreal. And everyone fell in love with him. It couldn't last, I guess, in a way. When he died it made total sense – I mean it was terrible, but it made total sense to me in a weird sort of way. Like, how can you maintain that? How can you keep that going?
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