Knight's Tale, A : Production Information

"The entire company was in new territory with both the magnitude and the period setting of this film," admits producer Todd Black. But the talents of writer-director-producer Brian Helgeland, an Oscar winner for his screenplay for L.A. Confidential (1997), consistently eased the unit's fears.

"Brian writes other worlds really well, and he stays very, very true in each scene," explains Black. "He really researched this. Every word, every location, every character-there's a truth to all of them throughout the script. He surrounds himself with people that want truth told.

A Knight's Tale (2001)"And he does his homework," continues Black. "He does his homework as a writer, and clearly he's done his homework as a director. "

Discussing his latest project, Helgeland explains, "We wanted to create a period piece that stayed fair to the period but felt contemporary. I wanted to make the Middle Ages feel as alive as they were to the people who inhabited them. These people weren't living in an archaic time. They were in the present.

"For a movie to work, the audience has to be invited in. They can get pushed away if overwhelmed by period costumes, obscure speech and antique music. There must be relatable elements. Our goal was to create a seamless bridge between then and now. "

With the project in good hands, elaborate preparations got underway in the Czech Republic for the ambitious film shoot. The company was headquartered in historic, enchanting Prague, already an ancient city during the medieval times in which the film is set.

To ease the transition, Helgeland assembled his cast in Prague for the rare luxury of a month of rehearsals that became an invaluable bonding process for the ensemble. In addition to locations in the magnificent Czech countryside, a gigantic exterior set was constructed on a backlot at historic Barrandov Studios, where the company was headquartered. Covering an area larger than two American football fields, the sets included medieval London, Rouen and a jousting field, one of three seen in the film.

Additionally, an enormous ice arena on a Vtalva River island in the heart of Prague was utilized for construction of a massive banquet hall, plus interior portions of the French cathedrals at Notre Dame and Rouen.

Heath Ledger, fresh from his star-making performance as Mel Gibson's brave son in Columbia Pictures' Patriot, the (2000) stars as William, a fearless, sometimes foolhardy, young man who carries upward mobility to unheard of heights.

The Australian-born star says, "What really appealed to me is not so much that William changes his stars, but what he learns in doing so. He goes for the gold, the nobility and fame, but ultimately discovers that the friends who surround and support him are the real stars in his life. The real nobility is finding your head and your heart. "

Brian Helgeland adds, "By the time William is ennobled on paper by royalty, he has already been ennobled in his heart. This is a fairy tale with a happy ending. "

Most of the writer-director's favorite films are ensemble efforts. "In ours, William is the charismatic dreamer. Wat is the short-tempered, impulsive one always eager to fight for the group. Roland is the older brother-the backbone really in charge of things. They pick up Geoff Chaucer along the way. He's not a dead poet, but a brilliant, if scattered, combination sports manager/press agent/ring announcer.

Finally, there's Kate, a young woman who has taken over her dead husband's blacksmithing business. They all need each other. Each has something to gain and something to give.

"Heath Ledger's William is the focus, of course," Helgeland details. "His is a modern archetypal American story of a self-made person who hurdles social barriers. It's the story of many of us. Personally, I was a fisherman who came from a long line of fishermen. Every male member of my family fished for scallops, except for one uncle who headed to Alaska in pursuit of King Crab. Hollywood was light years away, but I somehow managed to become a working screenwriter. A very long stretch. Then I was a writer who wanted to direct. Another giant step. Knight's Tale, A (2001) is a tribute to anyone who has accomplished something very far-fetched. "

A Knight's Tale (2001)The tale begins as a squire and two varlets witness their master suffer an unseemly death on the verge of winning a tournament and filling their starving stomachs.

William impetuously decides to don the deceased knight's armor and finish the tournament in the name of survival, not to mention wish fulfillment. Roland repeatedly reminds William that one must be of noble birth in order to compete. Otherwise, the consequences are serious and painful.

Chastised for aiming far too high, William retorts that he knows no other way, proclaiming, "I've waited my whole life for this moment!" And he seizes it.

In Knight's Tale, a (2001) amid the clash of hundreds of pounds of flesh and force, the adrenaline-charged cries of spectators and the raucous sounds of classic rock, the impetuous imposter defies detection and wins the tournament. An unlikely legend is born.

"We can do this," a pumped-up William explains. "We can be champions I won't spend the rest of my life as nothing. " And so, against the better judgment of his cohorts, insignificant William Thatcher is transformed into the noble Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein, of faraway Gelderland. Not by accident, his coat of arms incorporates the resilient phoenix. "Its end is its beginning," he explains.

Thus begins their rich, rollicking deception, A Knight's Tale. Along the way, against the magnificent pageantry of Europe, William rises to icon status as his secret society is joined by a 29 year-old, often-naked writer named Geoff Chaucer, who paves the way with silver words; and a fiercely independent young blacksmith named Kate, a wizard with metalwork.

Chaucer is certainly the most famous name among the cast of characters. Many records of his public life exist, but almost nothing is known of the man and the poet. In fact, there is one brief period in his busy life that remains completely undocumented. A Knight's Tale conveniently transpires during that short span. Brian Helgeland was free to have fun with the man before fame claimed him.

William's foe is a ruthlessly charismatic champion named Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), determined to derail William's dreams. And, of course, there is the stunning Jocelyn, a noblewoman for whom the brave knights of Europe do earnest battle. For a poor thatcher's son, she is as impossibly unattainable as a place at the tournament.

Jocelyn is played by Shannyn Sossamon, who makes her major motion picture debut in Knight's Tale, a (2001). In October of 1999, the 20 year-old was with a friend who was deejaying at Gwyneth and Jake Paltrow's joint birthday party when Hollywood casting director Francine Maisler took note of her.

A Knight's Tale (2001)Maisler recalls, "Shannyn had such an arresting beauty that you simply couldn't take your eyes off her. I've never had such a strong reaction to anything. I could tell that she was completely oblivious to her incredible looks. I wanted to talk to her, but I'm hesitant to approach strangers. I have too much respect for the acting craft to think that just any attractive person can do it. Also, you don't want to get people's hopes up. "

Maisler went through proper channels and a few days later conversed with the beautiful, dark-eyed, part-time disc jockey. She learned that Shannyn was born in Hawaii, raised in Reno, Nevada, and moved to Los Angeles to study dance, her lifetime passion. She was encouraged to discover that the young woman had some experience before the cameras, having appeared in several TV commercials.

Shortly thereafter, when Maisler became involved in Columbia Pictures' A Knight's Tale, she immediately envisioned Sossamon as a leading lady opposite hot new star Heath Ledger. The Hollywood unknown met and read for the casting director, who was immediately impressed.

A Knight's Tale writer-director Brian Helgeland agreed that Shannyn was perfect for the part of the noble Jocelyn, for whom all the knights do battle on the jousting fields of Europe.

Producer Todd Black describes Columbia Pictures' decision to cast Sossamon as, "a very brave thing to do, going with a complete unknown for a big-budget studio film. Everyone has been knocked out by her look and her ability. "

A Knight's Tale (2001)While the look of the film is magnificently medieval and richly detailed in grand Hollywood style, A Knight's Tale makes no authenticity claims. Throughout this tapestry of hard times and triumph are woven styles of music, fashion and dance that transcend any pinpointed time. Though extensive historical research was undertaken, writer-director Brian Helgeland encouraged his various department heads to follow his lead and to take liberties and flights of fancy that are sometimes six centuries wide.

A number of specialists not in evidence on most movie sets were required to realize Brian Helgeland's concept. Among them were a lance master, armorers, horsemaster, researchers, weapons handlers, textile painters, leather workers, an army of special effects and stunt wizards, multi-lingual interpreters and exotic animal handlers.

One example of the unit's unique needs was the numerous orders for lances to be used in the jousting scenes. The ultimate requirement, well beyond the producer's wildest imagination, totaled well over 1,000 of the weapons.

"We had ordered eight lances for one scene in our second unit," says Todd Black, "and we ended up going through 44 in one day!"

A Knight's Tale (2001)In addition, the Czech Republic was scoured for rare Kladruby horses, intimidatingly giant animals with lineage going back over 700 years, during which they pulled royal carriages and served as the medieval equivalent of tanks. A mini-team traveled from England whose special art is creating unusual food for films, their challenge being a splendid medieval feast. A blacksmithing advisor was retained to instruct Laura Fraser on the art of making horseshoes, though the Scottish-born actress admits, "I learned to fake it, but most of my horseshoes came out looking more like ashtrays. "

Heath Ledger captures the sentiments of his fellow cast members regarding the richness of the production by recalling, "The set was like a playground for all of us. I not only got to act with an amazing ensemble cast, but I rode horses, sang, danced, did sword fighting, comedy and stunts. An actor's dream. "

A Knight's Tale (2001)
Production designer Tony Burrough and costume designer Caroline Harris conceived a color palette that subtly becomes richer as William's fortunes grow. Harris's period costumes, most particularly the gowns Shannyn Sossamon wears as the noble Jocelyn, would today inspire envy on both Rodeo Drive and Melrose Avenue.

Sossamon's elaborate costumes include an off-white bell-shaped coat cut from handmade felt and hand-embroidered with Jocelyn's heraldry in gold thread, gold bullion and hand-painted pearls; a handcrafted period hat with a straw crown and a brim edged in gold thread; and a century-old yellow embroidered Chinese silk dress, among others. The fashions embody the hip, modern edge of this timeless tale of ambition, unbreakable drive and the invincible spirit of youth.

In developing a look for the male band of medieval misfits, "Brian and I were inspired a great deal by the look of the Rolling Stones on their 1972 tour," explains Harris.

Burrough comments, "For a film with such a cornucopia of elements, you do endless research. You collect all the illustrations, read the dusty books and then you start dancing with them. You must make them work for the film and for the audience. There is the historical reality, then there's the script, the director and contemporary perceptions, often all working against each other. You must blend it all together. "

Most intriguing of all the film's aspects is the innovative incorporation of classic arena rock music, primarily from the 1980s, that intensifies the feelings of the characters and, ultimately, the film. It is music for the restless, hopeful masses, the same audience that embraces William/Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein's rise to stardom.

A Knight's Tale (2001)The movie's unique tone is immediately established to the sound of Queen's "We Will Rock You. " William and his sidekicks undergo intensive training for their delightful deception with the help of War's "Low Rider. " Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care Of Business" establishes William's emergence as a real leader and a true friend. In a novel dance scene, David Bowie's "Golden Years" reminds the audience that first love is magical whatever the century. "Get Ready" by Rare Earth helps William dare to risk everything for the capricious Jocelyn. William and his irreverent gang make their grand entrance into London for the Superbowl of tournaments to the music of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town. "

Director Brian Helgeland says, "We aren't trying to sell sequences with pop songs. We tried to make all the modern touches, particularly the music, very much organic to the movie. "

Noted British choreographer Stuart Hopps, who also appears briefly in the picture as the dancemaster, faced a particular challenge creating a dance that is rooted in polite 14th century steps but subtly segues to the 20th century. Composer Carter Burwell also had to solve the mathematical and musical puzzle of marrying these two sounds into once piece. Burwell ultimately solved the dilemma with the personal involvement of no less than David Bowie himself.

A Knight's Tale is set in a time steeped in tradition, romance and adventure. Undoubtedly, it is easier to see a movie set in the 1300s than it was to actually exist in that period. The entire structure of European society had changed during the 12th and 13th centuries, due in great measure to the Crusades. In the 12th century, tournaments were bloody imitations of battle originated as practice grounds for warriors to improve fighting skills. They were held in Europe between the early 1100s and the late 1600s. Aside from the Greek games that gave birth to the Olympics, tournament jousting was one of the world's first competitive sports, with accompanying activities such as sword fighting. Knights from around the "civilized" world traveled through England, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Belgium, Russia and Germany to participate.

A Knight's Tale (2001)
As society changed, so did tournaments. Free-for-alls gradually lost favor and one-on-one competition was encouraged to display a knight's skills. They slowly turned into carefully arranged jousts, held under the eyes of ladies whose favors were sought by the athletes. Chivalry flowered and dominated popular literature. Jousts came to represent the horsemanship of the fighter, and safeguards and arms of peace evolved.

By the time depicted in the new Columbia Pictures movie, great tournaments were elaborate spectacles set against a background of political and romantic intrigue where fortunes and careers were won and lost. A knight's skills, honor and chivalry replaced savagery-though death and disability certainly still occurred-while gorgeously clad ladies cheered on the participants in shining armor. Great parades and sumptuous banquets, like the ones recreated in A Knight's Tale, were staged. Costumes were meticulously planned. Ladies often presented a chosen knight a favor, such as a scarf, to display during the contest. Outside, minstrels made music and merchants sold their wares and dubious relics. It was great entertainment for spectators and combatants alike. The events became increasingly grander and more fabulous. They reeked of excitement.

A Knight's Tale (2001)Steeped in thrills, money, danger and spectacle, tournaments were the equivalent of our contemporary rock concerts, Superbowls, World Series, NASCAR Championships, Mardi Gras and New Year's Eves. The tournament was a festival that no one wanted to miss.

The film's second unit director and stunt coordinator Allan Graf teamed with Brian Helgeland to create the action thrills in A Knight's Tale. Graf recalls, "Brian's primary instruction was to treat the jousting as a contemporary sport. It's not unlike football, with intense attack and impact. " Graf's impressive resume includes a number of motion pictures with rough sports action, such as "The Replacements," "Any Given Sunday," "Jerry Maguire" and "The Waterboy. "

"Brian's other goal," Graf adds, "which was also mine, was to make each match, no matter how brief, somehow different. There are around 27 matches in the movie, and we used no fakery in providing what we hope are wild rides and adrenaline rushes. I'm really happy to report it is all real. Not one computer-generated image was used in the action scenes. "

"One of Brian Helgeland's real gifts is the ability to populate make-believe worlds with flesh-and-blood characters and have you care for them," praises producer Todd Black. "I don't believe the word 'dull' is in his vocabulary. And he is able to entertain without pandering to the audience. "

A Knight's Tale (2001)
"Filling the wide screen with detail and creating a world is so much fun," Helgeland unabashedly admits. "It was so exciting going to old Czech prop rental houses. You discover dusty, ancient items you'd never see at a Hollywood or British business. Odd, strange items; you can't possibly decipher what they actually are. And in some cases you might not even want to know. "

Aside from pure entertainment, there is a message within this Knight's Tale. "Jocelyn says to William, 'Be yourself. Just be who you are and I'll love you. ' And that, to me, is a great universal message," says Black. "All of his friends give William the strength to define who he is. And that's ultimately what William does-he becomes who he really wants to become, he gains confidence, he falls in love and he enjoys his life. "

Heath Ledger sees the story as a simple yet compelling coming-of-age yarn. "It's the journey of the character, where he came from, where he aspires to go and how he gets there," says the young actor. "He follows his heart, and I know that will touch people. "