Speaking of Paul Giamatti, did you always have him in mind for the role of King John?
He came on board at a very early stage. One of the producers of the film, Rick Benattar, had produced another movie called Shoot Em Up, with Clive Owen and Paul. As soon as Rick mentioned him, I thought, the character that Paul played in Sideways, Miles, that nervous, insecure, shy writer, that's actually kind of what you imagine King John to be like.
By this point I’d read King John’s biographies, and all the information about him from the period and he just comes across as being this…. He wasn’t really a villainous man; he was a nervous, insecure, shy man and just unfortunately happened to be born the third son of the two most powerful people of the world at that time, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who literally ruled and controlled half of Europe. King John inherited that entire empire and, by the time he was forced to sign the Magna Carta, all that was left of his empire was Southern England. He lost everything; that’s how bad a king or ruler he was, or how weak a ruler he was. So he was a very bitter and twisted man, but I don’t think he was a bad man. He was not suitable for that job, perhaps like many recent modern leaders that we’ve seen in the western world. He was the son of a very successful person, was in a family of very successful people, but didn’t have the same faculties himself, and that was really his problem, his undoing.
I just thought that Paul imbued all those characteristics and brought those to [John], and that the idea of seeing that same sort of character from Sideways but in a Medieval story would be fascinating. I think the moment you were talking about earlier with the catapult, the real reason why that moment works so well is because of Paul’s performance that leads up to it. Paul’s performance and his extraordinary rant is the entire foundation for that ghastly event, the horror of seeing Brian Cox being dismembered and then strapped to this catapult. I always wanted, since the very early stages, to give King John this great soliloquy, kind of like Jack Nicholson’s in A Few Good Men, that classic rant to Tom Cruise. I wanted King John to have a moment like that, which is all about what it is to be a Medieval King, because frankly we couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to inherit that kind of power and to know what to do with it.
I think the question is, How [was she ever attached to the film]??? [Laughs.] I can tell you that I had a lovely cup of coffee with her. That was charming. [Laughs.] That was a highlight. The producer didn’t go and he’s still envious of that. She read the script and was interested but the schedules just didn’t work out.
How would it have changed things? I don’t know. Honestly, to Megan’s credit, I think she would’ve been great, I think she would’ve brought a totally different quality than Kate, who I think did a wonderful job. I think Megan, obviously, she would have brought a more overt sexual quality. She probably would’ve given the film a little bit more profile in the U.S., which would’ve helped. But then, when I met her for a cup of coffee, she was halfway through filming Transformers 2, and clearly her profile is not what it was at the time.
In the film, celibate Templar Knights are rumored to hate women. Meanwhile, James Purefoy's Templar character protects his horse from being eaten during the siege because Knights want their steeds to die an honorable death in battle with them. Was anything sketchy going on between the Templars and their horses?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. The Templar Knights were celibate as a society, and they could take vows of silence. They had pretty extreme lifestyles—for a period. I don’t think people were necessarily retaining those vows or lived by them for their entire lives. What’s the horse all about? They had a very devout attitude towards their horses; the symbol of the Templars is actually two Templars on one horse, two men riding one horse, which in itself is a little bit interesting image…. I mean, what else is there to say?
In your research for this film, what was the most interesting thing that you learned about sieges?
I suppose it’s really like the beginning of psychological warfare. The whole idea of castle was that, when it was surrounded by the enemy, you close the gate, put down the portcullis, lift up the draw bridge, and basically wait it out. Once you did all of that, castles were basically impenetrable. People didn’t have cannons, people didn’t have explosives. But then it became a waiting period, and then it became about starvation, dreadful psychological warfare. It requires a certain degree of subtlety to communicate that on film. There are some of those concepts in the film, not as drawn out as I would like, but they are there.
I found it interesting that the sounds of merriment and scents of food coming from King John’s camp were like instruments of psychological torture.
In real life, they would catapult diseased carcasses, rotting cow carcasses, over the wall to try to create disease within the castle, but also to create a sense of “Here’s food, but you can’t eat it because it’s gone off." One of the amazing things I wanted to show, but didn’t get a chance to, is that in the real Rochester castle, they talk about how the last animal [the people inside] had, a pig or a horse or something, they kept it alive and they tortured it every day, so that the enemy outside the walls would hear the animal being tortured and would imagine that they still have food inside the castle, whereas, in fact, they didn’t.
This stuff is all very complicated and subtle. It’s great stuff to read about, but let’s just catapult Brian Cox against the wall and let people watch that. [Laughs.]
I’ve seen them in movies before, but I can’t get over the longswords. How the hell were people able to carry these things around, much less fight battles with them in cramped spaces?
Yeah, longswords were basically invented to decapitate horses and to dismember the limbs of cavalry people and knights. These swords were so heavy. Even the one that we had made, we had some lightweight ones made of aluminum, and it still weighs about 35 pounds. A full weighted iron one would have been 50, 60, 75 pounds.
Once you got some momentum behind that thing and you’d swing it and hit something at like 30, 40 miles an hour, it’s going to…it would chop an oak table in half. You can only imagine what these things would do to the human body. The ball and chain, and war axes, what those weapons would do to the human body...not because they were very sharp, because I don’t think a lot of the time they were very sharp—after you’ve hit a few objects in a battle, these things are quite blunt—but it’s the fact that they were sharp enough. The weight of these war axes would be like 50, 60 kilograms and you're swinging them at 30 miles per hour at an object, you’re just going to crush anything you hit. Anything you hit, you're just going to crush it. Even if someone’s wearing chain mail or plate iron.
At an early stage, we talked about the violence feeling like a car accident, feeling like watching car accidents. That’s what I really wanted it to be, I didn’t really want it to be like chivalrous swordfighting. I wanted it to feel like you were observing a serious car accident and to have that kind of sickening quality.
Perhaps the highest compliment I could pay you is that your film, and especially the action sequences, looks like it cost way more than the reported $25 million.
I spent as much time and resources as possible on the battles because I wanted the movie to be a battle movie, an action movie set in the period. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of a lot of other European movies where it becomes a period drama. I didn’t want to make Elizabeth, as much as I love Elizabeth and the sequel. I mean, they’re great movies, but I didn’t want to make a period drama set in 13th Century. I wanted to make an action movie; I wanted to make a movie that I would have loved as a 13-year-old boy.