Last week, I posted a review of Arthur and Merlin, a movie that really surprised me with how good it was, and how well it worked within its low-budget means. I asked director/co-writer Marco van Belle if he’d answer some questions about it, and he was kind enough to agree.
AB: What inspired you to tackle an Arthurian movie in the first place?
MvB: When the executive producer proposed the idea of making an Arthurian film set in the Dark Ages to me, I was immediately sold. I mean, how often do you get an opportunity to reinvent two characters as iconic as Arthur and Merlin? But what was really great was that this story was going to be based in the period of history when the characters first appeared in stories. Setting it in the Dark Ages wasn’t just a blue-sky idea, it was actually an opportunity to return the characters to their proper timeframe. All the medieval incarnations of Arthur and Merlin that we are so familiar with from books and films were adaptations of the original Celtic myths, but somehow nobody before us had made a film that tapped directly into those original myths.
You chose to make Arthur and Merlin contemporaries, rather than the traditional elder/student relationship. Why?
You very astutely pointed out in your review of the film that we went with a Butch and Sundance ‘buddy movie’ approach, and this is exactly how we described it when we were developing the script. Given that we were going to be reimagining the characters as Dark Age Celts, I felt it was important to also bring a fresh approach to their relationship. We’ve seen the wise old wizard version of Merlin too many times, and Arthur is often portrayed as an almost infallible ruler well established on the throne. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to peel back the layers of familiarity and get to the nitty gritty of what makes these two men tick. Sometimes it’s easier to do that with characters who are contemporaries and can spar off each other as equals.
The story of Arthur is an epic tale, and often requires epic filmmaking. Low budget films often try to cheat this with bad CGI. You avoided this particular pitfall rather neatly; how hard was it?
It was incredibly hard! But how we did it started with the structure of the script. I decided that the only way to avoid the film looking like so many other low budget fantasy efforts was to ensure that we never attempted any scenes that we couldn’t deliver to a high standard. For example, while we do have a big battle scene in the film, we focus on one warrior’s story within that battle. Also, by keeping the magic restrained and focusing on elemental spells (wind, fire etc.) we avoided the need for CGI monsters and other things we simply couldn’t afford to do justice to. This approach put a huge emphasis on the quality of the writing and the dialogue, and we needed to cast excellent actors to make sure the film was a compelling watch even though it doesn’t even try to reach the kind of levels of CGI and VFX that current Hollywood blockbusters do.
One thing that really jumped out at me was the vividness of even the smaller parts. The woman who berates Merlin, for example, or the warlord Arthur talks into helping him. In fact, all the performances are really strong. How difficult was it getting them on a low budget and a tight schedule?
I’m so glad that you like that scene. That’s probably the piece of writing that I’m most proud of in the script. And what an actress! She’s called Helen Philips, and she made me cry the first time she read for the role. I love ensemble films, and even though this isn’t quite an ensemble piece I always try to ensure that every character is compelling and has something to say. I hate films that have any ‘filler parts’ that don’t stay with the audience. I’m actually really proud of our entire cast. Kirk Barker and Stefan Butler as Arthur and Merlin carry the whole film and work brilliantly off each other, especially when the comedy comes into their relationship later in the film. And Nigel Cooke as the evil wizard Aberthol is a hugely experienced British theatre actor, and he needed to draw on that to deliver a bad guy who was larger than life without becoming too hammy. The schedule made it difficult for the cast. They usually only got three takes of every shot, and that’s a lot of pressure, especially for Kirk and Stefan who knew they had to nail it as the two leads. But the old rule is true – if you cast well, you’re halfway there. Thankfully we put a lot of effort into finding the best actors for the job.
Has the film gotten the reception you’d hoped for?
When I came onto the project I was told that I had to write and direct a film for hard-core fantasy fans and people who love Arthurian stories. The reaction from that niche audience has been fantastic. Kirk and Stefan have developed quiet a fanbase now, and they’ve even been signing autographs at some of the big European fantasy con events. But what’s also gratifying is how many people outside that niche audience are also enjoying the film. I tried to make sure that the film was going to have both targeted and broad appeal, and I think I succeeded. I had a twitter conversation with a man in America a few weeks ago. He came across the film by chance on Redbox and rented it. He told me that he had to keep it for an extra day so his kids could watch it twice. It’s really nice to have made a film that has that kind of appeal. I think it’s the kind of film I would have wanted to watch twice when I was younger.
Arthur and Merlin is currently available at Wal-Mart and Target in the US, and is showing on Showtime’s Beyond and Family Zone channels.