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Director Guy Ritchie gets us on the road to Camelot

There are, so far, two distinct phases of Guy Ritchie’s feature filmmaking career: His early low-budget gangster films, and his later big-budget extravaganzas. Those early ones, among them “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch,” and “RocknRolla,” show off an urgent, kinetic, humorous energy. The later ones, including a couple of Robert Downey-starring Sherlock Holmes entries as well as an attempted reboot of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” did more of the same but had lots more effects. His track record contains art house darlings, box office bonanzas and as far as “U.N.C.L.E. (and his rarely mentioned “Swept Away”), disasters. But you can always recognize a Ritchie film because of his cinematic vocabulary: Fast talking, rapid-fire editing, and an often crackling sense of humor. With “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” Ritchie, 48, adds the dimension of historical epic to the mix. The result is one curious hybrid. He spoke about it last week in New York.

Q: Before you made features, you did commercials, then music videos, then short films. What triggered your desire to be a director?

A: I guess it was innate. When I was 15, I was the first person in the UK to get a GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) in film studies. Then I was absolutely useless at anything else; I had no advantages in any academic respect. Then I sort of drifted off into a misspent youth, but when I was 25, one of my friends was making a commercial, and I came in as a runner (an assistant) for that. It was impossible to get into the film industry in the UK because it was dead there at the time. The only way of getting to anything was in commercials and videos. That was your in, and once I found that as an in, I was off to the races. I came up the hard way through the ranks, which of course I’m tremendously grateful for, because you learn everything. You struggle, and you start making short films, but you start learning your craft and developing your voice and building up some confidence.

Q: Are you a longtime fan of the story of King Arthur?

A: My experience of the Arthurian legend is first and foremost by John Boorman’s film (“Excalibur”), which I found very provocative and exciting, when I was 10. I suppose that influenced me to the point where I was desperate to make a version of it myself.

Q: So how long have you been kicking around this version?

A: I wrote it about 5or 6 years ago. The problem with the legend is how dense it is. When Joby Harold came in as a co-screenwriter, he brought a fantasy aspect to it, and he had the idea of thinning out the narrative, of getting rid of some of the iconic characters and leaving them for another episode. So as soon as you get rid of eight of the 10 components, and focus on two of them, all of a sudden you’ve got a narrative you can follow.

Q: You just mentioned another episode. Do you have more films about the legend planned?

A: I’m not sure. But as of right now I’d very much like to make another one.

Q: Could you say a few words of introduction about some of your major characters: King Arthur, the villain Vortigern, and the mysterious woman called the Mage?

A: Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is an individual from aristocratic origins, immersed into the filth of a brothel, where he experiences love, and then begrudgingly stumbles into the position of becoming the king of England. Vortigern (Jude Law) is a man who is convinced that man’s desire is for ascension and power, that man is in a race and a competition with all other men for that goal-orientated vision. It’s a game as far as he’s concerned, so he’ll do anything he can to get it, without shame. The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) deals in natural law and the manipulation of it. So the ability to speak to animals is her strongest talent.

Q: Is it easier or more challenging to have a bigger budget to make a movie?

A: Well, in the respect that having come from a place where you had to keep your vision restricted, in a sense, for obvious reasons, to getting to a point where someone says no, no, you can put your hand in the cookie jar and you’re encouraged to take all the cookies, that’s nice. I have to say that being a film director, well, I couldn’t think of a more pleasurable job. I’d do it for free. Actually, more than that, I would pay to do it.

Q: At the end of “RocknRolla” (2008) the final credit, about the main characters, said “Archie and Johnny and the Wild Bunch will be back.” Will they be back?

A: You’ll have to wait and see.

Q: Would you like to have it happen?

A: Yes, I would.

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” opens on May 12.

-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.

Guy Ritchie (left) gives some advice to Charlie Hunnam on how to properly pull the sword out of the stone. (Photo by Daniel Smith)