Michael Hirst has spent a lot of time writing about royalty. As the screenwriter behind 1998’s “Elizabeth” and its 2007 sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” he provided Cate Blanchett with the role of the “Virgin Queen” that made her an international star. As the creator and showrunner for Showtime series “The Tudors,” he detailed the political and bedroom escapades of Henry VIII, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, while in Starz drama “Camelot,” he looked at the more fantastical lives of Merlin (Joseph Fiennes), King Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) and other high-ranking figures of legend.
But in “Vikings,” his newest project, he trades in the machinations of the court for a culture that tends to take a more direct and violent approach. The scripted series, which stars Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick and Gabriel Byrne, follows Viking warrior Ragnar, based on a figure of history and legend, whose desire to explore (and pillage) new lands places him at odds with the current jarl. The show, which premieres this Sunday, March 3 at 10pm, isn’t just unique in its subject matter and era, it’s also the first scripted series to come from History channel, a network that had huge success with Kevin Costner’s scripted miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” last year. Indiewire spoke with Hirst by phone about bringing some of history’s most famous antiheroes to the small screen.
What are the challenges of writing characters who have such a different outlook on the world and what it means to lead a good life?
It’s a challenge in the sense that, writing “The Tudors,” there was more than enough material. There were any number of books about them you could read about what the major characters reportedly said, what they wore. The Viking period is the Dark Ages — we don’t know very much about it. Vikings didn’t write anything down. Most of what we know about them was actually written later by monks when Scandinavia was Christianized, and lots of that was hostile, too. There are some records, but very few, and there’s of course the evidence from picking up boats.
But I had an interest in Vikings anyway — it didn’t come out of the blue that I’d written a script on Alfred the Great many years ago. I had to find a way of giving them a language that wouldn’t be ridiculously archaic or contemporary. I immersed myself in the Norse myths and how they were written. I began to put together a way they might express themselves. Then I was reading about their culture and society and finding these fascinating things — their treatment of women was totally different from the Western world and the Saxons. Women could divorce their husbands, they could rule. They had lots of pseudo-democratic institutions — they would all meet to discuss the great issues together.
Of course, the other thing you do as a writer, you find them as human beings. They start off as constructs. I know that Ragnar’s a real person, but we don’t know much about him. When I start out, I’m trying to find out as much as I can, but I’m putting him in a story. You invest in [the characters] in the same way that you do with people from any other historical period. But the main thing about them is not that they belong in a museum, but that they’re real and human, and that you understand them even though they’re so different. I mean, they still had human sacrifices and things, but you know where that came from. It’s fascinating, but believable.
You’re writing a show around a very aggressive culture based on raiding, and in one of the early episodes we see the characters arrive on shore and just slaughter people. How do you go about making that — I hate to put it this way — sympathetic…?
That’s an interesting question. I was always aware that I’d start with an episode in which you’d meet the principal character and his family and you think, “Hey, they’re not so bad! He’s a family man, he loves his wife and children. They’re rough, but they’re not at all bad, and we’ve been told a lot of lies about them.” Then in the second episode they kill a lot of unarmed monks. That does present me with a challenge.
Ragnar is a character who is not principally motivated by greed or avarice or who wants to raid because he wants to steal things or get treasure. It’s made clear that he believes that he’s descended from Odin, and Odin was not only the god of Norsemen warriors, but he was the god of curiosity. He willing sacrificed his eye to look into the well of knowledge.
I thought of Ragnar as this guy who, in rather unpromising circumstances, decides that he’s going to explore the edges of the known world because he wants to know what’s there. Even though they’re an Iron Age culture, what takes him there is the cutting edge technology of the boats that they can build and their navigational skills.
Equally important is that a lot of the lead guys now in TV shows, they don’t have to be nice. They don’t have to be good. Henry VIII, towards the end of his life, was a tyrant. You don’t have to agree with them, you don’t have to share their morality or point of view, but you have to want to watch them and find out what they do. And I think that’s something that makes these TV drama work.
There’s been a recent trend of dramas set in the 1800s, and it can feel like all their female characters end up being prostitutes. This show offers an interesting and very different look at women in a historical era. Can you tell me more about that aspect of the show, particularly Katheryn Winnick’s character and what it means that she is, or was, a shieldmaiden?
No one can be absolutely sure, but what that seems to mean is they fought in war with their menfolk, that they were there in the front rank with their husbands and brothers. Viking society was very dominated by familial relationships. So we know that Lagertha [Winnick’s character, Ragnar’s wife] was reputedly a famous shieldmaiden who was known as a great fighter.
It’s a great love story. Ragnar has been promised by the gods that he’s going to have a lot of sons and she can’t provide them for him, she has a miscarriage. Well, he’s wondering what game the gods are playing, so he falls in love with someone else with whom he does have children.
Actually, what happened, Lagertha refused to carry on living with Ragnar and his new wife, got divorced, went off and married another earl. When Ragnar’s kingdom was invaded she came back to help him and they defeated the raiders. She still refused to stay — she went back to her earl, killed him and ruled instead. And it’s just a great true line, it’s wonderful. Unlike all those heroines now of Scandinavian drama series who all are psychotic, have deep flaws or are mentally deranged in some way, she seems to me to be perfectly normal — except she can fight like hell. She has a very rock solid morality and her story is worth telling. She’s a fantastic character.
How did being the first scripted series for the History influence your approach to the show, in the sense of research or representations?
There’s an expectation, quite rightly, that these have something to do with historical research and reality, and indeed it does. It’s a drama, but it is based on my reading. We have a historical consultant, which is a good thing. Because this is network TV not cable, there are things you can’t show. It was rather funny when we got together with History and they made the point telling us what we couldn’t show. [laughs] “We want to make a show about the Vikings, but we can’t show any sex or violence.” But of course you can, to some extent — you have to be careful and you have to be creative.
Myself and the first director sat down and and said, “Okay, this is not a problem, this is a challenge,” because we both felt the way a lot of these shows are going now on cable, there’s a hell of a lot of gratuitous sex and violence just because they can show it. The most important thing is the story. It’s still violent when it has to be, but it’s not “Spartacus,” it’s not just people losing limbs in front of a green screen. Working with History did bring with it some issues, which I was delighted to address. It’s a very good partnership, and it worked out very well.
“Downton Abbey” aside, there seems to have been an interest in recent years in a more unromanticized, grittier portrayal of historical eras. Do you agree and if so, what you think might have shifted interest in that direction?
That’s not actually what’s happening on British TV — it’s more “Downton” stuff coming out, all ’20s flappers and pseudo romanticism. The American obsession with “Downton” amuses me slightly because it’s such a fiction. I’ve always been questioned about my historical veracity and “Downton” just flies past when it’s completely made up. I think what’s actually happened, there’s been a revolution. A lot of really talented people have gravitated to TV, and so obviously they want to tell more real, grittier stories, they want to use the opportunities they have to tell the stories they want to tell.
We’ve probably got the best writers now working in TV, certainly got some great actors. I worked with some great directors on this. TV was always the secondary medium, it was like, well, the standards don’t matter too much because no one will really notice. TV drama, not always, but on the whole were pretty appalling and very secondary, too. No one expected it to be like watching a movie, that was the point. But I think when you start watching ‘Vikings’ it is like watching a movie — you’re taken somewhere else. And visual effects have come on so much since. I remember, from “Elizabeth,” it was very difficult even to get a crowd scene. And a lot of people now, with a lot of ambitions, are in TV making these amazing shows, pushing boundaries. It’s a great time.