Robert Eggers turns the doom and gloom of history into high art. His staggering 2015 debut “The Witch” turned memories of Salem witch fears into haunting New England folk horror and “The Lighthouse” turned the world’s most uncomfortable naval gig into a claustrophobic tale of bad roommates. Now he’s taken his vision to an epic scale with “The Northman,” a sprawling Viking saga that wears its vicious spirit on every blood-soaked sword and ear-splitting battle cry.
Produced by Focus Features for somewhere in the vicinity of $70-90 million, “The Northman” is the rare U.S. studio production directed by a rising auteur that doesn’t show the mark of compromise. Production started in March 2020 before COVID shutdowns, and resumed at the end of the year. Eggers assembled a remarkable team of historical advisers and craftspeople to recreate an entire Viking village, as his Icelandic saga (which was loosely adapted into “Hamlet”) finds the Viking prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) hellbent on tracking down his uncle (Claes Bang) to avenge the death of Amleth’s father (Ethan Hawke).
Eggers wrote the movie with Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, squeezed in a cameo by Björk, and conceived of a final showdown on the top of a volcano. Needless to say, this was not your average studio cash grab. Still, Eggers has said in interviews leading up to the release of the movie that the post-production of “The Northman” proved to be the greatest challenge of his life, and one that involved no shortage of studio notes.
In an interview with IndieWire from earlier this month, he clarified those remarks, while elaborating on his precise approach to the setting and the meticulous approach to filming action scenes.
IndieWire: Almost every frame of this movie is infused with your research. At the same time, you didn’t witness the Viking era firsthand, so how much did you allow yourself to take liberties with that history?
Robert Eggers: I didn’t take any liberties, except with stuff that we don’t know, because it was 1,000 years ago. I did try my damnedest to do everything as historically accurate as possible. I did a tremendous amount of research. I had the finest Viking historians and archeologists working with me. I had people in the living history and experimental archeology community. We had a massive amount of Viking experts working on the film. Everything is super considered.
Still, there’s so much we don’t know about that time because of limited archeological remains.
To your point, because the sagas — which are the only sort of account of Viking everyday life — were written about 200 years after the Viking age, if not later, some of this shit is inherited as oral culture. We know that when they’re talking about shields and helmets, shockingly, that stuff is from the Viking age. But every once and a while, they’re talking about windows or ways of brewing beer that were actually post the Viking age. You’ve got to weave through all that stuff.
They’re also writing from a Christian perspective, so you have to peel back that layer. But if I were to only use what we have archeologically, I would have had to make a movie the size of “The Witch.” The amount of helmets that have been discovered is almost nothing, so we had to use helmets from periods on either side of our period to create a bunch of different looks.
Is there anything about the way the Vikings live that’s totally made up?
The academic consensus was that Vikings didn’t have special clothing for rituals. But the academic consensus is also that rituals involved splattering blood over everybody. I said to the archeologist Neil Price, “So, like, everyone was just walking around covered in blood all the time?” And he was like, “Wow, I never considered that.” So, based around a lot of other ideas we saw in sagas and archeology, we did invent the ceremonial clothing for rituals. That was total invention, but also based on stuff.
What about the use of psychedelics? The Vikings really trip out during those rituals.
We don’t know for sure, but some Viking graves from people we know to be Völvas or witches or seeresses have henbane seeds. So in the initiation ritual, we decided that they’re drinking the vision mead of knowledge, or something like that, with henbane in it. I read about what it’s like to be on henbane and we incorporated that into the sound design and the visuals of the scene. It was a fun choice.
So you read about what it’s like to be on henbane, or did you…
No, no, no, I’m too square for all that.
Of course, there’s also the use of English language, which the Vikings obviously didn’t speak.
Certainly if I was Mel Gibson, and had the money to self-finance my own historical epics, this movie would’ve been in Old Norse. Because of the scale of the film, that was just not possible. I knew it wouldn’t be financeable at our budgetary level.
So how did conceive of the way people talk?
Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf” is of course Old English and not Old Norse, but they’re closely related. Anglo-Saxon culture is similar to Germanic culture. That was a nice tone of “Ye Olde”-y, but also understandable, that Sjón and I used as a reference point. But I also asked Sjón to translate bluntly from Icelandic when giving us the first passage of dialogue so it would give us something really interesting to work with.
Where we kept Old Norse was in ritual settings and in song. We worked with an Icelandic linguist, Haukur Þorgeirsson, and he was often taking poems written in Medieval Iceland to rewind them and translating into his interpretation of that.
This may be the most accurate portrayal of Vikings in film history, but there are plenty of precedents. Did you watch them for research?
I watched Richard Fleisher’s “The Vikings” because that is the iconic Viking film. For 1958, it’s pretty good. Aside from Kirk Douglas’ beardless face, it’s a fairly accurate depiction of what they understood the Viking age to be like in the ’50s. But at the same time, even though they shot it in Norway, it’s so front-lit and colorful that it might as well be fucking California.
Of course I also looked at some sword-and-sandal stuff. I checked out “Spartacus” again because it never hurts to do that. But I think it’s really the Soviet Medieval epics and Kurosawa’s work that I turned to most as cinematic inspiration, as well as John Milius’ “Conan.” I didn’t rewatch during the writing and prep phase, but I watched so many millions of times as a child that it was ingrained in me. There were a handful of deliberate nods to “Conan” and — unfortunately — more accidental nods to “Conan” just because I’d seen it so much.
In all three of your films, you’ve push your actors to a very extreme kind of physicality. “The Northman” seems like a direct outgrowth of “The Lighthouse” for an early initiation scene alone, as it finds Ethan Hawke crawling around on his hands and knees while growling like a dog. Willem Dafoe is there, muttering like a madman. How did you work with them to get this wild?
They are both New York theater guys and so am I. We just went into my office, put all the furniture aside, and started rehearsing it like we’d rehearse a play. We really got into it, knowing that you couldn’t be the least bit self-conscious. The great actors want to bear everything. That’s what it is, that’s the job, and luckily I was working with great actors on this film.
And I suppose that extends to Alexander Skarsgård as well.
The kind of vulnerability it takes to show the fury that Alex shows sounds like a paradox, but it does take vulnerability to show that much extreme fury, to have a scream that Andrzej Żuławski would potentially approve of.
What was the vibe like onset? Did people break character a lot? There’s so much visceral anger in the movie, but did anyone have fun with it?
Nobody was method on this film. In my perfect world, everybody is happy, best friends, and very familial. But the thing is, when it’s freezing cold and raining, and the wind’s blowing, and you’re on the side of a mountain, it’s tough and you need to stay focused. Sometimes, I think it takes a lot of tries to get the performance when you’re doing these long, unbroken takes. I’m just trying to get the scene, but I think that some of Alex’s performance is just because he wanted to wring my neck. That’s not any kind of calculated, sadistic directing technique. It’s just like, we had focus buzz, or the lens was fogged, or somebody slipped in the mud and the take wasn’t usable.
In the scene where Berserkers need to transform human beings into beasts through shamanic ritual, we worked on it all night in the rain and then we had it. The adrenaline these guys had to do this over and over again was so sustained. Then we got it and it was like, “That’s a wrap, thanks everybody, go home, wonderful job.” And then, as everybody’s getting in their cars on the way back to the trailer, taking off their stuff, we realized the lens was fogged on the good take. So we said, “You guys have to come back, put your wet stuff back on, and do it again.” Alex was like, “You did that deliberately!”
But I didn’t do it deliberately. That’s the thing. As much as I admire Kubrick’s filmmaking, what he did to Shelley Duvall on “The Shining” is not OK. It’s one thing as collaborators for everyone to push each other and demand the best, but you can’t be cruel.
You took a very ambitious approach to shooting action scenes with a single camera and not doing pickups. How did you arrive at this decision?
This is just an extension of the work that [cinematographer] Jarin [Blaschke] and I have been doing on our last two films. In a movie that’s bigger and has a normal type of narrative, we need to keep things moving, so for the most part, the camera is always moving. We’re trying to propel the story and keep people totally immersed in the world. That’s the main creative reason.
Also, my fetish or obsession with the detail of verisimilitude of the physical world is something that cannot be a distraction from the story. If it’s a single-camera, then you’re always focused on the story. You’re not cutting away to how cool the hunting dogs look. They enter the frame with the villain and then they leave. It becomes about him and focuses our choices as storytellers. But it is hard. When we were in prep, I was like, “We are never going be able to do this. We are never going to be able to fucking finish storyboarding this movie, we’re going to get completely behind, and we’re going to fail.” I know why people shoot movies like this multi-camera because this is just impossible. But we stuck to it.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of processed shots and CG in this movie. You didn’t really do anything like that in “The Lighthouse,” aside from creating a fake island —
I mean, yeah, we had a peninsula and we cut it off from the mainland. That’s it.
So this must have been a big jump for you.
It was hard. Unfortunately, because of COVID, there was more CG than I would’ve wanted because we were only allowed to go to Iceland after we wrapped principle photography. A decent amount of principle was done in Iceland. That meant that we had to plonk in Icelandic backgrounds sometimes in a way that it’s not a sin to do — people do it all the time — but it’s not really how I like to make films. I’m not happy about it. But what could I do? It was COVID. Sorry.
COVID forced a lot of shit we didn’t want. But other than that, it was an enjoyable tool to work with. Also, look, the bell-casting sequence in “Andri Rublev” cannot happen again. With unions and the cost of labor and modern health and safety, if you want to make a modern movie on a large scale, you have to embrace CG.
Tarkovsky didn’t worry about getting sued, you mean.
I mean, I don’t want to think about the conditions of his background performers in that movie.
More specifically, how did you use CG to create the realistic impression of scenes shot in Iceland?
You’d have a scene that’s supposed to be in Iceland and the foreground and midground would be Ireland, but the background would be a photographic plate that we shot in Iceland. When they arrive at the beach in Iceland, we shot that in Donegal. We found the most Icelandic-looking beach in Ireland, then we shot a bunch of plates of the beach I wanted in Iceland. The main hill is Irish, but it looks Icelandic. Then we put some rock formations in the sea that we filmed in Iceland, and then we had to make the sand black with CG. The main background behind everyone is Iceland. That’s the necessary evil of not being able to shoot in Iceland.
The other special effect in the movie is getting Björk back onscreen for a brief role, which marks her first performance since “Dancer in the Dark.” How did you pull that off?
One is never in the position of convincing Björk. She is either all-in or not in at all. It helped that she and Sjón have such a long relationship, as they’ve known each other since they were teenagers. Our composer Robin Carolan has a friendship with Björk and introduced me and my wife to her and then we developed a relationship. It was a familial atmosphere, so she felt comfortable doing it. Also, her daughter Doa had to audition but ended up in the film as well. She plays the enslaved woman who sings with Jonas Lorentzen around the fire.
How did you develop the concept for the Björk character?
She read the scene, we talked about it, and she was down. She contributed to the idea that she would have a third eye and her real eyes would be covered. We knew from archeological evidence from the proto-Ukrainian tribe that we set that portion of the story in that there were cowrie shells in the headgear of the women, so we justified hanging them over her eyes.
These battle scenes get so bloody. How difficult was it to shoot a violent encounter and reset for another take?
You always know how many multiples of costumes you have and make your choices about how you are shooting something so that you can do what you need to do. When you can, you add a little CG to take the blood away. You’re always planning that stuff. But look, we had the resources and scale, so it wasn’t an indie movie where those choices become so fragile. Still, Linda Muir, my incomparable costume designer, wants the best shit onscreen as possible. We probably did a few less multiples than other movies might have because she’s after the very best fabrics and those are costly because they’re handmade.
More than that, the question is this: What is the line when you’re making an action set piece movie based on sagas that sometimes read like ’80s action movies where you literally need thrilling, entertaining violence, but also you don’t want to be condoning or glorifying violence? How do you walk that line? I don’t know the answer, but it’s something we were constantly asking ourselves as we were making the movie.
Obviously, you wouldn’t have had this budget without the studio. But the studio also had final cut. Do you ever think about how different it would have been without studio intervention?
Well, OK. I knew when I gave the script to the studio that I was not going to have final cut on this movie. And that was a risk I was willing to take. The studio took a big risk on letting somebody made two sensationalist arthouse movies to make a big fucking Viking movie single-camera with all of his heads of departments. Frankly, our resumes did not warrant us making this movie, and they let us do it, which is amazing. I promised them the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie I could make.
I’ve said that the post process was the painful process of my life, and that is a fucking fact, OK? But it was also needed. I think if I’d had total control and was left alone, I’d be in a really bad position right now in the marketplace. I needed the pressure of the studio to make the most entertaining version of this movie. So this is the cut I’m proud of, but my instinct is not to make entertainment. I mean, entertainment was seventh on the list of “The Witch” and fifteenth on “The Lighthouse.” It was difficult but needed. It would’ve been a worse film in the end.
Were you ever worried that someone might tamper with your vision in post?
It wasn’t tampering or interference. Sjón said it was our job to interpret the studio notes in a way that make us proud. If I slavishly took the studio’s notes, the film would suck, because they’re not filmmakers. That’s why they hire filmmakers to make the films. But I think how we survived is that we were — me and all of my collaborators — determined to make the film we wanted to make, and we were not going to stop until we were proud of it. It would’ve been so easy to say, “Fuck the studio, they’re giving me all these notes, I hate this! They’re ruining my movie!” That’s the easy way out. What made it so hard was to stick with it until we were happy.
So you’re happy now?
I’m not saying this is a perfect movie, but at least I can say I stand behind my choices, because I had to consider all of them so carefully.
Having gone through this experience, how do you relate to the potential of big-budget filmmaking when it comes to preexisting IP?
Yeah, I mean I’ve only done self-generated work. I understand how fortunate I am to be in that situation. People have come to me with stuff. Even though I didn’t have final cut, we went into this knowing it was a Robert Eggers movie, and all of what that’s going to be. I don’t see how that could be beneficial on a movie where I’m a director for hire. Everything I’m at doing is antithetical to making a Marvel movie.
How invested are you in the reception of the movie around the world?
Even if this movie isn’t that great, I hope that people root for it, because it’s rare that a writer-director gets a chance to make a big movie that’s not an IP movie. We should collectively as a film community at least respect that it happened. You know? And I hope that other filmmakers get the opportunity to do this.
Focus Features will release “The Northman” in theaters on Friday, April 22.