“The Northman” used the Nordic past as its North Star, but after test audiences reportedly balked at the film’s dense historical accuracy, writer-director Robert Eggers and co-writer Sjón had to flip the script (literally) in post-production.
Yet the intense long shots and grueling filming schedule meant that any changes — including dialogue — were confined to the editing room. So, as Eggers and Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón enlisted actors Alexander Skarsgård, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Ralph Ineson, and Björk, to ADR certain lines, the script had to match their original mouth movements per each scene.
In an interview with Vulture, Eggers explained, “You’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve got 18 syllables. The fifth syllable has to be a T because he enunciates that T so well.’ Maybe you could get away with a D. And then this syllable has to be an S.”
Sjón called the process “the toughest crossword puzzle you can imagine” before noting that a “well” could become a “hell” and a “must” could become a “just,” leading to, “At the gates of Hell, there will my sword be just.”
But Sjón knew “The Northman” would be an unprecedentedly tough experience: “Why would you do a historically accurate medieval tale that takes place in three countries, involving battles, family feuds, and magical beings, and not expect it to be hard?” he said.
Eggers noted that even stunt coordinators called certain scenes “the worst experience of their life.”
The “Lighthouse” director previously told IndieWire that “The Northman” script is rooted in Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf,” which is Old English and not Old Norse but is “closely related” enough to be used as a reference point.
“Where we kept Old Norse was in ritual settings and in song,” Eggers clarified. “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.”
Yet the “post process was the most painful process of my life,” Eggers added, tasked with balancing studio notes and maintaining the “‘Ye Olde’-y” screenplay.
“Sjón said it was our job to interpret the studio notes in a way that make us proud,” Eggers continued. “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.”
Eggers concluded, “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 promised them the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie I could make. 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.”