O, Vengeance! — Robert Eggers on His Bloody Viking Epic, The Northman
Soft-spoken but direct in his goals, Robert Eggers is dedicated to precise historical accuracy—even though the filmmaking process can prove painful. The director’s previous two films, the 19th century-set The Lighthouse and the 17th century horror film The Witch, were released by A24 to critical acclaim. Now, Eggers travels further back in time for his largest production yet, The Northman, a bloody 10th century Viking epic that’s equally brutal and poetic.
In the opening minute, young Amleth (Oscar Novak)—son of King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman)—is horrified to witness his mother kidnapped and his noble father slain in cold blood by the king’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). With his village in shambles and family slaughtered, Amleth takes to the sea for safety. Years later, the adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a muscular, brutish Viking seeking revenge. Determined to find and free his mother (who, much to his confusion, seems to have taken up with his uncle), Amleth will not rest until he avenges his slain father, even as he befriends a Slavic villager, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes crucial to continuing the royal family lineage.
Even moderate Shakespeare fans will recognize plot beats from Hamlet, but the origin story of the famed “Prince of Denmark” actually extends even further back. With his multi-volume historical overview The History of the Danes, 13th-century Danish author Saxo Grammaticus is credited as being among the first to introduce the world to Amleth’s journey, a story that has been adapted countless times by playwrights and filmmakers alike. With The Northman, Eggers honors the tale’s Danish origins while honing in on the specific elements (language, production design, unflinching violence) that compel him the most. It’s a gory affair, but squint harder and you’ll be awestruck by each detail your eye picks up.
I spoke with Eggers about his familiarity with Vikings and Icelandic sagas, working with an abundance of VFX, his preference for practical effects, getting stuck on the small details and more. After delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down principal photography right before it was to begin, The Northman finally arrives in theaters (where it truly deserves to be seen) on April 22nd via Focus Features.
Filmmaker: You worked on your first feature, The Witch, for a number of years before finally going into production, and I know your second feature, The Lighthouse, originated from an idea you shared with your brother years earlier. Is The Northman the fastest a production has come together for you?
Eggers: Both The Northman and The Lighthouse came together pretty quickly once I had a script, with The Lighthouse potentially moving even faster since the script didn’t need any further development—but, as you mentioned, it was hidden away for a long time before the script was ready. The Witch took longer, but after it was released, I found myself with disposable income for the first time in my life, so my wife and I took a trip to Iceland. I found myself inspired by the country’s landscapes, which is neither a unique nor surprising [experience to have]. My wife had been reading Icelandic sagas at the time and tried to persuade me to get into them, which I only did after returning from our trip, and I enjoyed them immensely. This is all to say that these events are what ultimately got the idea of making some kind of Viking movie simmering on the backburner of my head.
I then was able to have a meeting with Alex Skarsgård. Alex told me he was interested in making a Viking movie, and I told him I had an idea for one (which I sort of had). I very quickly began speaking with Sjón, the Icelandic poet and novelist, and a year or two later, we had co-written a script. However, it wasn’t until The Lighthouse was well-received after its world premiere at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes [in 2019] that we had a good, sharable draft that seemed to say “OK, this is a movie.”
Filmmaker: Was The Northman your first experience working with a co-writer?
Eggers: No, the script for The Lighthouse was co-written with my brother, Max, but The Northman is the first screenplay I’ve co-written with a non-Eggers writer. The thing is, while I knew that some Icelanders would want nothing more than to never be associated with Vikings ever again and that Sjón would be ambivalent about collaborating on a Viking project, from my perspective, Icelanders tend to know which saga characters they’re directly related to, and having someone who’s so astute in Icelandic folklore and mythology (and is frankly a genius writer) like Sjón was important to me. I was very fortunate that he wanted to work together.
Filmmaker: Was it through Sjón that Björk agreed to join the cast in a small role? [The two Icelandic artists have collaborated on numerous projects, resulting in, among other accolades, an Academy Award nomination for the song “I’ve Seen It All,” featured in Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark.]
Eggers: Yes, I think if Sjón had not been involved in the film then Björk certainly would not have [been either]. However, my wife and I had developed a relationship with Björk over the years after we were introduced to her by one of my closest friends, the composer Robin Carolan [Carolan’s former record label, Tri Angle, had worked with Björk on two of her albums in the 2010s]. The fact that Robin was going to be a composer on The Northman, combined with Björk’s long relationship with Sjón, is what I think ultimately made her feel comfortable being in the film.
Filmmaker: Given your father’s background as a Shakespeare scholar, as well as your love of period detail and historical accuracy, the narrative of The Northman feels like a logical progression for you. But how aware were you of the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus, his History of the Danes and his being credited with the origins of Amleth, a character who would be immortalized in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and, for adolescent audiences, The Lion King?
Eggers: While I knew I wanted this to be a revenge story, as that’s so much a part of the Viking literature we have available from Iceland, and had even previously directed a production of Hamlet on stage, I had not recalled it being based on a Danish legend. That [revelation] was totally new and exciting to me. Admittedly, I prefer the Icelandic sagas that Saxo Grammaticus read that probably inspired [his writing of The History of the Danes], as you can see that there was probably an Icelandic text Saxo had read that inspired his version of Amleth. But, to make a long story short, if you employ Hamlet, or as you said, The Lion King, everyone already knows this story. If you write an epic that needs to be for a broad audience, you can use a story everyone is familiar with and can relate to, and that [frees you up] to indulge in what’s different, unique, unknown and exotic about this Viking culture and Viking world to a modern audience without them getting lost.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about Willem Dafoe’s character, Heimir the Fool, and the debauchery that ensues whenever he’s briefly on screen. What led to the inclusion of a Fool character in your script? I’m familiar with the Fool making an appearance in several of Shakespeare’s plays, of course, but does that character originate even further back in time?
Eggers: It does, but Shakespeare’s [influence] can certainly be seen in Dafoe’s character’s little ditty to King Aurvandil in the court scene. It reminds us of the Fool in King Lear, right? We also have a [visual] reference to Yorick, the deceased Fool whom Hamlet grew up with and whose skull he talks to in the graveyard scene of Act V. But even that skull is itself a reference even [further back] to a mummified head that Odin [a god in Norse mythology] kept to tell prophecies with. The Fool that Dafoe plays has origins in a priestly character in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture and, in Beowulf, a character who seems to be a mixture of a court jester and a keeper of sacred scripts. That’s how we use Dafoe in the film.
Filmmaker: Regarding cinematic reference points, in previous interviews you’ve cited Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian. While the more mythological elements of your film (including cameos by valkyries and all-powerful swords) have their origins in Old Norse text, they also evoke the kinds of popular action films that someone growing up in the 1980s or ’90s would’ve spent their time obsessing over.
Eggers: Yeah, I think that sometimes this film feels like a ’80s or ’90s movie that has been directed by a semi-talented Soviet auteur… against his wishes [laughs]. Conan wasn’t something I was consciously trying to reference, but it was a very seminal film for myself as a kid and for Sjón as a teenager. I think it’s OK that there are a lot of unconscious Conan references in the film, but if someone were to rewatch Conan within the [next] year, they might think, “Wow, there is a lot [of Conan] in The Northman!” I knew that the shot of Fjölnir taking off his helmet would be reminiscent of James Earl Jones taking off his helmet in Conan—which, by the way, is also reminiscent of [Sergei Eisenstein’s] Alexander Nevsky. Each of these images come with those kinds of familiar references.
However, while the filmmaker references and allusions to Conan are fine with me (and if you’re a cinephile, you know what my influences are), I feel—and you can certainly disagree with me and probably win the argument—that my and [cinematographer] Jarin [Blaschke]’s influences went through a kind of alchemical process and became something new, even if you can see where they came from. There are some parts of the film where we might have fallen short and you merely spot an influence, but that’s definitely not what I’m after as a filmmaker. We wanted to take the influences, run with them and create something else.
As far as story beats go, we were looking for all of the things that people might expect from a Viking movie—a big Viking raid, sequences on a longship, opening the movie with Vikings returning home, a big feast—but then playing with those expectations. On a technical level, if I’ve done my job as a director, you’re initially thrilled by the violence on screen, but by the next scene hopefully you feel some guilt for having been thrilled. There’s nothing good about what those Vikings are doing! And, regarding the implementation of a “magic sword” in the film: the first sword everyone thinks about is King Arthur’s sword [Excalibur], but the concept of the magic sword is something that can be found across Old Norse literature and storytelling.
Filmmaker: When you begin work on a movie of this size, does working with a familiar team of collaborators ease the pre-production process? You’ve had a lasting relationship with several heads of departments, including your director of photography Jarin Blaschke, editor Louise Ford, production designer Craig Lathrop and costume designer Linda Muir, each of whom you have worked with across all three features. Do they go off and conduct their own research about the story’s period and historical accuracy? Is there a shorthand you all use to work together?
Eggers: For sure. I bet all of the articles in Filmmaker talk about the amount of times someone references a shorthand shared between [trusted collaborators], and it’s a real thing. Going into work on a film, I know what I want, but it’s gotten to the point where my collaborators can anticipate what I want, and that’s partially due to my sticking to the same method, this ridiculous method of trying to obtain historical accuracy. I think it’s an impossible task, certainly, and definitely impossible when making a film set within a culture that existed a thousand years ago. Nonetheless, it becomes everyone’s North Star, so we’re all aligned in trying to get there. It’s definitely become more and more collaborative and a group mind meld as we’ve continued working together.
Filmmaker: After weeks of prep, everyone arrived in Belfast a week prior to the commencement of principal photography, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to arrive and force production to shut down. I imagine that was a crazy, hectic moment in time, as it was for so many people. What was that experience like?
Eggers: It was of course heartbreaking and deflating and all of the other negative emotions you might expect when you unexpectedly lose all of that adrenaline. In addition to [health concerns], much of the crew was worried about their future employment moving forward. It was difficult. At the time [March 2020], some of us thought, “Maybe the pandemic will subside in a month and we can begin shooting by Easter.” Now we all know how wrong we were. However, one of the main benefits of the shutdown was that Jarin and I realized that, had we begun on time, we wouldn’t have been experienced enough to make the film. The time off allowed us to continue storyboarding throughout the hiatus and get as prepared as we needed to be to make a film that we previously weren’t prepared to make.
Filmmaker: I believe that some of the sets, like the longships where you set several scenes, were still being built at the time you had originally planned principal photography and wouldn’t have been ready until mid-shoot. That’s another example of the hiatus allowing some additional buffering time.
Eggers: There were a lot of positive things about the hiatus for the success of this film. Of course, the bad thing was that it put us far over budget due to everything that COVID disrupted. We went over budget but were allowed additional time to prepare. The ships were now ready from the beginning, and the Icelandic farm set was allowed to gestate for a longer period of time, now really looking like it had been sitting there for years (having a few additional calendar seasons allowed the set to appropriately settle into the landscape). And, for the actors who needed to, the cast was able to grow their hair and beards out longer.
Filmmaker: So, the sets were already built and left standing for several months? Were they left unattended? I’m picturing a kind of ghost town, with sets untouched by anything that wasn’t weather-related.
Eggers: Our supervising location manager, Naomi Liston, always made sure to keep close tabs on everything, and when necessary (and deemed safe enough), small crews would go in to do repairs where needed. Of course, if we knew then how COVID works outdoors, things would’ve worked a lot differently.
Filmmaker: Much of the film features extensive dialogue and action sequences set on the very steep inclines of rigid mountainous terrain. In the opening sequence where Amleth’s father, King Aurvandil, arrives home with his extensive army on horseback, the surrounding area looks particularly dangerous, both for the actors as well as the livestock. Since everything appears to be in-camera, free from CG, what preparation, in the set-building and in your staging, was taken in capturing these moments safely?
Eggers: There was a lot of preparation done in regards to that, particularly while making sure to follow the UK’s modern health and safety laws. If you have a horse or any kind of animal on set, it’s a lot of work figuring out what needs to be done to make it a safe environment for them. I don’t know if there is any VFX [visual effects] in those particular shots, although I believe that there isn’t. However, for the safety of everyone involved, we had protective guardrails placed on those cliffs, which then needed to be erased in [post-production] and could perhaps be considered “invisible VFX.”
Filmmaker: Were there other challenges that came with shooting on some of these locations? I read a recent interview Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy gave to Total Film where they discussed having to film a scene barefoot, up to their knees in mud that had frozen overnight, and that made things particularly difficult for the day’s shoot. Were there a number of instances like that, where natural elements you couldn’t have prepared for made things particularly strenuous?
Eggers: I felt pretty well prepared, as Jarin and I learned a lot on The Lighthouse pertaining to things like the kind of conditions that would potentially cause a rain deflector to overheat and not work and so on. As far as I’m concerned, I knew what I was getting into, but The Northman shoot was much longer, so it did become a bit of an endurance test for everyone. But of course, on set I’m wearing Gore-Tex and down jackets, and Skarsgård is sometimes literally naked working in those same conditions. I never had to face [the elements] in that way.
I’m never seeking miserable conditions just to be sadistic. This is a part of the story that I’m telling. If I were making a romantic comedy about an Edwardian croquet party, I wouldn’t set it on an Icelandic volcano in the middle of winter. But that’s not the story I’m telling. Being out in the cold on these unforgiving landscapes obviously isn’t easy. It does add to the atmosphere on screen though. Alex likes to be pushed and to push himself, so for him personally, I think the environment created an even better performance. For other people, it may have been more of an obstacle in getting a good performance, you know? It isn’t always the “best medicine,” even though that’s typically what I’m doing.
Filmmaker: As in your previous two features, an assortment of animals make their presence known and, to my eye, always appear to be an interesting blend of real animals, VFX and maybe even some puppetry. As your work with animals, both real and less than, is a unique through line in your career, I was curious when and how you choose to toggle between the animals and their digital counterparts. For example, was that beautiful-looking Arctic fox real?
Eggers: Whenever we show the Arctic fox, it’s always a photographed, real fox, yes. But because the fox needed to be filmed on a stage [off-site], it would be photographed in a grassy environment, then comped [composited] into the particular landscape [of the scene]. If there’s something that looks a little funny there, it’s due to the comp work, but we were always filming with a real, photographic fox.
The ravens in the film are CG only when we have them at a far enough distance from the camera. For example, when the film opens on the flying ravens, those are actual ravens that we filmed on a stage, then comped into the landscape. As they fly further away from the camera and essentially become specks on the screen, that’s when the CG ravens take over.
Filmmaker: Does that mix of practical and CG effects apply to your copious amounts of gore as well? When filming a scene that involves, say a character’s exposed intestines and guts, or a villain’s nose being partly sliced off, is there ever a question of when to embrace prosthetics and when to embrace CG?
Eggers: In general, we do everything practically, or at least try to do it practically, then use VFX to clean up or advance what didn’t quite work with 100 percent success [on set]. That’s basically it. This also applies to set-building as well. We only made one longship and one merchant ship. Sure, we built other smaller ships for the funeral scene and built pieces of a ship for when we had to capture the storm sequence on a stage and needed two-thirds of a fully built replica to film with a gimbal, but we basically built the ships, then photographed them using multiple plates. This allowed us to film real things instead of CG creations.
Filmmaker: This film has to be your most VFX-heavy film though, right?
Eggers: Yes, of course. Some of that is due to benign things that people take for granted, like CG arrows flying [through the air]. Someone might think “Oh, who cares? It’s not a sin to your indie roots that you’re using CG arrows,” but occasionally we tried using real arrows, too.
But what I wasn’t super happy with was that we weren’t able to shoot with the main unit in Iceland until after principal photography [had concluded]. As a result, there are certain scenes in the film, like the one where they arrive at the beach on the south shore of Iceland, that we had to film in Ireland on the most Icelandic-looking beach we could find. We then comped in an Icelandic background and rock formations that we photographed in Iceland after the fact, then CG’d the sand black. I don’t think that this CG will particularly pull you out of the movie, but it’s something that wouldn’t have necessitated a VFX shot had it not been for COVID [restrictions].
Filmmaker: In the numerous instances where we’re presented with vertical shots of a sacred “family tree,” that too feels like a mix of CG and practical effects. We only get fleeting looks at the tree’s multiple layers and extended branches that reveal the “power rankings” of each family member, but they feel, quite literally, otherworldly, and most likely requiring a large VFX team to pull off.
Eggers: We worked with [fluid painter] Chris Parks for those sequences. Chris did a lot of chemical photography for us, so the background and midground layers are, at times, photographed chemical events, with CG manipulation added later. Or, to be completely honest, a lot of it is CG stuff that uses Chris Parks’s movements and replicates them. When we show the family ancestors [on the branches of the tree], we used a mix of puppets and actors wearing prosthetic makeup whom we photographed using practical lighting sources. Even though there’s a lot of CG used to tie everything together and to create the actual tree/veins, everything originates with real textures, so we’re always starting with something practical to build off of.
Filmmaker: There are also several nighttime sequences between Alex and Anya in a forest that feel almost illuminated by a full moon just out of sight. Here, the images are very desaturated and cold, and it feels like a deliberate narrative and visual shift. Did you work with Jarin on creating different LUTs for those scenes that feel devoid of color?
Eggers: With all of the moonlit, nighttime stuff, we were trying to create a consistent silvery, desaturated look. It was Jarin’s idea to try to reuse the CC cyan filter that was made for The Lighthouse, which blocks out all red light, on The Northman. While The Lighthouse was shot in black and white, we tried to use the filter on The Northman to create a limited palette that becomes a kind of silvery moonlight. I think it was both unique and successful and something that we’ll work on perfecting over time.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot on 35mm like you did on The Lighthouse?
Eggers: We did.
Filmmaker: Does the decision to shoot on film become any different or more difficult to make when you’re working on a production of this scale? Is there ever a push to go digital the larger the productions get?
Eggers: You know, everyone always asks us if we can shoot these movies digitally, but there was very little pushback on The Northman. It certainly would’ve been the preference of people who work to pull strings for us to shoot the film digitally, though, if purely for financial reasons.
Filmmaker: Since much of the film takes place in east Slavic villages where Ukrainian is the native tongue, I was curious about your choosing when to have the characters speak in that dialect (as well as additional languages my uneducated ear may not have identified) and when to include the language on title/chapter cards throughout the film. Was the switching between languages written into the script? Did you research the histories of each of these centuries-old languages?
Eggers: Regarding the ancient perennial Ukrainian [dialogue], everyone in the village is speaking that language. Aside from when Anya’s character switches to speak to other people who are presumably speaking Old Norse, she’s speaking to [people in her village] in Ukrainian. Her character speaks each of these languages, and it comes down to who she has to communicate [with]. How did she learn Old Norse? Who fucking knows, right? But somehow she did.
As far as when we use Old Norse in other scenes, it tends to be employed in ceremonial contexts, oftentimes in scenes where the language serves as a texture, and you don’t necessarily need to know what they’re saying. Even so, these are tough [decisions] to make. If I could do it my way, the film would be entirely in Old Norse and Old Slavic, but unless you’re Mel Gibson self-financing your own movies, you can’t do that at this scale.
I also don’t love going into a movie where American actors are putting on European accents, but I felt that I didn’t want to have American and British Vikings in this movie, and I didn’t want to make a ’70s movie where the cast shows up on screen using whatever accent the actors already have. That’s why I felt that creating some kind of Viking dialect in English (a Viking accent, if you will) was the least of all evils.
Filmmaker: It definitely feels streamlined and makes sense for the world of the film. I was also curious about your research into the customs of these characters, specifically pertaining to scenes involving a Viking funeral and a scene where Viking slaves are forced to play a sport for Fjölnir and Gudrún’s entertainment. Like many elements of the film, it showcases traits of a custom we’re familiar with (the game resembles American football), but I imagine its origins go as far back as the time period of the film. How did you discover and draw out those customs?
Eggers: The funeral scene was based on [10th century] Arab diplomat Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s account of one of his travels. He had gone east and experienced what he called a “Viking funeral.” Aside from the length of the funeral and the fact that what ibn Fadlan observed was a ship cremation [the practice of cremating a body aboard a boat built by friends], the ship burial in the film was more or less everything that ibn Fadlan had described.
Regarding the Viking sport, it’s called “Knattleikr,” which translates literally to “ball game.” It’s something that was played in the grass and could also be played on ice (resembling what we now know as ice hockey). The sport is [referenced] in many
Icelandic sagas, typically involving different chieftains coming together for a harvest ceremony or some kind of seasonal celebration. It was a very, very violent game, and there are some historians who think that rather than a final score being tallied, it was merely a ball game without points, more concerned with harming each other until there were only two players left on the field.
Filmmaker: After writing and directing three features that have progressively grown in scale, have you felt that each production has prepared you for the next one? On a film the size and scope of The Northman, the experience obviously comes with a number of different hurdles and experiences you couldn’t have anticipated or prepared for. What are some of the takeaways that you will now bring onto your next project?
Eggers: Jarin and I talk all the time about how a book of what we learned on The Northman would be close to the size of a phone book, nine volumes plus. It’s crazy, the amount we learned on this film, and like I mentioned earlier, we really weren’t prepared to make it [at the outset], yet we had to do it. On the day we wrapped, Ethan Hawke put his arms around Jarin and myself and said, “Congratulations, guys. Now you can do anything you want. You can work with helicopters and cars and stuff like that, but you don’t care about that anyway!”
I feel like I’m a film director now, instead of a snake oil salesman trying to convince people to let me make movies. That’s a nice feeling, and I feel much more prepared for the next film. At the same time, I’m hungry to stretch myself. With The Witch, I hadn’t made a feature before and thought I knew a lot from the shorts I had previously worked on. It still felt like a short. When I moved on to The Lighthouse, I wanted to scale up, but not to the point that it wasn’t going to [get made], where it wasn’t going to match what I envisioned in my head. To that extent, I succeeded with that film, for better or for worse. But The Northman, like The Witch, was so much larger than my experience level going into it. I’m proud of the film. I hope people like it, and I think a lot of people will. Now, it didn’t meet my expectations, but I’m hoping to scale down and have more control while still challenging myself on the next one. I’ve got to push myself every time, because otherwise there’s just no point.
Filmmaker: So, The Northman didn’t meet your expectations?
Eggers: No, it did not. I’m not referring to any of the actors’ performances, of course, but the film didn’t necessarily match up with what was in my brain. Not as much as I would’ve liked. There are all kinds of things that you don’t know [going in] to making a movie of this scale, where I’m casting all of King Aurvandil’s retainers (or “retinues”), and I’m not realizing that those guys are never going to be the guys that are next to him on horseback because they’re just the “background guys.” They’re not the “horse guys.” I should’ve put my time into making sure that I got the horse guys right with the exact faces I wanted! Granted, they look fine, but that’s just an example of something that I did not know and couldn’t have known but do now. There’s a billion things like that, right?
Filmmaker: I understand the feeling of being so involved that certain elements might stick out and bother you, but trust me, many of us will not catch those things. Nonetheless, I appreciate the commitment to accuracy and perfectionism and hope you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Eggers: I am proud of what I’ve accomplished. It was fucking hard! [laughs]