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Director Series: Robert Eggers on His Epic Journey in Making Revenge-Fueled Viking Movie The Northman

April 21, 2022 11:46 | By
Northman

Image via Focus Features

Ever since his debut feature The Witch premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Robert Eggers has established a reputation as a visionary auteur, something fully confirmed a few years later by his second feature, the black-and-white oddity The Lighthouse.

Now, Eggers returns to theaters with The Northman, an expensive Viking epic and a film that Eggers wasn’t sure he even wanted to make until he had lunch with its eventual lead, Alexander Skarsgård, who helped the director unlock his imagination.

The Northman finds Skarsgård playing Icelandic prince Amleth, who is forced to abandon his home as a boy after his father (Ethan Hawke) is murdered by his own brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang from The Square), who also takes Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman) as his new wife. Amleth swears to avenge his father’s death and slay Fjölnir in turn, and decades after that traumatic event, Amleth, now a hulking berserker, gets his chance by posing as one of his uncle’s slaves.

The film reunites Eggers with many of the department heads who worked on his earlier features, and it’s a fine example of how a team of artists can come together to create the lush historic backdrop necessary to tell Amleth’s haunting story.

Earlier this week, Below the Line hopped on Zoom to speak with Eggers, and we were able to cover quite a bit of ground in a relatively short amount of time. 

Robert Eggers

Robert Eggers (Image via Focus Features)

Below the Line: I know The Northman came out of a meeting with Alexander Skarsgård, but what prompted you to make your Viking movie during a pandemic and how’d you convince others to join you on such an adventure?

Robert Eggers: We didn’t plan to do it during the pandemic. We got shut down a week before we were gonna go to camera, but the studio was incredibly supportive in making sure that we would go make this movie, no matter what. The hiatus during the first lockdown was good in many ways. Jarin Blaschke, my DP, and I, worked with the storyboard artist to plan what we were doing, and we needed more time for the set to gestate and grow into landscapes. So that was good. Certainly shooting during the pandemic was difficult, it added more difficulties. The funny thing is, it seems so extreme then, but looking back on it now, just because we’ve been with COVID, and it hasn’t gone away, it doesn’t seem so weird as it seemed then because these kinds of precautions have just carried on.

BTL: Was all of this shot in Ireland or Iceland, or was it a bit of both? How did you get everyone where they needed to be to start shooting?

Eggers: We were shooting primarily in Ireland. One of the negative things about COVID was that we were supposed to shoot a healthy portion of principal photography in Iceland, and we weren’t able to do that. We did end up shooting in Iceland, after the fact, but we shot all of principal photography in Northern Ireland with a little bit in the Republic of Ireland.

BTL: When did you actually start and finish the shoot in Ireland?

Eggers: Whenever the first lockdown happened, we started principal photography, so March 10. That’s when we shut down, and then we started shooting in September of that year, I believe. 

Robert Eggers

Robert Eggers (R) on set (Image via Focus Features)

BTL: Was Ireland in pretty good shape as far as its COVID protocols? It obviously already has the infrastructure for filming there. 

Eggers: We are not Jurassic World, so we didn’t get into it as much, but we were also one of the first films back trying to figure out how you do this. The COVID numbers in Ireland when we were there never really got that terrible compared to say London — that’s just more of a provincial city in England, and that’s just how it is. People felt a lot of responsibility to keep the film together, so we’re really just working, and then we would be in our hotels or flats or homes because it was fragile, it was very fragile.

BTL: Going back a bit, how did you meet Sjón to get him involved in co-writing The Northman with you?

Eggers: I was taking a trip to Iceland with my wife, and our friend, Robin Carolan, had spent a lot of time there. He said that we should hang out with Bjork, because they were friends, and we didn’t want to impose ourselves on Bjork. We were sort of protesting, but soon enough, Bjork texted me and invited us over for dinner. She invited Sjón to that dinner party and that’s when we met.

BTL: Was The Northman even an idea in your head at that point?

Eggers: Not at all. I wasn’t really interested in Vikings, ever, but that trip to Iceland got me sort of thinking a little bit about maybe one day making a Viking movie, but Sjón and I were talking about early modern witchcraft and folklore and just had a nice time together.

BTL: I remember speaking to you for The Lighthouse about what went into making that with specific film stock, so when you approached Jarin with this one, had you already planned to film it more traditionally?

Eggers: The Lighthouse was a very specific movie, so the choices that we made were very particular. The choice of film stock in this was not so strange, nor the lenses. We did, however, use the filter from The Lighthouse for our night photography to give it a more compressed, monochromatic silvery look. But the aspect ratio, for example, the aspect ratio for The Lighthouse is a great aspect ratio for telling a claustrophobic story, but it would be a very bad aspect ratio for a large epic. [chuckles]

Northman

Image via Focus Features

BTL: That makes sense. When you’re researching this during the writing phase, are you bringing your heads of department on board to get their input on locations or costumes and such? Do you have a finished script before getting them involved?

Eggers: Pretty early on. I mean, the first draft that’s not an embarrassment, I tend to share with Jarin, Craig [Lathtrop, production designer], Linda [Muir, costumes], and Lou Ford, the editor, for feedback, and also to get them excited about what we’re doing.

BTL: It’s a bit of a rarity these days for filmmakers to be able to work with the exact same team on every project, and sometimes hard since the craftspeople need to take on other work, so do you give your team enough advance notice or were they available anyway, since not so much was going on due to COVID?

Eggers: Again, we were doing this before COVID, so they had already signed on to do this movie. I try to give them a big heads up so that they can keep their schedules clear, but sometimes, it’s problematic. We thought Nosferatu was gonna go, and Jarin moved his daughter to Prague, and it didn’t happen [chuckles]… so loyalty can be problematic.

BTL: I remember when last we spoke, you were already looking at locations in Romania for that, so was that already in progress when you shifted over to make The Northman?

Eggers:  Well, you know, it’s a strange industry and nothing happens the way you expect it to. [laughs]

BTL: What kind of research did your department heads do, and what path did you send them on? Did you share your own research with them or just send them the completed script, and then they do their thing?

Eggers: I always make a look-book, and Craig and Linda get literally thousands of images from me. Also, I’m recommending them books, but they’re recommending books and articles to me as well. Fortunately, for me and the film, some of the world’s greatest historians and archaeologists in the field of Viking studies then became everyone’s right-hand men and women when doing research and developing the world.

BTL: Was this a lot more research-intensive than The Witch when you were developing and writing that, or a similar experience?

Eggers: More research on this, only that it was a larger scale, but it was the same amount of rigor. And also, there’s more written about Vikings than agricultural practices of earliest colonial New England. I think people can understand why that is.

Northman

Image via Focus Features

BTL: When you got to post, did you have to figure out creative ways of doing it? I have to imagine you’re one of those filmmakers who is in the edit room with your editor working through the movie. 

Eggers: We were in London during the second lockdown —  [that’s] when we began post — and I was going into the office and working with Lou. We had an incredibly small team who were tested regularly, and we [were] masked and working in an office, but I’d be walking to work down Regent Street, and I’d be the only person on Regent Street. But then, the VFX were much more done in a remote pipeline in a way that wasn’t normal. The way that we recorded the score was impacted by COVID, for example. It’s been used in the advertising a lot but in the score, there’s this male Old Norse shouting. It’s like a chorus of men shouting, but it was four guys that we had to record over and over and over again, because we’re allowed a choir but people shouting with the spittle flying in the air… 

BTL: Yeah, not something you want to be doing during a pandemic, I’d imagine. Speaking of visual effects, do you generally do previs for a movie like this where you have more action, or are visual effects always something you do afterward?

Eggers: We don’t do very much previs. The very [beginning] with the ravens and the ships, there was a previs. The Valkyrie sequence, there was a previs, and then the storm at sea, the very first shot, which is a full CG shot, that was previs. I think that’s it. 

BTL: I’m glad you brought up the music because I always like to ask about the music and I wasn’t familiar with either Robin or Sebastian Gainsborough. I don’t know if they’ve done film scores before. I think you mentioned knowing Robin before you went to Iceland, right?

Eggers: Yeah, Robin is one of my closest friends. They’d never done a film score. Seb is known by the name Vessel, and Robin ran Tri Angle Records and is a very prolific music producer in the dark indie/electronic world, which has banjos and guitars and suspenders and stuff.

BTL: What was your conversation with them like to score the movie?

Eggers: I knew Robin could do this, just because I know him so well, but I’m incredibly impressed. They consulted with this guy Poul Høxbro, who is a Danish musicologist, who specializes in viking age music. The score has symphonic strings and choir, but pretty much all the lead instruments on this are played by viking age instruments, which gives it a unique sound. 

The Northman opens nationwide exclusively in theaters on Friday, April 22, with previews on Thursday night. Look for our interview with Eggers’ regular DP Jarin Blaschke sometime soon, and click here to read J. Don Birnam’s review.