Don’t be surprised that acclaimed director Robert Eggers’ latest movie is excellent, but do be surprised that it’s a Viking epic. He certainly is.
The Northman is a visceral fever dream and a breathtaking brutal beast of a movie that boasts an ensemble cast including Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, and Willem Dafoe. It tells the story of a young Viking prince on his quest to avenge his father’s murder, and it’s one of the year’s best movies so far.
I caught up with Eggers about how a shift in industry trends made the movie possible, the risk in co-writing a part specifically for an actor before they agreed to do the film, and why he would have been happy with the filmmaking experience being even more challenging than it was.
Simon Thompson: Certain genres of movies make studios balk a bit. Musicals are in there, and Westerns are on that list, but where did Viking movies rank when you’re trying to get a studio to get involved?
Robert Eggers: Well, it’s a good idea to make a Viking movie right now. I think the History Channel’s Vikings TV show inspired more TV shows and video games, all with a similar aesthetic that is completely invented but consistent, and the Marvel nonsense was also helpful. So, when I had a Viking script of a certain size, the studio’s marketing team said, ‘Yeah, we can actually make this work. Whoa!’ I’m super grateful that all that stuff I mentioned is in right now because I did not expect my third film to be so much exponentially larger and more complicated than my second film.
Thompson: Is The Northman the kind of movie you wanted to tackle but couldn’t or have always wanted to make, but people would not have gone for it five or ten years ago?
Eggers: For me, I think five or ten years ago, people would not have gone for it, but I was personally not interested in Vikings. I wasn’t interested in Vikings as a kid. I didn’t like macho stuff, and the right-wing, Nazi misappropriation of Viking culture cemented my disinterest as an adult. When I went to Iceland, the landscapes were so epic and brutal and awe-inspiring, but this is not a newsflash; however, experiencing it firsthand made me pick up the Icelandic sagas, and then I became interested in Vikings.
Thompson: Was doing this as a big-budget studio movie the only way to go with this purely because of what you needed to do on screen to tell this story most effectively? It probably wouldn’t have been possible with a much lower budget.
Eggers: Exactly, because if you’re building like a Viking village, a Viking city, a Slavic village, and warships and merchant ships and temples, it costs a lot of money.
Thompson: How much of what we see did you physically build, and how much was created in post-production with CGI?
Eggers: We built most of it, but we didn’t make as many ships as you see. We shoot multiple plates of the same boat with different shields or different sails or whatever, so we used CG to comp in practical things. There’s a storm at sea at night which, in the wide shot of that, is a full CG shot, but even then, we scanned our replica of a merchant ship from the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in Denmark.
Thompson: We see some returning faces from your previous movies in The Northman, such as Anya Taylor-Joy and Willem Dafoe. Did you have them in mind when you were co-writing this? When you first had the idea, did you approach them to ask if they might want to be involved?
Eggers: I wrote Willem’s role for Willem and Anya’s role for Anya, and it was probably risky, but around halfway through the process, Sjón and I began writing the Queen Gudrún role for Nicole Kidman.
Thompson: That is a risk. Was Nicole very open to this role? Did you need to do some persuading? Because it’s a very different role for her.
Eggers: I find that if you need to persuade somebody, they really shouldn’t be in the film. This movie is too tough to convince anybody, so no. I was nervous that Nicole maybe didn’t want to do it, but within 90 seconds of me meeting her, she said she was in and that the script had teeth.
Thompson: Watching The Northman, it occurred to me that given the conditions in the film, all the mud, the weather, a lot of night shoots, and remote locations, the filmmaking must have been a practical and logistical nightmare at times. Did you regret the decision to shoot so much on location and not recreate it in more manageable, workable, or kinder locations? Was it as grueling as I imagined?
Eggers: Yeah, it was challenging, but that’s what we wanted. I never wanted it to be easier. In fact, some scenes could have been muddier and rainier and more miserable, and I would have been even happier with the final results, but that’s hard. And it was cold. It was all these things, but that’s what the story is about.
Thompson: This is presented in the English language for obvious reasons, for the broadest audience to understand it, and for financial reasons. Was there any point in the process where you were like, ‘Let’s get all those English language takes, and just in case we want to do a Nordic language cut, just do a couple of scenes in old Nordic?’
Eggers: (Laughs) No. Like Herzog shot the English and German versions of Nosferatu with one scene in German and one scene in English back to back? No. It was hard enough to get these long, unbroken takes in one language, never mind two.
Thompson: You’ve had your first studio movie experience. You’ve had a lot of success with this project, but has it made you want to do another studio movie, or are you one and done?
Eggers: No, not one and done, but I’m looking forward to making a slightly smaller movie. Because the pressure is pretty extreme, I’d like a little less pressure.
Thompson: Great to see Björk in this, even for a very short time. Did you discuss her contributing to the soundtrack?
Eggers: She is on it. She sings in her scene, but she’s not the lead vocal. That is a Bulgarian singer called Desi Slava.
Thompson: Beyond that, was there a broader discussion?
Eggers: The thing is that Björk’s voice is so identifiable that it can pull you out of the movie because you’re just there like, ‘Oh, it’s Björk.’ Even in the scene where she is singing, she treats her vocals in a way that doesn’t make it about her vocals.
The Northman lands in theaters on Friday, April 22, 2022.