Having told intimate, intense original stories in the past with The Witch and The Lighthouse, writer and director Robert Eggers ventures into huge new terrain with The Northman. Working with co-writer Sjón, Eggers’ newest film is based on a medieval Scandinavian legend, with Alexander Skarsgård starring as Amleth, a Viking warrior who seeks vengeance against his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), the man who betrayed and murdered Amleth’s father (Ethan Hawke) and took his mother (Nicole Kidman) when Amleth was a boy.
The film stands out among Eggers’ work both for its size and scale – it’s big budget is clear, as it’s filled with impressive sets and appropriately large and memorable fight sequences – and for the more traditional narrative at work in this Viking revenge story, as opposed to the more subdued, introspective leanings of The Witch and The Lighthouse.
Eggers told Fandom it was a surprise to him that his path led to The Northman, as he admitted, “I never really liked Vikings growing up. Because of the macho stuff, it just didn’t appeal to me, and then as an adult, the right wing misappropriation of Viking culture really made me disinterested. But then the landscapes of Iceland, when I took a trip there, inspired me to pick up the Sagas and get into it. A couple years later, I had lunch with Alexander Skarsgård, who’s loved Vikings since he was a kid and said he’d been trying to make a Viking movie for 10 years. So we kind of shook hands and said, ‘Let’s make a Viking movie!’”
The story of Amleth in fact had already inspired a very famous character, with Eggers adding, “I discovered that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was based on a Scandinavian folk tale. And I thought, okay, great, this is the vehicle. This is the way to do it. Because this is a story that everyone knows – it’s a simple revenge plot. But there then I can share with audiences the things I love about Viking culture and religion and mythology.”
KEEPING THAT EGGERS VIBE
Eggers was determined to put his stamp on The Northman, even in the midst of it having more mainstream aspects on the surface, remarking, “That was the challenge. If you’re making creative work, you’re trying to share what it is to be a human being with other human beings.”
The filmmaker made some self-deprecating references to The Witch and The Lighthouse’s much more outwardly art house (though quite acclaimed) approach, saying, “I wanted to see if I could share it with a lot more people because, obviously, only so many people want a boring horror movie about pilgrims or two guys going crazy in a lighthouse in a movie with no plot. It was a challenge to say ‘How do I make an epic? How do I do this kind of classical storytelling and still retain my voice and vision?’ And part of that is the fact that the studio was gracious enough and trusted me enough to let me use all of my collaborators that I’ve used in the past; all my heads of department.”
Skarsgard told Fandom he loved getting to combine the very different elements at work in The Northman, saying, “I think that is a treat that you don’t get often, especially not in this day and age. I think it’s become very often either we’re getting to do something big and epic and fun, or it’s small and intimate. You rarely get a project like this where it’s a massive scale, but done by an auteur filmmaker like Robert, where you have massive set pieces but also five page dialogue scenes with tremendous actors. So it was an incredible privilege.”
PLAN YOUR RAIDS
There are some particularly visually impressive sequences in The Northman, perhaps none more so than a Viking raid on a village we see Almeth participate in early on that is massive in scale, involving a ton of different (and complicated) aspects. This sequence — and others like it — stands out for immersing the audience in the feel of immense effort and exhaustion everyone is going through, both on a filmmaking level to pull it all off and from the characters’ perspective.
Regarding how much planning went into sequences like that raid, Eggers said, “A tremendous, tremendous, tremendous amount of planning; months and months and months. [You’re] storyboarding it like umpteen times to get it right and rehearsing and working with all the stunt guys and the horses to rehearse their moves. You build the entire village from scratch so that you can make sure that you have every single angle the way you need it. It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. But on the other hand, it was easier than some other scenes because we planned it. You know, a couple scenes that we thought would be easy and planned, but not to that degree, became weirdly a little harder.”
Regarding these complicated sequences, Skarsgård remarked, “It’s technically so difficult to get that in one single shot. There are so many moving pieces, so many components to that. But we were aware of that, so we started months before the shoot.”
Skarsgård said a key component was figuring out, “The relationship between us and the camera, because the camera’s also moving. So we had to figure out the right pace in that relationship [so that] by the time we got there on the day to shoot it, that was just kind of second nature, so we could focus on other aspects. And then we knew that would just flow because it would still take many, many takes to get that right. You just had to minimize all the obstacles.”
Skarsgård shares much of his screentime with Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays a slave Almeth befriends, Olga of the Birch Forest, who holds powerful abilities of her own. This was Skarsgård’s first time working with Eggers but Taylor-Joy made her movie debut as the star of Eggers first film, The Witch. Skarsgård noted that her familiarity with Eggers working style was very helpful, explaining, “I’m really glad that I could talk to Anya about that. Rob and I knew each other very well by the time we started shooting – we had been developing [The Northman] for many years together – but I’ve never been on a set with Rob. So I knew theoretically how Rob and his cinematographer, Jarin [Blaschke], worked but it’s one thing to talk about it and it’s a different thing when you’re actually out there on the day, so that was it was tremendously helpful having Anya and talking to her about it.”
Skarsgård added that another benefit was that in the midst of a production with some incredibly physical, complicated sequences, when they began filming, “The first two weeks of filming were pedestrian scenes around the farm – quite technically and emotionally easy scenes. And that was a good way to kind of get into the rhythm and get to know each other and understanding the relationship between us actors and the camera and how that move would work. And so that by the time we got into the more complicated, difficult scenes, we already had that kind of experience. That was very good. I don’t know if it was planned that way, but it was a lucky coincidence.”
The Northman opens April 22.