‘The Northman’ Director Robert Eggers On Historical Accuracy, Studio Notes & Not Making A “Movie Schmovie”

After “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” director Robert Eggers brings his passion for meticulous historical recreation and his interest in the (often tortured) psyches of past generations to the violent and epic world of Vikings in “The Northman” (read our review). Unlike actor Alexander Skarsgård, who plays the film’s eponymous hero (read our interview with the actor here), Eggers was never particularly inspired by these ruthless people before the idea for the movie was suggested to him — which only makes his achievement on “The Northman” more impressive.

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The director talked to us about some possible reasons why there have been so few films about Vikings, the place of historically accurate detail once the camera starts rolling, the painful but worthwhile experience of working on a big-budget studio movie, the film’s visual look and representation of violence, as well as his “Nosferatu” project.

While preparing for this interview, I was trying to think about other Viking films and realized that there just aren’t all that many. When you were working on making this film, did you get a sense of why that is?
Honestly, I don’t really know why. I mean, sometimes I wonder. The two main reasons why I was never interested in Vikings myself until recently were that the macho stereotype was not appealing to me, personally — but obviously, that’s not a reason why they weren’t getting made — then, the other reason for me was the right-wing misappropriation of Viking culture. Maybe that has something to do with it, I don’t know. Because actually, there are a couple of Soviet Viking movies from the ‘70s that aren’t bad. But the cool thing is, I get to carve out my own space because of this. The Richard Fleischer movie “The Vikings” with Kirk Douglas is actually pretty good, particularly for the period. I’ve said in many interviews, and it’s true, that Kirk Douglas would have been completely ridiculed for being beardless. But otherwise, I’m grateful to the History Channel’s “Vikings” show and how that’s spawned so much interest in Viking culture, and all these other TV shows and video games. But the way that they’ve made “Vikings” follows the tradition that starts with Richard Wagner, of putting horns on helmets because it’s cool, and because that suits the pop culture of the day. So I’m in this really lucky position where there’s a hunger for Viking culture, but nobody’s made a historically accurate Viking movie before. So I can do something that people haven’t seen, even though there’s a lot of Viking content right now.

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You mentioned historical accuracy. While talking to Neil Price, one of the historical consultants you had on the film, he made very clear that there’s actually quite little we know of Viking culture. That we only have a few hints here and there. Another director could have used that to get very creative and make stuff up, because no one was going to check. Why did historical accuracy, as far as you could take it, matter so much to you?
It’s just the approach that I enjoy. I enjoy the act of researching the way some people might enjoy skiing! I just like it. But it’s also a kind of discipline, and if the goal is to get inside the head of people in the Viking Age, then the way they expressed themselves in their clothing and their architecture needs to be right too, I think. And also, the atmosphere is an accumulation of details; it’s why we have the landscapes and the elements. The more visual information that can be on the edges, I think, makes the world more credible. But you’re right, we don’t know a lot of things about Vikings, and I tend to choose the academic consensus.

You mentioned that you love research in general, and there must have been a crazy amount on this film. How do you ever manage to get distance from all the research you’ve done, and all the things that are in your head, in order to then just look at what you’re actually filming?
It’s incredibly important to get all that stuff done in prep, because it would be really fatal for the movie if I’m paying more attention to a wooden nail than Alexander Skarsgård’s performance. But I think something that helps with that is the single-camera approach that me and my Director of Photography Jarin Blaschke have employed. Because the thing is, when you’re shooting with one camera these long, unbroken takes, it’s focused on the story. It’s focused on the story, and nothing else. There’s no, “oh, let’s cut away and look how cool those period hunting dogs are!” The period hunting dogs walk through a frame and you see them, or you don’t, because when the hunting dogs come in, it’s about Fjölnir entering the Great Hall.

This is your biggest film to date in terms of scale and budget. Did you find that it actually was a different process to work on such a big movie? Or did you use the same methods you always have for working on a film, only it took more time and more energy?
Mostly, it’s the same, and this might sound precious, but there is a way in which it’s the same as when I was doing plays when I was a kid. It sounds absurd, but it is true. And I’m working with the same heads of department and many of the same actors because I like that consistency in the way that I work. Where things were different was because of the size of this movie. I knew I was not going to have final cut, and so in post-production, that’s where things were new and more difficult for me. For example, the test screening process — which, by the way, I learned stuff about the film! It made the film better. Did I like it? No. Did I like the studio pressure and the studio notes? No. Did they make the film better? Yes. Did I need it to make the film better? Yes. So, you know, I’ve walked through a painful process, but this is the director’s cut. This is the director’s cut, but it was a different process to get there [laughs].

So you’ve done all this research, and you’ve got all these amazing details. Then you tell this obviously epic story, but the cinematography, the look of the film, is so natural. There isn’t the kind of extreme color grading or sort of “filter effect” we sometimes find in epic films or historical films. It just looks very real. Why did you opt for this look? “The Witch” had a similar approach, but it was maybe a little more stylized. Then “The Lighthouse,” obviously, was in black and white.
Jarin and I like a naturalistic approach to lighting. “The Witch” was shot with pretty much all-natural light, except for the night exteriors. But it’s a very low contrast look, and a little bit more desaturated than this film. But when you’re working with the Viking Age, there’s not a lot of possibilities in lighting, if you’re going to do it naturalistically. Like, yeah, we could light it like a “movie schmovie,” but that’s not what we particularly like. But basically, if it’s a night interior in the Viking Age, you got a fire in the middle of the room, and that’s all you’ve got.

What was your approach to the violence? Obviously, the main thing Vikings are known for is being very violent and brutal. But how did you approach integrating that into the film, and keeping a sort of balance where it wouldn’t overtake everything in the movie? How did you approach making the audience enter a world that is so abrasive?
Unfortunately, I’m just answering your question by asking more questions, because I don’t know. You just have to follow your instinct, I suppose. But yes, it is tough! Because Viking culture celebrated violence, and the sagas sometimes read like ’80s action movies, and they’re thrilling — and this is a big, set-piece, action-adventure movie, so the violence at times needs to be thrilling, it needs to be entertaining. But I don’t want to be making a film that glorifies violence, or celebrates violence. So sometimes the brutality is used as a tool so that you’re disgusted by what you see, and also the sexual violence is alluded to.

Finally, are you still thinking of making “Nosferatu,” and do you have any details about that project to share?
I’m always thinking of making “Nosferatu,” but I would just like to say that Harry Styles was not going to be the vampire.

“The Northman” is in theaters April 22.