“The Northman” is director Robert Eggers’ biggest and most accessible movie.
After helming a pair of A24 classics, both of them macabre and claustrophobic New England folk tales (“The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”), Eggers is painting with bigger brushstrokes. “The Northman” is a solemn tale of vengeance, that follows an orphaned boy Amleth (who grows up to be Alexander Skarsgård) who vows to avenge the death of his father (Ethan Hawke) and abduction of his mother (Nicole Kidman) by his duplicitous uncle (Claes Bang). (Yes, this is the story that Shakespeare based “Hamlet” on.)
With Eggers’ characteristic attention to detail, the world of “The Northman” comes to life, with brutal battles and even more impactful emotions. If you haven’t seen it yet (it’s playing everywhere), make the time. It’s a true big-screen experience, the kind that leaves you naked and screaming and covered in blood.
TheWrap spoke with Eggers about where the project came from, where he clashed with the studio and how far into the future he’d ever travel (as he’s said he would never make a film set in modern day).
Various reports have stated that you were working on a medieval epic called “The Knight” and then Skarsgård brought a Viking project he was working on called “The Vanguards.” Did you synthesize these ideas or coming up with something new?
There was no synthesis. I have never been interested in Vikings. I didn’t like the macho stuff and the right wing, Nazi misappropriation of Viking culture turned me off altogether as an adult. But then I took a trip to Iceland, when I was working on “The Knight.” And in Iceland, I was really inspired by the landscapes and that made me pick up some Icelandic sagas. And then I got interested in Vikings a little bit and thought maybe I could make a Viking movie because, boy, these landscapes. Not that people have been using Iceland for all kinds of stuff for many years, but in any case, they inspired me.
Two years later, I had lunch with Alex, who, the thing about the Varangian guard, he was not doing any more, and he was looking for something else. And I said, “Jut to let you know, I have an idea for a Viking movie,” which I didn’t really have.
But then I went away and created this with the Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón, of course. With Alex’s feedback, the second chapter, in the original treatment was supposed to take place in Scotland and Alex suggested that we go east. And so [now] we have chapter two in ancient Ukraine.
You’ve been talking a lot about how painful this movie has been for you and I was curious what the main area of contention was. Because it feels very much like a Robert Eggers movie, but it also elicited applause at the AMC Burbank 16 the other night.
I think too much has been made of my pain. As Willem Defoe says, you know, I’m not a fucking coal miner. I think the New Yorker piece is great. I think it’s fair, I think it’s truthful, but I think that like he was interviewing me at the worst time. Now that the labor pains are gone …
Look, maybe if another film director who had worked on some bigger studio movies, who also was doing their own thing, was a fly on the wall, they might have said, “You’re just haven’t done this before. This isn’t that bad.” I don’t know. But I will say that in the end, to your point, I’m happy with the finished version. And I also think that the studio pressure, let’s not even be contentious about it, but the fact that the studio is giving notes, enabled me to get a movie that gets applause on big screen in Burbank on a Monday night. I have said this line, but you know, my go-to mode is not necessarily entertainment. And this film needed to be entertaining. I think that really, it was just the studio pushing me to make it as entertaining as I possibly could, which is normal and appropriate. Even if sometimes I didn’t enjoy it, that’s what it needed to be.
Watching it again, it’s striking how few cuts there are and how little traditional coverage there is. Was that a way of protecting yourself from interference?
I think that’s where perhaps things get a little bit frustrating. Because they’re frustrated at the lack of flexibility. And I’m frustrated that they’re frustrated.
Was there a particular sequence that was super difficult to shoot? Was the shot out over the Viking rowboat stitched together?
Maybe. Yeah, I mean, everything was pretty difficult, especially with it me and Jarrin [Blaschke, cinematographer]’s experience level. Obviously the much talked-about raid was really hard to shoot. But also very satisfying. That that shot you described was tricky as well, honestly. I you’re not doing a raid or on a Viking ship, you’re having a naked sword fight on a volcano. But even the really intimate scene with Nicole and Alex, that I’m also very proud of, that was also hard to shoot, getting focused and doing that kind of delicate scene work, also with not-traditional coverage for two thirds of it. That’s challenging. But again, satisfying.
Alex talked about the most physically arduous day of shooting in the New Yorker piece, but they never say which scene it was. Do you know?
I think for Alex, it was the Berserker transformation. And that’s also because we were shooting that all night long. And then after we had already wrapped and everyone’s adrenaline had gone away, we discovered that the on the last take the lens was fogged. We had to call everyone back and have them put on their wet their skins and do it all over again.
In terms of aspect ratios, “The Northman” is wider than you’ve gone before. Are you interested in doing a movie in anamorphic widescreen?
Not really but maybe. It’s just that, I know this is insane given the history of cinema, but I do find that close-ups in scope can be a little bit anemic. I’m not particularly drawn to it. I would be interested in doing a nearly vertical movie, but you’d need to make your own movie theater.
Recently Twitter was erupting, suggesting that you takeover directing on “Fast X,” the next “Fast and Furious” movie. Does that interest you at all?
Not in the least. But I’m flattered.
Is there a literary property or something that you’ve ever had your eye on?
Everyone knows about “Nosferatu.” That’s not a literary property, but it’s something that I didn’t self-generate, but hopefully, if that ever happens, my version is something new.
Is that still a potential project?
I hope so. But clearly the ghosts of Murnau are unsure if I am capable or something.
Was it Harry Styles dropping out that caused it to be paused this last time?
That’s what The New Yorker says.
There was also talk of you doing a Rasputin miniseries.
I don’t see how we could get any plate shots in Russia. But probably not. I love Rasputin but probably not.
You’ve talked about an Elizabethan film you’re working on. Will that have a supernatural element?
Yeah, I mean, presumably.
You’ve talked about not wanting to do a modern movie…
So why would I want to do “Fast and Furious?”
Well how far into the future would you go? Early 20th century?
I could be interested in the early 20th century. And I would also, if I could figure out a way to do it that hasn’t really been done before, in a way that would be satisfying for me, but I would also be interested in science fiction. I don’t know if I could find the right thing. I don’t know if I could pull it off. But I’d be interested.
Like on a spaceship?
Only time will tell.
“The Northman” is now playing in theaters.