'The Northman' Director Robert Eggers Was Inspired by Iceland Itself
Eggers takes us through the landscapes and texts that built his Viking action epic.
When you sit down to see a Robert Eggers movie, you know you're in for a history lesson. Far from a dry, dusty university lecture, what Eggers' films have instead is a perfectly calibrated vitality: watching one feels like you're seeing something filmed a hundred, four hundred, a thousand years ago. The entire cast of his feature debut, 2015's The Witch, spoke the heavily cadenced English favored by the Puritans of early New England. His follow-up, the grimy, salt-sprayed The Lighthouse, dumped Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe into a black-and-white German Expressionist nightmare.
His new film, The Northman, stars Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, the son of a Scandinavian king (Ethan Hawke) murdered by his brother (Claes Bang), who escapes his bloodthirsty uncle, becomes a howling berserker warrior, and then travels to Iceland in search of revenge. The film is a bloody, sweaty masterwork from a director who cuts no corners when it comes to historical accuracy, steeping his movies in hundreds of years of lore and superstition. His characters recite long monologues about the fate-seeing Norns, the Tree of Kings, and the valkyrie shield-maidens who carry brave soldiers across the sky to heavenly Valhöll.
Ahead of his new film's release on April 22, Eggers sat down with Thrillist to discuss his multitude of influences, from the sagas of various Icelandic families to the scenes of his favorite films and one especially brawny pulp-magazine character.
To gaze out at the vistas of Iceland is to look directly at prehistory, seemingly traveling through time when the line between man and animal was thin, and the barrier between our world and a realm beyond was even thinner. Rising straight out of the ocean millions of years ago and sitting directly atop a tectonic fault line, Iceland's unique geological structure combines sharp, craggy mountain ranges with rolling hills and valleys of deep green, dotted with sulfuric hot springs and violent volcanoes. It's no wonder that much of the inspiration for The Northman came from the land itself.
I was not ever interested in Vikings, really, as a kid, nor as an adult, and the macho stereotype and the right-wing misappropriation of Viking culture really put me off of it. My wife, who, like myself, is into early-modern and medieval literature, suggested that I would like the sagas, but I just didn't. You should always listen to your wife. But then, when we went to Iceland, no surprise that the landscapes knocked me out completely. Aside from just the raw power of the landscapes themselves, I thought the fact that people sailed here in the Dark Ages and didn't just die is crazy.
Alexander Skarsgård, tall and Swedish, would give Chris Hemsworth's Thor a run for his money on a good day. It's no surprise that the impetus for Eggers to direct a Viking tale came from Skarsgård himself, who had long been interested in starring in a historical Viking drama.
I had lunch with Alexander Skarsgård, who said that he'd been trying for five or 10 years to make a Viking movie, and he was saying it's what he was wanting to do since he was a kid. I think we were just having a general meeting. And then he brought up this Viking movie. He had been thinking about The Witch and stuff. So it all kind of came together organically in that meeting.
When you think of "Norse literature," you probably think of something called a saga, a written-down historical text describing a family genealogy, a conflict between clans, a history of a certain group of people, or an account of a particularly famous person or fantastical event. The sagas are invaluable historical texts, even though, Eggers notes, they were mostly copied down in modern writing centuries after the age of the Vikings had ended, leading to some cultural biases in the translations (disinterest in female gods, for example).
The main source material was actually a Scandinavian folktale about the story of Amleth. The most widespread version of that was written by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. So, Saxo's work: the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda. A few sagas that I particularly was influenced by are Egil's saga [a work chronicling the clan of Egill Skallagrímsson, an Icelandic farmer, Viking, and poet], the Saga of Grettir the Strong [detailing the life of Grettir Ásmundarson, an ill-tempered Icelandic outlaw], Eyrbyggja saga [a saga that follows the feud between th chieftains of two Norse clans that settled in Iceland]. Another legendary saga that was also quite helpful was the saga of Hrolfr Kraki [a semi-legendary Danish king], which has another story in it very similar to the Hamlet story, and it also has a berserker protagonist.
All the history books and the sagas were available to the actors and more. Garrett Bird, my assistant, scanned, like, thousands and thousands of pages of all these books, from this to this. So there was a tremendous amount of material available to the actors. I don't know how much of it anyone actually read, and I don't know how much you actually really need to read. But I know that The Children of Ash and Elm [historian Neil Price's history of the Vikings] was something that Alex was particularly fond of. That book is sort of the one-stop shop of everything we know about Vikings, in a really precise but also digestible way.
Conan the Barbarian
While The Northman has all the trappings of a prestige historical drama, it also has its roots in pulpier 20th-century storytelling—notably in the character Conan the Barbarian, a muscly sword-and-sorcery hero who appeared in numerous pulp magazines and was notably portrayed in live action by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his 1982 cinematic breakthrough.
There's several deliberate nods to Conan, and also many accidental ones just because I watched it so much when I was a kid. And it was a big movie for [Northman co-writer] Sjón as an adolescent. [Creator Robert E.] Howard was inspired by the sagas. Conan gets his sword from a burial chamber, and that is in virtually all the best sagas.
Eggers worked closely with Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, known as Sjón, a famous Icelandic poet, novelist, and songwriter, when writing the script for The Northman. Sjón is a native of Reykjavík, and his work has been translated into 30 languages around the world. He's performed with alt-rock band The Sugarcubes and frequently collaborates with Björk (which makes her presence in the movie no surprise).
TheBlue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale are the two books of his that got me initially incredibly excited about his writing. The prologue of From the Mouth of the Whale I sent to Alexander Skarsgård and [co-producer] Lars Knudsen to say, "This is the guy who needs to write this movie with me."
Famous cinematic long takes
The plot of The Northman is anchored in lengthy single-take action scenes filmed all in one go—Amleth is chased through his village by traitors after he witnesses his father's murder, and when we meet up with him again years later he's introduced wearing a wolf pelt and raiding a Slavic village with a gang of berserkers. These shots require large sets, many extras, lots of equipment, and weeks of preparation and rehearsal to get everything right, and they're remarkably impressive when executed well. Eggers closely studied a number of classic films with famous long takes from all over the world, from Russia to Hungary to Japan.
The long, deliberate, unbroken takes of [Miklós] Jancsó's The Round-Up [a Hungarian film about the activities within a 19th-century prison camp], were inspiring. Obviously it's clear that Jarin Blaschke, my DP, and I revisited the Tartar raid from Andrei Rublev [Andrei Tarkovsky's historical epic about the 15th-century icon painter]. Although he uses a multiple-camera approach, I was carefully studying Kurosawa's stuff. Ran seems the closest analogue, but I watched like every Kurosawa samurai movie, for sure. [Ardak] Amirkulov's The Fall of Otrar [another historical epic that follows the politics within the central Asian tribal Kipchaks before they were taken over by Genghis Khan] is a cool movie from Kazakhstan that has some great medieval battle scenes and fantastic world-building. That was also written by Aleksei German, who did Hard to be a God, which is another film that I love.