Robert Eggers has made a name for himself with historical feature films. His trademark: absolute authenticity. He shot his new film "The Northman" in Ireland – under the most difficult conditions, as he reveals to our editor Michael Hille in an interview.
Cowboys, pirates and knights have been classic cinema heroes since the beginning of cinematic art. You rarely see Vikings – apart from the big hype surrounding the TV series "Vikings" in recent years. So it's nice that the celebrated filmmaker Robert Eggers has now taken on the Nordic peoples. And it's even nicer that his "The Northman" (since April 21 in German cinemas) not only takes Viking culture seriously, but is also such a grandiose epic cinema that it already represents a highlight of the film year.
But what made Eggers film a Viking saga from the 12th century? How difficult is it to shoot an action film outdoors in rainy Ireland? And does the director actually know the "Vikings" series? Our editor Michael Hille asked him about it in an interview.
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Interview with Robert Eggers on "The Northman"
"The Northman" is in theaters now. We spoke to director Robert Eggers about his masterpiece.
IMAGO / Focus Feature, assembly: CHIP.de
CHIP.de: Congratulations, Mr. Eggers – your "The Northman" is not only great, but should already have won the title "Most Brutal Film of the Year 2022".
Robert Eggers: Thank you. Thanks very much.
So my first question after going to the cinema was: How much (artificial) blood was used in the shooting? Do you know exactly?
I'm sure that will interest many. I'll try to find out. In any case, there were a lot of buckets, I can say that much.
Some of these buckets may have been spilled in the very first action scene of the film, in which the Vikings raid a village. There are hardly any cuts in the scene, everything happens in one tracking shot. How long do you have to plan something like this?
The scene required the most preparation time of any moment in the film. We've been working on it for months. The whole village was built to be perfect for the scene we wanted to shoot.
I can imagine it being difficult to work with animals in such a complex and long scene. Even the horses have to do their job properly, otherwise it's back to the beginning and everyone has to start from the beginning.
The film is extremely physical, looks real and dirty. How much of what you see is actually real – and how much has been processed with computer effects?
Of course, we enhanced or reworked many elements with the computers. There are details that are easier to do on the PC and don't bother anyone. For example, when arrows are shot and fly through the air, it's usually computer effects and nobody cares. But we also shot real arrows. That's important to me, it has to be real as much as possible. When the big Viking ship races through the seas, then of course we do it on the computer for safety reasons. But even that requires a lot of hands-on work, because we have to look at and scan tons of material about real Viking ships from the time. That's the only way it can look real afterwards.
Of course it is much more exhausting to shoot in Ireland in all weathers than to do it in a cozy studio.
Absolutely. Sitting on a big cliff every day and working soaked through was very challenging for all of us. You can't see it in the film because we lit a lot of the scenes so you don't see it, but it rained almost the whole time we were shooting. It was very tough filming. No easy terms. (laughs)
Robert Eggers: "I don't make my film for Vikings"
What was the attraction for you to film the saga of "Prince Amleth"? The original is almost a thousand years old.
I wanted to make a film that delved deep into Viking mythology. If only because it would be a whole new experience for many viewers. After all, there aren't many Viking movies that bother to be reasonably accurate. But you can't just present the audience with new and unfamiliar things, there must also be familiar elements. The great thing about the story of "Prince Amleth" is that everyone knows it – because William Shakespeare also knew the saga and rewrote it under the title "Hamlet". And "Hamlet" was then again the template for "The Lion King" and everyone probably saw it.
I find it funny that you mention "The Lion King". The grand finale of The Northman, which – without giving too much away – sees the two nemesis battle it out in an erupting volcano, has some amazing parallels to the Disney film's final battle between the lions Simba and Scar.
I'm not proud of that. (laughs) We also noticed these similarities at some point during production, but by then it was too late and we couldn't change it. Although I would have liked to change it. (laughs) In any case, there was no deeper intention. I guess I just hoped nobody would talk to me about it in interviews. But congratulations: you caught us.
I don't want to belittle the scene at all, it's absolutely visually stunning and spectacular.
Thank you really. We're all happy to hear that.
"The Witch", your first film, was a horror fairy tale, but in my eyes it was mainly about self-discovery. Her second film "The Lighthouse" (originally: "The Lighthouse") was about self-destruction. In "The Northman" both play an equal role.
I don't plan that in advance. I don't sit down and think about what message or statement my film should have. These parallels just happen. All that matters to me is that whatever we say resonates with the audience in the end. If that doesn't happen, why should I make films at all?
How do you think the audience will feel after seeing your film? He's not just very brutal, he also has a remarkable sensitivity.
I honestly hope, first of all, that people feel entertained. It was a little different with my first two films, but this time I want people to sit down and eat their popcorn and have a good time. But I also hope that they will talk about the film, the ending and maybe even discuss how they interpret it and how they feel about the characters. That was the difficulty with this film: I had to tell a really old story in a way that a modern audience could relate to. Despite all the attention to detail, I can't shoot my film for Vikings. They're all dead.
"The Northman" makers about "Vikings" and other Viking films
Have you watched other Viking films beforehand? You said there weren't that many, but in recent years the TV series "Vikings" has been a huge hit with the public.
I've seen a few "Vikings" episodes, but it's all very far from the real world of the Vikings of the time. So it's not really my thing. I actually watched Richard Fleischer's 1958 "The Vikings" again. This is, I think, the most iconic Viking film ever – simply because Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis are incredible in it. It's a really great movie and if Kirk Douglas had grown a beard it would have been even more authentic. (laughs) For the 1950s, that really impressed me. There's another Icelandic film called "Vikings – The Gisli Saga", which I liked, and I know a few other interesting Viking films from the Soviet Union, but that's where it ends.
How did the renewed collaboration with Willem Dafoe come about? His character is one of the craziest guys to see in cinemas in a long time.
I really wanted a role for Willem. I loved working with him on The Lighthouse. And he is, to put it bluntly, one of the best actors ever. So first and foremost I'm just overjoyed that he enjoys working with me. Here he plays a legendary figure that we do not know in our cultural circles. It's a cross between a court jester and a shaman. Only Willem Dafoe can play that.
Another great character actor is on board in a small role in Ethan Hawke. He plays Alexander Skarsgård's father – not the most obvious choice, is it? His real father Stellan Skarsgård is a successful Hollywood star himself.
True of course. However, when I look at him, Ethan may not really resemble Stellan, but he does bear a resemblance to Alex. But more importantly, I've often seen Ethan on the theater stage in New York. He is amazing. When we first spoke, on Zoom, I said to him, "I know you love this role. You know you love this role. But nobody's going to expect a role like that from you." That must have convinced him. And he's wonderful. When you see him riding in his armor, you think, "That's a Viking king."
Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård play mother and son here – both were last seen as a married couple in "Big Little Lies". Did you have that in mind when casting?
Absolutely. We were very aware of that. There's this disturbing tendency in Hollywood to cast women as mothers who are no more than ten years older than the actors who play their sons. This has a long tradition, even in the theater with Hamlet it was usually no different. We wanted to play with it here – and at the same time needed an actress who was believable in two age ranges. Nicole has to embody a 30-year-old and a 55-year-old in this film. (laughs) She's very believable in both parts.
She succeeds fabulously. And she has an intriguingly dark, sombre chemistry with Skarsgård.
As a matter of fact. I don't think I'm saying too much when I say that's exactly why we wanted to bring them back together here.
How did you actually come up with the title of the film? He does have a certain irony: Alexander Skarsgård first became known to many through the vampire series "True Blood". Back then he played an Eric Northman.
(covers his face with his hands) First "The Lion King", now you bring me "True Blood". (puts his hands down, laughs) I'm so embarrassed. I didn't even know that for a long time. Otherwise I might have called the film something else. I just thought "The Viking" sounded a bit too dumb and simple. But how that title came about… Well, looking back at my previous films, I guess I just like two word titles that start with "The". (laughs)