Robert Eggers is best known for his historical horror films. Director, screenwriter and designer Robert Eggers of New Hampshire, 38, author of “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”, presented his historical thriller Vikings “The Northman” in Hamburg a few days ago, which cost 80 million dollars. It stars Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Bjork, Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy.
Robert Eggers in The Northman: ‘I Was Shocked Because I Made a Macho Movie’
The film is set in 9th century Iceland: Prince Amelith (Skarsgaard) must avenge the cruel death of his father, King Orvandel (Ethan Hawke), who was murdered by his brother (Clais Pang as Vuelnir). He wants to free his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), who was kidnapped after the murder and married to Vollner. On his bloody journey of revenge, he meets the seer (Bjork) who shows him the way – and Olga, a mysterious companion who helps him. Eggers is currently filming his next historical film on the vampire: About Nosferatu, which he has already researched in Lübeck, Wismar and Transylvania. The American director in an interview with NDR.de about the Vikings, Bjork, Hamlet, historical accuracy and his fascination with myths and legends.
So far I’ve produced two films about American myths and mythical creatures from New England, the region you’re from. With your third feature film, you travel to Northern Europe, to Viking legends with Thor, Valhalla, Odin and the Valkyries. How did this change happen?
Robert Eggers: I wrote a lot of non-New England state scripts that no one wanted to fund. This is the first to do that (laughs). To be honest, I wasn’t interested in Vikings at all. I was kind of shocked because I made a macho movie. Because except for ‘Conan the Barbarian’, which I absolutely loved as a kid, Vikings were never a thing. Also, this cultural appropriation of Viking culture from the right has always bothered me. This caused an allergic reaction to this topic.
But then I went to Iceland a while ago. These panoramic images are breathtaking! Imagine that people in the dark centuries, that is, in the Middle Ages, traveled there and not only died, but also created something – they launched a culture, it’s just crazy!
So I started researching their myths and legends and then fell in love with the Vikings culture. A desire sprouted in me: Maybe I could make a Viking movie after all? Because they were definitely terrible and violent. But: your poets also wrote great poems and left great music. They represent a cultural melting pot community that I did not expect. Amalath wears an Arabian coin as an amulet throughout the film.
How did this movie come about?
Eggers: A few years ago I met actor Alex (Alexander Skarsgård, co-producer, editor) who had wanted to make a Viking movie for years. So we decided together: we will do it! As a New Englander, I needed an Icelandic screenwriter to co-wrote.
For Icelanders, epic stories are so intertwined with their cultural identity and psyche that people who hate Vikings tales know in which generation they come from and who. Given their landscapes, it is no surprise that Icelanders today believe in fairies and spirits. Co-author Lee Sejon Sigurdsson (in 2022 he was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of the Icelandic mystery film “The Lamp”, editor’s note) is not only Icelandic, but also a brilliant screenwriter. I was lucky that he wanted to work with me.
How did you know that this epic about Amelith was based on Shakespeare’s drama “Hamlet”?
Eggers: I wanted to write a story about Amelath and only found out while working on this movie. I was so embarrassed because my dad is a college professor, I brought out Hamlet and played it myself! I had no idea beforehand that Hamlet was based on the Vikings saga of Amelith. Parallels are present: severed heads, the sacrifice of a woman at a funeral. But the revelation was that as I was writing it became clear to me: My film would appeal to a wide audience.
In your last movie “The Lighthouse” two lighthouse keepers fought in the isolation of the island, in “Northman” a prince avenged his king, attacking the men of the villages. Do you specifically treat toxic masculinity?
Eggers: Myths, epics, fairy tales, religion, cults, which interest me most. This interests me more than filmmaking. I am very fortunate to be able to tell stories that reach such a wide audience. Whenever I get frustrated because filmmaking is such a difficult task, I tell myself that I don’t do art in private.
The most important thing about my stories is that I try to get people to act and think in a way that is logical and familiar at the time. Show it without judging it. I am as objective as possible.
That’s why the supernatural naturally coexists with the real in my films. In the Viking Age, everyone really knew who Odin was. There were no Vikings atheists. I don’t want to convey any particular message. I just want to tell a story.
Have you seen many Vikings movies from movie history for your research?
Eggers: Not really, because since Richard Wagner, pretty much everyone has been doing what they want to do with Viking epics. So I didn’t think there was much to learn.
You are not only an author and director, but also a website designer. Have you been to the Danish city of Roskilde to search for Viking ships, textiles and weapons, where you can craft your own weapons and sail Vikings boats at the Vikings Museum?
Eggers: Of course (laughs)! A plus point in such research is that you get a private tour of the Vikings Museum in Roskilde. We worked there with the best archaeologists and historians. Also with experimental archaeologists who became Vikings on the basis of testing to check if what archaeologists are looking for about the Vikings age really works in everyday life. For me as a director, these experts have been very helpful.
In order to implement all this, you need a lot of money, and compromises must always be made with the film studio. What was this?
Eggers: I’ve always had connoisseurs on board for my films, only this time the crowd was impressive. But I had to compromise a lot less than you think. There were two big ones I didn’t like. First: I was not allowed to show my penis. These could have appeared in one long scene.
But my film has to run on small screens on airplanes as well as in China. Another compromise was because of Covid. Many scenes should have been filmed in Iceland. But this is no longer possible due to the pandemic, which means that we sometimes used computer effects to include Iceland in the image we photographed in Ireland.
While others in the industry do this all the time, it’s not my style and it has frustrated me. I didn’t work as hard as I did on this movie. I wouldn’t do it again, but: This pressure made the movie better and led to what I had previously asked the producers for: Robert Eggers’ most entertaining film. I am proud of this movie.
You are already working on the next movie, your movie about the classic Nosferatu….
Eggers: The only thing I can say about it now is that Harry Styles never thought of playing the vampire Count Berlock…
I went to more places where I searched everything for this, because Nosferatu was filmed over 100 years ago in northern Germany. Where have you all been for historical filming locations?
Eggers: I was in Wismar, Lubeck, Gdansk and Transylvania.
Would you like to live there?
Eggers: No, although Transylvania is a nervous time machine. One could see the shepherds in their coats torn against the cold grazing the sheep. The way they smoke their pipe, that’s very romantic. But I hate to live in the past. But I love searching! every aspect of it.
The conversation was conducted by Patricia Batley, NDR Kultur.