Interview – Robert Eggers, director of ‘The Northman’

Alongside my chat at the virtual press junket with Alexander Skarsgard, the team at Universal Pictures also gave me the chance to talk with the film’s director, Robert Eggers! His previous work on films such as The Witch and The Lighthouse has solidified him as one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, with a unique focus on authentically portraying folklore tales in a truly unsettling way.

During this chat, Robert spoke about the importance of showing the spirituality of the Viking era, creating a language the mixes Nordic and modern English, and the experience of making his biggest budget film to date.

Nick: The story seamlessly integrates scenes grounded in reality, with these visually rich moments of spiritual transcendence or mythological imagery. I’d love to know what the ratio of that elevated imagery came from images or drawings you found during your research of the Viking era, and how much was your own visual interpretation of stories and tales that you read?

Robert Eggers (RE): Because I’m trying my best to articulate the worldview of the Viking mind, the real world and mythological world are the same thing. There were no Viking atheists! Odin, undead warriors and Valkyries exist as much as you and me and the birds and the trees. All of that needs to be there in a fully realised way. I mean, it’s all from research — there is a cross-legged figure with an erection, stroking his beard, that we think is the god, Freya. But we don’t know! Adam of Bremen, this German guy who talks about going to temple says the Freya statue had a phallus, so we think that would be him, but we just don’t know. All of this stuff is based on research is an interpretation. I tend to generally use what is the scholar-led consensus about certain things. The Valkyrie, her armour is more sophisticated than any imagery we have from the Viking age, that we think is a Valkyrie. Some of the stuff with the swan feathers and armour come from sagas, it’s all different things.

Nick: The dialogue in the film feels authentic and immersive for the time period in which the film is set. How long is the process of creating a language that feels genuine but also is adaptable for an audience to understand compared to creating other aspects of the screenplay like story and character arcs?

RE: If I were Mel Gibson, I would have done it in Old Norse entirely! Unfortunately, I can’t self-finance my historical epics! So, it was about finding an English that felt like a good translation of an Old Norse text, and we said to the studio that it won’t be any harder to understand that Tolkien. That was as obscure as we will go. And then, it was also finding a Nordic dialect or accent that isn’t – I’m not saying I love it, but there wasn’t much we can do. It was either English Vikings, American Vikings, or everyone shows up with their own accent. Or, we do this Nordic accent that we all agree on and practice. We did so much ADR on this movie to make sure the accent was understandable for audiences, and it was very difficult! But, when we got there, it was very satisfying!

4179_D020_00269_R
Director Robert Eggers and crew members on the set of his film, THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

We heard that you had Alfonso Cuaron at the test screenings for this film, what was the reaction like from such a well-respected director?

RE: Well, I invited Alfonso because he was very helpful with The Witch. He was incredibly harsh on The Witch when he saw an early cut. He said after he watched it that ‘the script was better’ (laughs). I was like ‘ah’! But, he came up with a lot of constructive criticism that was harsh, but extremely helpful. And the first thing he said when he saw this movie was, ‘Cabron, I know you’re looking for critique, but unfortunately… I have to praise you”! I just melted! He had notes, but he was incredibly praise-filled. I love that I can ask for his opinion and help.

You’re known for your attention to detail, but at the same time filmmaking is a lot of smoke and mirrors. How important is authenticity even though you might not see it on screen?

RE: I think this atmosphere is cumulative, all these details really matter. Obviously, a detail alone in space means nothing.  A wooden nail means so much to an archologist, but not to an audience. That’s what it takes to transport someone to another time and place. Also, because we’re single camera in the way we shoot, especially with this film, the camera is always moving. We’re trying to take you through the story. All of the world building is on the sides, there’s no “cut to the cool looking hunting dogs or the musicians with their strange instruments”. That’s all there in support of the story.

You worked with Alexander as well as a producer on this film, what was it like to work with him in that regard?

RE: It was great, he was very supportive and he’s a huge champion for the film. He’s wanted to do this story for years now and I think he gave great script notes throughout. The biggest change he made to the story was that chapter two was originally supposed to take place in Britain. He said, “we’ve seen a lot of Viking raids in the British Isles, it would be more unique to take it to Eastern Europe”. So, the fact that chapter two takes place in Ancient Ukraine was Alex’s idea and was something very inspiring to me.

You’ve been very open about how this was a difficult film to create, what was the most challenging aspect for you?

RE: The most difficult part was post-production. I knew that because the film was so big and expensive, I wasn’t going to get final cut. But I was determined to make a film that I love and was deeply proud of. In post-production, the studio was pushing to make the most entertaining version of the movie – which by the way, is what I promised them I would do! Without them pushing, as difficult and painful as it was, I don’t think we would have got there. This is the movie I wanted to make, this is the ‘directors cut’, in spite of the fact that it took studio pressure to get there.

Thanks again to Universal Pictures for giving me the chance to chat with Robert! Make sure you check out my chat with Alexander Skarsgard about acting in The Northman, and my review of the Viking-epic, but live now on the Novastream website! The Northman is in Australian cinemas April 21.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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