May December screenwriter Samy Burch joins Mia and Gemma to for a chat, fresh from her New York Film Critics Circle win for Best Screenplay. We also welcome our London crew to give us the lowdown on their attending the British Independent Film Awards, including its big winner All of Us Strangers.
The Northman filmmaker Robert Eggers discusses the sacred and sublime of his sinewy Viking revenge epic, as well as what he learned from watching Miklós Jancsó and Moana.
This interview contains mild plot spoilers for The Northman.
Early in Robert Eggers’ The Northman, a young Viking prince named Amleth growls, farts and burps to prove his manhood before reaching through an open wound in his father’s stomach, where he sees his ancestors floating in the branches of a great cosmic tree.
Years later, grown into a so-called “berserker” played by Alexander Skarsgård, the same prince dons a wolfskin and fights like a bear, possessed by brute animal strength. This rage has driven Amleth since his treacherous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) slaughtered his father (Ethan Hawke), married his mother (Nicole Kidman), and drove him into exile.
Raiding a Slavic village in a throat-ripping, blood-baying fugue, he’s reminded of his birthright by a seeress (Björk) with no eyes and a barley headdress. Should Amleth fall in pursuit of vengeance, she reassures him, a Valkyrie on a white horse will spirit him away across the sky, to Valhalla. As in Eggers’ past films, the veil between reality and myth in The Northman is as immaterial as his characters, living back then, would have believed it to be.
“There were no Viking atheists,” says the filmmaker, speaking over Zoom. “The real world and the religious world were absolutely the same for them; therefore, it needed to be the same way in the film.” For Eggers, depicting abstract mythology in meticulous detail was about more than simply introducing audiences to ritual concepts like Yggrdasil (that aforementioned “Tree of Kings”) and berserkers, feared warriors who believed they could spiritually transform into wild animals.
The director has long maintained that to capture the atmosphere of a bygone era, one must fully inhabit the headspace of someone who lived, breathed and bled back then. That’s why his debut, The Witch, draws its occult horrors not from the revelation of a crone that grinds babies into bloody pulp but from the religious hysteria that besets one such infant’s grief-stricken Puritan family. It’s why The Lighthouse senses enchantment in the light tended by a barnacle-encrusted sea dog and his wily assistant but spends more time below the lantern room, where turpentine, honey and mutual distrust grease the characters’ descent into madness.
“Why am I particularly interested in all this?” Eggers asks himself more generally. “I don’t know. Perhaps it’s growing up in a secular society, where the sacred and the sublime aren’t anywhere to be found, at least without looking really hard.”
Making The Northman, Eggers faced the challenge of conjuring a more opaque period in history than that of his past two films, which were set in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Together with costume designers Linda Muir and Louise Cassettari and production designer Craig Lathrop, he focused on nailing what is known of the minutiae of Viking society through archeological discoveries, from their hand-woven patterned wools and chainmail hauberks to their thatched-roof huts and longswords.
“I’ve worked with the finest historians and archaeologists in the field of Viking studies to endeavor to make the most historically accurate Viking movie that’s ever been made,” he says. “Very low bar,” Eggers quickly adds. “But I am trying to raise the bar as high as I possibly can, for myself and my collaborators.”
The film’s narrative—a primal tale of revenge, rite and reckoning—was drawn more from the famed Icelandic sagas, prose narratives that were composed in medieval times and collect the country’s folkloric history. Amleth, a Viking prince whose legend had been recorded by twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus and later inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was a figure shrouded in myth, making him an ideal protagonist for The Northman.
I thought, if I ever made a Viking movie, it needed to end with a naked sword fight on a volcano, because there’s nothing more elemental.—⁠Robert Eggers
Together with Icelandic novelist Sjón, who co-wrote the script, Eggers set a course for the story that would bring together two genres of saga, with Amleth at its center. Legendary sagas—rooted in Norse oral tradition from before Iceland’s settlement—told supernaturally imbued tales of adventure and romance, whereas family sagas were based on historical events and focused more on everyday life in Iceland.
“The story itself is a legendary saga, but we wanted the verisimilitude of the family sagas,” says Eggers. “They’re what Icelanders particularly celebrate. We wanted to get all the set-piece moments that would be in a layperson’s idea of a Viking movie—a raid, Viking ships coming home from a raid, a feast—but also have these set pieces that are hallmarks of the family sagas—like the Knattleikr game, this violent ballgame that they play, and the hero having to fight an undead person for their weapon.”
In this way, The Northman came by its strangest sequences honestly; almost everything you see on screen, no matter how mystifying, has some basis in actual history or folklore. That latter scene Eggers mentions is set in a burial mound, where Amleth duels an undead warrior while retrieving a mythical sword called Draugr, the Night Blade. Or does he? The fight itself plays out ambiguously, as if to suggest that such an encounter could feel entirely real to Amleth without fully leaving the realm of legend, which is true to the fantastical tenor of the sagas.
The weapon was inspired by various swords unearthed during archaeological digs, including the Sutton Hoo sword. But by the time a heavy-metal chapter title appears on screen reading “The Night Blade Feeds” (in the runic Elder Futhark alphabet, naturally), it’s also clearly intended to be taken less than seriously—at least, Eggers thinks that’s clear.
“A lot of people have been interpreting the film as humorless, which is too bad,” he says, smiling broadly. “Maybe the humor is too dry, but there are a lot of dry one-liners in the sagas, and ways in which they can read like ’80s action movies. In Njáls saga, Skarphéðinn slides across the ice, bashes a guy’s head in with an ax, then says some version of ‘That’s what I call a headache!’”
Eggers didn’t want to go quite that far, though ’80s staple Conan the Barbarian was a guiding influence. In early drafts, he pointed to a sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where Orlando Bloom’s elven archer Legolas uses a shield like a skateboard, riding down a set of steps during the climactic battle at Helm’s Deep, as the kind of conspicuously cool sequence that would feel out of place in his vision for The Northman. “I totally agree,” he says Sjón replied. “However, the old ones would have loved that scene.”
Of course, Eggers couldn’t resist the cinematic appeal of a similarly jaw-dropping finale. He had originally been inspired to make a Viking movie after visiting Iceland and exploring its primordial expanses, all raging fire under frozen mountains. “So much of the sagas have to do with landscape,” he says, recalling the seven months of filming in cold mud that he and his team split between Iceland and Ireland. “It inspires new mythology.”
A deleted scene in The Northman laid out how Vikings who came from mainland Scandinavia to Iceland believed they would die into the mountains, becoming a part of them. Dying into volcanic Mount Hekla, then, would fate one to become the bondsman of Hel. “There’s a rawness and brutality to that,” says Eggers. “I thought, if I ever made a Viking movie, it needed to end with a naked sword fight on a volcano, because there’s nothing more elemental.”
On the whole, though, Eggers was more driven by his interest in setting the record straight about Vikings, pushing past iconography widely associated with this civilization in pursuit of visceral authenticity. “Since Wagner put horns on helmets in his operas, pop culture has been reinventing what Vikings are and what they look like, however they please,” explains Eggers, a little wearily. He’s of course grateful, for instance, that History’s Vikings rekindled the mainstream’s fascination with the time period, but that television series also compressed centuries of history to tell a story loosely inspired by the sagas and riddled with strange anachronisms.
“The look that they created is not really based on history,” he asserts. Mostly, Eggers blames the lingering influence of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a tenth-century Arab Muslim traveler whose colorful accounts of the unidentified Norse tribes he encountered—“They are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures,” read one passage—likely gave rise to Western conceptions of Vikings as ferocious, vulgar and covered neck-to-toe in tattoos.
I want to say that this is another film where I wanted penises and didn’t get them.—⁠Robert Eggers
“All these TV series and video games go absolutely fucking crazy with tattoos, because Ibn Fadlan said that,” Eggers groans. “But he’s the only person who said that!” The director similarly takes issue with Ibn Fadlan’s claim that Vikings wore dark eyeliner. Though a few tattoos appear in The Northman, and Kidman’s Queen Gudrún is seen in make-up, the director mainly steered away from such clichés. “We’ve done our best to base our Viking look on history,” he says. “I wanted something that felt completely real and grounded. I was hesitant to try to make people look cool for cool’s sake.”
In approaching The Northman, Eggers deliberately avoided recent films that traversed similar narrative and thematic territory, such as Jeremy Saulnier’s mythopoetic Hold the Dark, also starring Skarsgård, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s hallucinogenic Valhalla Rising, one of the few modern Viking movies. Instead, his reference points were more classic, even archetypal.
Eggers cites Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, a spiritual epic set in medieval Russia; before filming their berserkers’ raid on a Slavic village, done as a grueling single take, he and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke studied the violent realism with which Tarkovsky had staged a Tatar invasion, complete with scenes of a horse falling down stairs and a cow on fire amid the slaughter. “As if Jarin and I needed to watch it anymore,” mutters Eggers. “We’ve seen it enough.”
Miklós Jancsó’s outlaw saga The Round-Up, considered the Hungarian director’s magnum opus, was most inspiring to Eggers due to its long, choreographed takes, which gradually mapped entire landscapes. All of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films were revisited. “Even though he’s shooting multiple-camera, the staging is beyond masterful,” says Eggers.
Ardak Amirkulov’s sprawling The Fall of Otrar, a Kazakhstani historical epic, was another influence on Eggers’ world-building and battle sequences—albeit one that he happened upon accidentally. Set in the thirteenth century, it depicts Genghis Khan’s siege of an East Asian civilization, bearing witness to its destruction in cruel, claustrophobic detail.
While openly inspired by Andrei Rublev, even directly quoting a sequence in which molten metal is poured down a deacon’s throat, Otrar is also rich with stylized folkloric elements that recall films by the Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. While researching The Northman, Eggers fell especially hard for Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a magical-realist fable that ranks among the most experimental films ever made in the Soviet Union. “His love for Ukrainian-Transcarpathian folk culture, the way he’s able to go into that world, is always so inspiring,” says Eggers.
That the filmmaker was so drawn to such creatively unbridled visions in crafting his own speaks to the dauntless nature with which he plunged into making The Northman for a major studio, despite the presence of an all-star cast and a 70-million-dollar budget that far surpassed the previous ones he’d had to play with. (The Lighthouse cost 11 million; The Witch was made for less than half of that.) His surreal, distinct sensibility is on full display in the finished product, and Eggers maintains that any claims of studio interference are overblown; this is the film he wanted to make.
After all, he has a track record of making peace with certain compromises that might be needed to get his films in front of audiences. At one point, The Lighthouse was intended to include a shot of the titular structure moving like an erect penis, followed by a match cut to an actual erect penis belonging to Robert Pattinson’s character. Financiers had been on board with the film’s 35mm black-and-white presentation, boxy Academy-ratio format, and delirious storytelling, but they balked at the full-frontal male nudity, which would have brought the film into NC-17 territory. Eggers said that was fair enough. Was there a similar give-and-take on The Northman?
“Before I answer that question, I want to say that this is another film where I wanted penises and didn’t get them,” he says with a sigh. In the final fight between Amleth and Fjölnir, stylized as a miasma of fire and blood, both characters are naked but cast in silhouette, as if their battle were already inscribed along a cave wall inside some nearby mountain.
“It’s probably good that we don’t see any penises there; it might distract from the story and the tension, because human beings are such sad creatures that we would be trying to catch a glimpse the whole time,” says the filmmaker. That said, he does think full-frontal nudity could have added to an earlier sequence. “In the berserkers’ raid of the Slavic village,” he notes, “I think if some of those berserkers had been entirely naked, that would have been a lot scarier.”
Looking back on The Northman, he’s perhaps proudest of the technical details that moviegoers won’t necessarily notice, but that serve to heighten the film’s brutal realism, including night photography that naturalistically coats characters in darkness and light.
“That’s based on Jarin’s memories of being in Africa in really remote locations, where there’s no light pollution, where the sky is luminous and gives everything a silvery quality,” says Eggers. Here, he abruptly brings up another movie that was on his mind, if not so much an influence: Disney’s Moana.
“My three-and-a-half-year-old son was watching Moana, and I noticed that the night skies are black, with a little blue, and then the way that they light characters in the exterior is in color, but slightly desaturated,” recalls the filmmaker.
“Here, in this cartoon world, they have the ability to do anything that they want—obviously, being Disney, you’re going to want to have more color saturation than I would—but it’s just interesting that, even there, night means black,” he adds.
Eggers is especially bothered by this creative choice because, within the Polynesian mythology and culture that Moana depicts, night would never have been expressed in such conventional hues. He resolved to be more deliberate about lighting The Northman. “I’m not trying to throw shade on Moana!” Eggers rushes to clarify. “But the way that we have been accustomed to what night looks like, in films, isn’t really what night looks like.”
‘The Northman’ is in theaters now via Focus Features.