Director Robert Eggers Talks About The Northman
Dec 30, 2022
Director Robert Eggers sits down with Brent Simon and talks about The Northman.
Writer-director Robert Eggers burst onto the scene in 2015, with the release of The Witch, which was snapped up for distribution by A24 Films following its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and went on to gross over $40 million during its theatrical run the following year.
The New York-born, New England-raised filmmaker had been making short movies for more than five years (as well as directing theater productions), but the craftsmanship and confidence of his feature-length debut announced him as a strongly authorial presence in the American independent scene.
If his follow-up, 2019’s singular black-and-white horror fantasy The Lighthouse, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, proved a divisive experience for moviegoers, it solidified Eggers’s standing as one of the distinctive cinematic voices of his generation.
His latest film, The Northman, is a sprawling historical epic which represents a massive step up in budget and scope for the 38-year-old filmmaker.
With a cast including Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, the aforementioned Dafoe, and singer Björk, the movie centers on Viking prince Amleth (a medieval Scandinavian legend, and the direct inspiration for the titular character in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet), who sets out on a quest to avenge the murder of his father.
Recently, following a special screening of The Northman at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California, Eggers spent some time rewarding moviegoers with a moderated conversation about his movie and how it fits into his career. The discussion is excerpted below.
Question: You’re known for deep-dives into research on your films. What do you most get from that immersive way in which you choose to work?
Robert Eggers: Yeah, I like to research. That historical accuracy does not matter at all in telling a story or making a good film, but it’s something that is important to me for whatever reason. It’s what excites me. And I think one thing that is nice about it is that I don’t have to think about what chair or what sword I can create out of my imagination that is going to best represent the character and their internal state and who they are.
I can just look at archeological evidence of chairs and swords and say, “Make that one.” So then we can accumulate a lot more details to make the atmosphere richer more quickly. And that’s a good thing. But I had the great privilege to be working with the greatest Viking historians and archeologists in the field on this movie.
We had a lot of men and women who we could ask questions. And this stuff happened a thousand years ago, so there certainly are holes, and there are things we don’t know. But if you have a manuscript with a hole in it, you don’t just use mad libs to figure out whatever word you might want. You look at all the words around it to try to figure out what that missing word would be. So even the things that we were having to “create” were still based on the research.
Question: So you do the research, and then do you go write the script based on that, or is it more a constant and evolving process of refinement, based on that advice and input?
Robert Eggers: I usually do about a month of research, and then I start writing. And I know that I’m going to have to rewrite stuff and change stuff because I don’t know everything, but I get a bunch of ideas, get a bunch of images. For example, I know I want to have a naked sword fighter on a volcano.
I know I want to have a severed head preserved in herbs that can talk. And then you start going from that. But then it can be hard because you can have a scene or a moment that you really like, and then you learn that it’s just not historically accurate. And again, you could just stick with that, and that’d be totally fine. There’s this film, Becket, from 1964, based on a French play, and it makes (Thomas) Becket a Saxon when he was a Norman. The whole fucking thing about him being a Saxon, and it’s a great story, is just not true.
But it doesn’t matter, because it’s a great film. But that’s just not how I like to work. So if I have this scene that I really liked, but it’s not accurate, not only do I have to make it accurate, but I have to make it better than it was before. And when I get there, then I’m satisfied that I’ve done it in this way.
Question: Was there a moment of research, or something you discovered, that first drew you into the Vikings?
Robert Eggers: Yeah, because I didn’t like Vikings growing up. I was a weird, sensitive kid who got beat up for wearing costumes to school, and I didn’t like macho stuff, except for Conan the Barbarian. And then, as an adult, the Nazi and right-wing’s misappropriation of Viking culture made me really not interested in Vikings.
But then I went to Iceland. And it’s not exactly a headline that Icelandic landscapes are incredible, but they really inspired me. I thought, “People sailed here in the so-called Dark Ages and didn’t die — I’d like to learn about that.” So, I picked up the sagas, and got into Viking culture. And then two years later Alexander Skarsgård and I had lunch, and he’d been into Vikings since he was a kid. And I learned that he was trying to make a Viking movie for about 10 years with my friend Lars Knudsen, who was one of the producers of The Witch. And I said, “Well, I’d like to be a part of that.” So that’s how it all started.
Question: You’ve worked with a lot of the same below-the-line team on your three films — how much does that sense of familiarity and maybe shorthand inform the way you work?
Robert Eggers: Yeah, a “Robert Eggers movie” means a lot more people than me. It’s not a movie by Robert Eggers, it’s a movie by my collaborators and myself. And Jarin Blaschke, my DP, is a major authorial voice in this movie. If you like or dislike anything about the cinema language of the movie, so much of that is our collaboration — and not just our collaboration, but actually Jarin himself.
Jarin and Lou Ford, the editor I’ve been working with for 15 years, plus others with whom I’ve been working since The Witch, they’re all absolutely incredible. I mean, look, we didn’t have the resume to make a movie like this. It’s insane. First of all, it’s insane to make a movie at this scale that’s not a known IP or, even worse, a comic book movie. But we only know one way to make a film, which is with a single camera and a single-minded group approach. And so we did that, just on a larger scale.
Question: I can’t remember the last time I saw a large-scale film with such striking and unusual lighting — both the ambition and particulars of some of it reminded me a bit of John Alcott. Were you using natural light from the flames?
Robert Eggers: Yeah, all the night interiors are basically lit by a big fire in the middle of the room because that’s what Vikings had. And the day stuff is all-natural light. The night stuff, that’s moonlight. It has a very unique look. It’s based on Jarin’s memories of being in remote parts of Africa with no light pollution. It looks very stylized because we’re not used to that, but it is our attempt at being naturalistic. I don’t know if we’ve succeeded, but that’s what that weird black-and-white shit is supposed to be — natural. (laughs)
Question: So you talked earlier about the single-camera shoot. Can you explain a little more some of the challenges that type of set-up might entail, versus more traditional multi-camera shoots that are especially usually used on movies of this scale.
Robert Eggers: Sure. So, look, Akira Kurosawa was very good at making movies. And he shot multiple-camera, historical action epics. But he really knew where each of these cameras was being placed, and it was very deliberate. And he was thinking about the cutting pattern as he was shooting with multiple cameras. And we’ve gone from there to — and I’m not saying that all movies or TV shows are like this — but I think the worst case is you just set up four cameras, and you just shoot some shit and figure it out later in (post-production). And I think where that can be really bad is in action sequences, because you can’t follow the hell’s going on — it’s just a bunch of cuts.
So we shot this entire movie always with one camera. And I think there’s a discipline in that — especially for someone like me who’s so obsessed with production design and details that I can’t get swept up in fetishizing something over here, because the story’s over here. If you only have one camera and one set-up and you’re putting it there, that hopefully focuses the audience on this story that’s just moving forward. And in action sequences, you can follow what’s going on — you know who’s winning, who’s losing, whose life is getting destroyed, whatever.
But it is hard when you’re shooting a raid of a village with hundreds of extras and stunt guys and horses and cows and chickens and geese and kids and shields and spears and arrows and mud — it’s a lot to coordinate, and to do it in one unbroken shot. It’s like choreographing a big musical number, but with more blood.
Question: Those fight scenes are so organic and visceral, though — it’s a lot of elbows and knees and knuckles. Is there ever a danger of getting lost in that, swept away by the brutality?
Robert Eggers: It’s tough for me because I’m literally trying to make an action tentpole set piece (type of) movie. I want people to eat popcorn, and enjoy it! And it’s about a culture who celebrates violence. So there are times when the violence needs to be thrilling, but also I don’t want to be condoning violence or glorify violence. So it’s a difficult line to walk.
I don’t have an answer to this. These are the kind of questions me and my fellow plunderers are asking ourselves as we’re making the movie. And sometimes the brutality is there not to be hardcore, but to remind viewers that this is fucking fucked up. My hope is, with something like the (film’s big) raid, you’re like, “This is amazing!” And then you feel a bit guilty for feeling that.
Question: How would you describe your relationship with actors? Particularly in terms of direction of dialogue, and some of their monologues? Do you let them go and follow their own instincts, or do you prefer to talk about it a lot beforehand?
Robert Eggers: I prefer doing to talking. I think that sometimes you do need to talk stuff out, but I like to just get going. In the world of theater, there’s this thing called table work, where you spend weeks sitting around a table talking about shit. I prefer to just start rehearsing and get into it. I’m looking for actors who like to make strong choices and who are willing to be vulnerable and show no fear, and also have good faces.
Question: You mentioned coming from a theater background. Part of the work there is being able to hit marks and move about your frame while still delivering a performance. How do you feel your work in that area influences or intersects with your direction of film performance?
Robert Eggers: Well, look, I think that there’s this idea or misconception that in order for something to be truthful and really live, it needs to be spontaneous, or needs to be improvised. And that can be true. But in The Lighthouse Robert Pattinson wanted to surprise Willem, and he wanted to surprise me, and he wanted to surprise himself. And he did — all the time. And in the edit of the film, half the time I’m choosing takes where Rob did stuff completely differently from what I imagined and my preconceived notions.
He was spontaneous, and it brought a kind of life and truth to the role. Willem always delivered exactly what I had imagined. And is that worse? No. And so I think that as long as you can live in the moment, even if it’s something that you’re executing that’s been planned, it can still be alive. I do think there are sometimes where it can feel like people are hitting marks, because nobody’s perfect. But I do think that you can achieve that same kind of magic with discipline, and not just with spontaneity.
Question: Back to the issue or question of scale — what type of challenges did you face in terms of keeping your artistic vision on a larger-budget project? I know, for example, that right after The Witch you were tabbed to tackle a remake of Nosferatu, but ultimately backed away from that and chose to do The Lighthouse, at least in part because of not wanting to immediately jump into something with such a large budget.
Robert Eggers: I think, certainly in the writing and prep process, what was really helpful is that I chose something that was deliberately narrative and entertaining. I wasn’t making a movie about Bauhaus architects to be my big movie. And there’s a way in which Viking sagas can read like 1980s action movies, truly. So that was really helpful. And then, the studio was super cool about letting me do this thing single-camera. And as I mentioned, me and my collaborators did not have the resume to be doing this. But we had an incredibly skilled crew who does Game of Thrones and Ridley Scott movies and Harry Potter and projects like that. So we had a ton of support.
I think where things become more challenging was in post-production. I think the main thing is how do you interpret notes in a way that you’re proud of — and we just had to constantly keep asking ourselves that. We just didn’t want to walk away with a movie that we couldn’t love. I mean, I know that sounds stupid, but that was the only way to do it — to just never, never give up.
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