Robert Eggers is known for historical horror movies. Director, screenwriter and scenographer 38-year-old Robert Eggers from New Hampshire, creator of “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”, presented a few days ago in Hamburg his historical Viking thriller “The Northman” of 80 million dollars. Starring Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Björk and stars Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy.
Robert Eggers in The Northman: “I’m Shocked to Have Made a Macho Movie”
The film takes place in Iceland in the 9th century: Prince Amleth (Skarsgård) must avenge the cruel death of his father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), who was killed by his brother (Claes Bang as Fjölnir). He wants to free his mother, Queen Gúdrun (Nicole Kidman), who was abducted after the murder and married Fjölnir. On his bloody journey of revenge he meets a spectator (Björk) who shows him the way – and with Olga a mysterious companion who helps him. Eggers is currently shooting his next historical vampire film: Nosferatu, which he has already researched in Lübeck, Wismar and Transylvania. American director-director in an interview for NDR.de about the Vikings, Björk, Hamlet, historical accuracy and his fascination with myths and legends.
So far you have made two films about American mythology and mythical creatures from New England, the area you are from. With your third feature film, cross over to northern Europe, to Viking mythology with Thor, Valhalla, Odin, Valkyries. How did this change come about?
Robert Eggers: I have written many non-New England scenarios that no one wanted to fund. This was the first to do this (laughs). To be honest, I once had no interest in the Vikings. I’m even somewhat shocked that I made such a macho movie. Because other than “Conan the Barbarian”, whom I absolutely loved as a child, the Vikings have never been my thing. Also, this cultural appropriation of Viking culture from the right wing has always bothered me. This caused me an allergic reaction to the topic.
But then I went to Iceland a while ago. These breathtaking landscape panoramas! To imagine that people in the dark ages, i.e., in the Middle Ages, traveled there and not just died, but also created something – they started a culture, is just madness!
So I started researching their legends and myths and then I fell in love with Viking culture. I wanted to: Maybe I can make a Viking movie? Because they were obviously horrible and violent. But: Your poets have also written wonderful poems and left wonderful music. They represent a cultural society that I did not expect. Amleth holds an Arabic coin as an amulet throughout the film.
So how did this movie come about?
Eggers: A few years ago I met actor Alex (Alexander Skarsgård, who was the co-producer of the film, ed.) Who wanted to make a Viking film for years. So we decided together: We will do it! As a New Englander, I needed an Icelandic screenwriter to co-write.
For Icelanders, sagas are so intertwined with their cultural identity and psyche that even people who hate these Viking tales know what generation they come from. Looking at their landscapes, it is not surprising that Icelanders today believe in crafts and spirits. My co-author Sjón Sigurdsson (in 2022 he was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay of the mysterious Icelandic film “Lamb”, the editor’s note) is not only Icelandic, but also an excellent screenwriter. I was lucky he wanted to work with me.
To what extent were you aware that this saga about Amleth was based on Shakespeare’s drama “Hamlet”?
Eggers: I wanted to write a story about Amleth and I only found out while working on this film. I was very embarrassed because my dad is a university professor, I ran Hamlet and even played it myself! I had no idea before that Hamlet was based on the Viking saga of Amleth. There are parallels: severed heads, the sacrifice of a woman at a funeral. But the revelation was that while I was writing, it became clear to me: My film will attract a wide audience.
In your latest movie “The Lighthouse” two lighthouse guards fought in the loneliness of the island, in “The Northman” a prince took revenge on his king, the men attacked the villages. Do you specifically treat toxic masculinity?
Eggers: Myths, sagas, fairy tales, religions, cults, which interest me the most. This interests me more than the movie. I am very privileged and lucky to be able to tell stories that reach a wide audience. Whenever I’m frustrated because making movies is hard work, I tell myself I’m not doing my art privately.
The most important thing in my stories is that I try to get people to act and think in a way that was logical and commonplace at the time. I show this without judging it. I am as objective as possible.
That is why the supernatural coexists naturally with the realist in my films. In the Viking era, everyone really knew who Odin was. There were no atheist Vikings. I do not want to convey any particular message. I just want to tell a story.
Have you watched many Viking movies from the movie history for your search?
Eggers: Not really, because since Richard Wagner almost everyone has done what they want to do with the Viking sagas. So I did not think there was much new to learn.
You are not only an author and director, but also a scenographer. Did you go to the Danish city of Roskilde to explore Viking ships, textiles and weapons, where you can make your own weapons and sail Viking boats to the Viking Museum?
Eggers: Of course (laughs)! A bonus point with such research is that you get a private tour of the Viking Museum in Roskilde. There we worked with the best archaeologists and historians. Also with experimental archaeologists becoming Vikings based on the test to check if what archaeologists are researching for the Viking era really works in everyday life. For me as a director, these experts helped me a lot.
To realize all this requires a lot of money and always have to make compromises with the film studio. What were these?
Eggers: I have always had experts on board my films, only this time the crowd was impressive. But I had to make far fewer compromises than you think. There were two big ones that I did not like. First: I was not allowed to show my penis. These would have been presented in a long scene.
But my film has to work on small aircraft screens and also in China. The other compromise was because of Covid. Many of the scenes should have been filmed in Iceland. But this was no longer possible due to the pandemic, which means that we sometimes used computer effects to insert Iceland into the photo we filmed in Ireland.
While others in the industry do it all the time, it’s not my style and it frustrates me. I have never worked as hard as I did for this film. I will never do that again, but: This pressure made the film better and resulted in what I had previously asked the producers: the most entertaining of all Robert Eggers films. I’m proud of this movie.
You are already working on the next film, your perspective on the classic Nosferatu….
Eggers: The only thing I can say about this now is that Harry Stiles was never considered to play the vampire Count Berlock …
I wanted to say more where you have researched everything about this, because Nosferatu was filmed more than 100 years ago in northern Germany. Where have you all been to the historic filming locations?
Eggers: I was in Wismar, Lübeck, Gdansk and Transylvania.
Want to live there?
Eggers: No, although Transylvania is a thrilling time machine. Shepherds can still be seen with their rags clothed against the cold sheep. The way they smoke a pipe, is very romantic. But I would hate to live in the past. But I like searching! Every aspect of it.
The talk was moderated by Patricia Batlle, NDR Kultur.