Robert Eggers: “Studio notes were brutal – but The Northman is the film I’m proud of and wanted to make”

PDon’t look at the rent The Northman on your phone. It would break Robert Eggers’ heart to see his Viking epic on a 6 inch screen. The director, with his pale green eyes and all-black clothes, looks dead serious. It would really break his heart. “Look, if the apocalypse happens, I’ll do street theater in front of a garbage fire,” he says. But for now – narrowly avoiding Armageddon – go to the movies if you can. “It’s just… it needs to be seen theatrically.”

At 38 and after just three feature films, Eggers is making a name for himself as an auteur filmmaker, first with 2015’s nightmarish Puritan Horror The witch — a debut that won him Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival — and then the surrealistic, weather-beaten drama The lighthouse. And now The Northman, a brilliant Viking entry of blood and guts drawn from the sagas of Icelandic folklore. It stars Alexander Skarsgård Amleth, an exiled prince intent on avenging the murder of his father (Ethan Hawke) and saving his mother (Nicole Kidman) from his evil uncle Fjölner (Claes Bang). in some ways The Northman is a very Eggers film. It is, after all, a macabre fable that turns into a terrible mess. But in a different way The Northman is the last thing audiences have come to expect from this big indie name.

For one thing, that’s just the way it is male. In a swashbuckling, chest-pounding way that seems unlikely from a writer whose most aggressive scene previously has been a homoerotic wrestling match between two deranged lighthouse keepers. Eggers is also surprised. “I watched that last fight scene earlier and wow that’s macho s***,” he chuckles. “It’s shocking to me that I made it.” The film is aggressive and behaves differently from his previous work. Blood spurts and sloshes, as opposed to oozing and dripping. “Sometimes the sagas read like an ’80s action movie,” he says. “It’s a culture that honors violence, plus this is a big action film. So how do I make violence exciting and entertaining without glorifying it?” Eggers does not yet know whether he has successfully followed this line.

The New Hampshire-born writer is known for his research. To describe Egger’s approach as meticulous would be an understatement. An example – one of hundreds available – is the clapboard farmhouse pictured in The witch. It was built using only frogs and drawknives; Circular saws did not exist in New England in the 1630s. Recreating the setting and slang of long-lost worlds is an arduous endeavor, which he enjoys, but it doesn’t translate well into a tentpole production with studio commitments, a tight shooting schedule and a $90million (£69million) budget. translate .

“My time was more divided than ever,” says the director. “The cast is so big; I spent most of pre-production emailing actors, which was very frustrating.” He originally wanted to be in the wardrobe department, hand-mending costumes. It’s the attention to detail and history that stretches back as far as Eggers can remember. His childhood bedroom in the rural town of Lee was “very messy”: a haphazard collection of costumes and swords, and “a whole lot of books.”

The rigidity that a blockbuster inevitably brings proved tricky for Eggers, too. “There’s this one scene where I don’t like the light, but we could only be in this place for a day. We had all the horses, the extras, the crane, everything.” He sighs, “If this was a small film, I would have found a way not to shoot that day.” You get the feeling that there was a scene with him keeps you up at night in the bad light. Giving up control was painful, but it helped that the studio allowed Eggers to work with its regular department heads; People who know what he likes and how he is. “The more I work with someone, the more freedom they’re given because the mind melding is happening,” he says. “They can say to me, ‘That’s not you. You don’t want that.’ And they will be right.”

Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman

(Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LL)

Eggers had once been “allergic” to Vikings. The machismo put him off; as did the white supremacists who misused Norse mythology. Things changed shortly thereafter when he visited Iceland in spring 2016 The witch had secured general release and earned $40 million. “It was unlike anything else I had seen. The grandeur, the antiquity, the otherworldly…” he falls silent. “It was the strongest experience ever. And it’s terribly embarrassing to say, but I felt like the Norse gods were really there.” If so, Eggers is the guy feeling it.

It’s not him religious, per se. When asked if this is the case, the director thinks for a long time before arriving at an answer that is neither here nor there (“My films are my attempt to reach the sublime”). Religious or not, his work lifts the veil between myth and reality. “We live in such a secular society now, with no easy access to the sublime or the profound. What appeals to me about these past cultures is that the mythological world is the same as the real world.” For anyone wondering, the answer is no. Eggers will never make a film set in the present; “It would devastate me a bit to photograph a cell phone.”

Today, in a hotel room in central London, Eggers looks a little uneasy. It’s not that he doesn’t look like a hot director (the beard is stylishly trimmed; the signet rings are cool; and all in black makes a statement). But it’s the giant movie poster behind him. The lighting system is enthroned above us. The microphone attached to his shirt. He would probably feel more at home barefoot in the freezing mud on the set of one of his films. Though Eggers is the first to admit that while he’s “infatuated” with the past, his fondness for craft non-dairy coffee is a deal-breaker. “I can’t live in the past. I need to be able to get an oat milk cortado,” he chuckles.


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Anya Taylor-Joy was 17 when she starred in Egger’s 2015 horror film The Witch.


On this first trip to Iceland, Eggers also met Sjón, the famous Icelandic poet, whose expertise he sought The Northman. They were introduced by Bjork, he tells me, inflecting the musician’s name with the same intonation as the average admirer. “She texted my wife and I, ‘Come over, I’m making salmon. I invite my friend Sjón and his wife [opera singer] Asgerdur. I think you guys will get along.’” They became good friends and later co-writers. “I was really scared to ask Sjón,” Eggers recalls. “I needed an Icelandic writer. A lot of Icelanders believe in land spirits and fairies, so someone with that cultural understanding was really important to me. Sjón was the arbiter of taste. He always had the final say on whether something was truly Icelandic enough.”

Given Egger’s penchant for historical accuracy, this is surprising The Northman is in English. To be clear, if he had his way it would have been in Old Norse. “Maybe one day I can self-fund my own historical epics like Mel Gibson, but it had to be in English.” Instead of speaking the language, the actors speak with a Nordic accent. “I don’t know if it’s even a good idea for the cast to have that Nordic accent that we created,” says Eggers half-heartedly. But the options were American Vikings, British Vikings, all with a different accent or “that Norse thing”. He grimaces slightly. “Given the choices, I think I chose the best option…I hope.”

Eggers indulged his “nerdy” side elsewhere, working with Sjón and expert archaeologists to create the most historically accurate Viking film ever made. At such details – like a mummified horse’s penis in one scene, or the Finnish headgear worn by Kidman – Eggers’ typically reticent uncorks; the factoids come out quick and frothy.

Pre reviews of The Northman are excited. “The film allows Eggers to take his flair for folkloric imagery to a new extreme,” it says The Independent‘s five star rating. It’s hard to believe that test screenings didn’t go down so well. Eggers is careful not to take test screenings to heart. “Of course you can learn things, but I think it’s a shame that the industry attaches so much importance to it,” he says today. “Any statistician would tell you there’s not enough data to be provable, so it gets frustrating when you get complaints saying this and that, because yes, that’s true, but for 200 people,” he recalls to a specific feedback. “There’s a line where Amleth says something like ‘I’m going to drown my father’s killer in a burning lake,’ and then the audience was confused as to why he didn’t literally drown him…” He looks up at me in mock fear, as if to say, “Really?”

Eggers and crew members on the set of The Northman

(Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LL)

However, other changes were made, with some being easier to swallow than others. Eggers politely declines to give specific examples, but concedes the process was “brutal”. “Sjón said, ‘We are smart, creative people. If we can’t interpret the studio’s notes in a way that we’re proud of, then we’re just not working hard enough.” And that was the only way to do it.” He exhales and laughs. “We had to work really hard.”

Eggers carefully clarifies that he believes he has put pressure on the studio The Northman better. He told it recently The guard that a different narrative that emerged from it The New Yorker Profile, “was frustrating”. Because even though he didn’t have the final cut, Eggers tells me with certainty that this is the director’s cut. “The end product is the film that I’m proud of and wanted to make.” And on the subject of further possible blockbusters or sticking to indie fare? “You see, it’s satisfying for me to be able to choose every single doorknob and hinge, and I just couldn’t do that in this case…” He pauses before deciding on a diplomatic reply. “Both. Both are good.” However, at Eggers you have the feeling that one is possibly a tad better than the other.

“The Northman” hits theaters on April 15

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/robert-eggers-the-northman-interview-b2057206.html Robert Eggers: “Studio notes were brutal – but The Northman is the film I’m proud of and wanted to make”


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