Any actor would be lucky to have filmmaker Robert Eggers steering their ship—but that doesn’t mean collaborating with the tirelessly precise auteur is easy. He demands as much of his actors as he does of his crew—and of himself. While filming “The Northman” in Northern Ireland, Eggers reached moments when he and his team were pushed to their limits. The Viking revenge saga is his first studio-backed feature.
“I definitely didn’t think it was going to become this big,” Eggers says on a mid-March video call. “But next thing I knew, me and [my co-writer] Sjón, the Icelandic novelist-poet, had written something that was much more epic than we expected. It has the set pieces you want if you were making, like, the Viking movie, which this is—I’m ashamed to say—attempting to be. We’ve made my longship; now I have to be buried in it.”
Eggers’ first two features, A24 indies “The Witch” (2015) and “The Lighthouse” (2019), signaled the arrival of a new genre wunderkind. He brought to the table creative clarity, a dedication to gritty historical authenticity, and incredible partnerships with his actors—Anya Taylor-Joy and Willem Dafoe among them. Even though he’s only two feature-length films into his body of work, audiences know when they’re watching an Eggers project.
It was “The Witch” that caught Alexander Skarsgård’s attention and prompted him to meet Eggers over coffee five years ago in New York. At the time, the “True Blood” and “Big Little Lies” actor had been sitting on a vague Viking movie pitch, bouncing ideas around with producer Lars Knudsen for years. Their meeting wasn’t meant to lead to “The Northman,” but Eggers had just returned from a trip to Iceland.
“He had basically fallen in love with the culture and the history of the place, and delved into the mythology of the Vikings and the Norse gods,” Skarsgård remembers.
“It was fated,” the producer-star adds, teasingly nodding to “the big topic of the movie.”
“I am only now equipped with the skills to make the film that I just made. I did not have them when I made it.”
Skarsgård stars as Amleth, crown prince and son of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), who, as a young boy, narrowly escapes after his uncle slays the king to usurp the throne. The murder sets the warrior on a lifelong quest to avenge his father and save the captive mother he left behind (Nicole Kidman).
While the film’s larger-than-life set pieces—from bloody battlefields to ransacked villages—required hundreds of extras, months of rehearsal, and enough mud and gore to make “Game of Thrones” blush, Eggers says he had a different goal in mind than filmmakers who’ve made similarly bold period dramas.
“More or less, we’re trying to do historical recreation,” he says. You won’t find any dragons on the hilts of his swords; instead, he mined museums and burial sites for visual reference points. Eggers’ history of working wonders on a very small budget and his “attention to detail combined with his passion for knowledge” made him the “absolute dream director for this project,” says Skarsgård.
Considering he was coming from the indie world, “The Northman” was a baptism by fire for Eggers (just the way the Vikings liked it). “It probably was not the right next step,” he admits of his graduation from A24 auteur to studio filmmaker. “Probably after doing a $13 million movie, I should’ve done a $20 million movie and not this big epic,” he says. (“The Northman,” a co-production of New Regency Productions, Focus Features, and Perfect World Pictures, cost an estimated $90 million.) “I am only now equipped with the skills to make the film that I just made. I did not have them when I made it.”
To compensate for his lack of blockbuster experience, Eggers became an expert on his subject matter. He immersed himself in details of the 10th century, following the lead of his wife, Dr. Alexandra Shaker, who has a passion for Nordic literature.
“My research is everything, from the most academic papers imaginable to children’s books and podcasts—really, anything I can dig into,” the filmmaker says. He also had the “great fortune” to work closely with historians and experimental archaeologists, who are known for creating hypothetical reenactments that imagine what life actually might have looked like 1,000 years ago.
For “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” Eggers employed period-specific touches in costuming (wool, linen, and hemp), score (the nyckelharpa and other historically accurate instruments), and lighting (natural sources like the sun and candle flames). “Maybe I’m more anal about it than some other directors,” Eggers admits, citing his background in production design.
As an example, Skarsgård looks to “The Northman” production designer Craig Lathrop’s work. A farm central to the plot was built a year before production “so that it felt real and had time to grow and age properly.” Everything was as accurate to the era as possible, down to the grasses that speckled the land.
“We were acting, but the elements of nature were right there,” Skarsgård says. “When we swim in the ocean, it’s the real ocean; when we’re up on that mountain, it’s not a wind machine or a rain machine. As an actor, you just have to deal with what’s going on around you.”
The lengths the preproduction team went to in order to achieve period accuracy were matched by detailed camerawork during filming. Eggers credits legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in part with cementing the multicam approach many directors use to capture large battle sequences today. He laments, though, that “it’s become a convention without a lot of specificity and without a lot of craft.” Crews shoot a whole bunch of setups just to put it together in postproduction. “It’s a way to kind of save your butt,” he says.
“You just don’t shoot action-adventure films that way. I knew that it would be physically and mentally challenging.”
For “The Northman,” he wanted to employ extended single-camera takes used by the likes of Sam Mendes in “1917” and Alfonso Cuarón in “Children of Men.” The result: a Viking raid seen from the perspective of the shirtless, muscled Amleth that features minutes-long tracking shots, choreographed violence coming in and out of frame, and even the smallest background actors in the distance playing to camera in character.
“It does require a different discipline, and it’s something that people aren’t very used to,” Eggers says.
Skarsgård is more blunt: “You just don’t shoot action-adventure films that way. I knew that it would be physically and mentally challenging.
“It felt to me like a way for the audience to feel a bit more immersed,” the actor continues. “We’re so accustomed to watching action scenes and movies with a gazillion cuts that, maybe, hopefully, this could create something visually different. That excitement helped [me] get through the hardship of it, because, of course, it’s incredibly demanding.”
Skarsgård’s work on the film began several months prior to shooting in August 2020, training with stunt coordinator C.C. Smiff and stunt double Mark Slaughter. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke were also involved in the rehearsal process.
“A big part of it is that relationship between us and the camera,” Skarsgård explains. “We’re moving at full clip in the fight scenes, and [so are] the cameras. So it was very important to be aware of each other, to keep it safe so we don’t crash into each other, and to make sure the timing was absolutely perfect.”
Such a thorough tech period allowed actors to easily jump in with physical movements so they could instead focus on the emotion and intensity of the scene at hand. “Going through a big fight, your character is in a circus state of mind,” Skarsgård says. “There’s little room to think about marks on the ground or hitting certain positions. You just want to be fully immersed in it and go storytell. It’s all about just doing the homework leading up to the shoot.”
Still, not everything went perfectly on the day. Eggers is, unsurprisingly, a leader who doesn’t call wrap until he gets what he needs. That means an average of 15 takes per scene, but he’ll notch as many as twice that amount when necessary. “It’s just an instinctual thing, and it’s hard,” Eggers says of how he knows when he’s got it.
“Knowing that Rob is not going to move on until it is exactly the way he imagined it was, in a way, reassuring, because that meant that when he calls cut, it’s going to be a really good take,” Skarsgård says. “But those sequences, a lot of them are very, very long and incredibly intense to shoot, and it’s exhausting to do it once, let alone 25 or 30 times. But it’s also a privilege. It was an opportunity for three, four minutes to release all inhibitions and go crazy and stay in that. It is an exceptionally memorable experience that I would never trade for anything.”
Looking ahead, Eggers is interested in using the new visual language he mastered for “The Northman” in a slower-paced character study. Collaborators like Blaschke, Lathrop, and editor Louise Ford will almost certainly be along for the ride.
“After having accomplished ‘The Northman,’ I feel like I am finally a film director; I’m not pretending to be one.
Which is a nice feeling, but it certainly makes the next thing daunting—because I think that some of the stuff that I had been working on or thinking about would be a step easier,” Eggers reflects. “Indulging in the character work in the next film will be something that, whether or not it’s the greatest challenge, is something I’ll probably personally need.”
This story originally appeared in the May 5 issue of Backstage Magazine.
Photographed by Zoe Mcconnell on 4/6 at the Soho Hotel in London. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.