STATEMENT FROM THE DIRECTOR, ROBERT EGGERS
I never wanted to make a Viking movie. I thought Vikings were violent, hulking brutes with nothing of interest. My wife, on the other hand, had been fond of the Icelandic Sagas, the esteemed medieval stories of Viking lore, and she knew that I would love them. But even at her insistence, I never opened one of these great books. When we went to Iceland in 2015, the epic and overwhelming landscapes inspired me completely. I immediately imagined solitary tenth century figures on horseback, dwarfed by supernaturally colored mountains, glaciers, and infinite skies. There was something about the elements, and the elemental that cried out from the landscapes. Then I got thinking about Vikings, and learning what really had existed in the first decades of tenth century Scandinavia and at the same time being alert to the reinterpretations and inaccurate elements that had been projected onto the Viking culture in the millennia that followed. I found a full and complex civilization of beautiful art, cultural and religious fusion, advanced technology, elaborate customs, and codes of honor and justice. But it was also a culture of extreme violence and subjugation, and one where horrific cycles of revenge knew no end. Humankind, it seems, never changes. Maybe that’s why I am drawn to the past. It is a dark and distant mirror.
After a fated lunch with Alexander Skarsgård, the idea of making a Viking film became real. I knew (forgive the hubris) that I needed to try and make the Viking movie. The definitive Viking movie. With the help of the brilliant Icelandic novelist and poet, Sjón, we would embark on making the most historically accurate and grounded Viking film of all time. We would be working with archeologists and historians, trying to recreate the minutiae of the physical world, while also attempting to capture, without judgment, the inner world of the Viking mind: their beliefs, mythology, and ritual life. That would mean the supernatural would be as realistic as the ordinary in this film – for so it was for them. Recent television, film, and video game representations of Viking mythology and Old Norse culture are romanticized and made to look flashy and cool. The public perception of a Viking today looks more like a science-fiction-rock-star than an Old Norse priestess, farmer, warrior, or queen. With our fanatical research we would attempt to redefine this image with something as grounded and elemental as the landscapes that were so inspiring.
Viking Age visual arts, like their poetry, are rich, intricate, and complex – but unlike the poetry, it is abstract and not atmospheric. So visually, it would be landscapes and the elements – the wind, mud, rain, snow, dirt, ice, ash, and fire – that would create the atmosphere of this film – that, and the sounds of nature, accompanied by the sounds of Viking Age instruments. The camerawork endeavors to be timeless, with graphic, organized, staging – stark and Nordic. And this ever-moving camera is meant
to be hypnotic and transportive – the long takes bringing you into the world to experience this ancient time unfold before your eyes. These long, dense takes that simultaneously endeavor to tell the story, while immersing the audience further into the culture, took immense discipline, and total collaboration. Everyone involved, from the actors, the camera operators, stunt people, the costume breakdown artists, jewelers, armorers, prop-makers, animal handlers, birch horn and bone flute players – even studio executives – were all concentrated on the goal to make this one whole cohesive piece, based on history – and to make it together – all of us pushing each other to do our best work beyond our abilities. In the Old Norse creation story, the world and its elements are made by the body parts of a slain giant. We were all these elements: the blood, bones, teeth, and brains, that together – and only together – made up the imperfect slain giant that is: The Northman.
Young Prince Amleth is on the cusp of becoming a man when his father is brutally murdered by his uncle, who kidnaps the boy’s mother. Fleeing his island kingdom by boat, the child vows revenge. Two decades later, Amleth is a Viking berserker raiding Slavic villages, where a seeress reminds him of his vow: avenge his father, save his mother, kill his uncle. Traveling on a slave ship to Iceland, Amleth infiltrates his uncle’s farm with the help of Olga, an enslaved Slavic woman — and sets out to honor his vow. From visionary writer-director Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) comes an immersive Viking epic like no other featuring an ensemble cast including Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Björk.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
From Robert Eggers comes a meticulously crafted and epic Viking revenge saga starring Alexander Skarsgård as Prince Amleth, a 10th-century Norseman who flees his homeland after witnessing a horrific act, only to return years later as a hardened berserker determined to avenge the savagery inflicted upon his family.
Featuring an ensemble cast, including Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, Willem Dafoe and Björk, The Northman re-imagines the Norse myths, Icelandic sagas and Viking legends from a distant era through Eggers’ signature focus on craftsmanship and authentic detail.
“This is a big, muscular adventure, grander in scale than his previous films,” says Willem Dafoe, who co-starred in The Lighthouse, and plays the court jester Heimir the Fool in The Northman. “But Robert approaches it with the same kind of detail, creating sets, props and even shots that are made with such precision and care that the pretending on the part of the audience becomes effortless. Inside each shot of this movie there is a rhythm and a story and a dynamic that’s beautiful on its own. Everything’s there on screen; you don’t simply enter Eggers’ worlds — you get folded into them.”
Recalling familiar stories ranging from Hamlet and Beowulf to The Lion King, The Northman takes its roots from the classic and timeless story of a young man scorned and adrift who plots revenge as he tries to make sense of his place in the universe without a role model, mentor, mother or father.
“The most famous story of family revenge in literature is Hamlet,” says producer and star Alexander Skarsgård, who spent ten years developing a Viking film that eventually became The Northman with producer Lars Knudsen (The Witch, Hereditary) before it started production in 2020. “Hamlet’s key influence and predecessor is the Scandinavian legend of Amleth and that’s essentially the movie we’ve made, infusing the flavors of the old Norse myths with the dry, laconic language of the Icelandic sagas and retaining the supernatural elements from the Amleth legend.”
Eggers co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Icelandic poet, novelist, lyricist and screenwriter Sjón (Lamb, Dancer in the Dark), using his inimitable emphasis on atmosphere and design to elevate the Viking epic to bold new heights. “The intention with The Witch was to revitalize that archetypal figure after Hocus Pocus and countless Halloween decorations made witches no longer scary,” says Eggers. “In the same way that The Witch asked its audience: You think you know what a witch is? Well, think again. We’re trying to explore and articulate what Vikings were about in a similar way.”
THE TIME OF THE NORTHMAN
For The Northman, Eggers and Sjón blended the Amleth legend with elements from the Icelandic sagas and Norse myths to create a wholly original story that plays out around the turn of the 10th century. Written in Old Icelandic (a dialect of Old Norse) and taking place in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, the Icelandic family sagas are prose narratives based on historical events centering primarily on local life; by contrast, the legendary sagas, from which the Amleth story originated, used elements of Medieval romance to spin more supernatural and adventure-derived stories.
“The Legendary sagas are still mostly set in the Viking Age but they are much more fanciful than the (more domestic-oriented) family sagas in that they feature monsters, dragons and heroes rescuing princesses,” says Neil Price, the British archaeology professor and author specializing in magic, sorcery and religion in the Viking Age, who was also a consultant on The Northman. “The Amleth story emerged from the legendary end of things as opposed to the family sagas, and the screenwriters understood the difference. One of the first things that Robert said to me was that I should think of this as a movie based on a Legendary saga — the fantasy element was important to him. As he did in his other movies, the magical and visionary aspects of the story can be interpreted by the viewer as actually happening, or as states of mind.”
The screenwriters divided the story into three central locations, using the dawn of the tenth century as an historical anchor point. The movie opens in the middle of the Viking Age, after the Scandinavians have expanded across the North Sea and begin to settle in the British Isles and across the North Atlantic. During the story’s prologue, set on the fictitious island kingdom of Hrafnsey, located somewhere around the
Orkney and Shetland Islands, Amleth is a young boy who is being groomed to inherit the throne of his father.
Several decades later, Amleth finds himself in a radically different environment after he flees Hrafnsey for the Land of the Rus following an act of shocking violence. Now a seasoned berserker warrior, he is part of a Viking raiding party working the rivers of Eastern Europe, where the eastern Vikings traded, plundered and settled during the tenth century.
Disguised on a slave ship bound for Iceland in 914, Amleth reaches shore in a territory that has only been settled for a few decades. A unique social experiment as a land without kings, Iceland was created as a republic for free farmers — a place where someone could start a new life, or in the case of Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir, flee from an old one.
“This is by far the most accurate depiction of the Viking Age I’ve ever seen,” says Price. “I was on set during pre-production when they were in the process of bringing all of this to life and I found it overwhelming — I’ve never seen this level of attention to detail in an historical film before.”
A VIKING EPIC TAKES SHAPE
Skarsgård began developing a Viking movie more than a decade ago. Indeed, the idea for the project dates back to the actor-producer’s childhood, when he first became enchanted by Viking myth and lore. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Skarsgård grew up surrounded by the heritage of the Vikings.
Many years later, after catapulting to fame playing the vampire Eric Northman on True Blood, beginning in 2008, Skarsgård began envisioning the Viking epic of his dreams, something he would both star in and produce. A development team worked on the project for a while, but it stalled in the writing stage.
“We had a hard time figuring out where to enter the world because the Viking era went on for over a century, and they traveled all over the world,” says Skarsgård. “One thing that remained constant from the beginning was this specific tone — we wanted the story to reflect the laconic feel of the Icelandic sagas.”
A few years later, Skarsgård and producer Lars Knudsen, from Denmark, started looking for a filmmaker with a specific vision who understood the unique tone of the Icelandic sagas and who was familiar with the culture and history of the Vikings.
Knudsen, who had produced first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers’ art-house horror sensation The Witch in 2013, brought up Eggers to Skarsgård. “Eggers’ attention to detail was unlike any I had ever seen,” says Skarsgård. Six months later, Skarsgård found himself meeting with Eggers in New York. They ended up spending an entire afternoon talking about the Viking lore. “Rob will say otherwise but he already knew a great deal about Vikings, including their culture, history and literature,” recalls Skarsgård. “He was fired up about the project and I immediately called Lars and suggested Rob direct our movie. He came on board, and we couldn’t have been more excited.”
Unlike Skarsgård, Eggers had not grown up enchanted with Viking culture. He preferred medieval knights and was put off by the macho stereotype of Vikings and knew very little about the Icelandic sagas. After The Witch came out, Eggers and his wife traveled to Iceland. “As soon as we landed in Reykjavik, and saw the Icelandic landscape, which felt out of time, I wanted to make a movie there,” says Eggers.
After visiting the Saga Museum in Iceland, they met the novelist and screenwriter Sjón (Red Milk, CoDex 1962: A Trilogy) at a dinner party. “I asked him what he wrote about and he said his last novel was about witchcraft in 17th century Iceland, so we got on like a house on fire,” says Eggers, whose debut feature was set in a similar milieu. “When I returned to the States I read his books, and found myself completely enamored of the way that he’s immersed the past in his work.”
Eggers sent Skarsgård and Knudsen the mythic prologue to Sjón’s 2008 witchcraft novel From the Mouth of the Whale. “I just felt from the prologue alone that he was the perfect person to write this Viking project with me,” says Eggers. “Alexander and Lars agreed, and Sjón came aboard as our co-writer.”
Eggers returned to Iceland in 2018 to begin writing The Northman with Sjón, focusing on the Icelandic Sagas, and thinking about the insular culture and landscape of Iceland as a location for the movie. “Having an Icelander, especially someone as brilliant and magical as Sjón to write this with me, made it possible to make this story as authentic as I felt it needed to be,” says Eggers. “Later on, I found myself laughing out loud on set thinking about the things we cooked up in our socks in his kitchen as I watched the story come to life.”
As they worked towards the shooting script, Eggers brought in three experts to provide feedback on the story, including Price, the archaeology professor and author of Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, a definitive account of the Viking Age; Terry Gunnell, Professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland; and the historian Jóhanna Katrín Fridriksðóttir, the author of Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World and an authority on Viking sagas and poetry. “These three consultants were our mega-heroes but we also worked with people in the experimental archaeology re- enactment communities once we got into production, to ensure we were telling our story as authentically as possible,” says Eggers.
A FRESH TAKE ON AN ANCIENT STORY
The Northman centers on Amleth (Oscar Novak), a young prince living in a prosperous kingdom in the North Atlantic close to the Orkney Islands, ruled by his father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Returning from a journey, the King subjects Amleth to an initiation ritual solidifying his position in the family so he can take over the kingdom when his father dies.
After the ceremony, Aurvandil is murdered in front of Prince Amleth by his own uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fleeing the bloodbath, the 10-year-old boy escapes the island in a rowboat, vowing to avenge his father and save his mother, now in the clutches of Fjölnir. Twenty years pass. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), now hardened with rage, is part of a band of Viking berserkers from Sweden making raids up and down the rivers of Eastern Europe.
As the rowdy berserkers drunkenly celebrate their plunder, Amleth meets a seeress (Björk) who reminds him of his fate and mission. Newly invigorated, he learns that Fjölnir is running a farm in Iceland. Disguised as a slave, Amleth leaves with other Slavs bound for Iceland, among them, Olga of the Birch Forest, with whom he forms a bond.
Amleth and Olga go to work on Fjölnir’s farm with the other enslaved people. His Uncle Fjölnir is raising Gunnar (Elliott Rose), Amleth’s half-brother, along with another son, Thorír (Gustav Lindh). Biding his time, making himself indispensable on the farm, Amleth waits for the right moment to enact — and unleash — his deadly promise.
Casting took shape in early 2019, with Alexander Skarsgård in the lead as Prince Amleth. The Northman features an ensemble cast, bringing back several returning players from Eggers’ past works including Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, the parents in Eggers’ debut feature The Witch. Newcomers to the Eggers fold in The Northman include Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, and Björk, who returns to filmmaking after a two-decade absence in a small but unforgettable role as a Slavic seeress.
BECOMING A VIKING
Alexander Skarsgård was cast in the lead from the project’s inception, something Eggers had no problem taking into consideration as he wrote the screenplay with Sjón. “He was smart to develop a Viking movie for himself because he’s the perfect person for it, physically,” says Eggers. “He’s a 6-foot 4 Nordic actor who can transform his body into this ferocious machine. Alex was totally fearless as he was bringing Amleth to life, and through hard work he became a Viking.”
Skarsgård plowed through research and lectures online, reading books on Viking culture, history and mythology, including Children of Ash and Elm, which became his bible before and during the shoot. He also transformed himself physically, working with Swedish personal trainer and nutritionist Magnus Lygdback.
“The Vikings believed that some people had a spirit animal living within them that would manifest itself on occasion in different ways,” says Skarsgard, of the research he wove into his performance. “For women it was often a sea creature but for men it was a fox or a wolf or a bear and in Amleth’s case, it’s both wolf and bear — Beowulf, if you will. Before the big raid on the Slav village, we watch him take on the strength and ferocity of a bear combined with the agility and nimbleness of a wolf.”
Skarsgård had trained with Lygdback on The Legend of Tarzan in 2016, transforming into a lean and lithe jungle adventurer. For The Northman the actor required menacing Viking bulk. “Physically we wanted Alex to be thicker this time around, with more body fat than Tarzan, and bigger shoulders,” says Lygdback, who has trained Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot for superhero roles. “Since Amleth is a wolf-bear hybrid in a Viking legend, we wanted Alexander to be able to move smoothly while fighting with swords and axes but at the same time possess an imposing size and thickness.”
Other physical demands required for the role included hand-to-hand fighting, mounting a fortress wall during a Viking raid, leaping across rooftops, swimming in sea waters, and participating in the brutal lacrosse-like ball game known as Knattleikr, played by Icelandic
Lygdback prepared Skarsgård for long days of carefully orchestrated action scenes through strength exercises that mimicked the physical activity he was doing in character as a berserker. “Alex was eating five times a day,” says Lygdback. “Every day on set was super physical, with a lot of fighting, sprinting, and emotional rush. Every three hours during filming I made sure he stopped to eat.”
Skarsgård became part of a coterie of actors who were required to move in tandem during the berserker raid on the Slavic village. Choreographer Marie Gabrielle Rotie had to find a way for Skarsgård and various 250-pound men to move with grace through a complicated scene without making them look like professional dancers.
Rotie created the sequence by combining modern dance with fighting moves and trance-induced shamanism, employing ritualistic movements that mimicked the body being taken over by an internal force. Separating the actors into bears and wolves, as the script required, Rotie taught them techniques from Butoh, a Japanese dance for processing pain and suffering through confronting the shadows within.
“This was perfect for Alexander because Amleth finds that darkness inside himself, and works with it to suit his own needs,” says Rotie, who on Eggers’ instruction watched Andrzej Żuławski’s psychological horror classic Possession, in particular the famous scene in a subway tunnel featuring Isabelle Adjani in a seizure-like state of delirium. “That’s what Rob wanted the berserker transformation to be like. We definitely felt Alexander becoming this very volatile, vengeful and angry character, surrounded by his Viking brethren.”
BUILDING THE ENSEMBLE
When Eggers began talking with Skarsgård about making The Northman, the busy actor had just finished working with Nicole Kidman on the Emmy-winning limited series Big Little Lies, in which they played Celeste and Perry Wright, the volatile husband and wife at the center of the popular David E. Kelley mystery drama set in Big Sur, California.
Both Eggers and Skarsgård were in agreement that nobody else could play the complex Queen Gudrún but Nicole Kidman. They sent the script to her and Eggers flew to Nashville to meet with the Academy and Emmy Award-winning actress. She accepted. “We had about a minute and a half of small talk and she said I’m in,” says Eggers. “She told me she thought the script had teeth.”
Two years after Big Little Lies ended, following its second season, Skarsgård found himself working with Kidman again, but in markedly different roles. “Once again we were playing a dysfunctional, violent couple in The Northman,” laughs Skarsgård, “This time we were mother and son but the relationship is still a nightmare. We agreed that the next time we worked together, we would find a sweet romantic comedy.”
Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma, Last Night in Soho) readily signed on to play Olga of the Birch Forest, the Slavic woman who teams up with Amleth for their mutual survival, even before the script was complete. Eggers and Taylor-Joy both launched their careers with The Witch, with the young actor drawing accolades for her performance as a teenager confronting witchcraft in 17th century Massachusetts. Taylor-Joy has gone on to become a global superstar, appearing in the Netflix sensation The Queen’s Gambit and the costume drama Emma, among others.
“I was already aboard on The Northman because it’s Robert, and I was more than ready to go on another adventure with him,” says Taylor-Joy. “When he told me he’d written the character with me in mind, I was overwhelmed and humbled.” Olga has a deep connection to the spiritual world, and to nature. And she believes in destiny and fate, even as Amleth violently enters her life during a Viking raid. “Fate brings them together when they communicate for the first time on the ship,” says Taylor-Joy. “It’s the beginning of this incredible bond that carries them through the rest of the story.”
Working with Eggers for a second time was a great experience for the in-demand actor. “My first experience with filmmaking was with him, on the set of The Witch, which was one of my favorite experiences as an actor,” says Taylor-Joy. “I didn’t realize how much of the way I comport myself on other film sets is because I learned it from Robert. We have such a precise understanding of each other at this point that we go to interesting places very quickly on set.”
Danish actor Claes Bang (The Square) was attracted to the role of Amleth’s villainous uncle Fjölnir because the original Amleth story was rooted in a 12th century Danish history text from Saxo Grammaticus — a story he already knew. “The reason everyone knows this story in Denmark is because Shakespeare got his hands on it and turned it into Hamlet, and later it morphed into The Lion King,” says Bang. “Robert and Sjón have made it gorier and set it in Iceland during the day and age in which it actually took place.”
The half-brother of King Aurvandil, Fjölnir has aims to the throne and decides to do something about it, decapitating the King and fleeing to Iceland with his wife Queen Gudrún. Twenty years later, he’s still with her, running a farm on Iceland and raising two sons. But he is unsettled, disturbed by an omen that has come back to haunt him.
“What Robert has done with this is similar to Shakespeare’s strategy, taking the story and making it psychological, philosophical and existential like a Greek tragedy,” says Bang. “But the psychological factor is not so much at play here like it was in Shakespeare, who put the story inside Hamlet’s head as he tries to come to terms with his actions. By focusing more on external action, Robert and Sjón put The Northman in the category of the revenge story, where the action is lived.”
Accustomed to performing in more cerebral, art-house films, Bang took on the part of Fjölnir because he wanted to work in a different way, with less dialogue and more physical demands. Unlike co-star Skarsgård, who became a stereotypical Viking barbarian, Bang had to play a warrior turned farmer.
Playing King Aurvandil, who is murdered within the first 20 minutes of the movie, Ethan Hawke (First Reformed) was drawn to the project because of the script’s unique approach to language. “Most films don’t aspire to originality in language, it’s something you see more of in the theater,” says Hawke, who played Macbeth on stage at Lincoln Center. “Any playwright worth their salt has their own unique use of language, and character, and world-building, but for the sake of mass appeal, cinema has a more naturalistic approach to language. But I felt there was real poetry to the language in The Northman — it almost feels like Beowulf. On first read, I thought it aspired to be a kind of grand poem about a Viking king.”
For Hawke, playing Aurvandil was a chance to inhabit the medieval king character he has always wanted to play. “This is a very old story, even older than Hamlet,” says Hawke. “My character is in a lot of ways a symbol of both fatherhood and something lost — I found him to be an incredibly interesting man.”
As Heimir the Fool, Willem Dafoe (Nightmare Alley, The Card Counter) plays a crucial role in The Northman, one that isn’t immediately apparent from his early appearance. “He’s like a court jester but he’s also a shaman or a priest of sorts, and he conducts a very important ritual in the story,” says Dafoe, who played the seafarer Thomas Wake in Eggers’ 2019 supernatural drama The Lighthouse.
Eggers wrote Heimir specifically for Dafoe, and the actor readily signed on to work with Eggers again, knowing he was in the hands of a master filmmaker. “He makes personal cinema, but it’s a kind that uses cinematic language: very little coverage and specifically designed shots working closely with the same cinematographer (Jarin Blaschke),” says Dafoe, who has appeared in more than 100 movies. “But he’s also an actor who speaks the actor’s language. He has a great back and forth in a scene and gives lots of challenges.”
Dafoe was also drawn to Eggers’ cinematic universe for his attention to detail and insistence on historical accuracy and exactitude. “The Northman is set in a time period and culture that I didn’t know a lot about, but I trusted Robert’s research, and got sucked into it,” says Dafoe. “He’s clearly a student of history, and you get drawn into his worlds with him.”
Two more veterans from the Eggers core ensemble return in The Northman — Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson, who starred alongside Taylor-Joy in The Witch. Scottish-born Kate Dickie (The Green Knight) plays Halldóra the Pict, the housekeeper on Fjölnir’s farm in Iceland who was once a slave. “She’s got a dark history but she’s spent most of her adult life being displaced somewhere else,” says Dickie. “There’s a lot of things bubbling inside of her.”
Dickie, who had a breakout role in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, before going on to play Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones, researched the Picts of her native Scotland before showing up on set to work with Eggers a second time. “It was an honor to work with Robert again,” says Dickie. “I stood on set and watched him give as much attention to the supporting cast and crew as he did with the principal cast.”
Playing Captain Volodymyr, the merchant captain of the ship transporting Amleth and Olga to safety, prolific actor Ralph Ineson (The Green Knight, Game of Thrones) stands out in The Northman with one of the movie’s great costumes, courtesy of Linda Muir. “Volodymyr gets to wear lots of bling and jewelry and various trinkets from his trading journeys to faraway lands,” says Ineson. “The look of him tells a very interesting story.”
No stranger to the costume drama, Ineson was eager to work with Eggers again. “Rob Eggers was the best thing to happen to my career as an actor and I thought The Northman was a wonderful story,” says Ineson. “I think the old Viking stories lend themselves to these epic retellings because they cover so much ground, giving them an exotic, international element.
Coming out of filmmaking retirement to play the Seeress, is the musician Björk, whose last film appearance was in Lars Von Trier’s 2000 musical Dancer in the Dark. Wearing a sumptuous costume by Linda Muir, Björk tells Amleth in no uncertain terms that he has lost his way in life.
Recalling his scene with Björk, Skarsgård remembers one of the best nights of the film’s Northern Ireland shoot, one that included a break in the inclement weather that plagued the production. “It was cold, but there was no wind or rain, and we had a full moon that night, appropriately,” says Skarsgård. “When we shot Björk’s coverage inside a structure in the Slav village, the full moon was behind her. She talks about fate and spirits and connection with Mother Earth in her scene — it was incredible to watch her on this rare night of immaculate weather, a truly memorable experience.”
Adds Eggers, it was the performer’s powerful and authentic sense of self that inspired him above all else. “Björk is Björk and her persona is the real thing,” says Eggers. “I’ve met other celebrities with personas that seem stylized or affected and you can tell it’s put-on nonsense, but with Björk you know you are getting true authenticity. Who else should be playing a bejeweled seeress but Björk?”
A DREAM TEAM REUNITED
For the third time, Eggers returns with his core crew of key collaborators, including production designer Craig Lathrop, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, costume designer Linda Muir, and editor Louise Ford. For The Northman, they worked together on a much larger scale but found themselves working in the same way they always have since they recreated a 17th century Massachusetts farm for The Witch nearly a decade ago.
“The more I work with the same people the more I trust them and the more they get to do their own thing,” says Eggers. “As much as I had a vision for The Northman and was my typical ultra-specific self, I couldn’t choose every door-latch or wooden nail — the amount of time I spent emailing actors alone was outrageous. While the world of the story is larger this time around, we came to look at our three principal locations, or villages, as three very large Witch farmsteads.”
Production designer Craig Lathrop had already begun building key sets for several locations in late 2019, including King Aurvandil’s island kingdom and the Slavic village where Amleth and his berserkers mount their bloody raid. Suddenly, in March 2020, Covid struck, lockdowns were imposed, and production halted.
Seventy percent of The Northman takes place in Iceland. Before Covid, the production was scheduled to film half on location in Iceland and half in Northern Ireland, in the lush and verdant countryside outside Belfast where Game of Thrones filmed eight seasons. Location manager Naomi Liston, who had worked on Thrones, knew the production could recreate Iceland in Northern Ireland. When lockdown hit, Eggers made the decision to shoot the bulk of The Northman where Lathrop has already begun erecting key sets.
“This is a historical film that’s based on a very specific time and place and historical accuracy was extremely important to us even though we couldn’t have our dream locations,” says Lathrop. “I haven’t seen a Viking film that isn’t mainly rooted in fantasy, and both Rob and I were adamant about capturing the everyday feel of this actual world because we thought it would be transportive for the audience. If we got all the details right, it would bring you back to 10th-century Viking life.”
Adds Eggers: “It was hard to settle on a distinct visual tone for this movie, because art from the Viking era was abstracted, and 19th century Viking paintings and illustrations were far from accurate depictions of the material world. The images we turned to for the film’s design came from military history books and museum illustrations, and living-history images of people playing at being Vikings — not exactly dense with atmosphere.”
Lathrop began the set-building process with the longhouse in Aurvandil’s island kingdom, constructed atop Torr Head on the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland, a rugged headland with dramatic views of the Mull of Kintyre in southwest Scotland. This set also included a temple, where 11-year-old Prince Amleth undergoes his manhood ritual, as well as a bedroom shared by Aurvandil and Gudrún.
“We don’t really know much about the buildings from the Viking era because there’s none of them left, all we have is postholes in the ground, so we had to imagine what they looked like using 3D modeling on the computer,” says Lathrop. “I deferred to our scholarly experts who helped us envision sets that reflected the power and grandeur of King Aurvandil.”
Lathrop 3D-modeled the intricately carved columns discovered inside 10th century Scandinavian royal dwellings and sent the designs to sculptors, who fashioned duplicates out of clay, which were then plastered and painted. Blacksmiths created hardware for the doors, furniture was designed and built based on period renderings, and tapestries were computer-designed and woven and embroidered in India.
“It’s not enough to get the architecture right, and the materials right — even the aging of the materials right, it’s also the swords and shields and armory and the jewelry and the carvings, which were complicated to execute from a design standpoint,” says Lathrop. “We tried to get every detail right so we could bring the audience back to Amleth’s time and have a better understanding of the journey he was on.”
Adds Lathrop: “An additional challenge was designing the different buildings to scale in the Slavic period style and having them thatched and painted,” says Lathrop. “But that was just the exteriors. Inside the temple, where Björk has her big scene, there is a lot to see and touch: idols, sculptures, metal amulets.”
For Fjölnir’s farm, and surrounding Icelandic village — originally scheduled to be constructed on location — Lathrop utilized Carncastle, a small parish in the province of Ulster. The challenge here was building a Viking village with minimal timber or trees, because Icelandic farms in the 10th century were made of turf. Working with the art department, construction team and the greens department, Lathrop built several turf structures that stood for nine months because of the halt in production.
“With the hiatus in shooting the structures could grow and settle into the landscape, so by the time we came back in August the turf had grown wild into the set like I had wanted it to from the beginning — it was spectacular,” says Lathrop. “Ireland had been through a drought that summer but greensmen watered the sets on a regular basis so they could grow and thrive. It’s the first set I’ve ever had to water — but it was a feat of eco-friendly production design.”
For the film’s big finale, a showdown between Amleth and Fjölnir in front of the active volcano at Mount Hekla, Iceland, Lathrop’s team had to settle for Boghill Quarry in Antrim County, Northern Ireland. Using heavy machinery to sculpt the land, they brought in 15 tons of black sand to stand in as the volcano, cutting in channels for the visual effects team to insert authentic-looking lava during post- production.
The crew filmed inside the quarry during freezing cold weather with Skarsgård and Bang naked except for flesh-colored thongs. Before cameras rolled on their garish showdown, the two actors were hosed down with substances resembling flesh and blood. “The closing fight sequence was the craziest thing I’ve ever shot — we’re naked on top of an erupting volcano,” laughs Skarsgård. “We knew we had to earn that moment — really build up to it. Claes was a great partner in that scene, but Craig’s work made everything possible, a remarkable substitution for the real thing.”
SHIPS AND WEAPONS
Lathrop also oversaw the production on two Viking ships as well as the vast assortment of weaponry that gives The Northman additional layers of authenticity, outsourcing their designs to artisanal craftsmen. The two Viking ships, including a langskip, a long warship with a tall sail, and a knörr, a heavier merchant ship, were constructed by hand in the Czech Republic. After they were constructed in a disused school, the production department had to transport them across Europe during the Covid lockdown.
In keeping with Eggers’ and Lathrop’s traditional building ethos, everything on the ships had to be authentic. The rivets were approved by a Viking scholar. “Watching the movie, you’ll never know the difference,” says Skarsgård, “but Rob knows. Just look at The Witch or The Lighthouse, you can feel it. He wants to know that everything within a frame is authentic, no matter if it’s a blurry background or foregrounded.” For additional seafaring scenes, the production borrowed ships from a museum in Ireland and several more from the shipbuilding museum in Roskilde, Denmark, vessels that were built by hand using era-specific tools.
“As an actor, the level of authenticity that went in to the shipbuilding helps you in ways you can’t really put your finger on,” says Ralph Ineson, who plays Volodymyr, the ship-captain who steers the knörr to Iceland. “To feel that boat, the solid wood, the ropes, in a tactile way it helps your performance but it also created this fearsome atmosphere — especially with Anya Taylor-Joy at the front of the ship calling out to the Wind gods as Olga.” Weapons master Tommy Dunne, who also worked on Game of Thrones, had his work cut out for him when he joined The Northman, as Lathrop and the art department had already done extensive research into Viking weaponry.
All weapons in The Northman were made by hand, and Dunne verified through historians the specific weapons each character would carry, and why. Dunne’s work included researching the dimensions of swords, shields and axes, sourcing wood for weapon handles, and making sure each weapon was correct according to the era. Using metalsmiths to execute the designs in his own foundry in Dublin, he made sure the weapons were forged in the appropriate style, whether Slavic or Icelandic. They were museum-level replicas.
Berserker weapons, for example, had to reflect their preference for hand-to-hand combat in close quarters through quick stealth attacks; Slav Vikings were more prone to using swords and throwing spears from long distances, keeping their enemies at bay from a distance. “Berserkers had big shoulders and less range of motion with their arms so they used seaxes, which is like a long knife, short axes, and the occasional shield,” says Dunne.
“The berserkers liked to be barbaric, hurling themselves on top of you, biting and gouging; the Slavs fought from afar.” For many fight scenes, duplicates of metal weapons were made of rubber or bamboo to ensure safety; intricate paintwork made these dummy weapons look like the real thing. Stunt coordinator C.C. Smiff (Game of Thrones) worked with actors including Alexander Skarsgård on orchestrating the battle scenes, focusing on authenticity of movement and the correct way of carrying swords, shields and axes during heavy action sequences.
The Northman is Eggers’ first action movie, which in ordinary circumstances would have allowed returning cinematographer Jarin Blaschke expanded access to 35mm camera equipment and more leeway on the style of the photography. But Eggers wanted to stick with the single-camera approach the pair has been developing since they first worked together 13 years ago on the short film “The Tell-Tale Heart,” based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story.
“I’m accustomed to working with Robert on these very contained two-handers and four-handers,” says Blaschke, referring to smaller-scale productions with the minimum of characters and locations in mostly contained spaces. “We weren’t trying to do Birdman or 1917 here. It’s more about reducing things to the essentials, which can be deceptive because you have to think about it for a long time. How do you pack all this footage with all these characters and abstract ideas into nice, clean streams of information?”
Because The Northman is an action movie with meticulously choreographed fight sequences, featuring a cast of hundreds, playing out in multiple locations and villages representing different countries, cultures and regions, the decision to film on a single camera —resulting in fewer cuts in the editing room — was a controversial one.
“The kind of cinema Jarin and I like is made by filmmakers who tell stories with simplicity and directness and who try to find essential images with which to tell their stories,” says Eggers. “I know why people shoot movies like this with multiple cameras and a lot of coverage because it’s hard to do it any other way. The pressure of planning all of this to work using a single camera is frustrating, and it certainly made the studio nervous.”
When the COVID lockdown arrived in March 2020, Eggers and Blaschke had already storyboarded 95 percent of the movie, down to its specific action beats, so they were well prepared to resume filming when the lockdown lifted in August of that year. The Lighthouse had a distinct aesthetic informed by early photography and The Witch used period paintings as visual and tonal inspiration, but despite an elaborate look- book conceived by Eggers, and the added bonus of the filmmaker’s meticulous research, Blaschke lacked specific visual references for The Northman. “Robert wanted dense shots and longer takes with a lot going on in the background — rich frames that go on and on,” says Blaschke.
The Northman provided Blaschke with new tools and techniques, including moving shots, camera cars, cranes, and stunt coordinators and choreographers that made action scenes flow smoothly so that he and Eggers could capture the movement with a single camera.
One of the most difficult scenes to photograph was the berserker raid, the second big action sequence in the movie after King Aurvandil’s decapitation. The challenge for Blaschke was capturing not just the raid, but the different things going on at the periphery of the scene.
“It’s simple to watch for 90 seconds on screen,” says Blaschke. “But it took us four days to shoot the scene — the multicamera approach would have been a nightmare.” The berserker raid consists of one long, complicated and very choreographed shot with more than a few moving pieces, making it one of the most gripping scenes in the movie. “To get something like this scene right is very difficult,” says Eggers. “When you watch big action-adventure movies, we’re so used to dozens and dozens of cuts because the filmmakers used multiple cameras and captured so many different angles on each shot. Hopefully our movie is different, and moves differently, because there aren’t so many cuts. Hopefully, it’s more immersive.”
For Skarsgård, filming the fight scenes made for a difficult challenge under the single- camera aesthetic because it required the actors and stunt doubles to repeat the same scene multiple times. “Shooting those scenes were mentally and physically draining because we had to do some of them 25 times,” says Skarsgård. “If one punch doesn’t sell in playback, you have to do it all over again. Hopefully audiences will feel something different with the single-camera approach because there’s more fluidity to the fight scenes and this is because there are fewer cuts. It feels more immersive and real, like you are there.” Bad weather also proved to be a challenge for the camera crew, but many of the actors welcomed it. “In Robert’s films, weather matters. Good weather is bad. We wanted bad weather and we had it,” says Dafoe.
Adds Claes Bang: “We filmed on hillsides in Northern Ireland with mud up to our knees in shoes where you can get no footing,” says Claes Bang. “There was rain, wind, and all that, but it had that rawness that we needed to give the story something extra. Working there was a challenge with all the single takes, big set ups, horses, extras, mud.” “There was no imagination necessary to get yourself into the Viking headspace in Northern Ireland where we filmed,” laughs Taylor-Joy. “Robert would yell, Look cold and miserable, and you’re like, I am cold and miserable! No acting required!”
Costume designer Linda Muir was tasked with creating garments for three distinct cinematic worlds in The Northman, representing separate cultures and traditions, and encompassing a cast of hundreds. The film also marked the designer’s first experience designing helmets and armor. “The sheer volume of the costuming was a huge challenge,” says Muir. “Our costume supervisor compiled the numbers: 158 fittings for which we made 918 individual hand-sewn principal garments. Queen Gudrún alone wears 20 long shifts of the same design, each one serving different purposes.”
Muir began her exhaustive research into the Viking Age by reading the Sagas of Icelanders, a body of medieval literature depicting the lives and deeds of the Norse men and women who first settled in Iceland around the year 870. “But the Sagas were written down 200 years after the period we were looking at, which was the 10th century,” says Muir. The costumes she wanted to research didn’t exist. She turned to the online lectures of author and Viking scholar Neil Price to get a better understanding of the Viking mindset and belief system, but she still couldn’t find much information on clothing.
“The big problem with researching Viking age clothing is the lack of surviving examples — there are bits and pieces, but not one single complete garment and certainly not an entire outfit,” says Muir. “Additionally, there are no written accounts of daily life of the period since it was still an oral tradition for another 200 years.
Precise information about clothing colors, style and fabrication techniques simply do not exist.” After consulting books on the cut and construction of early medieval clothing, she scoured online sites that design and sell clothing to Viking re-enactors. Through this community, she found weavers for twill and plain-weave woolens and other garments and accessories.
She visited the British Museum for additional medieval inspiration before going to rental houses in London, Rome and Madrid, where she found few pieces she could use on screen. For The Northman, Muir would have to make original designs for everything, including armor.
After doing extensive research, she began making what would become 120 original costume designs. Crowd costuming included designs for roughly 750 male garments and 430 female garments for Slav villagers, Baltic enslaved people, domestic workers, and Viking men and women of high and low status.
The production was divided into three distinct cinematic worlds, each requiring different costumes in terms of a character’s wealth, rank, and social standing. The first world, an island kingdom, called for high-status Viking garb befitting royalty in addition to chain mail and armory for a team of horse-bound assassins. The second world, one of the movie’s most elaborate in terms of the range of designs Muir created, is the Land of the Rus, where Amleth and his berserkers raid a Slav village during summertime. These scenes required Eastern European-influenced designs, including linen tunics, fur battle costumes (including elaborate animal headpieces), lavishly embroidered dresses for the female Slav villagers, and a breathtaking ensemble for the mysterious seeress, played by Björk.
“Embroidery was a spiritual act in this type of village, and a means of communication, and her costume reflects her status as the uber-communicator for her village, and to the gods,” says Muir. “If each woman embroiders her benevolent hopes for her family members onto her garments, then the seeress writes for her entire community. I say write because at the time, apparently the Slavic word for embroider is the word we now use for write.”
In the movie, Björk wears the same linen outfit as the Slav villagers, including Olga played by Anya Taylor-Joy, but the accessories showcased in her brief appearance elevate her to an otherworldly level that exudes power and awe: her long shift is entirely covered with embroidery motifs; her open-front skirt was made from woven belts hand-stitched together vertically and embellished with bells custom-made for the film; birch-bark arm braces are held in place within thin tablet-woven bands; and the actor’s headdress is a version of a traditional Ukrainian wedding headdress. She is ‘married’ to the Gods.
“Robert had an image of Björk in a headdress made of wheat but ultimately ours was made of barley with a section of embroidered linen on the forehead from which we hung gold temporal rings and strands of cowrie shells that obscured her missing eyes,” says Muir, who found the glass beads for the headdress at a Viking festival in York. “We made eighteen different necklaces for the Slav Witch alone.”
For the animal head-pieces, worn during the berserkers’ bestial raid, Muir turned to an Italian creature-design duo, one a sculptor another a furrier, who fashioned the animal heads in Rome. Thirteen head-pieces were designed in total, wolves and bears, with one unique headdress made for Skarsgård, because his animal spirit during the raid is a hybrid of the two.
The third cinematic world in the movie is Fjölnir’s family farm in Iceland, where Muir used predominantly wool to create high-status but unostentatious garments for the four main family members, including shaggy wool cloaks for Fjölnir, shifts with long trains for Queen Gudrún, and simple linen clothes for her two young sons: each conveying an air of prosperity through crisp, beautiful lines. A world away from the magical world of the Slavs.
Muir had to dress supernatural characters in the first two worlds, including the cadaverous mound-dwelling Warrior King who comes back to life early in the movie during a ritual scene featuring Amleth. “The actor, Ian Whyte, is over seven feet tall and our prosthetics department created a head and hands that made him look like a skeleton,” says Muir. “His costuming had to look like it covered his bones, so we made his garments rotten and threadbare, with golden arm bracers and leg grieves and a silver and gold helmet.”
Working with armor designer Giampaolo Grassi, Muir had to master armory styles for her work on The Northman, turning to Viking Age illustrator Andrew Cefalu for his expertise on the range of styles. “The Viking armies often dressed according to status, so we had to have a variety of looks,” says Muir. “The lowest foot soldier might have minimal protection of leather while the higher-status Vikings wore elaborate chain- mail shirts and metal helmets.”
Eggers had extremely particular demands about the fit of the helmets in The Northman, adding additional layers of work for Muir and her costume team. “He wanted a snug fit, and for the helmets with metal brows or masks, the eye openings and the length of the nose guard had to be precise and exact,” Muir concludes.
SCORING THE NORTHMAN
To bring the Viking Age to life sonically, Eggers turned to U.K.-based musicians Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, primarily electronic composers who would be embarking on their first motion picture score. Eggers first met Carolan when they lived in Brooklyn, before he made his name with The Witch; Carolan knew Gainsborough through his musical project Vessel, which was signed to Carolan’s cult record label Tri Angle. Very familiar with their work, Eggers knew they were up for the challenge.
Carolan was well acquainted with the meticulous nature of Eggers’ work, having read his scripts, including The Lighthouse, in various stages of production. “The previous scripts were chamber pieces, two people in a room going at one another,” says Carolan. “With The Northman it was a huge array of characters in multiple locations — the scale of it was intimidating.”
For the score, Eggers wanted instruments from the Viking Age — primarily wind and string instruments, with concessions made for drums, a point of contention among historians who debate their usage among Nordic cultures in the Viking Age. Carolan and Gainsborough had to gain a working knowledge of obscure instruments like the Tagelharpa, a lyre with strings made from horsehair, as well as the langspil, an Icelandic zither, and pipes and horns of wood, bone, and animal horn.
“We’d never used these instruments before and we had to find a way to get what we needed out of them,” says Carolan. Hypothetical Viking singing styles were also integrated into the sound, from throat singing, to singing inspired by kulning, a kind of Nordic yodeling. Carolan and Gainsborough consulted with Danish musicologist Poul Høxbro, who specializes in trying to recreate Viking age music – he also introduced them to expert players and singers in these traditions.
“Initially we were going to avoid violins and cellos — anything used in the last 500 years,” says Gainsborough. “With the ragged and archaic textures of The Northman, we didn’t want anything to sound too slick. We stuck as close as we could musically to the Viking era.” In the end, the Viking instruments were bolstered by symphonic strings and choir. Carolan and Gainsborough created a hypnotic, soaring, transportive, and often thunderous score.