Robert Eggers: ‘This is me trying to do Conan the Barbarian via Andrei Rublev’
The visionary director of The Northman talks about expanding production, his love for Viking culture, and the dangers of working with a flock of birds.
FRome in a Colonial-era New England village in 2015’s The Witch to a Ghast Coastal Island in the 1890s as seen in 2019’s The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers is the main excavator of cinema’s past. On his new film, The Northman, he travels farther into space and time than ever before, traveling back to Iceland at the turn of the 10th century for a Viking tale of vengeance. With the highest budgets of his career and working with true film stars, this is his most ambitious venture to date – not that leveling will stop him from indulging in his obsession with the obscurity.
What was the first thing you did to make LWLies: The Northman?
Eggers: Several years ago, as Brooklyn hipsters are used to doing, my wife and I took a trip to Iceland. The landscape completely blew me away. With no interest in the Viking Age before that, I suddenly had to make a Viking film, and do it in Iceland. My wife was into Old Norse sagas, and I started reading them as soon as I got home. A few years later, I had a general meeting with Alexander Skarsgrd, and he told me that he had been trying to make a Viking movie for a while with my friend Lars Knudsen, who had produced The Witch. I told him, ‘I have an idea for a Viking movie,’ which was not entirely true. So I went home, wrote a pitch, and the rest is history. His history.
Another great piece of this is that, at a dinner party, I met Sjon, an Icelandic novelist and poet. We got along, because we realized that we shared a love of early-modern witchcraft when we chatted at this party. I was completely blown away.
When you were first developing this encyclopedia, what did you learn that you didn’t already know?
People seem to have this broad idea of Vikings, horned hats and what not. I wasn’t particularly interested in Vikings, I thought they were big and ferocious and that’s all. So starting to understand the richness and sophistication of their culture and literature, it was really inspiring. And their legend, how good is she? Apparently good enough that Marvel Comics made a complete cut out of it. It was also clear that, because many of these Viking epics are revenge tales, a good revenge movie always works. Even if you don’t personally believe in the idea of vengeance, you know it will be fun to watch.
The broad outline of this story comes from ‘Hamlet’, and so many revenge tales end on the same moral about two grave-diggers. Were you determined to put your own inflection on these familiar narratives? His morality is more in the eyes of the audience than the storyteller. But yes, it is actually based on the story of Amleth, the source material for Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. But more than that, it’s a classic story that everyone on some level knows and can get behind.
When I know I have a story outline that everyone can access, I can world-building and move the audience in a more clear way.
Did working with Sjón give you and the film a deeper sense of the local color in Iceland?
one hundred percent. There are a lot of Icelanders who don’t want to talk about Vikings at all, and will illustrate this with lots of exclamation points. Also, every Icelander knows which character they are directly related to in these Viking tales. Having an incredible writer like Sjón, who is so dedicated and embedded in this world and storytelling tradition – I mean, that’s why we hired him! This is his fantasy playground. These are his people.
Was he instrumental in producing Björk and getting Björk back into the film world? It is my understanding that they have known each other for some time.
Oh yes. But it was actually Björk who introduced me to Sajon in the first place. friend status. Because they’re both close, and because we’ve developed a friendly relationship, one of our musicians and my closest friends [Tri Angle Records founder] Robin Carolan, there was a totally family atmosphere that I think she knew would be fun to come by more than anything.
It seems that the conditions in Iceland and Ireland were acute. How was it different from your previous shoots, which were much more spatially contained?
Björk liked to say that Ireland was as in drag as Iceland. [Laughs.] But yes, the scope of this film is much bigger than what I have done before, in every possible way. It is an epic, by definition. I thought of making it a movie like my others, except I’m making a volume of six of them at the same time. The air on Cape Forchu, where we shot The Lighthouse, was unlike anything I had experienced. But that volcano is pale in comparison to the air on Mount Hekla, where we did a lot of the shooting.
Were some aspects of production so large and complex foreign to you?
at every level. I went from scouting on a borrowed lobster boat to scouting by helicopter. I’ve always had the same heads of departments I’ve had – I love consistency among colleagues. It’s just that we were fortunate enough to work with these incredible staff who have worked on the Ridley Scott films and Game of Thrones, and were able to help us realize our vision.
When scaling up, the challenge is always to make your art personal and unique while still being accountable to more people. Have you ever felt that tension about emphasizing your creativity?
It was never an issue of emphasizing my own creativity. It was just about making sure people listened to those claims. But look, in the end the collaboration with the studio was great. He supported our ambition to do an interesting Viking film. We shot this epic single-camera with a single-take battle sequence. that’s unusual.
What was it like to be reunited with Anya Taylor-Joy so much has happened to the two of you since you made The Witch in 2015?
It was amazing! We’ve both gotten better at our jobs since The Witch. But the reason I stick with my colleagues, and especially actors, is because you have to have a trusting relationship. And we already had that by the time we started working on it, we could dig into the work even faster. For [Willem] Some of the mannerisms of me and my cinematographer, Zareen at Dafoe, The Lighthouse, sometimes let them down. He understood what we were doing and why, and on The Northman, he’d be like, ‘Ah, we’re doing it again.’ The recognition that you are all on the same page is a great feeling for everyone.
What were some unexpected challenges to the process? Did you have any problems to fix on the fly?
I knew enough to be aware that everything I had planned to do was a bad idea. [Laughs.] We had a small amount of boat work at The Lighthouse, and it was an impossible headache. You can’t do a Viking movie without a lot of ships, and you can probably fit more than us, but I knew full well how difficult it would be. I learned that the difficult thing about shooting major action sequences is the background. Birds, which I have worked with before. I can handle birds. But this time we had a lot! It’s like I was dealing with much larger volumes of all the same problems. There were days when I was like, ‘What the hell have I put myself in?’ You always have days like this though. When Sajon and I had this idea, we were just standing in her kitchen. And now we have to make a whole village.
You have shown interest in lenses and cinematography equipment in the past – how would you describe the look and feel of this film, and how did you achieve it?
We’re shooting film again, 35mm, but we’re going for a richer and cleaner finish than before. More colors, more contrast. As much as I love black and white, when you go to Iceland, you have to shoot in color to take your audience to these incredible landscapes.
The only modern Viking movie that comes to mind is Valhalla Rising, did you draw the others?
There are a lot of Conan references, I must admit. Many hat tips. I have been told by my PR team to keep it light, but this is in some ways what I am trying to do Conan the Barbarian via Andrei Rublev. Just to be clear, Russian medieval period film is more in terms of the world-building discipline, not storytelling.
In some parts of online fantasy, your first two movies have become synonymous with the movement, which is usually associated with US indie studio A24. [who produced Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar], Have you developed a new sense of your own style as you drift away from the genre and that studio?
It’s mainly in world-building, and the crazy notion of recreating the past. This is unlikely, especially for an era 1,000 years ago, but it gives me and my colleagues a North Star. We were fortunate to work with leaders in the field of Viking studies to advise on this. I’m sure historians will find many things to put aside, and in ten years, it will all be useless. But there has never been a Viking film focused on such accuracy.
Do you have the mental space to think about your next film right now? You’ve talked a lot about FW Murnau’s remake of the silent classic Nosferatu — is that still on the cards?
There’s not much to say on that front right now, other than the time I spent on Nosferatu, it would be infuriating if it never happened.
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Reference from lwlies.com