Robert Eggers wanted The Northman to be as historically accurate as possible—but what should’ve been an asset to the epic Viking film caused some problems. In a detailed chat about the making of the film with Vulture, Eggers says that test audiences didn’t understand the film at first, and that the studio also had its issues with the story.
“Everything from Amleth’s motivations to the concept of Valhalla needed to be more legible,” writes Nate Jones about the notes director and writer Eggers was given. But because the film was already in post-production and the story is told through lengthy shots, there were limits to how much could be changed—so instead of reshooting, Eggers and The Northman’s co-screenwriter Sjón decided to write new dialogue that “led the audience deeper into Amleth’s psyche and have the actors ADR it in.”
While that sounds more simple than having to reshoot scenes, it still posed a big issue: the newly recorded dialogue would have to match lip movements and fit the Nordic enunciation. Sjón calls it “the toughest crossword puzzle you can imagine.” As Eggers explains, “You’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve got 18 syllables. The fifth syllable has to be a T because he enunciates that T so well. Maybe you could get away with a D. And then this syllable has to be an S.”
As Sjón notes, he had previous training in the form of working with Björk (who also has a role in The Northman), who’d give him “a scratch demo of herself humming and [he] had to fit words into the strange Dadaist nonsense.” But rewriting film dialogue was far tougher than writing music for the Icelandic icon. As he explains, a “well” could become a “hell,” and “must” could turn into a “just.” That allowed them to write the line “At the gates of Hell, there will my sword be just.”
But Sjón embraced the challenge: “Why would you do a historically accurate medieval tale that takes place in three countries, involving battles, family feuds, and magical beings, and not expect it to be hard?,” he says.
Needing to redo some of the dialogue isn’t the only major issue faced while filming The Northman. The production got shut down because of COVID and there was a scene filmed in such harsh weather that the stunt guys and actors told Eggers it was “the worst experience of their life.” You can read about the rest of the challenges Eggers faced while filming it here.