Robert Eggers made headlines recently for coming just short of disowning his feature directorial debut, The Witch—the kind of regret that signals an artist evolving, strengthening their craft, and becoming more secure in their vision. While his second feature, The Lighthouse, was another horror-tinged folktale for the indie film canon, it’s The Northman that has Eggers now reflecting on what he is truly capable of behind the camera. A big-budget epic backed by a major studio, the film stars Alexander Skarsgård as the Viking hero Amleth, and features enough sweeping Nordic vistas, eerie witches emerging from smoke, and bloody dismemberments to convince anyone of its historical accuracy. The film, which Eggers co-wrote with Sjón, is a prime example of an artist seeing what happens when they can turn the dial of their artistic vision up to 11.
Eggers gave The A.V. Club a brief peek into that diabolical-yet-poetic vision for The Northman and beyond, including thoughts on the “fucked up patriarchal society” it depicts in all its morally complicated glory. Plus: How on earth did he get Björk to play the mysterious Seeress, over a decade since her last acting credit?
The A.V. Club: Thank you for speaking with us today. What have you learned from making The Northman that you’ll take into future projects?
Robert Eggers: I mean, it’s volumes and volumes and volumes that I learned from this, really. It’s insane. It’s insane how much I’ve learned because it was just so much bigger than my other films. And for the first time, I feel like I can say I’m a filmmaker. You know, the other two movies, [The Witch and The Lighthouse], I feel like I was trying to convince people that I was a filmmaker. And now I feel like I know how to make a movie! So that’s a nice feeling.
AVC: How much did this film change throughout the years-long process, from conception to final product?
RE: It’s always kind of been the same. I think that in the post-production process, it needed to be streamlined a bit. But this is the movie that I intended to make, 100 percent like this. And this was my trying to make a movie for a large audience for the first time, right?
AVC: And the pandemic got in the way as well?
RE: Totally. We were a week out from principal photography when we went into lockdown. But you know what? I think it helped the film because it gave me and [director of photography] Jarin Blaschke a lot more time to plan, which we really needed. It gave some actors time to grow their beards longer! The sets got to just stay and grow into the landscapes. There were positive things. There were negative things, too. But I think there are more positive things than negative things—for this film, not for the world… Obviously, knowing what we know now, there were certain precautions that we were taking there, making things more difficult that we didn’t need to do, which is frustrating. But, you know, the pandemic was new.
AVC: What were the cinematic inspirations behind this? Also, do you have an all-time favorite filmmaker?
RE: Yeah, [Ingmar] Bergman, for sure. But I think for this movie particularly, Soviet historical epics are some of the major influences, and [Akira] Kurosawa’s historical epics as well. Those are the main cinematic influences. And then [John] Milius’ [Conan The Barbarian], which I didn’t revisit, but I watched it so many times as a kid that it’s very ingrained into the movie. There are a couple deliberate nods to Conan—and then more than a handful of accidental nods, just because I watched it so much as a kid. [Laughs.]
AVC: Alexander Skarsgård said he had to channel bears and wolves in his performance. Since they’re prominent in all your films, what is your relationship with animals?
RE: Yeah, Viking culture particularly was very integrated with animals and nature. But I think in all my stories, dealing with ancient folklore, you’re just dealing with a world where animals are more present. When I was living in London, there were foxes at night occasionally, but it’s not like you’re just surrounded by wildlife, like on a farm. So those animals work their way into the folklore. So in that regard, it’s not like something that I’m trying to insert, it’s something that’s in the source material.
AVC: As the child of a Shakespeare scholar, did you consider the many morally gray interpretations of Hamlet, since that’s also inspired by this Viking legend? A big scene with Nicole Kidman’s Queen Gudrún, Amleth’s mother, complicates the notion that his revenge is straightforwardly righteous.
RE: I mean, that was fun to write, but also play. Look, everything that she says about [Ethan Hawke’s King Aurvandill]? Amleth doesn’t think that’s bad. The kingdom is a fucked-up patriarchal society. That’s one of the things that got me interested in Viking culture; when I started reading the sagas, it was the ambiguity and the complexity—the modernity—of the characters. And many saga heroes were tortured anti-heroes who are psychopaths or outlaws. So-called villains in these pieces could be cowards at times and also good husbands and good fathers. And that was fun to be able to explore, especially when you’re doing a mythic, archetypal story like this, and it is a very simple story that everyone knows. And also, it’s an action movie, not [dialogue-heavy], so having those gray areas in the characters gives it a kind of complexity that it might not be able to have otherwise.
AVC: But you’re not trying to shoehorn those gray areas? Again, that’s there in the source material.
RE: Yeah, exactly.
AVC: Lastly, let’s talk casting. How did you manage to book Björk in this cast?
RE: It’s not super exciting! It’s just that one of the [film’s] composers, Robin Carolan, has worked with Björk, and introduced me and my wife to Björk. And by the way, she introduced me to Sjón, my co-writer. And Sjón and Björk have been friends since they were teenagers. So it was a familial environment for Björk to work in.
AVC: Do you have a philosophy around casting? You cast Anya Taylor-Joy in her first film, essentially making her a star. What do you generally look for in actors?
RE: Their face has to be 100 percent right and be the character. And then they just have to not be afraid. Anya is able to be grounded and ethereal at the same time. I mean, look, with The Witch, I’ll just be blunt and say, every young woman who auditioned for that lead role pretty much was great. Like, the amount of talent of these young British actresses is out of control. But I was in this audition process, coaxing all these women to go in these different directions. And she came in and delivered all the lines exactly the way I imagined them when I wrote them. That’s it.