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Robert Eggers: ‘The Northman is the movie I’m proud of and the one I wanted to make’

A Viking blockbuster is not what audiences have come to expect from the indie director of ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Lighthouse’. Eggers opens up to Annabel Nugent about his love of the past, how test screenings can be a ‘frustrating’ experience – and why, despite him not having final say, ‘The Northman’ is still definitively the director’s cut

Thursday 14 April 2022 06:33 BST
At 38, and after just three features, Robert Eggers is making a name for himself as an auteur
At 38, and after just three features, Robert Eggers is making a name for himself as an auteur (Getty Images)

Please don’t watch The Northman on your phone. It would break Robert Eggers’ heart to see his Viking epic confined to a six-inch screen. The director, with his pale green eyes and all-black attire, looks deadly serious. It really would break his heart. “Look, if the apocalypse happens, I’ll be doing street theatre in front of a garbage fire,” he says. But for now – Armageddon narrowly avoided – if you can, go to the cinema. “It just… it needs to be seen theatrically.”

At 38, and after just three features, Eggers is making a name for himself as an auteur: first with the nightmarish 2015 Puritan horror The Witch – a debut that won him best director at the Sundance film festival – and then with the surrealist, weather-lashed drama The Lighthouse. And now The Northman, a brilliant blood-and-guts Viking entry born from the sagas of Icelandic folklore. In it, Alexander Skarsgård is Amleth, an exiled prince out to avenge the murder of his father (Ethan Hawke) and rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman) from his evil uncle Fjölner (Claes Bang). In some ways, The Northman is a very Eggers film. It is, after all, a macabre fable that spirals into terrifying bedlam. But in other ways, The Northman is the last thing audiences expect from this big indie name.

For one thing, it is just so manly. In a swashbuckling, chest-pounding way that feels unlikely from a writer whose most aggressive scene previously was a homoerotic wrestling row between two deranged lighthouse keepers. Eggers is surprised, too. “I was watching that final fight scene earlier and wow, that’s some macho s***,” he chuckles. “It’s shocking to me that I made it.” The movie is belligerent, behaving in a different way than his previous works do. Blood splatters and sloshes, as opposed to oozing and dripping. “The sagas sometimes read like an Eighties action movie,” he says. “It’s a culture that honours violence, plus this is a big action set-piece film. So how do I make the violence thrilling and entertaining without glorifying it?” Eggers still doesn’t know whether he has successfully walked that line.

The New Hampshire-born writer is famous for his research. To call Eggers’ process meticulous would be an understatement. An example – one of hundreds available – is the clapboard farmhouse featured in The Witch. It was built using only froes and drawknives; circular saws didn’t exist in 1630s New England. To replicate the setting and vernacular of long-lost worlds is a painstaking venture, and one that he relishes, but it does not translate kindly to a tentpole production with studio obligations, a tight shoot schedule, and a $90m (£69m) budget.

“My time was more divided than ever,” says the director. “The cast is so large; I spent most of pre-production emailing actors, which was very frustrating.” Really, where he wanted to be was in the wardrobe department, distressing costumes by hand. It’s a love for detail and history that goes back as far as Eggers can remember. His childhood bedroom in the rural town of Lee was “very messy”: a haphazard collection of costumes and swords, plus “a whole lot of books”.

The inflexibility that inevitably comes with a blockbuster also proved tricky for Eggers. “There is this one scene that I don’t like the light in, but we could be in this location for one day only. We had all the horses, the extras, the crane, everything.” He sighs, “If this were a small film, I would have found a way not to shoot that day.” You get the feeling that one scene with the bad light keeps him up at night. Relinquishing control was painful, but it helped that the studio permitted Eggers to work with his regular heads of department; people who know what he likes, and what he is like. “The more that I work with someone, the more freedom they’re allowed because the mind-meld happens,” he says. “They can say to me, ‘That’s not you. You don’t want that.’ And they’ll be right.”

Alexander Skarsgård in ‘The Northman’ (Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LL)

Eggers had once been “allergic” to Vikings. The machismo put him off; as did the white supremacists misappropriating Norse mythology. Things changed when he visited Iceland in the spring of 2016, a little while after The Witch had secured a general release and made $40m. “It was unlike anything else I’d seen. The grandeur, the ancientness, the otherworldliness…” he trails off. “It was the most powerful experience ever. And this is awfully embarrassing to say, but I felt like the Norse gods were really there.” If they were, Eggers is the type to sense it.

He isn’t religious, per se. Asked whether he is, the director considers the word for a long moment before landing on an answer that is neither here nor there (“My films are my way of trying to reach the sublime”). Religious or not, his work lifts the veil between myth and reality. “We live in such a secular society now, without easy access to the sublime or the profound. What appeals to me about these past cultures is that the mythological world is the same as the real world.” For anyone wondering, the answer is no. Eggers will never make a film set in the present day; “It would destroy me a little bit to photograph a cell phone.”

Today, sat in a hotel room in central London, Eggers looks somewhat uncomfortable. It’s not that he doesn’t look the part of a hotshot director (the beard is fashionably trimmed; the signet rings are cool; and the all-black everything is a statement). But it’s the giant movie poster behind him. The lighting rig towering overhead. The mic clipped to his shirt. He’d likely be more at home barefoot in the freezing mud on set for one of his films. Although Eggers is the first to admit that while he is “in love” with the past, his fondness for artisanal non-dairy coffee is a deal-breaker. “I can’t live in the past. I need to be able to get an oat milk cortado,” he chuckles.

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Anya Taylor-Joy was 17 when starred in Eggers’ 2015 horror ‘The Witch’ (A24)

It was also on that first trip to Iceland that Eggers met Sjón, the renowned Icelandic poet whose expertise he mined for The Northman. They were introduced by Björk, he tells me, inflecting the musician’s name with the same emphasis as your average admirer might. “She texted my wife and I saying, ‘Come on over, I’m fixing salmon. I’m inviting my friend Sjón and his wife [opera singer] Ásgerður. I think you’ll get along.’” They became good friends, and later co-writers. “I was really scared to ask Sjón,” recalls Eggers. “I needed an Icelandic writer. Many Icelanders believe in land spirits and fairies so someone with that cultural understanding was really important to me. Sjón was the arbiter of taste. He was always the last word on whether something was truly Icelandic enough.”

Knowing Eggers’ proclivity for historical accuracy, it is surprising then that The Northman is in English. Let’s be clear: if it had been up to him, the whole thing would have been in Old Norse. “Maybe one day I can self-finance my own historical epics like Mel Gibson, but it had to be in English.” Rather than speaking the language, the actors talk in a Norse-inflected accent. “I don’t know if it’s even a great idea that the cast has this Nordic accent we created,” offers Eggers half-heartedly. But the options were American Vikings, British Vikings, everyone showing up with a different accent or “this Nordic thing”. He grimaces slightly. “Given the choices, I think I picked the best option… I hope.”

Eggers indulged his “nerdy” side elsewhere, working with Sjón and expert archaeologists to create the most historically accurate Viking movie ever made. It’s when speaking about these details – such as a mummified horse penis in one scene or the Finnish headpiece worn by Kidman – that the typically reticent Eggers comes uncorked; the factoids come fast and frothy.

Advance reviews of The Northman are ecstatic. “The film allows Eggers to push his flair for folkloric images to a new extreme,” reads The Independent’s five-star review. It’s hard to believe that test screenings did not go down so well. Eggers is wary of taking test screenings to heart. “Of course, you can learn things, but I do think it’s unfortunate that the industry places so much importance on them,” he says now. “Any statistician would tell you there isn’t enough data for any of it to be provable, so it becomes frustrating when you’re getting complaints saying this and that because yeah that’s true but for 200 people.” He recalls one particular piece of feedback. “There’s a line when Amleth says something like ‘I will drown my father’s killer in a burning lake’ and then audiences were confused why he didn’t literally drown him…” He looks up at me in mock anguish as if to say, “Really?”

Eggers and crew members on the set of ‘The Northman' (Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LL)

Other changes were made, however, with some easier to swallow than others. Eggers politely declines to give specific examples but concedes that the process was “brutal”. “Sj​ón said, ‘We’re smart, creative people. If we can’t interpret the studio’s notes in a way that we’re proud of then we’re simply not working hard enough.’ And that was the only way to do it.” He exhales and laughs. “We had to work really hard.”

Eggers is careful to clarify that he believes pressure from the studio made The Northman better. He recently told The Guardian that a narrative suggesting otherwise, which emerged from The New Yorker profile, “was frustrating”. Because while he didn’t have the final cut, Eggers tells me with certainty that this is the director’s cut. “The final product is the movie I’m proud of and the one I wanted to make.” And on the subject of another potential blockbuster or sticking to indie fare? “Look, it’s satisfying for me to be able to choose every single doorknob and hinge myself, and that simply couldn’t be done in this case…” He pauses before settling on a diplomatic answer. “Both. Both are good.” Though you get the feeling from Eggers that one is, possibly, an incy bit better than the other.

‘The Northman’ is in cinemas on 15 April

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