Entertainment

Robert Eggers on The Northman: “I Clearly Enjoy the Challenge”


If you ever walked past Robert Eggers’s trailer on the set of The Northman, there’s a high probability you would have heard the chaotic sound of Finnish black metal booming just beyond the door. 

“I was always listening to the angriest, blackest metal I could find, because I needed to be composed,” Eggers explains. “That music was able to channel my rage so I could be chill.”

Eggers, the auteur behind occult-friendly features The Witch and The Lighthouse, looks like the kind of guy who listens to metal. With his buzz cut and beard, penchant for black clothing, and heavy set of rings, elegantly topped off with an intense gaze (even over Zoom!), his personal and artistic aesthetics belie an interest in darkness. But he didn’t listen to the stuff before filming The Northman, a $90 million Viking epic. 

The film, Eggers’s third and biggest yet, stars Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a prince who runs away from home after his uncle (Claes Bang) kills his father (Ethan Hawke). He spends those exiled years becoming a hulking warrior whose life’s purpose is to kill his uncle and rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman). (The classic saga went on to inspire Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Eggers, whose previous work obsesses over historic New England, was inspired to make the film after a visit to Iceland. He loved the ancient, epic landscapes, and the common knowledge shared among the people who inhabited the country. “Every Icelander knows to watch which way the grass is blowing when you park your car so that when you open your doors, the car doors don’t fly off into the sea,” he says. Eggers’s wife, Alexandra Shaker, had previously encouraged him to read about Icelandic sagas, but it didn’t click for him until then. The bottom line? “You should always listen to your wife.”

From ©Focus Features/Everett Collection.

That trip was also when he met Icelandic music icon Björk, who introduced Eggers to the poet and novelist Sjón. Later, back in America, Eggers took a meeting with Skarsgård, who had spent his career dreaming of making the ultimate Viking movie. Skarsgård had already been working with Lars Knudsen, a producer on The Witch, to make it happen. Eggers and Skarsgård clicked, and the real work began, with Eggers cowriting the script with Sjón. 

Production took place in Ireland and Iceland, often in punishing locations chosen to best replicate Viking terrain. This was nothing new; Eggers had similarly pushed to shoot on real locations for his previous two films. “It’s not simply because I’m sadistic toward the actors, or masochistic toward myself,” he says—it’s because he’s an avowed historian, determined to recreate the past as authentically as possible through production design, dialogue, and wardrobe. 



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