Quite the saga

Alexander Skarsgard in The Northman. PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES
Alexander Skarsgard in The Northman. PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES
Director Robert Eggers says he is shocked he’s made a movie as macho as the blood-soaked Viking blockbuster The Northman, he tells Guy Lodge.

Director Robert Eggers. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Director Robert Eggers. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
In his first film, the $US4million ($NZ6.3million) Sundance sensation The Witch, Robert Eggers etched a human battle between Puritanism and the occult in 17th-century New England, written entirely in early modern English. He followed it up with The Lighthouse, a surrealist survival nightmare, soaked in sea salt and maritime slang, jumbling toxic masculinity, fart jokes and octopus-punching.

This is the kind of film-making upon which auteurist cults are built; but it does not, conventionally, inspire Hollywood studios to write the director in question a fat cheque for a blockbuster.

And yet. The Northman, Eggers’s vast, bonkers, exhilarating third feature, was made for the price of several Witches and Lighthouses, but hasn’t come at much cost to the 38-year-old film-maker’s strange, distinct sensibility. A pounding, weather-lashed, brutal Viking revenge tale rooted in the Scandinavian folk legend of Amleth, it significantly ups the action ante for a director whose previous most elaborate set piece in that regard was a homoerotic wrestling scene between two crazed lighthouse-keepers played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.

Led by a hulking Alexander Skarsgard as an exiled Icelandic prince out to avenge his father’s murder and reclaim his kingdom, it has all the blood and muscle you associate with the genre, plus a glitzy ensemble including Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother, Ethan Hawke as his father and Anya Taylor-Joy (seven years after her star-making debut in The Witch) as his lover. There’s even a cameo from Icelandic pop deity Bjork, in her first film in 17 years. Still, the film’s rich historical idiom, rampant spirituality and ambiguous heroism feel far more Eggers than its blockbuster budget ($70million, he says) might suggest.

"Let’s just hope it busts some blocks," he laughs half-nervously, shifting slightly on a sofa in London’s Soho Hotel: it’s just after breakfast, the sun is out, and he’s looking forward to a Sunday out in the city with his wife, Alexandra Shaker, a clinical psychologist, and their young son, Houston.

The plush hotel doesn’t seem his natural environment — but then Eggers has been on unfamiliar turf at every stage of this project.

Where his first two films were inexpensive and wholly under his creative command, shifting away from independent film-making didn’t just mean handling bigger sets, a bigger cast and bigger practical challenges, but relinquishing control to the studio over the film’s final cut. A recent New Yorker profile of Eggers detailed what appeared to be a tough post-production process, with some resistant feedback from the money men and test audiences. He admits now to being "frustrated" by the narrative that emerged from that interview; the reality, he says, involved a fair degree of give and take.

To a large extent the studio indulged Eggers’s idiosyncrasies, allowing him to work with his regular heads of department, including cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. Eggers and Blaschke’s preference for long, exactingly planned takes, eschewing second units, results in a textured aesthetic and a hurtling, immersive perspective that you rarely see in today’s carefully vetted, committee-made action movies — it’s anathema to mainstream studios with an eye on the clock and a hand on the purse strings.

It was an arduous shoot. Skarsgard has spoken of his physical exhaustion during filming, describing himself as "truly a wreck" after certain scenes.

"Alex said to me at one point, ‘You’re doing this on purpose to drive me insane’," Eggers says. "But I don’t choose these environments to be sadistic. I choose them because these are the environments that my films take place in."

The editing process, meanwhile, brought its own challenges.

"I hadn’t had to do test screenings before," he admits. "My first two films were all tested for marketing, but I didn’t have to change anything. So this was new, and as much as I didn’t like that process, I did learn something from it. But more than that, this is the film I wanted to make. This is my director’s cut.

"The studio pressure made the film what I originally pitched to them, which was the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie I could make. Honestly, without their pressure, I couldn’t have done that. It’s hard for me to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, for goodness’s sake."

I express surprise at this statement: his previous films, for all their dark eccentricities, have been fairly linear, not to mention gripping and often wildly funny. "Entertaining" doesn’t seem an artistic stretch for him. But Eggers is a film-maker as much preoccupied with the way his stories are told — and the singular, often archaic language he writes them in — as with the story itself.

Alexander Skarsgard and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman. PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES
Alexander Skarsgard and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman. PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES
The Northman rivets its audience in a different way from most mainstream hero’s-journey films: its moral compass keeps spinning, the value and valour of Prince Amleth’s revenge mission is constantly in question. It’s the same ancient myth that trickled down into William Shakespeare’s similarly conflicted Hamlet: Eggers, himself the son of a Shakespeare professor, was more drawn to that psychological complexity than the warrior pageantry of it all.

Though Conan the Barbarian was a childhood favourite, this is not the kind of film Eggers ever imagined making. Growing up in the small town of Lee, New Hampshire — his mother was an actor, his father the provost at the local university — Eggers was not a typical child. A youthful love of comic books gave way to more esoteric interests when a family friend introduced him to the northern Renaissance engravings of Albrecht Durer and the like. "At the time I was trying to draw the comic book characters. But suddenly the medieval world was much more interesting to me than the comic books."

The young Eggers’s fascination with the past mingled with an equally keen interest in theatre. As a high-schooler, he directed a wildly stylised stage interpretation of the classic German expressionist vampire film Nosferatu; years later, in New York, he studied acting and dabbled in street theatre.

Film-making came later, self-taught via experimental shorts: he describes his first, a spin on Hansel and Gretel, as "absolutely terrible": "It got into one festival," he says, "and on the way home, I decided I had to do something better."

Today, dressed in black workwear, with a neatly kept beard, ornate rings on his fingers and a keen gaze, he still looks more likely to spring a poetry reading on you than a fist fight. "I’m shocked I made such a macho movie," he says, before admitting that his interest in history had not, until recently, extended to Vikings.

"This whole thing is a surprise to me: the macho stereotype of that history, along with, you know, the rightwing misappropriation of Viking culture, made me sort of allergic to it, and I just never wanted to go there."

That attitude shifted on a vacation to Iceland: "Everyone says this, but the landscapes were so incredibly inspiring and epic and pre-pre-historical. And it’s the power of those landscapes that got me to pick up the Icelandic sagas."

While he was there, a mutual friend arranged a meeting with Bjork; she in turn introduced Eggers to the Icelandic poet, novelist and sometime screenwriter Sjon, who also recently co-wrote the loopy folk-horror film Lamb.

"We started talking about early modern witchcraft and just got along famously," says Eggers: only from him would this count as an ordinary ice-breaker.

"I started to read his books when I got back to the States and was again very inspired. His mind is really extraordinary — to me, he’s a literary giant."

The trip hatched the idea of a Viking movie, made Eggers-style; years later, while having lunch with Skarsgard, he learned of the actor’s long-held ambition to make a Viking epic with producer Lars Knudsen. The dots connected; with the plan in motion, Eggers decided he needed an Icelandic co-writer, and Sjon was his first choice.

"Even the most Viking-allergic Icelander knows what saga characters they’re directly related to, and that literature is part of everyone’s cultural understanding and their personas: many contemporary Icelanders still believe in land spirits and fairies. I needed that."

In all of Eggers’s features to date, the physical and spiritual realms feel closely and practically connected, even adjacent, to the point of disorienting overlap; the vivid prospect of Valhalla beckons Amleth throughout The Northman, an afterlife neither queried nor idealised. I ask Eggers if he regards himself as a spiritual or religious person, and he hesitates.

"Not in any kind of a traditional way," he answers, "but certainly in all my work, and I’m not saying I’m succeeding in this, but I am trying to reach the sublime. So I suppose that’s why I am interested in these periods of history: there are no Viking atheists. There are Valkyries and giants and trolls, and sometimes people get put off that they’re in these sagas that are supposed to be naturalistic. And I’m like, yeah, but they believed that this was real. It’s naturalistic to them.

"It’s so frustrating being an American film-maker sometimes, where even the small movies are so much more concerned about getting that profit back, and it gets so wrapped up in, like, your brand and your identity.

"This is going to sound awfully precious — you know, feel free to puke — but the idea of medieval craftsmen are doing it for God is an appealing one to me."

In place of God in this model, we have the studios, and Eggers still seems somewhat astonished that he got one to invest in his metaphysical (albeit crashingly violent) idea of a Viking epic.

"Luck is a thing, and as is more or less said in the film, the Norns of fate weave a mysterious thread," he says with a wry shrug.

On a more practical level, the production company New Regency had worked with Eggers on The Lighthouse and was happy to invest again.

"I do think they were partially hoping I would want do something more commercial," he laughs. "Sjon and I happened to have a draft of The Northman in good shape, and thanks to the History Channel and a bunch of TV shows and video games, there seemed to be an appetite for Viking stories. So the marketing team felt like this wasn’t completely irresponsible."

It remains to be seen whether The Northman turns a significant profit, but it feels like a film built to endure. And it has given Eggers a taste for big canvases on which to paint his biggest ideas, though he’d prefer to keep alternating between independent and studio projects: "I certainly want to do something smaller next, and not just because of the pressure and the pain, which is super real," he says.

"But also because I learned so much on The Northman, which was really a film that was way too big for my britches. And I finally feel like I actually know how to make a movie now, you know?"

Did he not before?

"Honestly, I can’t stand watching The Witch now," he sighs. "It’s not that it’s bad, and the performances are great, but I was not skilled enough as a film-maker to get what was in my brain on to the screen. In The Lighthouse, I was able to do that. And The Northman, I’m proud of the movie, but not everything is quite what I hoped it would be. So I would like to do something with the scope and scale that I can actually get what’s in my imagination on to the screen."

It’s not the kind of humility you tend to hear from a director promoting the grandest work of their career thus far; it also doesn’t sound like Eggers is about to sign a contract with Marvel any time soon.

"I’ve definitely had, like, not Marvel, but the big studio meeting. But I also don’t know what I have to offer. Everything that I’m particularly good at, or that makes me unique, is not helpful in making a Marvel movie."

He doesn’t watch superhero films, having left them behind with the comics of his boyhood, though he recently made an exception for Matt Reeves’s mood-heavy The Batman, which impressed him.

"I saw it really just because Rob [Pattinson] is my friend. But I liked it, and I learned a lot of stuff from it, frankly. I applaud Matt Reeves for keeping an identity and making a film like that. I can’t imagine. I guess I just made a big movie, but it’s not the same."

Beyond that "smaller movie" tease, Eggers avoids giving any hint of what he’s really planning next — "Respectfully, I’m going to be elusive about this," he says — though a long-planned reimagining of his adolescent favourite Nosferatu is still on the boil. Taylor-Joy has been attached; so was Harry Styles at one point.

"I do want to be clear that Harry was going to be Thomas Hutter and not the vampire," he says drily — the Styles fandom is not one to be messed with.

"I hope that it happens," he continues. "I’ve spent so much time, you know, thinking about it and scouting: it would be a shame if it somehow doesn’t happen. But it seems shocking to me that it’s fallen apart twice already."

He shrugs. Each new film is its own challenge.

— Guardian News and Media

 

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