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For writer-director Robert Eggers, Focus Features’ The Northman really began when the filmmaker and his wife took a vacation to Iceland. “It was the first time I became interested in old Norse culture,” recalls Eggers. It was on that same trip that Eggers met singer-songwriter Björk (who has a small role in The Northman as the mysterious Seeress). She introduced the director to her frequent collaborator Sjón, the Icelandic poet, lyricist and screenwriter, who ultimately co-wrote the historical epic with Eggers. “The Northman was birthed on that trip,” he adds.
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, the film is a retelling of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth (which also inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet). After witnessing the murder of his father and kidnapping of his mother at the hands of his uncle, young Amleth escapes his home and vows to avenge his father. Many years later, the adult Amleth, now a Viking warrior, embarks on his life’s mission to exact revenge on his uncle and save his mother.
The Northman naturally called for a specific kind of historical accuracy. “There were people in the living history and experimental archeology communities who worked on the film,” says Eggers. “People who, basically, become Vikings on the weekends.” Those historical reenactors brought their expertise but were just as impressed with the “lived-in” re-creations of Norse villages and Viking halls.
Also consulted were historical European martial arts experts, for the film’s complex battle sequences and climactic duel at the crater of Hekla, a volcano known as “the gateway to hell” in the Middle Ages. Notes Eggers, “We had two really great Viking swordsmen come up with a fighting technique that you haven’t seen in a film before.”
ICELAND’S SKÓGAFOSS WATERFALL
Eggers’ wife snapped this pic of the director during a 2016 vacation. It was on that trip that Eggers became invested in Norse culture, finding inspiration in the country’s evocative landscape and its history during a visit to the Saga Museum in Reykjavik.
ICELAND’S WILD HORSES
Eggers snapped this photo of a team of horses when visiting Iceland. “Icelandic horses are so beautiful,” says the director, who adds: “But there’s also the irony that they’re very small.” The diminutive animals’ stature can be spotted onscreen in contrast with actor Alexander Skarsgård’s bulky 6-foot-4 frame. That realism was vital for Eggers. He says, “It was important to me to have Alexander’s feet kind of dragging the ground — this massive guy on a small horse.”
CONAN THE BARBARIAN
“There are a few accidental nods to Conan,” says Eggers, who admits that he had a poster for the Arnold Schwarzenegger film in his childhood bedroom. But there were tropes that he wanted to avoid in The Northman, such as glorified violence, machismo and female objectification. “It was an important film for me as a kid, for sure,” he adds of its lasting impact on his own work. “It was hard to escape.”
VIKING HISTORY BOOKS
These three nonfiction titles were major resources for Eggers when he was researching old Norse culture. He also notes that the authors of the books were advisers on the film and were “excited to see what they’ve been imagining their whole lives come to life.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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