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Michael Hirst has had a special interest in the history and culture of the Vikings since he was a young boy and his father brought him a small figurine of a Viking.
But it’s taken him decades to bring the story of the Norse people to television — and for an American audience to be ready to watch it.
The English screenwriter, who wrote Showtime’s The Tudors along with films Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), finally got his wish when History picked up his show about Viking hero Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Travis Fimmel), a young warrior and farmer who rose to become the leader of his people.
The show was History’s first serialized drama, and the risk paid off for the cable network in a big way. It premiered in March to 6.2 million viewers, helping propel History to No. 1 in the show’s 10 p.m. Sunday slot. The show averaged 4.3 million total viewers over the nine weeks it was on the air.
Starring Fimmel, Gabriel Byrne, Clive Standen, Katheryn Winnick, Jessalyn Gilsig and Gustaf Skarsgard, Vikings, which has been picked up for a 10-episode second season, has received high praise for its engrossing story, breathtaking cinematography and detailed costume design.
Hirst, who films the show in Ireland, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the success of the drama, basing his story on real-life events and why he likes to write alone.
The Hollywood Reporter: Because this was History’s first serial drama, were you concerned at all about being the “guinea pig?”
Michael Hirst: No — I thought it was a great opportunity. For two reasons: one was because it was the History Channel, I thought that anyone tuning in would expect and assume that what they were watching had something to do with real history — with reality — and it does. And I sort of pride myself on that and it’s part of the way I work, so it was a good marriage. And the second reason is because it was their first one, I thought they’re going to put a lot behind this. It might be a gamble for them, but they really will go for it because a lot is riding on it.
THR: You’ve mentioned that History gave you a lot of freedom, which is something you might not have found somewhere else. Did you shop the show around to other networks?
Hirst: We talked to a couple of other people. In fact, someone even today from another network said how sorry they were they didn’t take it. [Laughs]. But I, hand on heart, I wanted the History Channel to do it.
THR: Why do you think this was the right time to bring the Vikings’ story to TV? Why do you think it worked now when it might not have worked five or ten years ago?
Hirst: I have no idea! [Laughs.] I wish I did actually. I guess I just had a feeling. What I said when we were pitching it in America for History was if you leave the office here and walk around maybe three blocks, you’ll have met 150 Vikings. They permeated a lot of societies and certainly the English, Irish and French societies. There are plenty of Vikings in America descended from other amazing people.
THR: Because you are basing your story on history, do you find that limiting at all?
Hirst: No, it’s not. It’s not historically accurate in the sense that it’s a documentary. If it was a documentary, you’d have to say, “Well, how do you know so much?” because there’s a limit to what we know about the Vikings because they didn’t write anything down. So, it’s based on reading research, what we know, but then I have to take it and there is direction to it. I have to tell my story, which is my saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. In fact, I’ve found that using historical material and being rooted in historical material is liberating because I always think to myself, “Well, this actually happened, and this is fantastic!” That’s why I don’t like fantasy, in a way. Because it’s sort of in emptiness.
THR: Who has been the hardest character to write?
Hirst: Rollo [played by Clive Standen] was an interesting challenge. To make this character of a jealous brother not one-dimensional, but to start investing in him and thinking about what his issues might be. And Siggy was a much more minor character for awhile until Jessalyn [Gilsig] started to play it, and then I felt guilty. We shot a couple of episodes, and I thought,”I’m just not giving her enough to do.” And she’s gradually grown — in the second season she’ll be a very prominent character.
THR: You write every episode yourself. Are there ever days you wish you had a team?
Hirst: No, never. [Laughs.] No, even when I’m exhausted, I can’t imagine … I may [eventually] be able to do it because I would like to take on some more projects. People offer me loads of stuff, and some of it I like, but I just can’t do it because I can’t write it all. So I might get in the position, where I have some sort of company and just write maybe the first episode, but these are love projects, in a way. I couldn’t give Vikings away — I mean I love these people. And I’m not sure anyone else writing it would necessarily have the same feeling towards the characters that I do.
THR: Compared to The Tudors, how is your writing process different on this show?
Hirst: That’s an interesting question. With The Tudors, I had a huge amount of material, I mean so many books and so much stuff about what they really said. So, in a way it was kind of trying to strip it out and find the stories inside all this material. With Vikings, there isn’t that — things to strip away. There’s very bare storylines, we know a few facts about Ragnar. So it’s building it up.
THR: You seem genuinely happy with what the show has become. What’s your secret? Is it just about having the freedom from History to follow your vision?
Hirst: Yes, but it was still terrifying. Actually because I had freedom, that makes it more terrifying, because it’s my fault if it goes terribly. But actually what happens is that your time is consumed by solving problems. So you have problems to solve in the scripts, you have problems in production. Day to day, I’ve got to solve these problems, and it’s only now that I can look back at it and say, “Wow, isn’t the cast great?” It’s a sort of luxury. And also because it’s worked. It might not have worked. Success has many fathers and failures is an orphan, so we could be having a totally different sort of discussion.
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