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The Northman Director Robert Eggers On Channeling Gladiator and Braveheart in Viking Epic
The Northman's director talks about the things people are still finding in his epic film.
Robert Eggers is known for a meticulous filmmaking style that seeps into every aspect of production. In his previous two period pieces, The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers went to great length to ensure every detail was not only accurate to the film's story, but an enhancement of the overall experience for viewers. The same is true in The Northman, the Viking revenge epic that's already risen to become one of the most acclaimed films of 2022.
Though it's designed in every way to be a big screen experience, full of ambitious cinematography, sound design, and battle sequences, The Northman is also a film that has benefits for people who watch it several times. Now that the film is back streaming on Peacock and to own on Blu-ray and digital, repeat home viewing is possible for fans, and Eggers knows they'll find things they didn't see before.
"I have a pretty good eye, and generally, when I watch a film for the first time, I can take in more visual information than say my wife who's with me who's, by the way, smarter than I am, but where I have that gift is to see this stuff," Eggers told SYFY WIRE. "But I'll always be missing plot points and names, and she'll have all that s*** down.
"But I think it was interesting [with The Northman], because Neil Price, who was one of the Viking experts who consulted with us ... he came to LA, and it was his third time seeing the film. And he said, 'I only just noticed that during the funeral scene, the ship is half buried in a burial mound, the way we think that the Oseberg burial was done. I didn't notice that you had done that. Now I remember we talked about it when we were prepping it, but I didn't see it, even though I'd seen the movie three times, because there was so much other stuff to look at.' So I think that even if someone who's working on the film isn't noticing some things, that there should be plenty of things for audiences who want to punish themselves by watching the film more can enjoy."
That attention to detail and depth, so much so that even Eggers' collaborators couldn't notice everything, is in part due to the careful planning that went into making The Northman work. The story of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) and his journey to hunt down his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) for revenge, it's a film packed with elaborate locations and even more elaborate camerawork. The film was meticulously storyboarded beforehand to accommodate the scale of the piece, which meant striking a tricky balance between the intricacies of making the film and the emotions of the characters in each frame.
"The Witch and The Lighthouse have some moments of spontaneity where the planning enabled us to be a little bit more spontaneous, but this movie was such a massive undertaking that [cinematographer Jarin Blaschke] and I felt like we just needed to plan and execute or we would not survive," Eggers explained. "And I mean, look, there are some moments for me that do feel like a little stagey and hemmed in by the planning, but I think where that's not the case ... partially, it's because we're shooting in these very real-seeming environments, and there's always animals and weather and mud and things to complicate stuff. So it keeps you on your toes, and it keeps people fresh to be in [those environments], because you have no choice but to be in the moment when there's these natural obstacles."
The careful balance between planning and the elements became key to pulling off The Northman, but just as essential was striking a certain balance within Eggers' filmmaking style between the epic adventure tones of the film and his focus on the art-driven cinema that he grew up loving. That meant the film drew on a wide, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, range of influences, balancing the arthouse cinema with the popcorn movie.
"I certainly watched Spartacus again [in preparation for the movie]. I've watched Gladiator and Braveheart again," Eggers said. "I did, but I think that what is maybe funky about the movie for people who it doesn't work for is that most of my cinematic influences are European and Japanese auteurs, and not commercial cinema. Certainly, [John Milius's] Conan The Barbarian is quoted many times in the movie, and I've talked about that a lot. And that is the big thing that is there, and certainly Kurosawa's influence on Spielberg is so great that there are ways in which that kind of storytelling aligns."
In terms of scope, budget, and reach, The Northman ranks as Eggers' most ambitious film yet in a number of ways, and it's paid off in terms of acclaim. The film arrived in April to an overwhelmingly positive critical response, and cinephiles around the world have already responded to Eggers' vision with their own analysis and enthusiasm. Now, as The Northman arrives for more viewers to discover it at home streaming on Peacock, Eggers looks back on the response as a confirmation that the hard work and meticulous planning was worth it.
"I mean, the critical response has been really amazing, and the feeling from movie fans like yourself has been wonderful too," he said. "I mean, it feels very vindicating and humbling to feel like you're understood, because that's what doing creative work is all about, sharing what it is to be human beings with other human beings. So it's good."
*This interview was originally conducted in 2022.