The Northman Director Robert Eggers Talks Norse Myth And Conan Influences [Interview]

With "The Northman" charging its way into theaters this weekend, Focus Features provided us with the opportunity to speak with the film's uniquely gifted director, Robert Eggers ("The Witch," "The Lighthouse"). During our interview, we discussed how Eggers wished to tell a definitive Viking story, how Covid played a hand in blowing up the film's budget, and the ways classic Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Conan the Barbarian" snuck its way into the violent epic. The filmmaker also dished on the one Viking movie that comes closest to "The Northman," at least in terms of historical accuracy.

Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe all star in the brutal revenge story, which is based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth that inspired William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Be sure to check out our upcoming interview with Skarsgård, as well as our scoop about Eggers' potential remake of classic silent vampire movie "Nosferatu." You can also find a review of "The Northman" by our own Hoai-Tran Bui by clicking here.

"I'm grateful these Marvel movies with Thor and Loki are popular right now"

Most modern audiences' conception of Norse mythology comes from the "Thor" movies. What are some aspects about those myths which have been lost in translation that you wanted to get across in your movie?

Since Wagner put horns on helmets in his operas in the 19th century, pop culture has been reinventing Vikings to be whatever they want. I'm grateful these Marvel movies with Thor and Loki are popular right now. I'm even more grateful to the "Vikings" TV show and everything that spawned. But again, the popular image of a Viking that comes from that show, that is copied by all these other shows and video games, has nothing to do with Vikings — which is totally okay! I say in the press notes something absurd like, "I wanted to make the definitive Viking movie," but in a strange way because no one's ever tried to make a historically accurate Viking movie aside from one tiny Icelandic film. If I was gonna say, "I'm gonna make the definitive Western" or "the definitive science fiction movie," someone could justifiably shoot me in the head, but there might be an opportunity to do something here, so I seized it.

Was that tiny movie the Mads Mikkelsen one, "Valhalla Rising?"

Oh, no. I mean, there's some things that are quite accurate about that, some things that are not, but there's a movie about The Gisli Saga from the early '80s or late '70s called "The Outlaw," which is interesting. It is the only other film that I know of in cinema history that features a Knattleikr game.

"Anytime you go on hiatus, that costs a lot of money"

Although you dipped your toe in your previous movies, this is your first time working extensively with visual effects. What was it like to integrate that into your work, and do you plan to dabble more in the future?

Yeah, CG is a great tool and there certainly are, quite obviously, a handful of full CG shots, but for the most part I try to shoot everything practically and comp things together. I think making a movie of this size, you know ... the bell-making sequence in "Andrei Rublev" can never happen again. You can't make movies like that anymore with the cost of labor or modern health and safety. Certain things can't be done anymore. If you want to make a film at a certain scale today, you have no choice but to embrace it. Luckily, I was working with Angela Barson at BlueBolt as my VFX supervisor, and we had a great working relationship. I really enjoyed the process.

Yeah, and it's all beautifully integrated. It was pretty seamless. I was a little taken aback when I saw reports ⁠– and I don't know how true it is or not – that the movie cost $90 million. Does some of that have to do with the Covid overruns?

You'd have to speak to Focus about exactly what the budget was, but yeah, things got more expensive because of Covid. We were a week before we were supposed to start principal photography, and then we had to go on a hiatus. Anytime you go on hiatus, that costs a lot of money, but we're also holding these massive sets throughout the hiatus because everyone's schedules are all messed up through the run of show on National Trust land. There were a lot of things Covid-related that exploded the budget.

"There were a lot of unintentional nods"

A lot of people have been comparing your film to John Milius' "Conan the Barbarian," and I guess they both have a giant killing machine protagonist, are both influenced by Hamlet, and both have a Teutonic flavor to them. Yours is obviously much more rooted in actual history. Was that movie a touchstone for you at all for "The Northman?"

Absolutely. I didn't seek to make "Conan," but it was a movie that I watched a ton as a kid. There were a handful of deliberate nods to "Conan," but then sometime during filming I watched "Conan" and realized there were a lot of unintentional nods, too, because I watched it so many times.

They both have a little kid watching his father get beheaded, for one.

Yeah, and you know Fjölnir taking his helmet off is a direct nod to James Earl Jones taking his helmet off, which is a nod to a Teutonic knight taking his helmet off in "Alexander Nevsky."

"The Northman" opens in theaters on April 22, 2022.