The Northman Dialogue Had To Be Changed After Confusing Test Audiences

Robert Eggers and co-writer Sjón had to work on major parts of the script of "The Northman" after test audiences said they had a hard time understanding the dense narrative of the film, which is steeped in Norse mythology and based on one of the most famous Scandinavian sagas — the story of Amleth, prince of Denmark.

Eggers (who also directed the movie) has previously spoken about certain artistic compromises for "The Northman" that had to be made due to studio involvement, but the audience reaction to test screenings of the film propelled him to make major changes in post-production. After shooting grueling, physically-demanding sequences integral to the plot of the Nordic revenge saga, Eggers and his team had mounds of work to look forward to, as many changes, including ones in the dialogue, had to be made in the editing room.

'The toughest crossword puzzle you can imagine'

After test audiences found it difficult to grasp certain concepts unique to Norse culture and history, Eggers and Sjón wrote new dialogue that offered more clarity about the characters and their motivations, and asked the actors to re-record certain lines. However, this meant that post-production involved the arduous process of matching their original mouth movements to the altered dialogue in every scene — which was exasperating, to say the least.

Speaking to Vulture, Eggers explained the mechanics of similar-sounding syllables during these scenes, and how that had to be worked on later in order to make every character arc seem more legible through dialogue:

"You're like, 'Okay, we've got 18 syllables. The fifth syllable has to be a T because he enunciates that T so well. Maybe you could get away with a D. And then this syllable has to be an S."

Sjón (an Icelandic poet and one of the writers behind last year's "Lamb") described the process as "the toughest crossword puzzle you can imagine," while explaining how Björk had sent a scratch demo of her humming, and he had to fit in words and make sure it appeared seamless in the finished product. However, Sjón seems to be well aware of the hardships that accompany an ambitious project like "The Northman:" 

"Why would you do a historically accurate medieval tale that takes place in three countries, involving battles, family feuds, and magical beings, and not expect it to be hard?"

Eggers also went on to explain how Old Norse was still used in songs and ritual settings, and medieval Icelandic poems were translated with the help of linguist Haukur Þorgeirsson, who reinterpreted them to fit the mold of the core narrative. While a lot of alterations had to be made to produce a film more fitted to studio expectations and test audience feedback, Eggers went on to comment about the art of interpreting studio notes in a way true to his vision:

"Sjón said it was our job to interpret the studio notes in a way that makes us proud. If I slavishly took the studio's notes, the film would suck, because they're not filmmakers. That's why they hire filmmakers to make the films. But I think how we survived is that we were — me and all of my collaborators — determined to make the film we wanted to make, and we were not going to stop until we were proud of it. It would've been so easy to say, 'F*** the studio, they're giving me all these notes, I hate this! They're ruining my movie!' That's the easy way out. What made it so hard was to stick with it until we were happy."

"The Northman" hits theaters on April 22, 2022.