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Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse), writer-director of upcoming epic Viking tale The Northman, admits he “never wanted to make a Viking movie”.
“I thought Vikings were violent, hulking brutes with nothing of interest,” the filmmaker notes in a director’s statement.
“My wife, on the other hand, had been fond of the Icelandic Sagas, the esteemed medieval stories of Viking lore, and she knew that I would love them.”
Despite her insistence, Eggers never opened one of those “great books”, and instead it was a trip to Iceland in 2015 that piqued his interest; the country’s “epic and overwhelming landscapes” inspired a journey that led to The Northman, an offering that he hopes will be the definitive Viking movie.
The film follows young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), who is on the cusp of becoming a man when his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), is brutally murdered by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who kidnaps the boy’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Fleeing his island kingdom by boat, the child vows revenge.
Two decades later, Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) is a Viking berserker raiding Slavic villages, where a seeress reminds him of his vow: avenge his father, save his mother, kill his uncle.
Traveling on a slave ship to Iceland, Amleth infiltrates his uncle’s farm with the help of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), an enslaved Slavic woman — and sets out to honor his vow. The epic cast also features Willem Dafoe and Björk.
The origins of The Northman pre-date Eggers’ 2015 voyage though, with Skarsgård developing a Viking movie more than a decade ago. In fact, the idea for the project dates back to the Sweden-born actor-producer’s childhood when he first became enchanted by Viking myth and lore as he grew up surrounded by the heritage of the Vikings.
Despite Skarsgård enlisting a development team after he rose to fame playing vampire Eric Northman on True Blood, the project stalled in the writing stage.
“We had a hard time figuring out where to enter the world because the Viking era went on for over a century, and they traveled all over the world,” Skarsgård says.
“One thing that remained constant from the beginning was this specific tone — we wanted the story to reflect the laconic feel of the Icelandic sagas.”
Eventually, Eggers was brought to Skarsgård’s attention, who notes the director’s “attention to detail was unlike any I had ever seen”. Shortly after the pair met up in New York to discuss the project and spent an entire afternoon talking about Viking lore.
“Rob will say otherwise but he already knew a great deal about Vikings, including their culture, history and literature,” Skarsgård recalls. “He was fired up about the project and I immediately called [producer Lars Knudsen] and suggested Rob direct our movie. He came on board, and we couldn’t have been more excited.”
One thing they both agreed on from the beginning was that Skarsgård would be the film’s lead, meaning Eggers was able to specifically cater for the actor when writing the screenplay alongside Icelandic poet, novelist, lyricist and screenwriter Sjón (Lamb, Dancer in the Dark),
“He was smart to develop a Viking movie for himself because he’s the perfect person for it, physically,” Eggers says. “He’s a 6-foot 4 Nordic actor who can transform his body into this ferocious machine. Alex was totally fearless as he was bringing Amleth to life, and through hard work he became a Viking.”
Given how passionate Skarsgård was from the outset, it’s not surprising he threw himself into the role, both mentally and physically, the actor diving into research and lectures online, reading books on Viking culture, history and mythology.
“The Vikings believed that some people had a spirit animal living within them that would manifest itself on occasion in different ways,” Skarsgard tells. “For women, it was often a sea creature but for men it was a fox or a wolf or a bear and, in Amleth’s case, it’s both wolf and bear — Beowulf, if you will. Before the big raid on the Slav village, we watch him take on the strength and ferocity of a bear combined with the agility and nimbleness of a wolf.”
Meanwhile, he reunited with Swedish personal trainer and nutritionist Magnus Lygdback, with whom he had trained on The Legend of Tarzan, but this time his intended transformation was drastically different to that of the lean and lithe jungle adventurer he portrayed in that 2016 film.
“Physically we wanted Alex to be thicker this time around, with more body fat than Tarzan, and bigger shoulders,” Lygdback says, who has also trained Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot for superhero roles.
“Since Amleth is a wolf-bear hybrid in a Viking legend, we wanted Alexander to be able to move smoothly while fighting with swords and axes but at the same time possess an imposing size and thickness.”
Playing the court jester Heimir the Fool, Willem Dafoe, who co-starred in Eggers’ The Lighthouse, noted that The Northman is “a big, muscular adventure, grander in scale than [Eggers’] previous films”.
“But Robert approaches it with the same kind of detail, creating sets, props and even shots that are made with such precision and care that the pretending on the part of the audience becomes effortless,” Dafoe says.
“Inside each shot of this movie there is a rhythm and a story and a dynamic that’s beautiful on its own. Everything’s there on screen; you don’t simply enter Eggers’ worlds — you get folded into them.”
‘The Northman’ is in cinemas April 21