In his first film, the $4m Sundance sensation The Witch, Robert Eggers etched a human battle between Puritanism and the occult in 17th-century New England, written entirely in early modern English. He followed it up with The Lighthouse, a surrealist survival nightmare, soaked in sea salt and maritime slang, jumbling toxic masculinity, fart jokes and octopus-punching. This is the kind of film-making upon which auteurist cults are built; but it does not, conventionally, inspire Hollywood studios to write the director in question a fat cheque for a blockbuster.
And yet. The Northman, Eggers’s vast, bonkers, exhilarating third feature, was made for the price of several Witches and Lighthouses, but hasn’t come at much cost to the 38-year-old film-maker’s strange, distinct sensibility. A pounding, weather-lashed, brutal Viking revenge tale rooted in the Scandinavian folk legend of Amleth, it significantly ups the action ante for a director whose previous most elaborate set piece in that regard was a homoerotic wrestling scene between two crazed lighthouse-keepers played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
Led by a hulking Alexander Skarsgård as an exiled Icelandic prince out to avenge his father’s murder and reclaim his kingdom, it has all the blood and muscle you associate with the genre, plus a glitzy ensemble including Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother, Ethan Hawke as his father and Anya Taylor-Joy (seven years after her star-making debut in The Witch) as his lover. There’s even a cameo from Icelandic pop deity Björk, in her first film in 17 years. Still, the film’s rich historical idiom, rampant spirituality and ambiguous heroism feel far more Eggers than its blockbuster budget ($70m, he says) might suggest.
“Let’s just hope it busts some blocks,” he laughs half-nervously, shifting slightly on a sofa in London’s Soho Hotel: it’s just after breakfast, the sun is out, and he’s looking forward to a Sunday out in the city with his wife, Alexandra Shaker, a clinical psychologist, and their young son, Houston. The plush hotel doesn’t seem his natural environment – but then Eggers has been on unfamiliar turf at every stage of this project.
Where his first two films were inexpensive and wholly under his creative command, shifting away from independent film-making didn’t just mean handling bigger sets, a bigger cast and bigger practical challenges, but relinquishing control to the studio over the film’s final cut. A recent New Yorker profile of Eggers detailed what appeared to be a tough post-production process, with some resistant feedback from the money men and test audiences. He admits now to being “frustrated” by the narrative that emerged from that interview; the reality, he says, involved a fair degree of give and take.
To a large extent the studio indulged Eggers’s idiosyncrasies, allowing him to work with his regular heads of department, including cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. Eggers and Blaschke’s preference for long, exactingly planned takes, eschewing second units, results in a textured aesthetic and a hurtling, immersive perspective that you rarely see in today’s carefully vetted, committee-made action movies – it’s anathema to mainstream studios with an eye on the clock and a hand on the purse strings. It was an arduous shoot. Skarsgård has spoken of his physical exhaustion during filming, describing himself as “truly a wreck” after certain scenes. “Alex said to me at one point, ‘You’re doing this on purpose to drive me insane,’” Eggers says. “But I don’t choose these environments to be sadistic. I choose them because these are the environments that my films take place in.”
The editing process, meanwhile, brought its own challenges. “I hadn’t had to do test screenings before,” he admits. “My first two films were all tested for marketing, but I didn’t have to change anything. So this was new, and as much as I didn’t like that process, I did learn something from it. But more than that, this is the film I wanted to make. This is my director’s cut. The studio pressure made the film what I originally pitched to them, which was the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie I could make. Honestly, without their pressure, I couldn’t have done that. It’s hard for me to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, for goodness’s sake.”
I express surprise at this statement: his previous films, for all their dark eccentricities, have been fairly linear, not to mention gripping and often wildly funny. “Entertaining” doesn’t seem an artistic stretch for him. But Eggers is a film-maker as much preoccupied with the way his stories are told – and the singular, often archaic language he writes them in – as with the story itself. The Northman rivets its audience in a different way from most mainstream hero’s-journey films: its moral compass keeps spinning, the value and valour of Prince Amleth’s revenge mission is constantly in question. It’s the same ancient myth that trickled down into William Shakespeare’s similarly conflicted Hamlet: Eggers, himself the son of a Shakespeare professor, was more drawn to that psychological complexity than the warrior pageantry of it all.
Though Conan the Barbarian was a childhood favourite, this is not the kind of film Eggers ever imagined making. Growing up in the small town of Lee, New Hampshire – his mother was an actor, his father the provost at the local university – Eggers was not a typical child. A youthful love of comic books gave way to more esoteric interests when a family friend introduced him to the northern Renaissance engravings of Albrecht Dürer and the like. “At the time I was trying to draw the comic book characters. But suddenly the medieval world was much more interesting to me than the comic books.”
The young Eggers’s fascination with the past mingled with an equally keen interest in theatre. As a high-schooler, he directed a wildly stylised stage interpretation of the classic German expressionist vampire film Nosferatu; years later, in New York, he studied acting and dabbled in street theatre. Film-making came later, self-taught via experimental shorts: he describes his first, a spin on Hansel and Gretel, as “absolutely terrible”: “It got into one festival,” he says, “and on the way home, I decided I had to do something better.”
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