Robert Eggers on 'The Northman': Directing is 'crazy' work

Is Robert Eggers an endangered species? The 38-year-old director cut his teeth making stylized arthouse films like the horror-tinged fa...


Is Robert Eggers an endangered species?

The 38-year-old director cut his teeth making stylized arthouse films like the horror-tinged fable “The Witch,” which won Eggers the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival, and “The Lighthouse”, a black and white film. -white spirit which starred Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. It’s normally the inflection point when an idiosyncratic filmmaker softens his sensibilities to make a superhero movie or turns to a streaming service looking for creative control with a bigger budget.

Instead, Eggers went up”The man from the north,” a $70 million Viking saga that debuts in theaters Friday. movie stars Alexander Skarsgard as Amleth, a sword-wielding prince seeking revenge on the uncle who killed his father (Ethan Hawke) and fled with his mother (Nicole Kidman) to a remote Icelandic village. Although the narrative is simpler than in previous Eggers films, the directing is no less top-notch.

“You have to have pride to be a director,” Eggers told me over coffee in Los Angeles. “It’s a senseless occupation: you have to deny reality and do your own.”

Granted, nothing was easy about making “The Northman,” from staging its full-scale outdoor battles to the director’s clashes with production company New Regency over creative control. Even as the film was set to shoot in March 2020, the pandemic delayed production by several months.

Still, this latest setback came with a few small perks: exterior backdrops were allowed to weather realistically, and Viking beards were given time to grow, though Eggers didn’t let his hair down. own carefully manicured facial hair spiraling out of control. “The director should never have the longest beard,” he told me. “I learned it while filming ‘The Lighthouse’: you have to have an alpha beard.”

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

On my way to this interview, I passed two billboards for your film. I have to imagine this is a new experience for you.

It’s definitely surreal. I never expected in the last 10 or 15 years of my life to make the kind of movie that would have such a billboard.

Why not?

Because since I started getting into less mainstream interests around the age of 10, I didn’t think I would make a movie for a large audience. I’m glad I did, and it was a deliberate choice.

Were you surprised by the public who found your first two films?

I felt that “The witch” [2016] would get some distribution and hopefully get enough good reviews that someone might let me do another movie. I didn’t expect a boring pilgrim horror movie to be a hit, that’s for sure.

Do you find your movie boring?

I hate “The Witch”, but that’s another story. But in theory, no, I don’t find a movie like that boring. In fact, I enjoy watching films that are much, much more boring than my two films.

But it seems like you have the self-awareness to be able to say, “This is how my work might be perceived by a mainstream audience.”

“The Witch” had a lot of [expletive] for false marketing of a horror film. I mean, I think it’s a horror movie, but I can understand people looking for a certain formula not being satisfied. But with “The Northman”, it’s difficult because I try to do both.

So how do you thread that needle? Where do your sensibilities intersect with the mainstream?

You want something to be familiar enough that people can get it, but different enough that it’s something new, and I think that’s what everyone was going for with this movie. And what was great for me is that the source documents are really readable and accessible texts. I know kids don’t flock to Barnes & Noble to get their copies of the Icelandic sagas, but a lot of the medieval literature is pretty weird and mystical and out there, and it’s not.

Still, it’s increasingly rare for a filmmaker with your experience to move on to such a big-budget film unless they’re taking on a pre-existing franchise.

I knew I wasn’t going to get the final cut because of the size of the film. It was a risk I was willing to take, but post-production was difficult because I had a pressure and a voice from the studio that I had never had before. On “The Witch” I had investor ratings – good and bad – and the same with “Lighthouse” [2019]but here there was a lot of pressure. sjon, my co-writer, said, “It’s our responsibility to interpret the studio notes in a way that we’re proud of. And if we can’t, we’re not working hard enough.

I also think that without the pressure from the studio, I couldn’t have delivered what I pitched, which was “the most entertaining Robert Eggers film”, because entertaining is not necessarily my first instinct. In fact, with my first two films, it was my fifth or fifteenth priority, whereas here it was number one. In the end, even though it was painful and I got a lot of gray hair from it, I’m grateful for the pressure from the studio to get this movie in the shape it’s in. There will be no longer director’s cut on the Blu-ray. This is the movie I wanted to make.

What did you learn by doing this?

All. It’s the first time I feel like a filmmaker, after making this film.

Didn’t you feel that after finishing your other films?

No. I felt like I was trying to to convince people that I was a filmmaker. I’m not saying I’m not – I’m actually pretty proud of ‘The Lighthouse’ – but now I feel like I could shoot a movie on the fly and maybe that’s not so evil. This film gave me a fuller understanding of the process in a way I never had before.

Tell me about the level of challenges you took on for “The Northman”.

We’ve done a lot, from a massive raid on a village with hundreds of extras, stuntmen, horses and cows, to a storm at sea on a Viking ship at night, to a sequence in a place so remote that the cast had to be airlifted When we were done Ethan Hawke put his arms around me and Jarin [Blaschke, the director of photography] and he said, “Congratulations. You did everything you could do in a movie, so now you can do it all. Of course, after he left, Jarin and I said, “Yeah, now we’re ready to do this film.”

The village raid is captured in one intricately choreographed long take. When there’s so much chaos and the actors have to hit all their beats so precisely, how does it feel when you know you’ve finally got it right?

It’s the best feeling, and I got addicted to the white screen to take the picture. There were a lot of scenes that were planned in three or four shots that I had turned into one, partly because I just got addicted to working like that. If that’s not the best way to tell the scene, you shouldn’t do it, but when it could be done, we did it because there’s discipline in it.

And I’m sure those shots are even harder to get when you’re filming them outdoors in difficult weather, rather than on a controlled soundstage.

Look, making movies isn’t easy. With my films, I deliberately try to find the most punishing and brutal places possible to shoot them, because that’s what the story demands. It makes everything harder for everyone, but it’s worth it. I like a challenge. If it was easy, I wouldn’t want to do it.

Before becoming a director, you acted in theatrical productions. Does this influence the way you work with your actors now?

I should be an actor’s director, but sometimes I’m mean. Alexander Skarsgard felt he was treated like a robot for the first two weeks, but then he understood why I was leading the way I was.

He was frustrated to have to hit such precise targets?

Yeah. And also, I don’t do a lot of table work – talking about your character and how he grew up and all that. I’m more interested in doing than talking, when it comes to acting.

It’s interesting, because you do so much research when it comes to designing your world. I think you would sympathize with an actor who wants to do the same research for their character.

Yeah, but I also think that’s their job. With “The Lighthouse”, Pattinson sometimes said: “Is it this where is it that?” And I said, “You know what? Choose whichever is right for you, but you need to do this scene 25% faster.

How did you work with Alexander Skarsgard? It’s a level of berserk that I’ve never seen from him on screen. In person, he’s surprisingly sweet – I might even say silly.

He’s the nicest, dumbest guy. Alex has had a passion for Vikings since he was a child, so it was something he was passionate about and he demanded perfection from himself. For the first two weeks he was trying to figure out how Jarin and I were working and he was frustrated, but once we did the scene where he’s doing a shamanic war dance, things changed. I think the fury and the madness and the vulnerability he needed to show, that unlocked something. And then for the rest of the shoot, every take was great.

How invested are you in the box office returns of this film?

Very. Because of Covid, people are potentially anticipating that this isn’t going to do what everyone wants to do, but the fact that this movie was made – the fact that me and my team were allowed to make a great movie that didn’t is not a franchise superhero film – is an achievement in itself.

I’m incredibly humbled and excited that the early reviews are so positive, but even if you absolutely hate this movie, I think it’s society’s responsibility to cheer it on a bit because other filmmakers should have the opportunity to do that, and audiences should have the opportunity to see something other than superhero movies. I don’t even make fun of superhero movies, but there must be room for something else too.

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