The director explains why he sought out these challenging conditions, why he won’t discuss a character’s backstory with actors, and why the box office is important.
Is Robert Eggers an endangered species?
The horror-tinged fable “The Witch” won Eggers the best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and “The Lighthouse,” a black-and-white mind-bender starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, is just a couple of the stylish art-house films the 38-year-old director cut his teeth on. When an eccentric filmmaker smokes out his tastes to make a superhero movie or decamps to a streaming service in search of artistic management at a higher price point, that is typically the inflexion point.
As a substitute, Eggers produced “The Northman,” a $70 million Viking story that opens in theatres on Friday. Alexander Skarsgard plays the sword-wielding royal Amleth in the film, seeking retribution against the uncle. The latter murdered his father (Ethan Hawke) and fled to a remote Icelandic village with his mother (Nicole Kidman). Despite the narrative being simpler than in Eggers’ earlier films, the filming quality is still quite excellent.
Over a cup of coffee in Los Angeles, Eggers counselled me, “To be a director, you need to have hubris.” It’s a crazy job where you have to make yourself unique and avoid reality.
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“The Northman” is said to have been anything but an easy film to film, from the staging of the huge outdoor fights to the director’s disputes with the production company New Regency over artistic control during filming. There was a possibility that the film could go into production in March 2020, but the pandemic delayed the process by several months.
Even though the final setback was disappointing, it had two minor advantages: Eggers did not let his well-kept facial hair get out of control, the outdoor units had been given some time to weather realistically, and the Viking beards had been allowed some time to grow: Eggers told me that the director shouldn’t have the longest beard. When filming “The Lighthouse,” one of the first lessons I learned was the importance of having an alpha beard, and it is a good thing to have one.
Here are some edited snippets from our conversation.
The following two billboards for your movie were presented to you as part of my response to this interview. In my opinion, that’s a brand-new skill for you that I haven’t seen before.
It’s bizarre. Before the last 10 or 15 years of my life, I never imagined that I would film the kind of movie that could have a billboard like that.
I didn’t think I would be in a position to make a movie for a wide audience because I stopped engaging in more traditional hobbies around the age of ten. I made this conscious decision, and I’m happy that I made it.
Have you been astounded by the number of people who have seen your first two films?
It was my belief that when the film “The Witch” was released in 2016 (date of release), I would receive some exposure and, maybe, enough favourable reviews to persuade someone to allow me to make another movie in the future. I didn’t anticipate a dull pilgrim horror movie being popular.
Do you find your movie to be boring?
I detest “The Witch,” but that is a different tale. However, I don’t find a movie like that to be uninteresting conceptually. In reality, I enjoy seeing movies that are much, much duller than my two favourites.
However, it does seem as though you have the self-awareness to be able to acknowledge that this may be how popular viewers see your work.
Due to the fact that “The Witch” was falsely advertised as a scary movie, a lot of [crap] was thrown around as a result of the false advertisement. In my opinion, the movie is frightening, but I can understand why people seeking a specific solution were unhappy with it. I am trying to do both with “The Northman,” but that proves to be challenging as I aim to do both.
In such a case, how do you thread the needle? Where do your sensitivities diverge from the norm?
I think everyone was trying to accomplish the same thing with this movie—you need something familiar enough that people will be able to understand but distinctive enough that it will still be something new and exciting. There are a lot of supplies available, and the words are also approachable to people like me, which is a big bonus. I am aware that young people are not lining up at Barnes & Noble to buy copies of the Icelandic sagas. Nevertheless, much medieval literature is strange and magical, and it is widely available, whereas these books are not.
But unless they’re picking up an established series, it’s becoming less and less normal for a filmmaker with your history to advance to such a big-budget project.
In my mind, I knew that due to the film’s length, I would not be able to achieve any further reductions. While I was willing to take that risk, post-production was challenging for me because I had a strain and a voice from the studio that I had never experienced before. In the past, I received both positive and negative feedback from customers about “The Witch,” and the same was true for “The Lighthouse” (2019), but there was a lot more pressure this time around. During one of our meetings, my writing partner Sjon said, “It is our responsibility to interpret the studio’s comments in a way that we feel comfortable with. If we are unable to do this, then our efforts are insufficient.”
Furthermore, I believe that without pressure from the studio, I would not have been able to deliver what I promised, which was “the most enjoyable Robert Eggers film ever made,” since entertaining is not something that comes naturally to me. When it came to my previous two films, it was either my fifth or fifteenth priority, whereas when it came to this film, it was my number one priority. As a result, even though it hurt and gave me a lot of grey hairs, I am glad the studio put pressure on us to get the movie into the shape it is right now. A Director’s Cut will not be available on the Blu-ray version of the film. I wanted to make a movie like that.
What lessons did you learn while creating this?
All parts After making this movie, I finally feel like a real filmmaker for the first time.
You hadn’t experienced that after your various movies ended, had you?
No. I had the impression that I was trying to convince them that I was a filmmaker. I’m not saying I’m not; I’m pretty thrilled with “The Lighthouse,” but now I feel like I could do a spontaneous picture, and it might not be all that bad. In a way I’ve never experienced before, this movie helped me understand the process more thoroughly.
Tell me about the difficulties you had when writing “The Northman.”
We accomplished a lot, including a major village raid with many extras, stunt performers, horses, and cows, a storm at sea on a Viking ship in the evening, and a scene in which the cast had to be helicoptered in. After we finished, Jarin [Blaschke, the director of photography] and I were embraced by Ethan Hawke, who said, “Congratulations. You guys have done everything you could do for a movie, so you may now really accomplish anything. Jarin and I said, “Yeah, now we’re able to do this movie,” after he left.
The entire village raid is captured in one drawn-out, expertly orchestrated take. How do you feel when you realize you’ve got it when there is that much mayhem, and the actors hit every note perfectly?
I fixated on white-knuckling the monitor to get the photo since it’s the best sensation. Many moments were intended to be three or four images, but I only had one, partly because I became accustomed to working in that way. You shouldn’t do something if it’s not one of the simplest ways to describe the scene, but when it can be done, we did it because it requires self-discipline.
And if you’re taking these pictures outside in bad weather instead of on a controlled soundstage, I’m sure they’re harder to get.
As you can see, making a movie is not an easy task. I purposefully search for the most gruelling, cruel locations to shoot my films is because it’s essential for the plot of the plots in my films. It’s a necessity for the plot of my films. Everyone’s lives are made harder, but it’s worth it. I enjoy a challenge. It wouldn’t have been necessary for me to accomplish it if it had been simple.
You performed in stage productions before you became a film director. Does that influence how you currently work with your actors?
Although I should be an actor’s director, there are times when I act impolitely towards actors. Alexander Skarsgard initially thought that I had treated him robotic, but once the first few weeks were over, he realized that I was directing the way I was.
He was annoyed because he had to hit such exact targets.
Yeah. Additionally, I don’t enjoy doing much desk work, such as discussing your character’s upbringing. When it comes to performance, I’m more excited about doing than speaking.
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That’s intriguing because you put a lot of thought into creating your universe, so that’s interesting. I think you might relate to an actor who wants to try this comparative analysis for their character.
Yes, but I also believe that is part of their responsibility. Pattinson frequently asked, “Is it this or is it that?” when discussing “The Lighthouse.” And then I said, “You know what? Choose the one that works best for you, but you must do that scene 25% faster.
How did you end up working with Alexander Skarsgard, then? It is a level of berserk from him that I have never witnessed onscreen. He’s shockingly sweet in person; I’d even go so far as to say dorky.
He is the most charming and quirky man. As a result of Alex’s long-standing interest in Vikings, he became intensely preoccupied with it and set high standards for himself. During the first couple of weeks of production, he seemed frustrated and was trying to figure out how Jarin and I worked, but as soon as we filmed the part of the video in which he performs a shamanic conflict dance, everything changed. I think that one thing was unlocked by his rage, insanity, and vulnerability. Each take after that for the rest of the session was good.
How interested are you in this movie’s box office performance?
Very. People are probably predicting it won’t achieve what everyone hopes for because of Covid. Still, the fact that this movie was done — that my team and I were permitted to make a sizable movie that isn’t a franchise superhero movie — is successful in and of itself
I believe it is our responsibility as a society to root for this movie at least a little bit, even if you are disgusted with it because other filmmakers should also have the opportunity to do so. Seeing things other than superhero movies should be an option for audiences to choose from when it comes to watching movies. I’m very humbled and excited by the early reviews being so positive. I’m not disparaging superhero movies, but there has to be room for something else.
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