History’s “Vikings” snuck up on a lot of people this spring.
A cable network without a lot of scripted series pedigree released a show without major stars and the initial reaction was, “It’s ‘Game of Thrones’ without dragons and I like dragons.”
It took only a few minutes to realize that “Vikings” was far better than it necessarily needed to be. The Irish-filmed visuals popped. The characters were rough and compelling. And, in addition to a solid performance from established veteran Gabriel Byrne, “Vikings” delivered impressive work from the likes of Travis Fimmel, Jessalyn Gilsig and particularly Katheryn Winnick.
Much of the credit for the success of “Vikings” goes to “Elizabeth” scribe Michael Hirst. Just as he did on Showtime’s “The Tudors” and Starz’s “Camelot,” Hirst wrote every word of the first “Vikings” season. And, as he did on those earlier shows, he filtered well-researched history through a filter of sex and power and betrayal that blends juicy soap opera with Shakespearean tragedy and just a dash of “The Godfather.”
“Vikings” ended its first season in April and probably won’t return for its second season until 2014, but with Emmy nomination season approaching, I got on the phone with Hirst to talk about the show.
In our wide-ranging 25-minute conversation, we talked about Hirst’s particular staff-free approach to TV writing, the surprising evolution of the show’s female characters and the
HitFix: First of all… Tell me, where are you right now in the writing of Season 2?
Michael Hirst: Since you ask, I’ve just finished Episode 6. We start shooting in a couple of weeks, so that’s not a bad position to be in. Many things will change, because now the cast get involved and directors get involved and there are always production issues, so it’s an evolution, but I’m slight ahead of the game. Touch wood. So I think we’re in good shape.
HitFix: How does your writing process change when suddenly production is getting closer and you have all of those responsibilities and you can’t just be the writer at your computer concentrating solely on that?
Michael Hirst: Well, I’m very bad at delegating writing responsibilities, because I’ve never been able to do it, I’ve never had any help or looked for any help. But I’m pretty good at delegating other responsibilities. We have worked with a fantastic crew and production designer and costume designer, so I have regular and intensive conversations with them, but they go off and work their genius and they do leave me alone to do a lot of the rewrites and the things that I have to do. And you know what? It’s kind of a machine. We’ve worked together, most of them, on “The Tudors” and the crew actually goes back to “Braveheart.” They all worked together on “Braveheart,” so they’ve been together a long time. I don’t think this show could have been made anywhere else but Ireland, because it is such an effective machine. For “Vikings,” we have to do so much outside shooting and it’s normally, I think with American shows it’ll be 60 or 70 percent inside and a little bit outside, but with us, it’s almost 70 percent outside and that’s huge and really difficult. The only way it works is this machine that powers its way through.
HitFix: You mentioned the challenge of delegating responsibility when it comes to the writing. Talk a bit about that write-it-all-yourself philosophy you take. Do you think there might be downsides to it, or do you see it as just being all positive for you?
Michael Hirst: It’s something that I’ve done, in a sense, because I was just feeling my way. Like a lot of other writers, I’d worked just on movies and I’d never dreamt of working on TV. Until about, I dunno, 10 years, writers and directors and actors who had ambitions wouldn’t work in TV and there’s been a huge revolution, obviously. When I was approached to write “The Tudors,” I didn’t know whether I could write series TV, so I just had to sit down and kind of do it and learn it and I found that I really enjoyed it and I love teasing out the storylines and I fell in love with some of the characters, so it was a whole new experience for me and I don’t want to lose that experience. I can see in the future, because there are so many great projects coming up, I can see that probably I might have opportunities to work with other writers on projects and that would be fun. I’m not ruling that out. I think I’m kind of looking forward to that, but at the moment I don’t know how to give up “The Vikings,” because I’m so deep into it and they often surprise me, the characters. I wouldn’t know how to communicate that to other writers. It’s not like it’s based on novels or anything, so I can’t point to anything. It’s just my instincts. It’s just my inclinations and my passions and I can suddenly decide half-way through writing an episode that I’ve changed my mind or missed something out and the whole direction will slightly change. It’s hard to communicate that.
HitFix: Does that put extra pressure on you when things are in production and you’re the only person who has certain pieces of information?
Michael Hirst: Listen, let me tell you the truth about that. When you’re a screenwriter working on a film, you’re not really even welcome on set, even if you know… When I wrote “Elizabeth” and Shekhar Kapur was a friend of mine, but I wasn’t really welcome on set, because the director is God and it’s a very difficult position for a screenwriter who’s put so much passion into that, into the writing. It could have taken a year, it could have taken two years, but when they’re making it, everyone goes to the director. When you’re making a TV drama, the showrunner is God and so however onerous and difficult and consuming that responsibility is, you’re being treated with respect, so it changes your whole outlook to the production. You’re being asked about costumes, set design, music, every aspect of the show. So I don’t care how much I have to work or what I have to do, it’s just a wonderful feeling to be respected and to be among people who you think are so dedicated, so professional and I enjoy it. It’s exhausting, but I really enjoy it, genuinely I enjoy it.
HitFix: When you were writing the first season, did you have any doubts about the production’s ability to achieve the necessary scale and certain sequences on the budget and timeframe that you were working with?
Michael Hirst: I thought it was a challenge for everyone. I knew it was a challenge. We don’t have the budget of an HBO. I was asking them — We were putting boats on the water, we were having battles. But then you decide that it’s worth it and if it’s worth it, then you’ll find a way of doing it. One of the things that we decided pretty early on, or that I decided with the early directors — Johan Renck is this great Swedish director who we first worked with — was that we weren’t going to make this like a traditional TV show. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase — I hadn’t heard it, but it’s a wonderful phrase — that all TV shows are “hosed down,” which means that everything is shot from every available angle. We want this to look like a movie. We want scale here. We don’t have the money to f*** around, so we’re gonna have to adapt to our resources. So we treat each scene on its merits. Sometimes we might just have one camera. If it’s a battle scene, we might have five cameras running. But we’re not going to hose everything down. We’re not doing that Hollywood thing. We’re gonna fly by the seat of our pants, because we are aiming for something else and it worked. One of the reasons it worked was we had great directors and we had a great crew and whatever the Irish weather threw at us, we never stopped shooting. And there was this enormous belief in the show and and it carried everything before it, which was an extraordinary thing. It’s not a job. It’s an occupation. Everyone has to buy into the fact that this was going to be really hard work and difficult, but that the results would be worth it, which I think they are.
HitFix: As you get into the second season and into expanding these characters and this world, are there more factual materials that have become available, or are you giving yourself more latitude to go off in your own directions now?
Michael Hirst: The materials were always limited, because it’s the Dark Ages. The Vikings never wrote anything down and most of what we know about the Viking Age was written by outside witnesses, which were Christian monks. So I have neither less nor more information over the time scale between the first and second seasons. We have sufficient information about Ragnar Lothbrok and his family to build a drama on him, which is actually rooted in history and historical and that was one of the reasons that I chose him out of any other potential Viking hero, is because I knew that not only does he become one of the most famous Viking leaders and kings, but his son became very famous. In fact, I knew that because I’d written a script about Alfred the Great, the English king, and he fought against Ragnar’s son. So I knew that I had a longevity in this show and I could take it several series. The actual historical period that the Vikings were up and about and raiding was about 400 years, so I don’t think that we’ll cover 400 years, but we’ve lots of material. And it’s not that you run into more history. It’s not like writing about Henry the 8th where there’s almost too much material, there’s so much material. There isn’t a lot of material, but it’s a wonderfully rich environment to write drama out of and I’m just having fun doing that.
HitFix: One of the things about Ragnar is that as the season went along, he does a lot of pretty awful things that contemporary heroes couldn’t get away with. Is there a great pleasure in working in the distant past so that your characters aren’t bound by modern morality?
Michael Hirst: Yes, that is true. But on the other hand, if you think about it, most of the lead characters on the successful TV shows of the moment are not “good guys.” In other words, they’re gangsters or they’re murderers or they’re something. It works better if your lead character is complex and interesting and not perfect. However, having said that, my whole passion for this show was to try and attack and overturn a lot of the prejudices and cliches about the Vikings and to tell the story from a Viking point of view, which had never been done before. I wanted to show that they were human beings, to start, that they had family lives, but also to show that they were really interesting and complex people and that their Gods and their systems of belief were fascinating. I find them fascinating. I’m exploring that with the audience, in way. I hope that the audience will go and read more about the Vikings. I do have a lead character who’s a pagan, but he’s interesting. Ragnar isn’t even a traditional Viking. In times of immense danger, he’s more likely to smile. He’s counter-intuitive and Travis [Fimmel] is very like that himself. He’s kind of grabbed hold of this character who is, to quote, “The Che Guevara of the Viking World.”
HitFix: If you take that approach, where does that put Lagertha [Katheryn Winnick] and Siggy [Jessalyn Gilsig]? How do they function in this world? And have you been surprised by how potentially central those two characters seemingly evolved to be as the show progressed?
Michael Hirst: I’ve been hugely surprised and I’m delighted. With Lagertha, I just didn’t realize that when I was writing this character of a woman who was both a mother and a wife, but also a shield maiden and a warrior… This was basic to the Viking world, so I didn’t really think too much about it, but in terms of contemporary TV shows, it’s revolutionary. I don’t read the social media, but my kids do and I know how immensely popular she’s become. This is really groundbreaking. There’s nobody else on TV like her and that’s fantastic. It’s absolutely wonderful and it’s empowered me to do more things for her in the second season and I think audiences will be absolutely amazed with what she achieves in the second season. And Siggy, in the same way, had a slow start because I really hadn’t worked out where she was going to go. History is a male-dominated channel. We were interested in the guys. We were interested in Ragnar. There were very few female characters who counted. I hadn’t realized that Siggy had that much potential until, of course, she’s such a great actress and I realized, “My God, I’ve got to use this actress more.” Now I’m writing scenes for her. She’s embedded in the drama. She and Lagertha are big, big players in Season 2 and it’s so thrilling for me. It’s so exciting and they’re such good actresses and of course they’re thrilled at what’s happened.
[Hirst’s take on Viking spirituality and the supernatural, his favorite Season 1 moment and his thoughts on gratuitous sex and violence on TV on Page 2…]
HitFix: You mentioned before the importance of the Viking belief system and religion. This obviously isn’t a show that contains supernatural elements, but it’s a show about people who believe in these supernatural things and it seems like the show’s MO is to honor those beliefs. Could you talk about the approach that you take to that aspect of the story?
Michael Hirst: Yeah, you’re completely right. I’ve never watched “Game of Thrones,” but I’m not interested in fantasy, because for me fantasy is ultimately meaningless, so I want to root it in reality, but I wanted to tell this story from the Viking point of view and I knew that from the Viking point of view, psychologically, they saw their Gods in the landscape. They saw their Gods walking around in their company. So I wanted to give a sense of that in the show, but I didn’t want it to tilt into something for people to think, “Oh, this is a fantasy and I can kind of reject it” or whatever. As far as we know, this is what the Vikings actually saw. They saw Odin walking on the battlefield and they saw the Valkyries and the Gods were real to them. Very occasionally there are some things in which you see strange things and then, of course, the Gods were also known as shape-shifters, so they changed into different animals and birds and things. Quiet often you’ll see a raven and, of course, it’s not a raven. It’s a God. This sounds awful, but I’m trying to educate the audience into accepting that from the Viking point of view, these natural things could have symbolic meaning and when they looked to the landscape, it was different from how we look at the landscape.
I’ll tell you a little story that happened while they were building the pagan temple. So Episode 8 is when they go to Uppsala, the pagan temple. It’s called “The Sacrifice” and the sacrifice nine of everything. While they were building that temple, I wasn’t there, but the designer went up just to see how the building was going and there were a lot of people making a lot of noise and the structure was going up and there were carpenters and everything. And suddenly, this huge stag walked out of the forest and walked up to the set and it was one of those huge beasts with 14 points on its antlers. Everyone stopped working and everyone stopped to stare at this stag and the stag walked through the temple and it walked to the steps and when it got to the other end, it ran off back into the forest. The designer said, “The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It was amazing.” I said, “Do you REALLY think that was just a stag?” For the Vikings, that would have had huge symbolic significance. So what I’m trying to say is the kind of natural thing, you know, that they just looked at nature in a different way. It’s just a different way of looking at the world.
HitFix: When you did the first season, were you surprised by any limitations you did or didn’t face working with History Channel, rather than with Showtime or Starz with their looser set of content restrictions?
Michael Hirst: Yes. Absolutely. I remember in an early meeting with History when they bought the show where they were telling us what you couldn’t show in terms of sex and violent. It went on and on and on, what you couldn’t show. When they stopped, I looked and them and said, “Do you realize you’ve just bought something called ‘The Vikings’?” But then Johan Renck and I, we talked about this and we agreed, actually, that certainly the sex thing wasn’t a problem, because we both felt… And I know, I’m guilt as anyone else… I know that there’s a lot of sex in “The Tudors” and it comes as gratuitous. But I just felt and feel that a lot of the cable shows have pushed the gratuitous elements of sex and violence so far that you have to pull it back. And, as I say, I’ve never watched “Game of Thrones,” but I have heard that most scenes start with two semi-naked women in a room and then two guys come in and scene starts. I just thought, “Well, we won’t do that. We don’t need to do that. We’ll just concentrate on the story.” So there isn’t a huge amount of sex in the show. Hopefully there’s a lot of passion, but there’s not a lot of sex, at least of the gratuitous kind. And the violence, we tried to be as limited as we could be and we tried to make the battles and the fights different and I think we pushed the envelop quite a bit, but I think it’s all for the story. I think it’s very honest. It’s authentic. It’s a very honest piece. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that, but I do feel that and all of us who were involved in making it felt that it was very honest. When we saw the Viking boats, when put them on the river and saw them coming up-river on a misty morning, we were like, “This is how people in the West first saw the Vikings. We’re actually reproducing that experience.” So it was very dear to us that we be authentic and real.
HitFix: As a last question: We’re approaching Emmy season and whatnot. Is there a moment or an episode that you can look at and go, “This is the embodiment of what we were trying to do with this show”?
Michael Hirst: It’s a whole episode and it’s Episode 8, it is “The Sacrifice,” because I had to fight so hard with the network and with everyone else for that episode. There was no fighting in it, there are no battles. It’s just religion — It’s pagans, it’s paganism, it’s trying to get deeper into pagan psychology and it was very important to me. It was very important because it was like, “I’m not just doing this for entertainment,” you know? We had a director at that stage, a Canadian director, and he’d been an altar boy in Canada, Catholic, and he understand completely the ritualistic side and we worked out that Catholicism has borrowed so much from paganism, so we made the rituals very, very real and rather Catholic and it’s such a powerful, powerful episode. I think that it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written.