Movies

Robert Eggers On His ‘Painful’ Experience Making ‘The Northman’

On paper, there’s nothing inherently strange about Robert Eggers making a Viking movie. He’s a popular filmmaker who has made two movies – The Witch and The Lighthouse – that critics absolutely adore. (Not to mention, The Witch, on a $4 million budget, made $40 million.) Eggers’s movies have a surreal tone, mixed in with some dread, and a healthy dose of the supernatural. And The Northman has all that – but it also has staggering choreographed (and very gory) battle scenes that is not at all a hallmark of prior Eggers films. It’s got a hefty budget around $70 million and it’s very much all on the screen. There’s no point while watching The Northman where you’re thinking, where did the money go? You know, it’s one of those kind of movies they don’t make anymore. Except they did. And for Eggers, it was a new experience. And, as he openly admits, not always a happy one. (At one point he refers to post-production on The Northman as, “the most painful experience of my life.”)

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, a Viking prince who vows to avenge the killing of his father, who was murdered by his uncle (played by Claes Bang), who then marries his mother, (Nicole Kidman). It’s not so much based on Hamlet as it is the story that Hamlet was based on. In other words, in Hamlet there isn’t a naked sword fight on top of a volcano.

Despite Eggers’s fraught experience, the end result is remarkable. It’s true he didn’t have as much control over the final product as he’s used to, but, for his part, he admits he thinks it made the movie more entertaining. But would he go through this process again? Eggers admits, as we get further and further away from the production, his hesitancy is waning. A feeling he compares to the birth of a child, how many parents swear they won’t go through that again, then decide later, yeah okay let’s do it again.

From some prior interviews you’ve done, I can’t figure out if you enjoyed making this movie.

I love what I do. I am so incredibly grateful and fortunate to be doing what I want to be doing, but it isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love it, but it is hard. I think coming from theater, production is probably my favorite part of the filming. I honestly love all aspects. Writing is great because you haven’t made it yet. So it’s always a masterpiece in that case. It’s always great. But I think because of theater, I really, really love production. But this was the hardest time I’ve ever had in post-production.

So, in production, there was a different kind of weight and pressure because of the scale and the budget. That was something that I almost had to just ignore, because it would’ve been so completely crushing if I ever had to really understand what all that pressure was about…

Well, that’s what I’m getting at. Knowing what you know now, would you do it again? Because, as you said, it doesn’t seem you enjoyed post-production very much.

But it doesn’t matter. Post was awful! But it made for a better film. But, like I said, I knew I wasn’t going to have final cut going into this thing. As Michael Schaffer, one of the studio executives said after a really tough meeting in post, “Welcome to making big movies.”

Wow.

I think I’ve said it was the most painful experience of my life and it totally was. But, also, I don’t think if I had had the studio pressure to make something the most entertaining version, I don’t think I could have done it. I don’t think I could have done it.

But I feel you won, even though you said you had a bad experience. I feel like you’ve made a great, very unique movie.

But like I said, it doesn’t matter. I still loved it. You can still enjoy something that’s painful. After I had a kid, I don’t have time to fucking grind my coffee beans by hand and do a pour-over. By the way, I enjoyed it. But, also, that was a pain in the ass. You know what I’m saying? Now I just put the espresso pod in the machine and it’s easy. But, in a weird way, I enjoyed the pain in the ass of making the coffee the stupid long-ass hipster way more. It’s more gratifying because it’s harder.

Well, what I’m getting at, do you want to do this type of movie again? I know you don’t like talking about your upcoming projects, but a movie of this scale again, is that at all appealing?

When I did the New Yorker piece, I was very much like, I don’t think I’m going to do this again. I think that maybe it’s like childbirth?

Oh, I see.

You forget the labor pains. But I would say that it was so hard on me. I have a lot more gray hair, and I think it was from post-production. I’m looking forward to doing something a little smaller where I can have final cut again. The Witch, The Lighthouse, I had studio notes. I had people telling me, “No, you need that.” But not to this extent next time. I just would like a little bit more space next time.

I’m curious if next time you go into a movie of this size, will you want a little more say in final cut?

I would always want a final cut.

On the outside looking in, your movies are revered so much at this point, it surprises me you didn’t have more say at this point.

But dude, I made a three-and-a-half-million-dollar movie about fucking pilgrims that’s boring as hell.

It is not boring as hell. People love that movie and you know it.

Yeah. But it made $40 million. If this movie makes $40 million, we’re screwed. The Lighthouse doesn’t really have a plot. I’m proud of The Lighthouse. I love The Lighthouse. But doesn’t really have a plot. It barely made a profit, which was fine. Everyone knew that was going to be what that movie was about. So now people are giving me $70 million net, whatever that means, a lot of money to make this thing. These people’s jobs are on the line, brother. You know what I’m saying?

I know. That’s true.

Think about the marketplace with COVID and everything. So, obviously, they’re not going to give me final cut. It’s just not wise. It’s not a wise business decision, even if – I’m grateful to – people in the film, fan world who think that I deserve that.

Well, a lot of people do think that, yes.

But it doesn’t make financial sense.

You’ve talked about your experience with test audiences. I did a piece recently on how movies feel longer now because they keep going after the plot ends. Every filmmaker I talked to said it’s because of test audiences. Getting every little thing wrapped up, not being ambiguous, and setting up sequels. I think that’s bad.

Yeah, no, it’s annoying for sure. And certainly there were plenty of feedback forms that wanted more clarity on the maiden king or more clarity on what happens to certain characters.

See, I’ll figure it out on my own. I don’t want to be explained everything. I like trying to figure that out on my own.

Me, too.

See, I trust a movie more in your hands than I would just some random guy off the street going, “Here’s what I think.”

One hundred percent. I think you’re going into a movie and you’re being told, ”this isn’t done and your opinion matters.” So you’re going to have an opinion. Which is fine. Look, I learned something from the process and are definitely like, “Oh, a lot of people really aren’t getting X.” Or, “Wow. A whole lot of people really aren’t getting Y. I guess I do need to think about that.” So there are things to be gleaned from these test screenings.

By the way, on The Witch, I made my own test screenings with New York, Brooklyn, intelligence, filmmakers and psychologists and stuff. But I wanted feedback. But the real problem, the biggest problem with test screenings is that the studios act like there’s enough data that actually means something empirically. Any statistician will tell you there is not enough data to actually fucking mean anything. So they’re still a useful tool, but they can’t be held to such a high, importance level by the studio because it’s just not scientifically provable.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but usually these things require almost immediate reactions. People need a few days sometimes with movies and you’re not getting that with test audiences.

So I guess my thing is I would actually want to continue to do this…

Well, I hope you do, because I enjoyed this movie very much.

But you can’t have somebody saying, “Look at this. This is the reason why everything isn’t working.” Sometimes I would use it to my advantage and would say, “Well, actually, I tallied all this stuff up together and only 12 percent of people said they didn’t like that. But then of course I’m lying, because again, the stats don’t really matter.

The fight scene at the volcano to end the film is stunning.

Thank you. Thank you. It was really hard on Alex and Claes Bang.

You’ve kind of said you don’t really know how to shoot action. Well, I think you do, because that was a tremendous scene.

Well, thanks. CC Smiff, the stunt coordinator, is immensely talented and we got along really easily. Particularly with that fight, we were able to show off some hypothetical Viking fighting techniques, based on the way the weapons were designed, in what some historians think that Vikings may have fought. There was this quarry outside of Belfast with Mark Huffam, one of the producers, kept trying to get us to use for something. Craig Lathrop, the production designer, brought in all this black earth to make it more Hekla-like. Then the special effects department, Sam Conway and his team, brought in all these gigantic flames and cinders and smoke and all this. Then they dug out these big troughs and put LED lights in them that were moving. So all the lava streams were moving. And then Angela Barson, our VFX supervisor, went to the eruption that was going on in Iceland and took copious amounts of documentary footage of the lava and used that as reference to then put CG lava over the LEDs. But that’s why all the lighting is so well integrated, because of the LEDs.

See, I don’t want you to be miserable, but I also want you to keep making movies like this, just selfishly. I’m being selfish, but I enjoyed it so much.

I’m not saying this is this good, but did you want Werner Herzog having a good time making Fitzcarraldo? No.

Yeah … I bet they were having a laugh a minute. Anyway, you seem happy now, so that’s good.

Yeah.

‘The Northman’ will open in theaters on April 22nd. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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