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How The Northman Brought A Viking Legend To Screen Life

Few indie filmmakers have managed to make as big an impact on critics and general audiences with their first movie as Robert Eggers did with his 2015 horror-drama offering "The Witch," following that up with an even more twisted and compelling offering, 2019's "The Lighthouse." After that, the auteur filmmaker made his bid for mainstream Hollywood success with 2022's "The Northman."

The movie tells the story of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a Viking warrior prince whose father is killed and his mother abducted by his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang). Managing to escape with his life, a young Amleth vows to spend the rest of his days seeking revenge against his uncle while searching for a way to rescue his mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). But fate has something else in store as Amleth's journey is beset by complications he could never have foreseen. 

"The Northman" is that rare big-scale Hollywood action flick that still manages to retain a distinctive filmmaking style with individualistic flair instead of devolving into a bombastically generic revenge flick. Eggers' expertise with horror and folklore are on full display, as is the amount of painstaking detail that went into recreating the world of Vikings in an authentic manner. Here are some facts about "The Northman" that fans need to know.   

The Northman is not a Hamlet ripoff

One criticism that certain viewers have with regards to "The Northman" is that it feels like a plagiarized retelling of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and Disney's "The Lion King." All three stories feature protagonists who are of high birth falling on hard times, seeking revenge against their uncles for killing their fathers. If the stories seem similar, it's because they are — but perhaps not in the way you think. 

The filmmakers behind "The Lion King" didn't set out to do a straight retelling of "Hamlet," but they did embrace a Shakespearean influence as the project progressed (per Collider). "The Northman," meanwhile, is based on the ancient Viking legend of "Amleth," which historians believe was a source of inspiration for "Hamlet" itself (via Medievalists). 

"The idea [for 'The Northman'] was to base it on the works of Saxo Grammaticus, a Nordic story from the 12th century," Alexander Skarsgård explained to STACK Magazine. "The viewpoint is that this is the story Shakespeare based Hamlet on." And so, while the barebones plot of "The Northman" might resemble "Hamlet," the former is actually based on a much older legend and culture with deep roots in ancient mythology.  

A new take on Conan the Barbarian

Despite the high level of acclaim that Robert Eggers has received in his career, he has never been perceived as a blockbuster filmmaker. Eggers' creative sensibilities as displayed in his first two films were so clearly the antithesis of giant, schlocky action fare that many fans may have been surprised to discover he would be making a movie like "The Northman."

Once the movie came out, it was apparent that this was a genuine attempt at making an epic action movie as envisioned by a true auteur. While Eggers' movie was a satisfying standalone tale of betrayal and vengeance, it also unexpectedly bore the markings of a pretty excellent "Conan the Barbarian" movie, but with Conan swapped out in favor of the equally burly and tenacious warrior Amleth. 

The similarities were not a coincidence on Eggers' part. The filmmaker freely admitted that "Conan the Barbarian" was a major source of inspiration behind the creation of "The Northman," and that inspiration is acknowledged within the film itself. "There's a lot of Conan referencing, I have to admit," Eggers told Little White Lies. "Many tips of the hat. I've been told by my PR team to keep it light, but this is in some respects me trying to do 'Conan the Barbarian' by way of 'Andrei Rublev.'"    

A passion project for the lead actor

"The Northman" is not Alexander Skarsgård's first attempt at playing a wild, barely-clothed action hero. The actor had already been burned once before when he played the lead in 2016's "The Legend of Tarzan." But that film's poor reception did not dampen the actor's ardor to tell an ambitious story about an action hero. 

Due to his Swedish roots, Skarsgård had long nursed a desire to tell a proper Viking story on film that would actually honor the traditions and culture of that era instead of using "Vikings" as a shorthand for dumb, violent men as they often are on screen. "I've been dreaming of making a Viking movie since I was a kid," Skarsgård told Collider. "It wasn't until I met [Robert Eggers] five yeas ago ... and we started talking about Norse mythology and Viking culture. And that became, well, the starting point for [making 'The Northman']."  

For his part, Eggers revealed to Little White Lies that he had been initially uninterested in making a Viking movie until he personally visited Iceland. "Having had no interest in the Viking Age before that, I suddenly had to make a Viking movie, and do it in Iceland," the filmmaker revealed. After discovering that Skarsgård was also thinking along similar lines, Eggers wasted no time starting work on the story that would become "The Northman." 

A lot of rewrites and reshoots

There were more than a few eyebrows raised among fans of Robert Eggers' first two movies when it was announced that his next film was going to be a big studio project, and a classic revenge tale set amidst Viking culture. Some fans were afraid that the studio would try to contain Eggers' unusual imagination too much in an effort to create a movie with mainstream appeal.

As it turns out, those fears were not entirely ill-founded. In an interview with The New Yorker that has since become slightly infamous, Eggers admitted that his initial vision for "The Northman" was far too strange for what the studio had in mind — so much so that Eggers was ordered to create a fresh cut of his movie after the initial pass did not test well with audiences. One particular studio note was that audiences were finding it hard to understand the lead character's motivations. 

Eggers told Vulture that he and his team had to write new dialog and insert it into the movie after it had already been shot. Still, despite the changes mandated by the studio and the removal of several key scenes, Eggers insists the version of "The Northman" that hit theaters is the movie he wanted to make. "This is the director's cut," Eggers told Collider. "The scenes that we got rid of, while some of them I'm very proud of ... there's a reason why they're not in the movie."

An intense training regimen

"The Northman" is a classic tale of bloody revenge that sees a bunch of huge, heavily muscled Vikings laying into each other in brutal, close-quarters combat. In order to convincingly portray an alpha Viking warrior, lead actor Alexander Skarsgård had to put in huge amounts of physical effort before ever shooting a single scene. 

Magnus Lygdbäck had also been Skarsgård's trainer when the actor was getting into shape to play Tarzan. This time around, Skarsgård had to look even more formidable as a warrior. "We wanted Alex to have a little thicker look, a little more Viking," Lygdbäck told Insider. "We needed him to look like a bear but move like a wolf." To that end, the actor trained five times a week with a combination of cardio, high-intensity interval training, and strength work.

As tough as the training routine was, Skarsgård had to fuel his workouts with giant eating sessions as well. In a separate interview with Variety, Lygdbäck explained that the actor took in around 3,700 calories every day, eating five times a day every two to three hours. All that work that went into bulking up is evident on screen, as Skarsgård's Amleth looks to be almost as big and towering as Hafthor Bjornsson, the actor who played Gregor Clegane aka The Moving Mountain on "Game of Thrones," who appears as Thórfinnr Tooth-Gnasher in "The Northman."

Losing his voice for the art

"The Northman" had long been a passion project for lead actor Alexander Skarsgård. Upon finally achieving his dream of telling an authentic Viking story on the big screen, Skarsgård knew he would have to give the role everything he had. This meant not just bulking up and working out, but actually doing long-lasting harm to his body. 

An important part of Viking tradition shown in "The Northman" are the warrior cries that are heard at different points in the movie. Skarsgård's character Amleth has to scream harder than anyone else, something that is the opposite of the actor's real-life personality of being a "mellow guy," as he told NPR in an interview. Still, for the sake of the role the actor had to put his personal reservations aside and scream like his life depended on it. 

"There's probably 15, 20 [times] in the movie in which my character kind of has to crank it up [his volume] to 11," Skarsgård explained. "And I guess I didn't use my diaphragm correctly because ... my voice was completely gone." The condition persisted for seven months, but eventually Skarsgård got the use of his voice back. 

The braces are not a mistake

Right from his first movie, Robert Eggers proved that he would go to great lengths to get the details of the time period he sets his movies in completely right. That's why fans were confused by a scene in "The Northman" where a Valkyrie appears to be wearing dental braces, despite the film being set centuries prior to the dawn of the industrial age. 

But as it turns out, there is good reason for the Valkyrie's dental wear, and those are not braces. "Many Viking skulls have been excavated that have horizontal grooves carved in their teeth," Eggers explained to GQ. "The current favorite theory is that perhaps those grooves were filled with colored enamel. And that it was just to look cool."

Apart from the confusion over the dental state of the Valkyrie, "The Northman" has received great praise for staying true to its period setting down to the smallest details. "This is kind of a dream for me," Swedish archeologist Neil Price told The New Yorker about acting as a consultant for the movie. "I doubt that I will ever encounter someone who has the eye and the concern for [historical accuracy] that Robert does."

A different filming style

The thing that makes "The Northman" different from most action movies is a lack of quick cuts. Most shots are long and sweeping, allowing you to stay in the moment within the frame and bringing you deeper into the world of Amleth. This style of direction was not easy to execute on such a massive, action packed film. 

In an interview with The New Yorker, director Robert Eggers and his team explained that they shot "The Northman" without the use of handheld cameras or a second unit. On other film sets, up to 25 shots can be filmed in a day, all giving different perspectives on the same scene that the director can choose from. But Eggers opted to shoot only three or four "heavily planned" shots of any one scene.

This meant that most scenes in "The Northman" were only shot from one perspective, and there was not a lot of wiggle room to makes changes to scenes during editing. This proved a problem when Eggers had to later make changes to the film in accordance with studio notes, even though the filmmaker ultimately managed to find a middle ground between his personal vision for the film and the studio's desire to craft a mainstream action flick.

A mistake that went viral

Prior to its release, there was a lot of curiosity surrounding "The Northman." Director Robert Eggers' reputation for making offbeat films stood in sharp contrast to what seemed like the more mainstream sensibilities of "The Northman," and fans wondered how the studio was going to promote such an unusual project. 

A major mistake was made in the initial stages of the film's publicity campaign. When the posters for "The Northman" were first released, they were revealed to only carry the faces of the main actors without any mention of the actual title of the movie. The posters soon went viral, and became a major talking point on the internet as fans wondered if this was a daring new publicity stunt to grab eyeballs (per Vulture). 

As it turns out, the posters were nothing more than a simple mistake by the studio's advertising team. "It's called a f*** up, but it got some attention," Eggers told GQ. "I talked to some marketing people who are like, 'They did that deliberately. I bet my career on it.' But whatever, they have the titles on them now." Fortunately, the marketing gaffe actually ended up drawing attention to the movie in a way that regular posters could never have.

The one-take raid and spear catch

"One shot" or "One take" scenes are sequences in movies and television where audiences follow a single shot from a camera for a long period of time without any cuts, edits, or changing to a different camera viewpoint. This kind of a "oner" is extremely hard to pull off, requiring precision choreography between the actors and camera crew. 

In "The Northman," there's a thrilling sequence showcasing the raid of a village at the hands of a group of Vikings led by Amleth. In one long, unbroken shot, we see the attackers enter the village and lay waste to its residents one by one. Naturally, pulling off a complicated sequence all in one shot was one of the toughest challenges the film's crew faced. "You plan [the action] out on a map with little soldier figurines," cinematographer Jarin Blaschke  told IndieWire. "And work it out like a puzzle, one kill and one layer at a time." 

One piece of the puzzle that actually did use some clever editing was the beginning, when Amleth catches a spear hurled at him mid-air and throws it back at the attacker. "Somebody threw a spear from the palisade onto the ground," Robert Eggers told Polygon. "And then [Alexander Skarsgård], in some takes, had a spear the whole time that he would hold up and then throw. And then with CG, you take one out and put the other in."

Strange wrap gifts

It's something of a tradition for a movie's cast and crew to take some sort of a souvenir with them from the set after the project wraps. With a movie like "The Northman," there were a bunch of interesting props that the cast had access to, and more than one cast member came away with a memorable souvenir. 

In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Alexander Skarsgård revealed that his fellow actors were able to plunder generously from the collection of set props. "Nicole Kidman got a sword, Willem Dafoe got a longship — the whole ship," Skarsgård explained. "And Björk got three Icelandic horses." But while his co-stars grabbed the kind of stuff that would look good in their homes, stables, or in Dafoe's case, maybe an Olympic-sized swimming pool, Skarsgård got a bloodier reminder of his time spent making the film. 

During the climax of "The Northman," the actor engages in a fierce battle with the main villain of the story. Both men appear to be naked and covered in blood, but in reality they were wearing thongs to protect their modesty. After the movie wrapped, Skarsgård was presented with his bloody thong as a keepsake.

Getting Björk onboard

For many fans, a big part of the appeal of "The Northman" was that it would feature Icelandic singer and actress Björk in a supporting role. Despite getting acclaim for her acting talents, Björk had been missing from the world of films for almost two decades, and it was considered something of a coup on Robert Eggers' part to get her on board for "The Northman." 

In the movie, Björk plays the role of a Seeress who helps guide Amleth on his journey of vengeance. But the actress' connection to the movie actually goes back much further, since she was instrumental in getting Robert Eggers to collaborate with Icelandic author and poet Sjón on the movie's script. "Basically, Sjón, my cowriter, has known Bjork since they were teenagers," Eggers told Insider. "And over the years my wife and I have built a relationship with Björk due to Robin Carolan, one of the composers of the movie."

Once "The Northman" script was locked and ready to go, Eggers asked Björk to play the role of the Seeress because he could envision no better actress for the part. "Björk is the like pop shamanist for planet Earth," the filmmaker told EW. "Who else can just step onto set and be a Seeress?" 

The movie was not a financial failure

Many people were rooting for "The Northman" to do well financially upon its release. The fact that it was an original, non-franchise story, shot in real-life locations, from a celebrated indie director gunning for mainstream Hollywood success meant that the movie had the potential to add something new and innovative to the current landscape of the film industry.

Unfortunately a bunch of great reviews from critics and solid support from Eggers' passionate fanbase were not enough. "The Northman" did make money at the box office, but not enough to justify its cost (per The Hollywood Reporter). This led to many labelling the movie a flop, but that's an assessment which the studio behind the movie does not seem to agree with. 

"I know in the press ['The Northman'] hasn't been lauded as a success, but it was okay for us in the end," Focus Features' president of production and acquisitions Kiska Higgs told THR. Higgs added, "There are additional ways for us to monetize things, at least for us at Universal." Hopefully the financial performance of "The Northman" does not turn studios off from taking more risks with new filmmakers seeking to establish their unique voices in Hollywood.