The Northman – An epic Viking revenge saga

Director Robert Eggers co-wrote The Northman‘s screenplay with Icelandic poet, novelist, lyricist and screenwriter Sjón, using his inimitable emphasis on atmosphere and design to elevate the Viking epic to bold new heights, meticulously blending the Amleth legend with elements from the Icelandic sagas and Norse myths to create a wholly original story that plays out around the turn of the 10th century.

“The intention with The Witch was to revitalize that archetypal figure after Hocus Pocus and countless
Halloween decorations made witches no longer scary,” says Eggers of the 2015 folk horror he wrote and directed, making his feature directorial debut. “In the same way that The Witch asked its audience: You think you know what a witch is? Well, think again. We’re trying to explore and articulate what Vikings were about in a similar way.”

Written in Old Icelandic (a dialect of Old Norse) and taking place in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, the Icelandic family sagas are prose narratives based on historical events centering primarily on local life; by contrast, the legendary sagas, from which the Amleth story originated, used elements of Medieval romance to spin more supernatural and adventure-derived stories.

“The Legendary sagas are still mostly set in the Viking Age but they are much more fanciful than the (more domestic-oriented) family sagas in that they feature monsters, dragons and heroes rescuing princesses,” says Neil Price, the British archaeology professor and author specializing in magic, sorcery and religion in the Viking Age, who was also a consultant on The Northman. “The Amleth story emerged from the legendary end of things as opposed to the family sagas, and the screenwriters understood the difference. One of the first things that Robert said to me was that I should think of this as a movie based on a Legendary saga — the fantasy element was important to him. As he did in his other movies, the magical and visionary aspects of the story can be interpreted by the viewer as actually happening, or as states of mind.”

Ingvar Sigurdsson as The Sorcerer in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. © 2022 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The screenwriters divided the story into three central locations, using the dawn of the tenth century as a historical anchor point. The movie opens in the middle of the Viking Age after the Scandinavians expanded across the North Sea and begin to settle in the British Isles and across the North Atlantic. During the story’s prologue, set on the fictitious island kingdom of Hrafnsey, located somewhere around the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Amleth is a young boy who is being groomed to inherit the throne of his father.

Several decades later, Amleth finds himself in a radically different environment after he flees Hrafnsey for the Land of the Rus following an act of shocking violence. Now a seasoned berserker warrior, he is part of a Viking raiding party working the rivers of Eastern Europe, where the eastern Vikings traded, plundered, and settled during the tenth century.

Disguised on a slave ship bound for Iceland in 914, Amleth reaches shore in a territory that has only been settled for a few decades. A unique social experiment as a land without kings, Iceland was created as a republic for free farmers — a place where someone could start a new life, or in the case of Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir, flee from an old one.

“This is by far the most accurate depiction of the Viking Age I’ve ever seen,” says Price. “I was on set during pre-production when they were in the process of bringing all of this to life and I found it overwhelming — I’ve never seen this level of attention to detail in an historical film before.”

Young Prince Amleth is on the cusp of becoming a man when his father is brutally murdered by his uncle, who kidnaps the boy’s mother. Fleeing his island kingdom by boat, the child vows revenge. Two decades later, Amleth is a Viking berserker raiding Slavic villages, where a seeress reminds him of his vow: avenge his father, save his mother, kill his uncle. Traveling on a slave ship to Iceland, Amleth infiltrates his uncle’s farm with the help of Olga, an enslaved Slavic woman — and sets out to honor his vow.

A Viking Epic Takes Shape

Skarsgård began developing a Viking movie more than a decade ago. Indeed, the idea for the project dates back to the actor-producer’s childhood, when he first became enchanted by Viking myth and lore. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Skarsgård grew up surrounded by the heritage of the Vikings. Many years later, after catapulting to fame playing the vampire Eric Northman on True Blood, beginning in 2008, Skarsgård began envisioning the Viking epic of his dreams, something he would both star in and produce.

Recalling familiar stories ranging from Hamlet and Beowulf to The Lion King, The Northman takes its roots from the classic and timeless story of a young man scorned and adrift who plots revenge as he tries to make sense of his place in the universe without a role model, mentor, mother or father.

“The most famous story of family revenge in literature is Hamlet,” says producer and star Alexander Skarsgård, who spent ten years developing a Viking film that eventually became The Northman with producer Lars Knudsen (The Witch, Hereditary) before it started production in 2020. “Hamlet’s key influence and predecessor is the Scandinavian legend of Amleth and that’s essentially the movie we’ve made, infusing the flavors of the old Norse myths with the dry, laconic language of the Icelandic
sagas and retaining the supernatural elements from the Amleth legend.”

Alexander Skarsgård in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic The Northman, a Focus Features release.
© 2022 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

A development team worked on the project for a while, but it stalled in the writing stage.

“We had a hard time figuring out where to enter the world because the Viking era went on for over a century, and they traveled all over the world,” says Skarsgård.

“One thing that remained constant from the beginning was this specific tone — we wanted the story to reflect the laconic feel of the Icelandic sagas.”

A few years later, Skarsgård and producer Lars Knudsen, from Denmark, started looking for a filmmaker with a specific vision who understood the unique tone of the Icelandic sagas and who was familiar with the culture and history of the Vikings.

Knudsen, who had produced first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers’ art-house horror sensation The Witch in 2013, brought up Eggers to Skarsgård.

“Eggers’ attention to detail was unlike any I had ever seen,” says Skarsgård.

Six months later, Skarsgård found himself meeting with Eggers in New York. They ended up spending an entire afternoon talking about the Viking lore.

“Rob will say otherwise but he already knew a great deal about Vikings, including their culture, history, and literature,” recalls Skarsgård. “He was fired up about the project and I immediately called Lars and suggested Rob direct our movie. He came on board, and we couldn’t have been more excited.”

Unlike Skarsgård, Eggers had not grown up enchanted with Viking culture. He preferred medieval knights and was put off by the macho stereotype of Vikings and knew very little about the Icelandic sagas. After The Witch came out, Eggers and his wife traveled to Iceland. “As soon as we landed in Reykjavik, and saw the Icelandic landscape, which felt out of time, I wanted to make a movie there,” says Eggers.

After visiting the Saga Museum in Iceland, they met the novelist and screenwriter Sjón (Red Milk, CoDex 1962: A Trilogy) at a dinner party. “I asked him what he wrote about and he said his last novel was about witchcraft in 17th century Iceland, so we got on like a house on fire,” says Eggers, whose debut feature was set in a similar milieu.

“When I returned to the States I read his books, and found myself completely enamored of the way that he’s immersed the past in his work.”

Nicole Kidman in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic The Northman, a Focus Features release.
© 2022 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Eggers sent Skarsgård and Knudsen the mythic prologue to Sjón’s 2008 witchcraft novel From the Mouth of the Whale. “I just felt from the prologue alone that he was the perfect person to write this Viking project with me,” says Eggers. “Alexander and Lars agreed, and Sjón came aboard as our co-writer.”

Eggers returned to Iceland in 2018 to begin writing The Northman with Sjón, focusing on the Icelandic Sagas, and thinking about the insular culture and landscape of Iceland as a location for the movie.

Having an Icelander, especially someone as brilliant and magical as Sjón to write this with me, made it possible to make this story as authentic as I felt it needed to be,” says Eggers. “Later on, I found myself laughing out loud on set thinking about the things we cooked up in our socks in his kitchen as I watched
the story come to life.”

Alexander Skarsgård was cast in the lead from the project’s inception, something Eggers had no problem taking into consideration as he wrote the screenplay with Sjón. “He was smart to develop a Viking movie for himself because he’s the perfect person for it, physically,” says Eggers. “He’s a 6-foot-4 Nordic actor who can transform his body into this ferocious machine. Alex was totally fearless as he was bringing Amleth to life, and through hard work he became a Viking.”

Alexander Skarsgård in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic The Northman, a Focus Features release.
© 2022 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Skarsgård plowed through research and lectures online, reading books on Viking culture, history, and mythology, including Children of Ash and Elm, which became his bible before and during the shoot. He also transformed himself physically, working with Swedish personal trainer and nutritionist Magnus Lygdback.

“The Vikings believed that some people had a spirit animal living within them that would manifest itself on occasion in different ways,” says Skarsgard, of the research he wove into his performance. “For women, it was often a sea creature but for men, it was a fox or a wolf or a bear and in Amleth’s case, it’s both wolf and bear — Beowulf, if you will. Before the big raid on the Slav village, we watch him take on the strength and ferocity of a bear combined with the agility and nimbleness of a wolf.”

Statement From Director Robert Eggers

I never wanted to make a Viking movie. I thought Vikings were violent, hulking brutes with nothing of interest. My wife, on the other hand, had been fond of the Icelandic Sagas, the esteemed medieval stories of Viking lore, and she knew that I would love them. But even at her insistence, I never opened one of these great books.

When we went to Iceland in 2015, the epic and overwhelming landscapes inspired me completely. I immediately imagined solitary tenth-century figures on horseback, dwarfed by supernaturally colored mountains, glaciers, and infinite skies. There was something about the elements and the elemental that cried out from the landscapes.

Then I got thinking about Vikings, and learning what really had existed in the first decades of tenth-century Scandinavia and at the same time being alert to the reinterpretations and inaccurate elements that had been projected onto the Viking culture in the millennia that followed. I found a full and complex civilization of beautiful art, cultural and religious fusion, advanced technology, elaborate customs, and codes of honor and justice. But it was also a culture of extreme violence and subjugation and one where horrific cycles of revenge knew no end. Humankind, it seems, never changes. Maybe that’s why I am drawn to the past. It is a dark and distant mirror.

After a fated lunch with Alexander Skarsgård, the idea of making a Viking film became real. I knew (forgive the hubris) that I needed to try and make the Viking movie. The definitive Viking movie. With the help of the brilliant Icelandic novelist and poet, Sjón, we would embark on making the most historically accurate and grounded Viking film of all time. We would be working with archeologists and historians, trying to recreate the minutiae of the physical world, while also attempting to capture, without judgment, the inner world of the Viking mind: their beliefs, mythology, and ritual life. That would mean the supernatural would be as realistic as the ordinary in this film – for so it was for them. Recent television, film, and video game representations of Viking mythology and Old Norse culture are romanticized and made to look flashy and cool. The public perception of a Viking today looks more like a science-fiction rock star than an Old Norse priestess, farmer, warrior, or queen. With our fanatical research, we would attempt to redefine this image with something as grounded and elemental as the landscapes that were so inspiring.

Viking Age visual arts, like their poetry, are rich, intricate, and complex – but unlike poetry, it is abstract and not atmospheric. So visually, it would be landscapes and the elements – the wind, mud, rain, snow, dirt, ice, ash, and fire – that would create the atmosphere of this film – that, and the sounds of nature, accompanied by the sounds of Viking Age instruments. The camerawork endeavors to be timeless, with graphic, organized, staging – stark and Nordic. And this ever-moving camera is meant to be hypnotic and transportive – the long takes bring you into the world to experience this ancient time unfold before your eyes. These long, dense takes that simultaneously endeavor to tell the story, while immersing the audience further into the culture, took immense discipline, and total collaboration. Everyone involved, from the actors, the camera operators, stunt people, the costume breakdown artists, jewelers, armorers, prop-makers, animal handlers, birch horn, and bone flute players – even studio executives – were all concentrated on the goal to make this one whole cohesive piece, based on history – and to make it together – all of us pushing each other to do our best work beyond our abilities. In the Old Norse creation story, the world and its elements are made by the body parts of a slain giant. We were all these elements: the blood, bones, teeth, and brains, that together – and only together – made up the imperfect slain giant that is: The Northman.

Ethan Hawke stars as King Aurvandil in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. © 2022 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

ROBERT EGGERS (Director and Co-Writer) is a Brooklyn-based writer and director. Originally from New Hampshire, Eggers started out directing and designing experimental and classical theatre in New York City. He eventually transitioned to film, directing several short films and working extensively as a designer for film, television, print, theater, and dance. The Witch, his feature-film debut as a writer and director, won the Directing Award in the US Dramatic category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered to critical acclaim. It also garnered two Independent Spirit Award wins for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay. Eggers’ next film, The Lighthouse, opened in late 2019, having won the Cannes Film Festival critics’ award for best first or second feature in Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week. It received Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Cinematography. Eggers is currently developing several projects, including a reimagining of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

SJÓN (Co-Writer) is an internationally acclaimed Icelandic author, working in various literary forms and in all genres of film. His most recent work for the screen is the screenplay for the Cannes-winning film Lamb, starring Noomi Rapace, which went on to become a top ten-grossing film in the US and Iceland’s entry for the Best International Film Oscar. Currently, he is working on a screen adaptation of Hamlet with Ali Abbasi, director of Border.

Sjón’s novels and poems have been translated into more than 40 languages. Among his books are The Blue Fox, From the Mouth of the Whale, Moonstone and CoDex 1962, for which he has won international awards and nominations, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the Icelandic Literary Prize. In 2017 Sjón became the third writer to be chosen to contribute to Future Library – following Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell – a public artwork based in Norway spanning 100 years. At the 2001 Oscars ceremony, Sjón was nominated for an Academy Award for his lyrics in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Sjón lives and works in Reykjavík.