Is Robert Eggers an endangered species?
The 38-year-old director is cutting his teeth and making stylized art house films such as the tinged horror tale “The Witch,” which Eggers won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, and “The Lighthouse,” a black-and-white film Mind starring Robert Pattinson and William Dafoe. This is usually the inflection point when a particular filmmaker either softens his senses to make a superhero movie or turns to the streaming service in search of creative control on a bigger budget.
Instead, Eggers installed “Northman,” the $70 million Viking saga that debuted Friday in theaters. Movie stars Alexander Skarsgard Amelith, a swordsman prince seeks revenge on his uncle who killed his father (Ethan Hawke) and fled with his mother (Nicole Kidman) to a remote Icelandic village. Although the narrative is more straightforward than in previous Eggers films, the filmmaking is not inferior in quality.
“You have to be arrogant to be a director,” Eggers told me over coffee in Los Angeles. “It’s a crazy profession: you have to deny reality and make your own.”
Sure enough, there was nothing easy going about the making of “The Northman,” from staging large-scale outdoor battles to the director’s clashes with production company New Regency over creative control. Even when the film was ready to shoot in March 2020, the pandemic delayed production for several months.
However, that latest setback came with some small advantages: The outdoor groups were allowed to weather in a realistic fashion, and the Vikings’ beards had time to grow longer, though Eggers didn’t let his carefully manicured facial hair get out of hand. The longest beard. “I learned this when I was shooting The Lighthouse: You have to have an alpha beard.”
Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
On my way to this interview, I passed two billboards for your movie. I must imagine this is a new experience for you.
It is definitely surreal. In the last ten or fifteen years of my life I hadn’t expected to make the kind of movie with a billboard like that.
Because since I started taking on less common interests about 10 years ago, I didn’t think I’d make a movie for a wide audience. I’m excited to do so, and it was a deliberate choice.
Were you surprised by the audience who found your first two films?
I felt that “the witch”  It’s going to get some distribution and hopefully I’ll get enough good reviews that maybe someone will let me make another movie. I wasn’t expecting a boring pilgrim horror movie to succeed, that’s for sure.
Find your movie boring?
I hate “the witch,” but that’s another story. But in theory, no, I don’t find a movie like this boring. In fact, I watch much more boring films than mine with great pleasure.
But you seem to have the self-awareness to be able to say, “This is how my work might be perceived by the lay public.”
The ‘witch’ got a lot of [expletive] For false marketing of a horror movie. I mean, I think it’s a horror movie, but I can understand how people looking for a particular formula weren’t satisfied. But with The Northman, it’s a challenge because I try to do both.
So how do you thread that needle? Where do your feelings intersect with the mainstream?
You want something that’s familiar enough that people can have it, but different enough to be something new, and I think that’s what everyone went for in this movie. And what’s been great for me is that the source materials are easy-to-read and accessible texts. I know kids don’t flock to Barnes & Noble to get their versions of Icelandic epics, but a lot of medieval literature is very strange and mysterious, and that stuff isn’t.
With that said, it’s increasingly rare for a filmmaker with your background to graduate to such a big-budget movie unless they take on a pre-existing franchise.
I knew I wouldn’t make the final cut because of the size of the film. That was a risk I was willing to take, but post-production was tough because I had pressure and a sound from the studio that I hadn’t had before. About “The Witch”, I received feedback from investors – good and bad – and the same with “beacon” but here, there was a lot of pressure. prisonsCo-writer Lee said, “We have a responsibility to interpret studio notes in a way that we’re proud of. And if we can’t do that, we’re not working hard enough.”
I also think that without pressure from the studio, I couldn’t deliver what I showed, which was “the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie”, because amusement isn’t necessarily my first instinct. In fact, with my first two films, priority was the fifth or fifteenth, while here it was No. 1. In the end, although it was painful and I had a lot of gray hair, I’m grateful for the pressure from the studio to get this film into the form it is. There will be no more director cuts on Blu-ray. This is the movie I wanted to make.
What did you learn from making this?
everything. It’s the first time that I really feel like a filmmaker, after making this movie.
Didn’t you feel that way after finishing your other movies?
no. I felt like I was trying it Persuade People you are a film maker. I’m not saying I’m not – I’m very proud of “The Lighthouse” – but now I feel like I can make a movie off the cuff and it might not be that bad. This movie gave me a thorough understanding of the process in a way I had never had before.
Talk to me about the level of challenges you faced in The Northman.
We’ve done so much, from a massive raid into the village with hundreds of extra people, horses and cows, to a storm at sea on a Viking ship at night, to a sequence in such a remote location that the actors’ helicopter had to be when we rolled, Ethan Hawke’s arms around me and neighbors [Blaschke, the director of photography] He said: Congratulations. You guys have done everything you can do in a movie, so now you can do anything.” Of course, after he was gone, Garen and I said, “Yeah, now we’re ready to do it.” This is amazing Movie.”
The village raid was captured in one long, complicated shot. When there’s so much chaos and the actors have to beat all their beats with pinpoint accuracy, how do you feel when you know you’ve finally made it?
It feels the best, and I just got addicted to the white screen to get the shot. There were a lot of scenes planned out as three or four that I turned into one, in part because I’m addicted to working like that. If that’s not the best way to tell the scene, you shouldn’t, but when it can be done, we did because it has a system.
And I’m sure these shots are hard to come by when you’re shooting it outside in tough weather, rather than on a controlled acoustic platform.
See, making movies isn’t easy. Through my films, I intentionally try to find the most ruthless and punitive locations I can shoot in because that’s what the story requires. This makes everything more difficult for everyone, but it’s worth it. I love a challenge. If it were easy, I wouldn’t want to do it.
Before becoming a film director, she worked in theater productions. Does that refer to the way you work with actors now?
I should be an actor director, but sometimes I’m a brat. Alexander Skarsgård felt like he was being treated like a robot for the first few weeks, but then realized why I was guiding what I was.
Was he frustrated because he had to hit such specific marks?
Yeah. Also, I don’t get caught up in a lot of backgammon work – I’m talking about your personality and how they grew up and all that stuff. I’m more interested in doing than talking, in terms of acting.
This is interesting, because you do a lot of research when it comes to designing your world. I think you’ll sympathize with an actor who wants to do the same research for his character.
Yes, but I also think that’s their job. In ‘The Lighthouse’, Pattinson would sometimes say, ‘Is it This is amazing or is who – which? And I said, “You know what? Pick what works for you, but you have to do this scene 25 percent faster.”
So how have you been working with Alexander Skarsgård? This is a berserk level I’ve never seen before on screen. Personally, it’s surprisingly cute – I might go so far as to say dorky.
It’s sweeter and wacky. Alex had been into Vikings since he was a kid, so this was something he was very passionate about, demanding perfection from himself. The first two weeks he was trying to understand how Garen and I worked and he was frustrated, but once we did the scene where he does a shamanic war dance, things changed. I think the anger, madness, and vulnerability he needed to show led to something opening up. And then for the rest of the shoot, every shot was great.
How much did you invest in the box office proceeds of this movie?
very. Because of Covid, people will probably expect it not to do what everyone wants, but the fact that this movie was made — the fact that I and my team were allowed to make a big movie that wasn’t a superhero movie — is a success in itself.
I’m incredibly humbled and excited that the early reviews were so positive, but even if you absolutely hate this movie, I feel it’s the community’s responsibility to root for it a little bit because other filmmakers should get a chance to do that, and audiences should have the chance to watch things Other than superhero movies. I’m not making fun of superhero movies, but there should be room for something else too.