Warning: This post contains big spoilers for The Northman
Forty years ago, Conan the Barbarian slashed his way into movie theaters, blowing the minds of an entire generation of kids in the process. One of those kids was Robert Eggers, who was born the year after John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1982 career-defining collaboration premiered, but grew up watching the film over and over at home. "I watched Conan a billion times when I was a kid," says the filmmaker behind cult favorites like The Witch and The Lighthouse. "It felt like a living, breathing world, and at that age, that's awesome."
Flash-forward four decades, and Eggers has made a swords-and-sorcery epic that stands toe-to-toe with Conan. His new film, The Northman, stars Alexandar Skarsgård as Amleth, a Viking warrior who — much like his barbaric cinematic ancestor — watches his beloved father cut down in his prime and vows bloody vengeance on the killer: his own uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). "There's a lot of Conan in this movie," Eggers admits with a laugh, adding that he made a point of not rewatching Milius's movie during The Northman's lengthy writing and pre-production process. "When Fjölnir takes off his helmet in The Northman, that's clearly James Earl Jones taking off his helmet in Conan. There are plenty of accidental nods just because I watched it so much."
Even though Conan is an obvious touchstone for The Northman, Amleth slashes his own distinct path as a revenge-driven swordsman. Based on the same medieval Icelandic legend that inspired William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the story follows the dethroned prince as he returns to his tribe in disguise and carries out his revenge against Fjölnir, who has since married his mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). A stickler for historical accuracy, Eggers worked closely with top Viking experts to ensure an authentic immersive experience in that long-lost culture. But as in his previous movies, he also leaves the door open to the spirit world, blending grounded action and drama with fantastical sights and sounds straight out of the myths of that time. It's a potent combination that Eggers has no plans to abandon anytime soon.
That's also the reason he cites for why he'd never direct an actual Conan movie — including the legendary King Conan project that Milius and Schwarzenegger have wanted to make for years. (Milius suffered a debilitating stroke in 2010.) "It's just not for me," he says when asked if he'd accept Conan's Crown of Iron if Schwarzenegger signed off. "I couldn't use my approach: I'd have to invent things, which I don't like to do."
With The Northman playing in theaters now, Eggers shares spoiler-filled stories behind some of the film's most memorable scenes, including a Revenge of the Sith-like duel between Amleth and Fjölnir and a jaw-dropping revelation about Kidman's character that has left preview audiences gasping and cheering.
Björk's back ... in black (metal)
The Icelandic singer — and swan enthusiast — hasn't appeared in a major narrative feature since Lars von Trier's divisive 2001 musical, Dancer in the Dark. (She did collaborate with her former partner, Matthew Barney, on the 2005 experimental film, Drawing Restraint 9.) But Eggers says that tempting her out of her unofficial retirement proved to be simple. "One of the film's composers, Robin Carolan, is a friend of mine and has also collaborated with Björk, so he introduced me to her," he says. "And then Björk introduced me to her friend, Icelandic author Sjón, who became my co-writer. So it was a familial atmosphere for her to be a part of."
Eggers cast Björk as a Seeress who prophesies Amleth's road to achieving vengeance against his uncle after he takes part in a Viking raid on her village. She only appears in one scene, and the director says that he resisted any urge to enhance her role. "I suppose she could appear in a vision or something, like a dead Obi-Wan Kenobi," he muses, adding that only a line or two of her sequence ended up on the cutting room floor. "But I think she functions well where she is. She's the Seeress of that village and that's where she belongs."
Björk also made her return to the big screen a family affair: Her daughter, Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney, has a small role as one of the slaves that toils on Fjölnir's land and sings a duet with Danish musician, Jonas Lorentzen. She also coached her mother during her big scene. "Occasionally I would give Björk some direction and she would look at me as if my head was upside down," he remembers, laughing. "Doa would relate something to her in Icelandic, and then Bjork would say to me, 'Oh, okay: more black metal. I got it.'"
The aforementioned village raid is the centerpiece sequence of The Northman and one of two scenes in the movie that Eggers says he's proudest of pulling off. Staged as a single take with one camera — although there are hidden cuts along the way — the raid features some of the most intricate action choreography and camera movement this side of Alfonso Cuarón's landmark 2006 sci-fi drama, Children of Men, which is justly famous for its long takes. (Cuarón is a longtime champion of Eggers's work and is thanked in The Northman's credits.)
"I think that it becomes more immersive to the audience, whether they understand the film making techniques or not," Eggers says of why he favors long takes in his movies. "Of course it's still artifice, but it should feel a lot less like artifice. There's nothing wrong with shooting with multiple cameras, but in the worst version of that stuff you can't follow what's happening. I'm trying to tell a story, not just have a bunch of images clash together to be exciting."
Of course, Eggers's approach also means a longer shooting time. The raid sequence took four days to complete, and the director says that multiple takes were often ruined by the same culprits: chickens. "We wasted days on those chickens, and getting them to fly into the shot at the right time," he says of his feathered nemeses. "It was difficult to executive, but it was also fun and exhilarating. It took a tremendous amount of planning and collaboration, and we tried to find the pitfalls as we planned it. So we were definitely prepared."
Big little truth bombs
The last time we saw Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård share a kiss onscreen, they were playing a married couple with serious emotional baggage in the Emmy-winning HBO drama, Big Little Lies. When they lock lips in The Northman, it's as mother and son. And Eggers says that the duo knew they were playing on the pop culture impression left by their previous pairing. "We were consciously exploiting that. When you're working with stars, the audience is aware of their baggage, so you need to be aware of it, too, and know what it's going to bring to the story you're telling."
It should be noted that Gudrún's kiss isn't motherly: rather, she's trying to seduce her son in the hopes of hijacking his vengeance. For years, Amleth has assumed that his mother was Fjölnir's prisoner, but it turns out that she convinced his uncle to slay her former husband — who forcibly took her for his wife and queen when she was a slave. Worse still, she gave permission for Fjölnir's men to kill Amleth as well, already intending to start a new family with the new king. As her truth bomb detonates in her son's mind, Gudrún instantly transforms from the movie's Gertrude into its Lady Macbeth and Kidman makes a meal out of the scene.
"That's the show-stopping acting scene," Eggers says, revealing that it's the other scene he's proudest of in the film. "It was also really satisfying after doing all these grueling action sequences to dig into some complex scene work with great actors and plot turns at every moment. I didn't watch the film during the London premiere, but I understand that Gudrún's kiss got an incredibly vocal response from a usually silent British audience, so that's cool."
He has the high ground
Amleth's journey ultimately ends at the only place it could: the Gates of Hel aka Mount Hekla, an active volcano that has erupted 20 times over the centuries, most recently in 2000. Hekla's fires are certainly flowing as Amleth and Fjölnir face off in a naked duel to the death, and watching these warriors cross swords amidst rivers of lava, it'll be hard for some moviegoers not to think of the climactic Jedi battle in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith where Obi-Wan Kenobi makes his last stand against former pupil, Anakin Skywalker on the planet Mustafar.
Asked whether there are any behind the scenes outtakes of Skarsgård boasting about having the high ground, Eggers just smiles. "I know there was a sword fight in Revenge of the Sith with lava, but I don't know if I even saw that movie," he admits. "I also know that it looks a lot like the last fight from The Lion King! It's fair to ask, because I could have said, 'Yeah, a-ha!' But I'm just a snobby cineaste."
Here's one way that the Gates of Hel and Mustafar are similar: Both were brought to life with digital effects, although Eggers says that he avoided going full greenscreen. "It was very grounded, because we had a practical set," he explains. "We shot that in a quarry that we dressed with black earth to make it look more like Hekla. Every single flame on screen is practical, the falling ash is practical and the vast majority of the floating embers are practical."
"The lava is CGI, but we built those streams out of LED lights, which we programmed to move," he continues. "So we had this interactive lighting that's moving like lava and then our VFX coordinator went to a recent eruption in Iceland and photographed all this documentary footage to use as reference for the digital artists. We did use CG for some of the smoke and to make sure we were hiding the actors's genitals, but a lot more of it is practical than you'd expect."
Next stop, Valhalla
By the final scene of The Northman, Amleth has slain his uncle and traveled from the Gates of Hel to the Gates of Valhalla — born aloft on the winged horse of a Valkyrie. But the film stops just short of crossing over the threshold from life to death, and Eggers says he never had any intention of going further. If anything, he would have made do with less. "Even the amount of Valhalla, Valkyries, and undead Vikings we see in the film is a lot for my art-house indie tastes," he admits. "I think we walked the line, but it was a lot for me."
With that in mind, it's not surprising that Eggers doesn't have any plans to revisit The Northman in a Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style special edition where he takes viewers "inside the Mothership" as it were. He also lays to rest of doing a director's cut of the film after reports surfaced that he and the studio, Focus Features, had different visions for the theatrical version in the editing room. "I was exploring doing an extended cut — not a director's cut — for the Blu-ray, but my editor and I found that we preferred just to have deleted scenes. It's a way of saying: 'These are good scenes, but they don't make a better film.'"
Speaking of the material that was excised, Eggers says that much of it involved deeper cuts of Viking mythology. "There was a lot more information about different gods and goddesses that we shot," he says. "I think that it was so much information that the audience didn't know what information was the most important information! So we got it down to the Valkyries and Valhalla and Odin and that's more or less it. We kind of needed to focus on repeating the most essential information."
The Northman is playing in theaters now.