Is Robert Eggers an endangered species?
The 38-year-old director cut his teeth making stylized art-house films like the horror-tinged fable “The Witch,” which won Eggers the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival, and “The Lighthouse,” a black-and-white mind-bender that starred Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. This is normally the inflection point when an idiosyncratic filmmaker either smooths out his sensibilities to make a superhero movie or decamps to a streaming service in search of creative control at a bigger budget.
Instead, Eggers has mounted “The Northman,” a $70 million Viking saga that debuts Friday in theaters. The film stars Alexander Skarsgard as Amleth, a sword-wielding prince seeking revenge on the uncle who killed his father (Ethan Hawke) and absconded with his mother (Nicole Kidman) to a remote Icelandic village. Though the narrative is more straightforward than in Eggers’ previous films, the filmmaking is no less high-end.
“You have to have hubris to be a director,” Eggers told me over coffee in Los Angeles. “It’s an insane occupation: You have to deny reality and make your own.”
Certainly, nothing was easy about making the“The Northman,” from staging its large-scale, outdoor battles to the director’s clashes with production company New Regency about creative control. Even when the film was ready to shoot in March 2020, the pandemic delayed the production by several months.
Still, that last setback came with a few small advantages: The outdoor sets were allowed to weather in a realistic way, and the Viking beards had time to grow longer, though Eggers didn’t let his own carefully manicured facial hair get out of hand: “The director should never have the longest beard,” he told me. “I learned it when I was shooting ‘The Lighthouse’: You need to have the alpha beard.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
On my way to this interview, I passed two billboards for your movie. I’ve got to imagine that’s a new experience for you.
It’s definitely surreal. I didn’t expect in the past 10 or 15 years of my life that I would make the kind of film that would have a billboard like that.
Because ever since I took up less mainstream interests around 10 years old, I didn’t think that I would be making a film for a broad audience. I’m excited to have done it, and it was a deliberate choice.
Were you surprised by the audience that found your first two films?
I felt that “The Witch”  would get some distribution and hopefully get enough good reviews that maybe someone would let me make another movie. I didn’t expect a boring pilgrim horror movie to be successful, that’s for sure.
You find your movie boring?
I hate “The Witch,” but that’s another story. But in theory, no, I don’t find a movie like that boring. In fact, I watch movies that are much, much more boring than my two films with great pleasure.
But it does sound like you have the self-awareness to be able to say, “This is how my work might be perceived by a mainstream audience.”
“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 certain formula weren’t satisfied. But with “The Northman,” it’s challenging because I’m trying to do both.
So how do you thread that needle? Where do your sensibilities intersect with the mainstream?
You want something to be familiar enough that people can get it, but different enough that it’s something new, and I think that’s what everyone was after with this film. And what was great for me is that the source materials are really readable and approachable texts. I know that kids aren’t flocking to Barnes & Noble to get their copies of the Icelandic sagas, but a lot of medieval literature is pretty weird and mystical and out there, and this stuff isn’t.
Still, it’s increasingly rare for a filmmaker with your background to graduate to such a big-budget film unless they’re taking on some pre-existing franchise.
I knew I wasn’t going to have final cut because of the size of the film. That was a risk that I was willing to take, but postproduction was hard because I had a pressure and a voice from the studio that I’ve never had before. On “The Witch,” I had notes from the investors — good and bad — and same with “The Lighthouse” , but here, there was a lot of pressure. Sjon, my co-writer, said, “It’s our responsibility to interpret the studio notes in a way that we’re proud of. And if we can’t do that, then we’re not working hard enough.”
I also think that without pressure from the studio, I couldn’t have delivered what I pitched, which was “the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie,” because entertaining is not necessarily my first instinct. In fact, with my first two films, it was my fifth or 15th priority, whereas here it was No. 1. In the end, even though it was painful and I got a lot of gray hairs from it, I’m grateful for the pressure from the studio to get this film in the shape that it’s in. There will not be some longer director’s cut on the Blu-ray. This is the film that I wanted to make.
What did you learn from making this?
Everything. It’s the first time that I feel like I’m actually a filmmaker, after making this movie.
You hadn’t felt that way after finishing your other movies?
No. I felt like I was trying to convince people I was a filmmaker. I’m not saying I’m not — I’m actually quite proud of “The Lighthouse” — but now I feel like I could shoot a movie off the cuff and it might not be that bad. This movie gave me a more total understanding of the process in a way that I’ve never had before.
Talk to me about the level of challenges you took on for “The Northman.”
We did a lot, from a massive village raid with hundreds of extras and stunt guys and horses and cows, to a storm at sea on a Viking ship at night, to a sequence in such a remote location that the cast had to be helicoptered in. When we wrapped, Ethan Hawke put his arms around me and Jarin [Blaschke, the director of photography] and he said, “Congratulations. You guys have done everything you can possibly do on a movie, so now you can do anything.” Of course, after he walked away, Jarin and I said, “Yeah, now we’re ready to make this film.”
The village raid is captured in one long, intricately choreographed take. When there’s that much mayhem and the actors have to hit all their beats so precisely, how do you feel when you know you’ve finally nailed it?
It’s the best feeling, and I became addicted to white-knuckling the monitor to get the shot. There were a lot of scenes that were planned as three or four shots that I had turned into one, partially because I just got addicted to working like that. If it’s not the best way to tell the scene, you shouldn’t do it, but when it could be done, we did it because it there is a discipline in it.
And I’m sure those shots are even harder to get when you’re shooting them outside in difficult weather, instead of on a controlled soundstage.
Look, making films isn’t easy. With my films, I’m deliberately trying to find the most punishing, brutal locations I can to shoot them in because that’s what the story demands. That makes everything harder for everyone, but it’s worth it. I like a challenge. If it were easy, I wouldn’t want to do it.
Before you became a film director, you acted in theatrical productions. Does that inform the way you work with your actors now?
I should be an actor’s director, but at times I’m naughty. Alexander Skarsgard felt he was being treated like a robot for the first couple weeks, but then he understood why I was directing the way I was.
He was frustrated that he had to hit such specific marks?
Yeah. And also, I don’t indulge in a lot of table work — talking about your character and how they grew up and all that stuff. I’m more interested in doing than talking, as far as acting’s concerned.
That’s interesting, because you do so much research when it comes to devising your world. I would think you’d empathize with an actor who wants to do that same research for their character.
Yeah, but I also think that’s their job. With “The Lighthouse,” Pattinson would say sometimes, “Is it this or is it that?” And I said, “You know what? Pick the one that works for you, but you’ve got to do this scene 25 percent faster.”
So how did you work with Alexander Skarsgard? This is a level of berserk I’ve never seen from him onscreen. In person, he’s surprisingly mild — I might go so far as to even say dorky.
He’s the sweetest, dorkiest guy. Alex has been into Vikings since he was a kid, so this was something that he was super passionate about, and he demanded perfection of himself. For the first couple weeks, he was trying to understand how Jarin 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 fury, insanity and vulnerability he needed to show, it unlocked something. And then for the rest of the shoot, every take was great.
How invested are you in the box office returns of this film?
Very. Because of Covid, people are potentially anticipating that it’s not going to do what everyone wants to do, but the fact that this movie got made — the fact that me and my team were allowed to make a large movie that’s not a franchise superhero movie — is a success in and of itself.
I’m incredibly humbled and excited by the early reviews being so positive, but even if you absolutely hate this movie, I feel it’s society’s responsibility to root for it a little bit because other filmmakers should get the opportunity to do this, and audiences should have the opportunity to see things other than superhero movies. I’m not even deriding superhero movies, but there needs to be room for something else, too.