Robert Eggers On How The Northman Made Him a Real Filmmaker

We chat with the filmmaker about the anxiety he carried into ‘The Northman’ and how the shoot guarantees that his next films will only be better.

Alexander Skarsgard in The Northman

Focus Features

By Brad Gullickson · Published on December 6th, 2022

Check the Gate is our recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Robert Eggers about The Northman: A Call to the Gods, the new Insight Editions book detailing the exhaustive labor that went into making the film.

How long should a creator wait before they spill the beans regarding their creation? A week, a year, never? Different filmmakers have different ideas on the matter. Those who believe the audience should be left to dangle in terms of theme and execution make a problem for themselves when doing the publicity tour promoting their work. They gotta fill the air and time with something, blowing gas and causing the journalist across from them to stretch wildly in their efforts to write some discernable article. I’ve been there; it’s tricky.

Robert Eggers struggles with what and how much to say. With The Northman, he feels like the film speaks for itself. The audience gets from it what they get from it. If their ideas veer from his own, that’s swell. He won’t step on their interpretations.

Concurrently, dragging The Northman from nothingness into reality was a brutally punishing task. The life he and his crew thrust into this film deserves recognition and celebration. The director split himself open when the chance occurred to document the labor in Simon Abrams‘ making-of-behemoth, The Northman: A Call to the Gods. He felt compelled to deliver whatever the author or reader required. It’s his reward for their obsession.

“It is nice to document it because it was difficult,” says Eggers. “I know there are people who I respect and admire who feel like you should not talk about how any of this stuff is made at all. It should just be magic. Probably not the word they would use. I can see that, and there’s an argument for it, and a good magician doesn’t reveal their tricks. But it’s nice to be able to share the knowledge. And it’s nice, for all of my collaborators and colleagues, to see the amount of work that they went into in such detail.”

Books like A Call to the Gods were essential to a young Eggers. He found his understanding of filmmaking by picking through the tiniest bits of information. It’s easier now than ever to research the process that goes into cinematic creation, but he remembers the frustration that would materialize when a fave filmmaker stayed mum. He never wants to be a wall between a student and knowledge.

“I didn’t go to film school,” he says. “It’s books like this, and blu-ray special features, that I really sunk my teeth into and continue to, to learn more about my craft. I hope I can share a little bit of what my collaborators and I are up to with people who are interested in the film. Even more importantly, to the young filmmakers reading.”

For Eggers, The Northman: A Call to the Gods should enlighten a young creative that making movies is not a solo project. Too often, we get hung up on the auteur theory, and we rarely sit through the end credits unless we’re waiting for Marvel Studios to unveil their next clue. To get into this game, you must understand that making a successful movie is ninety-nine percent accomplished through assembling a brilliant crew.

“It drives home the fact that film is a collaborative art form if you have to use the word art. Something [my co-screenwriter] Sjón said in a recent interview that I did with him was that he feels that having co-writers on a screenplay is particularly good because the collaborative process begins right away. Maybe that’s true. I think it helped with this, certainly.”

The Northman: A Call to the Gods holds a fascinating revelation regarding Eggers’ perspective. In one of the many interviews within, Eggers explains that only after making the movie did he feel like he was now prepared to make the movie. When production began, he felt ill-equipped. The only thing that kept him going was that he convinced others to place their faith in him. He had to live up to that.

“Coming from The Witch,” says Eggers, “which is a very tiny film, and The Lighthouse, which was also a very modest film, this movie was huge. We really had no business making a film of this size because we didn’t have the experience to do so. I mean, I guess we did, we were able to chew it up and just swallow it, but we were at the risk of biting off more than we could chew. It was all in theory. So, it’s nice. We’re in prep now doing something in some ways bigger but in some ways smaller. We feel more prepared to do this one.”

When Eggers completed The Northman, he was immediately propelled into a publicity whirlwind. He’d done a little before, but nothing to the scale that he experienced in 2022. After the film’s release, he could relax. During this state, a magnificent sensation pulsed through him.

“It was particularly crazy for me,” he continues, “because right after we were done with press, I was living in New Hampshire and not in a major city for the first time in my life. I was going from doing the craziest press I’ve ever done after making the craziest movie I’ve ever done to mowing my lawn religiously, like one and half times a week. So, it was certainly life changing and wild. I feel like I actually know how to make a film now. I feel like a real filmmaker instead of a snake oil salesman trying to convince studio executives, or financiers, that I know how to make a film. Now that I feel that, my films will get better.”

Eggers is most excited to see all his Nordic research displayed in A Call to the Gods. The past is where it’s at for the filmmaker. When suggested that a contemporary setting would still demand discovery and schooling, Eggers balks at the idea.

“That would be the ultimate challenge,” says Eggers.  “I’m beyond not passionate about the idea. But yeah, if I could pull that off, that would be my ultimate challenge. For sure.”

Living in history is like living in fantasy. It’s a world that demands imagination, a deep dive into what once was. The challenges presented in replicating yesterday authentically are much more manageable than the skill needed to create a compelling sequence where a character writes an email.

“It’s also just fun,” he says. “It’s what excites me. Obviously, you can’t make a film that you’re not passionate about. Even in The Lighthouse, I had a lot of reservations about the seagull scenes. I had to psyche myself up to get excited about shooting them. It was the same with the sports sequence in The Northman. That was difficult for me to get my engines running and find the passion for really telling that well. So doing a whole movie that I’m not excited about, forget just a scene or a sequence? I need to wrap my mind around a whole film. It’s just impossible.”

Robert Eggers is a never-say-never filmmaker. He allows for the possibility that he could make a contemporary adventure. Although, he encourages those waiting on such a film not to hold their breath. For now, Eggers would rather marvel at lost lands and lost people.

It’s not about comfort; it’s about passion. Enthusiasm is critical to creation. He knows that anyone picking up The Northman: A Call to Gods already has some of it in them. What’s within is designed to stoke their fire and push them to haul their own film out of oblivion and into reality.

The Northman: A Call to the Gods is available on Amazon and wherever fine books are sold.

Related Topics: Check the Gate

Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he’s rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)

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