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Norse Mythology and the Brutalism of Landscape: How Sjón and Robert Eggers Crafted the Viking Saga 'The Northman'

Script contributor Sonya Alexander interviews writers of this Viking epic, Robert Eggers and Sjón about the importance and research of Norse mythology and Icelandic folklore, being story architects, and their collaborative process.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE undefinedNORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE undefinedNORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

On April 22, 2022, The Northman was released in U.S. theaters. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, and Claes Bang, it’s a paean to Viking legend Amleth and is majestic in its brutality. The scenes of intense fighting and bloodshed are lyrical in their violence because they move with a rhythm of unfettered rawness. The characters are constantly dancing with death, with the endgame being getting to live another day or procuring an initiation to the afterlife.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the brutalism style of architecture reached its zenith. Defined as “a style of architecture or art characterized by a deliberate plainness, crudity, or violence of imagery,” the term can also be applied to the content of Norse mythology. Landscape plays a vital role in symbolism and in the characters’ journeys. The Íslendingasögur (family sagas or Sagas of the Icelanders) contain raging seas, snowy tundra, and fertile forests. In The Northman, the terrain lets us know if we’re in the corporeal or numinous part of this berserker’s journey.

The writers of this Viking epic, Robert Eggers and Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), certainly realized the power and utility of landscape in the telling of Amleth’s fateful journey.

Director Robert Eggers and crew on the set of his film, THE NORTHMAN, a Focus  Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

Director Robert Eggers and crew on the set of his film, THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

When Robert first visited Iceland, it was the awe-inspiring landscapes that motivated him to write The Northman.

They're incredibly brutal, epic, and primal. I wanted to find out about people who sailed to Iceland in the so-called Dark Ages and did not die. I picked up some Icelandic sagas and started to get into Vikings and Viking culture. Then a couple of years later, I had lunch with Alexander Skarsgård, who's been interested in Vikings since he was a kid. He was telling me that he'd been trying to make a Viking movie for five or ten years. We decided at that lunch to try to team up and make a Viking movie together.

He knew that his collaborator had to be someone well-versed in Norse mythology and Icelandic folklore. That’s when he reached out to Sjón.

Not only is he an incredible writer, writing with him is like writing with Bulgakov, but he's also an Icelander. Every Icelander, whether they like Vikings or not, can tell you what Viking saga characters they're directly related to. Many contemporary Icelanders believe in land spirits, faeries, elves. Someone who was steeped in that culture was essential for me in finding a collaborator. Sjón has a particular gift of understanding the past and folklore.

Sjón is a critically acclaimed and award-winning poet, novelist, lyricist, and screenwriter. He’d just completed a novel set in the 17th century Iceland that included witchcraft when he met Robert via Björk’s introduction. Robert was fresh from premiering The Witch.

Sjón

Sjón

We started talking and realized we had a lot in common. About two years later I received an email from Robert, and he asked me if I would like to join him on a Viking journey. I said yes, of course. It was an honor to work with the director of The Witch. We agreed that I would just start writing and he would focus on the project he was working on. We would ping pong ideas back and forth. Then we had a meeting and came up with the story for The Northman based on Robert's original three-page storyline which was based on the main beats of the Amleth legend.

Most people think Viking was an ethnicity but that’s wrong. It was a profession or way of life, like being a pirate was. If you need a primer before delving into Amleth’s harsh realm in The Northman, The Raven Trilogy (When the Raven Flies, Shadow of the Raven, and The White Viking), Valhalla Rising, and Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli will help ease you into the ancient, blood-soaked world of Amleth.

Writers are story architects. Creating and building worlds out of thin air takes a lot of work. Sjón acknowledges the upside of writing with someone who’s also the director of the project.

You're working with someone who is ultimately going to make this a reality on the screen. I have a great respect for that. I understand that in the end, it's the visual execution of it and bringing out actors' performances...that is the final word on it.

[An Economy of Words: An Interview with 'Lamb' Screenwriter Sjón]

As with his previous two projects, The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert brings painstaking attention to detail to Amleth’s tale, which involved a lot of research.

All of my work is research driven. Once New Regency and Focus came onto the film and we were working towards a shooting script, I was able to bring on some of the finest archaeologists and historians in the field of Viking studies including Neil Price, Terry Gunnell, and Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, who consulted with me and Sjón. I think it's important to research for a month or so, then get cracking. But then you are going to have to revise things that don't match the research. Most authors will use the research as a jumping off point, but I like to be chained to it like Prometheus to the rock.

Sjón brought a deep knowledge of Icelandic folklore to the project but still had to do extensive research.

I already knew the Icelandic sagas quite well, as well as the Nordic epic poetry and the folk legends that come with that. However, I had never approached it in the anthropological, academic way that Robert requires of everyone that is working with him on his project. I had to revisit a lot of material. Because the story takes place in the early 900s, we had to overcome the obstacle that most of these stories were written in the 13th century by Icelanders who were Christians. We had to look beyond the limitations of our main resources. That's where anthropology and archaeology came into the picture. We had amazing scholars working with us.

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When two people collaborate on a script, coordinating schedules can be a factor. According to Sjón, the writing process took a couple of years, from autumn of 2017 to spring of 2019.

The extensive treatment was written, then the first draft. The second draft was ready in the spring of 2019.

Robert likes to prep more when he’s writing with someone as opposed to writing by himself.

We need to break everything down and plan everything very carefully before we start writing. That's not to say that a certain alchemy doesn't arise when you're getting into it, but you have to map things out because you're sharing a brain. I went to Sjón with a treatment. We wrote a longer treatment together. He wrote an even longer treatment. I gave him notes. Then he wrote the first draft. I gave him notes. The second internal draft he gave to me, which I revised. Then we bounced things back and forth, all the way through development, through prep, through production, and into post. We would send a sentence back and forth to each other a million times before we were both happy with it.

Sjón encountered two challenges with the script.

One was working with the material so that it would resemble a hero's journey while it also had to be a tragedy. The hero's journey usually ends in a victory. Robert wanted to stay true to the nature of the tragedy. It was very interesting how we needed to balance that throughout the story. To make it a tragedy, we have to betray the audience’s expectations at some key points in this journey. The other difficult part was staying true to the world view of these people. To never give in to sanitizing it or softening it according to modern notions. At the same time, we couldn't completely alienate the audience. It was a balancing act.

Sjón is currently working on a “proper” telling of Hamlet.

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I say 'proper' because it's called Hamlet. It's in a more direct conversation with Shakespeare's Hamlet. I'm working on it with Ali Abbasi, who did Border, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film three or four years ago. Noomi Rapace will be playing Hamlet.

Robert can’t reveal what he’s working on but there are certain types of stories he’s attracted to.

I'm attracted to the past, fairytales, folk tales, mythology, religion, the occult. And as happy as I am to have the privilege of making self-generated movies, which is what I want to do, if I couldn't tell those kinds of stories, I would rather paint a painting or write a story about those things. 

The Northman is now in Theaters.


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