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The Northman’s Robert Eggers on giving in to digital effects: ‘I whip myself every night’

No, Alexander Skarsgård didn’t catch a spear and throw it back in The Northman — but Eggers says that’s not ‘sinful’

Image: Focus Features via Polygon
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Anyone who’s looked into the behind-the-scenes processes on Robert Eggers’ movies knows that authenticity and strict realism are paramount obsessions in his work. 2015’s The Witch required five years of research into period dialogue, clothes, tools, and architecture, and Eggers had his craft team build the primary set using hand tools and materials his 17th-century characters would have used. For 2019’s The Lighthouse, he used actual camera lenses from 1912 and the 1930s and built a period-authentic lighthouse to get the tight, suffocating spaces he wanted.

And his new drama The Northman, billed as “the most accurate Viking movie ever made,” involved meticulous research into everything from helmet styles to what kind of animal leather actual Vikings would have used in clothing. This is one reason a shot from the trailers, in which warrior protagonist Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) catches a spear thrown by an enemy from atop a fort palisade and throws it back, is particularly startling to see. As ridiculous as it might be to assume any other director would actually pull off that stunt in reality, Polygon had to ask Robert Eggers whether he actually did it.

The answer is no; that spear trick was handled with CG. “Somebody threw a spear from the palisade onto the ground,” Eggers tells Polygon. “And then Alex, in some takes, had a spear the whole time that he would hold up and then throw. And then with CG, you take one out and put the other in. That kind of situation. So there was some physical reality to the shot.”

A gif of Alexander Skarsgård appearing to catch a thrown spear and throw it back to impale an enemy in Robert Eggers’ The Northman Image: Focus Features via Polygon

Talking about the use of digital effects in The Northman, Eggers sounds a bit frustrated and defensive, as if these kinds of questions could only be accusations that he’s somehow violated his ethic. “I do get on my case about it, for sure,” he says. “Like, if that’s what you’re trying to get at, I whip myself every night.”

The question of CG in The Northman is only relevant because so much of the film was done practically. Eggers prefers to work with natural light when he can, and to build entire villages where his actors and cameras can explore at will. He used a single camera throughout the film, rather than the traditional multi-camera setups that cover all angles of a scene, because that style feels more focused and real. The four-minute single-shot Viking raid in the film was meticulously planned so it could be carried out with minimal edits. Skarsgård wore a single pair of boots throughout shooting, and the film’s designer hand-repaired them when they were damaged. In a village where lines of fish were hung up to dry, set decorator Niamh Coulter used real fish, rather than plastic mockups: “The stench was absolutely authentic,” Coulter said about the handmade sets.

Wherever possible, Eggers started with a practical effect before adding CG. For an opening shot that’s zoomed in close on a raven’s eye, Eggers started with a practical shot of a real animal, and only replaced the bird with CG once it takes off and gets far from the camera. “I wasn’t going to start the movie on a fake bird, you know?” he says.

But Eggers says using digital effects is still an unfortunate necessity. “If you’re making a movie today at a certain scale, there’s no way you can do it without CG, just because of modern health and safety stuff, and the cost of labor, and unions and whatever,” he says. “So you can’t have horse stunts like in old Westerns or Soviet movies. Nor should you. But that means at the very least, you’re erasing safety cables. And when the horses fall, there are mats hidden in the mud for them to fall on. We can’t actually get those that muddy, so they’re covered with mulch, and then we’re using CG to cover up the mulch with mud, so it looks consistent. That’s not sinful, it’s just practical.”

Robert Eggers, up close on set with a camera aimed at a live raven Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features

It clearly frustrates him a bit to talk about the digital elements — no one but him is suggesting CG could be “sinful.” In the case of the spear trick, the shot was important enough to him that he was willing to use special effects, because he was putting something on the screen that was taken from an authentic Icelandic folk tale — in the 13th-century Njáls saga, also known as The Story of Burnt Njál, one of the story’s most powerful warriors pulls off the trick.

“I think for the most part, the CG in this film is pretty tasteful,” Eggers says. “There’s just no way someone could have done that spear trick. Just no way. If we’d been doing this in, like, 1972, there probably would have been some 2D animation painted onto the celluloid to get that effect. I think that as long as you’re using as many practical elements as you can, CG is a good tool. It’s just when it’s overused that it becomes something you can’t believe in.”

The audience’s ability to believe what they’re seeing is Eggers’ main focus when he does use digital effects — he complains about poor effects in the past and how they took people out of the narrative. He points out one scene in The Northman with a ship in a violent storm, where the storm itself is entirely a digital effect.

“If we’d shot this in the past, it would have been a model,” he says. “In White Squall and Master and Commander, we have some of the best models ever made to do storm sequences with ships, but there have been a lot of films where the models look like models, you know?”

But while the storm is a digital creation, the ship itself is real. “That’s a digital 3D scan of a ship we actually built, an exact replica of the ottar knurr, like in the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark,” Eggers says. “We were thinking, Okay, it’s going to be backlit, it’s going to be at night, we’re going to have rain, there are a lot of things we can do to disguise the fact that this is a visual effects shot. But you can’t fucking shoot a Viking ship at night in a storm at sea and get exposure. Even if you could shoot it, you wouldn’t get the film exposure.”

Even the sequence that may look most like CG to film audiences was full of practical elements. In The Northman, Amleth and his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), engage in a manhood ritual involving hallucinogens and blood. They envision a kind of tree made of vines or veins, all connected by a beating heart, that represents the shared blood connection of their royal family. Dead and rotting ancestors hang on the tree, which pulses with a purplish necrotic light.

Director Robert Eggers, hip-deep in water and holding a camera wrapped in plastic, on a shoot for The Northman Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features

“Even the Tree of Kings, as Ethan Hawke’s character describes it, the arboreal family lineage hallucination nonsense, was done with practical elements,” Eggers says. One of his crew members does chemical photography, so the light shining through the scene was “created with chemical reactions.” And “the mummies of the dead ancestors were physical builds, or were actors in makeup that we photographed. There’s some pure CG stuff in there too, but the vast majority of the elements in even those sequences were practical.”

Ultimately, while Eggers prefers physical and practical effects in his work, he’s willing to use whatever tools are at hand, as long as they don’t jar people out of the story.

“You’re trying, like with that storm-at-sea shot, to really plan ahead so it doesn’t look like a fucking cartoon,” he says. “It’s always about trying to have as many practical elements as possible. There are around 20 Viking ships in the movie, and we didn’t build that many. We were repurposing them, putting new masks or new sails or different shields on them, and different head carvings. And then shooting multiple passes and plugging them in. That’s a way of using CG as a tool to tell the story, to stretch your budget, but also keeping it grounded.”

The Northman is in theaters now.