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Why all the genital tweaks in The Northman? ‘You can’t have penises on airplanes’

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Director Robert Eggers on how he shot his climactic lava fight — and why he had to add CG testicles

Alexander Skarsgård and Claes Bang approach each other among lava flows for a big ol’ naked swordfight in The Northman Image: Focus Features

Fans of Robert Eggers’ films — The Witch, The Lighthouse, and now The Northman — know he goes to extremes to make his visuals as real and lived-in as possible, using extensive research, natural light, practical effects, and authentic set-building processes and period costuming. All of this makes The Northman’s climactic battle — a sword fight between two naked men at the base of an erupting volcano — all the more astonishing. The rise of digital special effects has taught us to expect that anything surprising we see on screen was probably composed inside a computer, but that didn’t seem likely for a Robert Eggers movie.

Eggers’ immediate response when asked how the scene was shot suggests he’s been fielding some complaints that the fight sequence is too astonishing: “There was a music video that was shot during the recent eruptions outside of Reykjavik, and it looks like the end of my movie, only it’s a music video,” he says. “So anyone who thinks it’s too far-fetched to have a sword fight up there — if you can shoot a music video during a volcanic eruption, you can certainly have a sword fight there.”

Still, for health and safety reasons, the Northman team created its own version of Iceland’s Mount Hekla volcano for the fight, using a mix of practical and digital effects. Those included competing genital enhancement and de-enhancement for the combatants, Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) and his murderous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang).

“Basically, we found a quarry that looks more like the summit of Mount Hekla than we might have expected,” Eggers says. “Craig Lathrop, the production designer, brought in a whole lot of black earth to dress it in, to make it look even more like Hekla. Then [SFX supervisor] Sam Conway and his team added practical effects — gigantic flames and all this practical smoke, black smoke, gray smoke, the falling ash, the floating cinders.”

Alexander Skarsgård, naked and furious and holding a sword, stalks among the lava flows in The Northman Image: Focus Features

The one element that really couldn’t be practical was the lava, but Eggers didn’t want it to solely be a digital creation. “The real pièce de résistance is that for the lava, Jarin Blaschke, the DP, and Seamus Lynch, the gaffer, designed these LED lights in the shape of lava flows, and they were programmed to move. So the light is actually moving the way lava would move. And then Angela Barson, the VFX supervisor, went to the eruption in Iceland and took a lot of documentary footage of all the lava flows.”

Barson’s footage was used to enhance the practical LED effects, but without overwriting the lighting as Eggers’ camera captured it. “So basically, the lava flow is CG, but it’s based on documentary footage and the way the light was actually moving on set and interacting with the actors,” he says. “Which is why it hopefully looks more convincing than some other lava sword fights in movies.”

Eggers adds that the digital effects he used in the scene had a bonus purpose: “There’s some CG enhancement in the smoke to make sure everyone’s bits are are covered,” he says. “But the vast majority of the scene was practical, and it’s all there.”

While the characters in the scene fight naked as a matter of cultural ritual, 21st-century sensibilities are different, which Eggers says did raise issues for composing the scene. “A film of this stature needs to be able to play on airplanes, and you’re not allowed to have penises on airplanes,” he tells Polygon. “I’m just kind of ashamed — I think that if some of the berserkers in the raid had been entirely naked, that would have been really excellent.”

At the same time, he wanted the audience focused on the primal, brutal nature of the fight, not on his actors’ anatomy. “I think if we had bits swinging around in the end fight, maybe that would have been distracting,” he says. “They were wearing thongs when we actually shot it, just for modesty. And safety. [laughs] And so we actually had to put CG genital enhancement in, to make them look less Ken doll-like. So while we’re having smoke make sure it’s always covering stuff, occasionally we needed to break away from the smoke and show some testicles really quickly, just to help keep the illusion alive.”

While modern audiences may associate nudity with vulnerability or sexuality, the Viking society Eggers is exploring here would have associated it with ritual masculinity, aggression, and power. Asked whether his cast had any process for getting over nudity taboos and getting into that mindset, Eggers just laughs.

“Alexander Skarsgård takes off his clothes at the drop of a hat,” he says. “So, you know, it was easy.”

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