Robert Eggers’s Historical Visions Go Mainstream

It is hard going. During one scene in “The Lighthouse,” which was shot using camera lenses from the nineteen-thirties, Dafoe had to rise from a table, limp over to a coal stove, extract a burning cinder with tongs and light a clay pipe with his left hand, then walk to the window, in conversation with Pattinson, taking specific steps as the camera followed him on dolly tracks. (Blaschke was nominated for an Academy Award for the film’s cinematography.) “They gave me impossible tasks. But it focuses you in a way that you’re never distracted,” Dafoe, who learned to knit for the part, said. “You can only go here. . . . The pipe may go out, but then you have to take the cinder. It was a real cinder. All that stuff roots you. Because it’s really happening.”

Neither Eggers nor Blaschke had ever shot a major action scene before “The Northman,” but they stuck to the same principles: a single camera, nothing handheld, increasingly unlikely oners. “Some days on ‘The Northman,’ we had one shot, you know, but it’s dense. And it was thought about for months,” Blaschke said. “And then maybe months went by, and then another solution came up, when I was trying to fall asleep, or while Rob was trying to fall asleep.” The adult Amleth takes part in a raid on a Slav village which is prolonged and horrifying to watch and was almost as brutal to configure. Blaschke, who is an antic presence on set—fussing with lights, checking angles—filmed almost the entire sequence in a straight line, with a camera mounted on top of a car. “To do that in a scene with ten actors, twenty stunt guys, three hundred extras, horses, fire—it drives you crazy,” Skarsgård told me. At the end of the four-minute take, Skarsgård would be on his knees. “And then it turns out that, two minutes into the shot, there was a horse deep background that was facing the wrong way,” he said. “And then you have to do it again. And they end up doing it twenty-five times.”

Skarsgård, who is Swedish, became involved in the development of “The Northman” in 2017. His father, the actor Stellan Skarsgård, has a library of old Hollywood films. As a boy, Skarsgård watched “The Long Ships,” with Sidney Poitier, and “The Vikings,” with Kirk Douglas. With Knudsen, the producer, who is Danish, he had dreamed of one day making a definitive Viking movie. But he had not been on set with Eggers until the shoot began, in August, 2020.

During the first two weeks, in which Amleth mostly labored on a farm, Skarsgård felt conflicted by the filming process. “I’m not used to working in that way,” he said. “There was a moment where I was, like, I could either freak the fuck out. . . because you feel like: Well, there’s no space for me to explore my character. I’m a robot.” But Skarsgård chose to submit: “You play around with it, and then small details will then open up, like a flood of inspiration, and suddenly you’re in it.”

Taylor-Joy, who was working with Eggers for the first time in six years, realized how much of her conduct on set derived from their work together. “Who I am, or how I identify as a performer and a collaborator, really does come from ‘The Witch,’ ” she told me. “If you come onto a movie that’s already been storyboarded. . . and you know that’s the way the film’s going to look, I actually find that incredibly liberating,” she said. “I can do my own version of this dance within the parameters that have been set. And I’ll end up with something more interesting than if you just show up and it’s, like, Oh, we might have the camera here. We might have the camera here.”

On a good day, you’re pushing the cinematic form. “I don’t know of a medieval movie this size that is shot this formally,” Eggers said. “Not even, like, a Soviet movie.” When Skarsgård and his fellow-berserkers landed a bloody fight sequence on the umpteenth take, they celebrated like berserkers. “My God, when it’s there and it works, it’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve had on a movie set,” Skarsgård said.

On a bad day, you’re in the tenth month of the edit and you’re trying to deal with notes from a test screening in Texas, where the audience was befuddled by the Nordic accents, character names like Leifr Seal’s Testicle, and the unsettling moral outlook of tenth-century Iceland. “None of those things are changing,” Eggers said, while Ford was processing footage of the young Amleth, hiding in a forest. I have started to laugh. Like, those things can’t change. And those are kind of the biggest obstacles.” The studio had suggested inserting an intertitle at one point, to indicate the passing of time. Eggers and Ford went into another room, where Paolo Buzzetti, an assistant editor, had mocked up a time card: “Twenty-Two Years Later.” Ford noted that this would make the adult Amleth thirty-three, the same age as Jesus when he died.

“Is that relevant?” she asked.

“Not to a Viking,” Eggers replied.

Eggers’s grandfather Robert Stroud Houston was a geologist and an outdoorsman. When he was conducting field work on the mafic igneous rocks of Wyoming’s Sierra Madre, Houston hired old cowboys to keep him company and tell him stories of the frontier. His daughter, Kelly, went to New York to work as an actor and a ballet dancer. She had a recurring part on “One Life to Live,” the soap opera, appearing alongside Laurence Fishburne. Eggers was born in the city in the summer of 1983. Soon afterward, Kelly and she moved back to Wyoming to live with her parents. Eggers does not know his biological father of him. In Laramie, Kelly met and married Walter Eggers, an English academic and Shakespeare scholar, and they had twin sons. (Eggers’s brother Max co-wrote “The Lighthouse.”)

When Eggers was six, Walter became the provost of the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. The family moved to Lee, a small town nearby. “It was, more or less, like, a church, a library, a country store, and a graveyard. I’m exaggerating a little bit to make it sound more romantic,” Eggers said. “We used to throw corn husks at cars—you know, that kind of situation.” When Houston retired, he bought an early-eighteenth-century farmhouse in Epping, a few miles from Lee. I have filled the place with curiosities: taxidermy, model ships, African masks, Civil War artifacts, lassos and spurs from the Old West.

“It was super magical,” Eggers recalled. He would go with his grandfather to antique stores and handle relics of New England’s Colonial past. I have loved costumes and performances of all kinds. The woods outside felt old and haunted. “I think probably the landscape itself informed a lot of Rob’s aesthetic,” Amanda Michaels, a childhood friend, who performed with Eggers in a production of “Oliver Twist,” in the fifth grade, told me. “We weren’t running around playing cops and robbers when we were kids—we played ‘enchanted forest.’ ”

In 1995, Michaels’s mother, Charlotte Mandell, and Kelly set up the Oyster River Players, a children’s-theatre company. The ORP came to include about eighty kids and mounted three or four shows a year. Michaels and Eggers, who were in their teens, helped choose the plays, performed, painted the sets, and rehearsed the younger children. “It was basically ORP seven days a week,” Michaels said. “Rob became the de-facto production designer. It was his eye from him that guided these productions, even when we were kids. ” In high school, Eggers and a classmate named Ashley Kelly-Tata, who is now an experimental-theatre and opera director, staged “Nosferatu” as their senior-year project. Eggers was an erratic student: he aced English, but in French, instead of doing the assignments, he made short films for the teacher. In “Nosferatu,” he played Count Orlok in a scene-for-scene re-creation of the silent film, complete with intertitles and sibling gargoyles.

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