Without a doubt, Robert Eggers’ “The Northman” traffics in his now-usual brand of haunted atmospherics and wonky mysticism, a signature whose intensity is upped by the savage bloodlust of its characters and the vastitudes of his first big-budget epic with a price tag reportedly hovering between $70 million and $90 million.
The only thing more intensely stressed than the dilemma of a Viking prince in the year 895 (avenging the death of his father, the king, at the hands of his jealous uncle who stole the prince’s mother as the spoils of war — or did she go willingly?) played to brutal, muscular perfection by Alexander Skarsgård, is the all-consuming dedication of its tactile production design, its brooding, cinematographic ambiance and the craftsmanship of its furry, hierarchical costuming.
For the craggy look and authentic feel of “The Northman,” credit Eggers’ forever production designer Craig Lathrop, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and costume designer Linda Muir, the team that worked closely with the director on his 2015 feature debut, “The Witch,” and also 2019’s “The Lighthouse.”
Lathrop says that save for having bigger budgets and scale for its sets in Ireland and Iceland, there was no difference in conversation among creatives here than for the $11 million “Lighthouse.”
“The Northman’ is just so much of this world, that this time out, the research part lasted longer with more conversations among us,” says Lathrop. “Robert is always incredibly detail-oriented. The only difference with this one is that everyone agreed to let me start getting to work earlier because our sets were so expansive. So, it was the same as always, a conversation between family members, but just… more.”
Lathrop’s thatched-roof huts, regal, wood-heavy domiciles, gray gardens and mucky, scorched-earth environments — literal and well as it allegorical stairways to Heaven and descents to Hell — meant that each element of “The Northman” is so vividly corporeal, you can feel it brush against you as every scene unspools.
“To go with your apt description, I kept thinking of the worlds that ‘The Northman’ inhabited as literal and reality-based,” says Lathrop. “From the opening scenes where the prince is a child, to the land where the Viking horde pillage settlements, to the Gates of Hell — all of these worlds, the supernatural and the natural — are the same. This was Viking reality. Approach it in that way, and the fantastical becomes equal to the material world and the more concrete. We weren’t trying to build a museum for these characters, either. My goal and Rob’s goal was to create this world — not a fantasy one — for these characters with all of the emotional beats intact.”
To that end, states Lathrop, most of what you see in “The Northman” and its Icelandic and Irish filming locations is all sets (“all real, save for a few extensions to make our worlds bigger”) as opposed to FX. “The supernatural was given very real aspects of the physical world.”
Helping to bring Lathrop’s worlds and visions to real life was his extensive use of large vertical slabs of wood, actual, recycled and replicated. “If we had to use all real wood, it would’ve taken a very large, old forest to cover the scope of what we were doing. We also carved and molded structures out of plaster, and in Iceland, where they’re supposed to be sod buildings, we used substructures clad in thick dirt, peat and sod.”
Where bold color and black earth did finally meet is in “The Northman’s” fiery crescendo, a lethal, incendiary finale at ‘the Gates of Hell,’ and the ultimate revenge battle royale between Claes Bang’s and Skarsgård’s characters.
“It was a pinch-me moment when we flew over this quarry in Ireland,” says Lathrop of where the brutal fight between uncle and nephew would take place. “It was so pleasant moving around all the black sand we could find. It was like painting with bulldozers. For the flows of lava, we dug these large trenches into the ground, and in collaboration with Jarin, put lights into these gullies and shined the light upwards, so that the lava emitted its own glow.”
Ask Lathrop how a production designer portrays vengeance, the overwhelming atmosphere that hangs over “The Northman” like a shroud, and he leaves “the heavy lifting” up to Skarsgård while presenting the thickness of blood and sacrifice as a primary color in his design. “We created something ritualistic in ways you don’t always see,” he says. “Even down to painting the walls of a temple with the tones of dried blood. That describes the harsh world in which they all live.”
Added to the earth-toned density of Lathrop’s heaving reality is Blaschke’s gray-green palate (“there’s a richness to be mined within its limitations”) and Linda Muir’s luxurious furs and skins for its royals (Ethan Hawke’s king, Nicole Kidman’s queen, Claes Bang’s uncle) and bloody, mangy wolf-head-topped-pelts for its ferocious warriors (Skarsgård). The duality between the opulent and the ragged portrays the hierarchies of “The Northman” in ways that Eggers’ dialogue barely touches.
Without speaking for Muir, the production designer states that Eggers’ costume designer was looking to represent the very rich and detailed societies that existed between the royal and warrior classes.
“Those in the kingdom were wealthy and did have material goods,” Lathrop states. “They traded in furs and fabrics — wool, mainly — and walrus tusks. They weren’t only reigning, they were trading, and we wanted to show that…Use the proper materials for that period, each character, those hierarchies and the whole of our world-building. If we got it right, we would bring you back to the totality of a 10th century Viking world.”