I’m shocked I made such a Today

Today, dressed in black workwear, with a neatly kept beard, ornate rings on his fingers and a keen gaze, he still looks more likely to spring a poetry reading on you than a fist fight. “I’m shocked I made such a macho movie,” he says, before admitting that his interest in history had not, until recently, extended to Vikings. “This whole thing is a surprise to me: the macho stereotype of that history, along with, you know, the rightwing misappropriation of Viking culture, made me sort of allergic to it, and I just never wanted to go there.”

That attitude shifted on a vacation to Iceland: “Everyone says this, but the landscapes were so incredibly inspiring and epic and pre-pre-historical. And it’s the power of those landscapes that got me to pick up the Icelandic sagas.” While he was there, a mutual friend arranged a meeting with Björk; she in turn introduced Eggers to the Icelandic poet, novelist and sometime screenwriter Sjón, who also recently co-wrote the loopy folk-horror film Lamb.

“We started talking about early modern witchcraft and just got along famously,” says Eggers: only from him would this count as an ordinary ice-breaker. “I started to read his books when I got back to the States and was again very inspired. His mind is really extraordinary – to me, he’s a literary giant.” The trip hatched the idea of a Viking movie, made Eggers-style; years later, while having lunch with Skarsgård, he learned of the actor’s long-held ambition to make a Viking epic with producer Lars Knudsen. The dots connected; with the plan in motion, Eggers decided he needed an Icelandic co-writer, and Sjón was his first choice. “Even the most Viking-allergic Icelander knows what saga characters they’re directly related to, and that literature is part of everyone’s cultural understanding and their personas: many contemporary Icelanders still believe in land spirits and fairies. I needed that.”

In all of Eggers’s features to date, the physical and spiritual realms feel closely and practically connected, even adjacent, to the point of disorienting overlap; the vivid prospect of Valhalla beckons Amleth throughout The Northman, an afterlife neither queried nor idealised. I ask Eggers if he regards himself as a spiritual or religious person, and he hesitates. “Not in any kind of a traditional way,” he answers, “but certainly in all my work, and I’m not saying I’m succeeding in this, but I am trying to reach the sublime. So I suppose that’s why I am interested in these periods of history: there are no Viking atheists. There are Valkyries and giants and trolls, and sometimes people get put off that they’re in these sagas that are supposed to be naturalistic. And I’m like, yeah, but they believed that this was real. It’s naturalistic to them.

“It’s so frustrating being an American film-maker sometimes, where even the small movies are so much more concerned about getting that profit back, and it gets so wrapped up in, like, your brand and your identity. This is going to sound awfully precious – you know, feel free to puke – but the idea of medieval craftsmen are doing it for God is an appealing one to me.”

In place of God in this model, we have the studios, and Eggers still seems somewhat astonished that he got one to invest in his metaphysical (albeit crashingly violent) idea of a Viking epic. “Luck is a thing, and as is more or less said in the film, the Norns of fate weave a mysterious thread,” he says with a wry shrug. On a more practical level, the production company New Regency had worked with Eggers on The Lighthouse and was happy to invest again. “I do think they were partially hoping I would want do something more commercial,” he laughs. “Sjón and I happened to have a draft of The Northman in good shape, and thanks to the History Channel and a bunch of TV shows and video games, there seemed to be an appetite for Viking stories. So the marketing team felt like this wasn’t completely irresponsible.”

It remains to be seen whether The Northman turns a significant profit, but it feels like a film built to endure. And it has given Eggers a taste for big canvases on which to paint his biggest ideas, though he’d prefer to keep alternating between independent and studio projects: “I certainly want to do something smaller next, and not just because of the pressure and the pain, which is super real,” he says. “But also because I learned so much on The Northman, which was really a film that was way too big for my britches. And I finally feel like I actually know how to make a movie now, you know?”

Did he not before? “Honestly, I can’t stand watching The Witch now,” he sighs. “It’s not that it’s bad, and the performances are great, but I was not skilled enough as a film-maker to get what was in my brain on to the screen. In The Lighthouse, I was able to do that. And The Northman, I’m proud of the movie, but not everything is quite what I hoped it would be. So I would like to do something with the scope and scale that I can actually get what’s in my imagination on to the screen.”

It’s not the kind of humility you tend to hear from a director promoting the grandest work of their career thus far; it also doesn’t sound like Eggers is about to sign a contract with Marvel any time soon. “I’ve definitely had, like, not Marvel, but the big studio meeting. But I also don’t know what I have to offer. Everything that I’m particularly good at, or that makes me unique, is not helpful in making a Marvel movie.”

He doesn’t watch superhero films, having left them behind with the comics of his boyhood, though he recently made an exception for Matt Reeves’s mood-heavy The Batman, which impressed him: “I saw it really just because Rob [Pattinson] is my friend. But I liked it, and I learned a lot of stuff from it, frankly. I applaud Matt Reeves for keeping an identity and making a film like that. I can’t imagine. I guess I just made a big movie, but it’s not the same.”

Beyond that “smaller movie” tease, Eggers avoids giving any hint of what he’s really planning next – “Respectfully, I’m going to be elusive about this,” he says – though a long-planned reimagining of his adolescent favourite Nosferatu is still on the boil. Taylor-Joy has been attached; so was Harry Styles at one point, though no more. “I do want to be clear that Harry was going to be Thomas Hutter and not the vampire,” he says drily – the Styles fandom is not one to be messed with. “I hope that it happens,” he continues. “I’ve spent so much time, you know, thinking about it and scouting: it would be a shame if it somehow doesn’t happen. But it seems shocking to me that it’s fallen apart twice already.” He shrugs. Each new film is its own challenge.

For now, once his epic is out in the world, he’s simply after some time for writing, breathing and parenting. After 17 years in New York, he and Shaker moved to Dublin for the production of The Northman; he’s considering relocating permanently to London. He mentioned earlier being frustrated with American film-making – does that extend to America itself? He nods. “My wife and I both are from New Hampshire. We’ve spent some time there recently. And it’s, you know, heartbreaking that in many ways it’s more small-minded and divided than when we grew up there. That’s sad. Not that things are comfortable in Europe, exactly.”

Mostly, as with his films, he’s drawn to immersing himself in unfamiliar worlds. “I’m an anglophile and I know British history reasonably well and whatever, but I am not from here,” he says. “So there is a way in which I feel like people don’t know everything about me, and I don’t know everything about them. That always feels a little freer.”

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