Despite only having three feature credits to his name, director Robert Eggers has earned a reputation for being a stickler for detail. The level of historical accuracy on show in 2015’s The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse reaches even greater heights in Eggers’ latest film, The Northman, a mud-caked, rain-lashed Viking adventure saga of truly epic proportions.
Filmed across Iceland, Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2020, the shoot was challenging to say the least, with adverse weather conditions and Covid-19 making life difficult for the crew members responsible for building and dressing the sets. Here, set decorator Niamh Coulter gives us an exclusive insight into The Northman’s production, sharing some of her personal behind-the-scenes photos.
“We went to great lengths to make the sets as authentic as possible. We built weavers’ cottages, a piggery, outhouses, slave quarters, the exterior of the longhouse, the blacksmith’s workshop – all based on historical references and cleared with our Viking academics.
“This was a huge build of turfed houses for a settlement at Knock Dhu, about 40 minutes from Belfast. It was originally to be shot in mid-March but with lockdown we ended up shooting here in late autumn. It was an incredibly challenging set – one very steep and windy access road, completely remote, and an existing ancient burial ground with a lot of restrictions on building, digging, planting, etc. The weather was atrocious generally – you needed at least two sets of full wet weather gear on the worst days. It was bleak.”
“The animals played a huge part in all our exterior sets. This is Mable, one of our sows, and we had dairy cows, goats, horses, chickens as well. All the animals had quarters adjacent to set for the duration to minimise their travel and were brought by our incredible animal handler, Kenny Gracey, who also over the course of six months trained this bull, Coolie, to pull the cart for the arrival into Hravnsey at the start of the film.”
“This is the boat layout for the Viking burial of Fjolnir’s son, with my assistant Pancho standing in for scale. We built this adjacent to the farm set, the structure behind was covered in turf by our amazing greens department who also laid all the turf roofs on the farm set and upkept them throughout lockdown. It was a very different set in July when we returned to the one we left in March.”
“This is the props master offering up a position to mount the horses skulls. All our large scale wooden carvings – including the enormous 6’ x 9’ gods from the temple at Hravnsey – were hand carved in India. The level of detail was unbelievable. They were all based on research and concepted by us, approved by the scholars, with the full-size drawings then sent to India where a team of carvers worked on them over a period of months. There were times I never thought we would get them all done and shipped in time but the gods were with us in every sense.”
“Again, the challenge here was to make our wooden structures transportive and create a lived-in environment. We had a tannery, a pottery, the ‘store’, bee keepers and a piggery. There has to be some logic applied when dressing big sets like this – what their mainstay is, what they trade in, what would they have. We had the idea that the Rus who lived here were trappers, we had skins and hides stripped and hanged to be turned into pelts. The stench was absolutely authentic.
“Robert [Eggers] wanted this set to be as real and as gritty as possible. We went to huge lengths to get the right amount of mud. This became a bit of a theme – the mud, the rain, the dirt. It all adds to the texture of the film, although it makes for horrendous working conditions. We were ankle-deep for a lot of the ‘Land of the Rus’ set. It’s the only film I’ve worked on where we consistently did not want a good weather forecast.”
“At this point in the film the Rus village and the temple have been burned to the ground, so we dressed the altar with all these offerings and gave the set a midsommar floral feel based on our research – then we burnt the hell out of it. This set was used for Björk’s scene as the Slavic witch.”
“These are before and during shots from Hravnsey, which we built at Torr Head on the North Antrim Coast. Another absolutely stunning location – another absolute nightmare to get into or out of. The build was an incredible feat given the location. If you were lucky you might see pods of dolphins in the bay from the battlements where young Amleth sees his father return at the start of the film.”
“All the furniture was bespoke, made by my carpenters in Belfast and in Poland by some Viking enthusiasts who also made all our tents and Viking-carved tent poles. With the chamber dressing, I had to keep very closely to the script and how the scene would play out. When the dressing is effectively minimal in terms of options, it needs to be absolutely right from the off. Everything had a purpose and was exactly right for the period, right down to the patterns, the fabrics, even the motifs in the carvings.
“If the provenance and the authenticity of the design was not 100 per cent correct it didn’t make it onto set. It’s quite a challenging way to work; normally you have to be very flexible as the scene may change at the last minute. But nothing is left to chance with Robert – everything is so well planned and thought out, there is very little to catch you unawares.”
“We got through a lot of fish on The Northman – I think we dressed about 1000 kilos of dried fish up the racks that surround the compound at Hravnsey. We had to spray them all down with bleach to stop the seagulls from eating them.”
“All the set dressing was based on what has been found in various real-life Viking burial chambers – the horse being one of the things to be buried alongside. This is our mummified horse which we made with our in-house props team. We also had mummified dogs either side of the throne. This was a very challenging set to dress because it involved stunts and SFX for the fight sequence that plays out in here.”
“We purchased a huge amount of skins and pelts for the film – all approved by the American Humane Association. Sometimes in the winter in Belfast you have to improvise with what is to hand when it’s freezing in the office!”
Published 18 Apr 2022
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