To say that acclaimed filmmaker Robert Eggers continues to challenge longtime collaborator, production designer Craig Lathrop is an understatement. For her first project, The Witch, Lathrop was tasked with recreating a historically accurate 17th-century New England farm on an indie horror production budget. Her second endeavor, “The Lighthouse,” required the construction of an actual working 19th-century lighthouse. With The Northman, Lathrop and his crew had an even bigger task: to reawaken a 10th-century Viking civilization from the ground up—at least as far as documented history would allow them.
“There’s so much we didn’t know when we started making progress,” notes Lathrop. “We knew that there are pillars in the middle of the longhouses, but what did these pillars look like? How were they carved? You just had to dig elsewhere to find out what it was.”
Adds Lathrop, somewhat moodily, “I didn’t know anything about Vikings before I started. I’ve learned quite a bit. I might know a little too much.”
Eggers’ epic follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a lost Viking warrior who seeks revenge on his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who killed his father and held his mother (Nicole Kidman) captive against her will. Amleth’s pilgrimage takes him from fictional Hrafnsey to present-day Russia and Iceland, battling frigid seas and ending in a dramatic battle atop what appears to be an active volcano. For Lathrop, the biggest competition was the scope of the story, in which the artist and his crew would build three complete villages, numerous caves, several longhouses, and several temples, among other dramatic sets.
“The hardest [village] building was probably Hrafnsey just because we chose a difficult site,” says Lathrop. “We found this place in Northern Ireland called Torr Head that we needed to build some kind of road into and it was quite a challenge to get everything up in this very windy, cold place.”
The designer was most proud of these Hrafnsey sets for their detail, although these embellishments were often only seen on screen for a brief moment. The production built nine-foot, hand-carved wooden idols and commissioned period-accurate tapestries from India. Also, almost all of the on-screen furniture, the swords, the shields, the knives, and the braid were created just for the film. And then there were the two huge seagoing boats that took six months to build in the Czech Republic.
“I built a Langskip and a Knar [Viking ship]’ says Lathrop. “The langskip, that’s the long boat they row in, I built so I could take the ends off with that snake or wolf’s head and put on another and make it look like I had more than one boat. I could swap some parts on them like this [it would appear you] see several of them pass.”
Production initially began in March 2020 before shutting down for five months due to the COVID pandemic. Lathrop had built a key set in Ireland, Fjolnir’s Farm, during what turned out to be a rare drought in Ireland. Luckily, he got permission to have a greensman water the sets during the break. In the end it turned out to be something of a bright spot for the set.
“I built all these buildings out of peat,” says Lathrop. “They were actually built, like a stage set, and then they were covered with real turf and it was great. I had seeded the outside of my sets trying to make them look right but they weren’t quite there when we went on COVID [hiatus]. When we came back they were still alive, they were fully established. In fact, I had to trim them down because they had grown so much, which was wonderful.”
The film’s highlight is the showdown at the foot of the Icelandic volcano Hekla. In reality, it was actually staged in a quarry in Ireland.
“The hardest thing for me was getting enough black sand to Ireland,” says Lathrop. “It turns out there isn’t that much volcanic sand in Ireland. I think we probably used every black sand on the whole island. I have to say the set was more fun. I thought it was going to be a real pain. But once we were there, I realized that I’m sitting here and sculpting with bulldozers while we move sand and make the terrain look how we want it, which is really cool.”
In the production of his fourth film with Eggers, a reimagining of the horror classic Nosferatu, Lathrop is sticking to the important lessons he learned from The Northman.
“As daunting as it may seem at first, you just take small bites and just keep going,” says Lathrop. “When I first read the script, I was excited. I wouldn’t say I was scared of it, but I was nervous because I wasn’t sure where I was going to find the people for who was going to do it and all that stuff. As with any other film, they started to come together. You just had to push and you had the resources to do everything and find good people.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-12-13/how-the-northman-resurrects-10th-century-viking-civilization-almost-from-scratch How ‘The Northman’ resurrects 10th century Viking civilization