Interview with Michael Hirst, creator of “Vikings”
This interview is contributed by A+E Networks Asia.
Raiders from Vikings
Q: So how did the idea for the new drama series Vikings come about and why the Vikings in particular?
A: I have been interested in the Vikings for a long time. I mean every boy is interested in the Vikings anyway. And after I wrote Elizabeth, I wrote a movie about an English king called Alfred the Great, and he fought against the Vikings. I became really, really interested in their culture and their gods. Nothing happened with that movie, so I just kept my interest in my back pocket and waited until someone could come along to ask me if I was interested in Vikings. And then about two years ago, MGM said precisely that they were thinking about it. They just started their TV network up again and they were thinking about starting with the Vikings, and asked me whether I was interested in doing the show. And of course I was hugely and passionately interested. And I think this is the right time to be working on the Vikings because I don’t know if you’ve noticed – but all around the world, there is a huge interest in the Vikings at the moment. There are museums and shows from Australia to London about the Vikings. Everybody is curious about their culture.
Q: How would you describe Viking culture beyond just raiders and villagers, how differently is the show introducing this other side of them?
A: Whenever you mention the word Viking to anyone there’s a certain kind of visceral response – everyone thinks of them as the fake and terrible, terrifying raiders from the North who kill and plunder without conscience. Now, that picture of them was painted by hostile witnesses; in other words, what we know about Vikings or what we think we know about the Vikings came from the Christian monks who wrote about them and who had every reason to attack their paganism and exaggerate their faults, their violence and brutality.
The Vikings were of course a non-literate culture, they didn’t write anything down themselves. So I was digging around for research, and I also have a historical advisor who is an expert on the dark ages. When I was trying to find out more about what the Vikings were actually like, it was astonishing to find out that they were a much more democratic society than the sections or the frames of the society around at the time in western culture. Their attitude towards women, for example, was positively enlightened compared to other contemporary cultures; women could divorce their husbands, they could own property, women fought beside their husbands, brothers and sons in the shield war, and they could rule. I also discovered, for example, that the Vikings were very clean people; they bathed every week, they have saunas, they took a change of clothing when they weren’t raiding. Every Viking grave contains a comb. So there are many, many prejudices that I want to overturn and challenge in the show. I wanted to show that far from being Iron Age savages, the Vikings had a deep, complex and interesting culture. And on top of that, I have to say that I am particularly fascinated by their gods and their religious beliefs and their attitude towards nature. So, all of that I hope is a huge part of the show because I am trying to tell the story for the first time from a Viking point of view and I don’t think that has ever been done before.
Q: You’ve done great work in the past with Elizabeth, The Tudors, The Borgias and now you have the Vikings, what is it about going back in time that appeals to you more than picking up new and contemporary stories?
A: It’s probably something to do with the fact that I had a very academic background – I was in universities for about 10 years or so, and so there was the research part of my occupation. And I began every project by doing a lot of research, reading and thinking about the material. I really enjoyed that; I get a huge kick out of that. I love to see the stories, the characters emerging from the material; they become very real to me. Part of my job I think, is to humanise these people from the past and to make them relevant and interesting to people living today. I always say that the only two things I could do at school apart from sport, were history and English; and I’ve cleverly combined them to make a career.
There are probably other reasons: I suspect in a way that I can’t make sense of contemporary life. I never feel particularly drawn to writing about contemporary issues. I remember the philosopher William James said that a baby’s experience of the world is a buzzing and booming chaos. That kind of applies to my sense of what the contemporary world is – a buzzing and booming chaos. But when I look back at history, I see order or I can make sense of it in a deeper way. So there are many things, many reasons, why I do that but I’m sure it’s partly psychological.
Q: You mentioned a lot about the research you did for this series, how then did you insert the drama element into the series? Were you inspired by any particular Viking stories which were then turned into the script?
A: When I’m doing the research, part of it is that I’m looking for dramatic stories; I’m looking for moments in history that were groundbreaking or characters that were particularly significant and whose life were rich and complex and dramatic. My historical advisor and I came across this character Ragnar Lothbrok, who is the first great Viking leader who comes to us out of the mists of Norse legends and it was obvious from what little I could find out about him, that he was an extraordinary character who believed he was descended from the God Odin, who was one of first Vikings to travel the open ocean and raid the west. He raided England, Ireland and ultimately, raided Paris. He had two wives, a lot of sons who became very famous in their own time. So, I found this wonderful lead character and I knew I could dramatise his life and I wouldn’t have to invent stories particularly about him. I just developed what we know from history and at the same time, this was moment in time in Viking history when the Vikings broke out of Scandinavia and came west because they invented a new kind ship that could travel across oceans but also up rivers. And, also they discovered a way of navigating across open sea. So it was a wonderfully dramatic moment in European history.
Q: What made Travis Fimmel perfect for Ragnar?
A: That’s an interesting question. We had a very difficult and hard time casting the two lead roles – Ragnar and his wife Lagertha. As far as Ragnar was concerned; we kept seeing a lot of pretty, young sort of British actors. And I kept saying, “These guys couldn’t even lift an axe, let alone use one.” This has to be a real man and he has to have certain qualities, and he is not a conventional hero. Ragnar is not a conventional hero. He is an intelligent and thoughtful man, and I wanted him to have that sort of stillness; that depth which I feel is true to the Scandinavian character. We tried and we tried and didn’t get anywhere and then one day just when we were all getting desperate and we had to go into production but then very shortly, Travis took a tape of himself in his kitchen; in his farmhouse in Australia in which he taped himself doing the scene and didn’t pretend that he was a Viking; he didn’t over-act. He was very still; he read the scene absolutely intelligently and I watched this without first- director (Yohann Rank?), who is a Swede. And, we both thought we probably found our man, we probably found Ragnar Lodbrok. Travis is just an extraordinary character and he is not by any means a conventional hero. I’m really proud of the choice he made and there was some luck in that as well. But then that is what happens when you’re casting, and I think we got altogether a truly wonderful cast of people.
Ragnar’s wife Lagertha
Q: What lessons can the people of today learn from Vikings of the past?