Vikings showrunner Michael Hirst loves history. It appears that History—both the television channel and the record of our times—are sweet on him as well. In March, History renewed the accomplished English screenwriter's historical drama, which is inspired by Norse leader Ragnar Lothbrok's conquests of England and France, for what promises to be a spectacular 10-episode third season.
Hirst, who previously penned the film Elizabeth (1998), about Queen Elizabeth I of England, and created the Emmy Award-winning Showtime series The Tudors (2007-2010), about the reign of King Henry VIII of England, has in the past had an abundance of writings on his subjects from which to craft his stories. With the Vikings, who had an oral storytelling tradition and were mostly written about by their adversaries, he has had the liberty of filling in blanks with some expert help. What has resulted is a tremendous show that deals well with conflicts that range from the interpersonal ones of families to grand geo-political struggles for power.
Complex spoke to Hirst about Vikings, which airs its season two finale tonight at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST, about what to expect from the third season, his approach to violence and sex, and why making television is so much more appealing than filmmaking these days.
Do you think the economy of television shoots, which often accomplish so much for less money money and in less time than movie shoots, will change the way film productions happen?
No, because there’s too many vested interests in not doing it economically. You think that this is madness, but it is a kind of collective madness that they want to spend a lot of money, and unless they’re spending a lot of money, they’re not happy. And the amazing thing is, [on Vikings] we shoot four scenes a day. It’s quite incredible what production has to do. Nobody in movies would ever believe what could be achieved. Movie productions could make things a lot cheaper but they don’t want to do it.
You’ve accomplished a lot with temporal and financial limitations, particularly with Vikings’ epic battle scenes. What have been the biggest obstacles for you in making the show?
You would’ve thought that a show that’s about Vikings hat’s about people outside and people in boats and people having lots of battles, that the challenge would be to do a TV series involving all these difficult production values, but actually things have moved so quickly. And with visual effects, the things that used to be almost impossible to do are possible. In season three, we’re going to have 100 ships attacking Paris and it will look absolutely real. Our show is based on is actual real things. Our guys fight. We’ve kept it as real as possible and we’ve had wonderful choreographers. The challenge is, as a writer, I set the challenges hoping, but not really knowing, if they could meet them. They always meet these challenges and its just pushed on so much over the years. The important thing to me is that Vikings continues to be based on real things—both historically real things and actors doing real things, too.
You mentioned the battle choreography. What goes into those scenes, from teaching everyone moves to filming them?
A lot of time. The actors are always told to turn up several weeks before we start shooting so they can go through the choreography, because it’s actually quite dangerous. We have real weapons and we have people jumping. We have hundreds of people fighting and its not recreational. These people have to literally charge into each other, so their safety is paramount, but all the lead guys and women get to really fight. Look at something like Thor, for example, none of the people have to ever fight at all. It’s all CGI. We do the fighting for real and it’s fantastic. It makes a huge difference to the sense of reality, to the sense that this is true. This actually happened. These were real people. I’m incredibly proud of the production values on Vikings. We deliver some extraordinary reality.
You have an obvious affinity for history. What was it like working on a subject that was not written about a great deal? The Vikings, for the most part, didn’t document their own actions, it was outsiders who documented them.
It’s not true to say we don’t know anything. I have a historical consultant, who’s an expert on the Dark Ages, if indeed you can be an expert on the Dark Ages. We know and we dig up continuously more things about the Vikings, but nevertheless, compared to the Tudors, where there’s almost too much information, you have to imagine things. It’s all based on research, it’s all based on real people, but there’s a limit to what one can know about what actually happened, so it gives me more freedom, which is exciting. As a writer it’s challenging and wonderful, but I always like to come back to something real. I will start from something real and develop it outwards, but then I’ll come back to something I also know is real. It’s not educational. It’s not supposed to be a history lesson, but it is based on real things and encourages people to read the actual history. The Vikings had a huge effect on Europe, on England, on Ireland, and they discovered the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus.
As a writer on movies you’re not wanted. Even on Elizabeth, when I was best friends with the director, I wasn’t really wanted on the set because the director is God. In TV series, the showrunner is God; you’re treated with respect. This was such a wonderful strange experience for me and it’s hard to get enough of that.
What most surprised you in your research about the Vikings?
They were a more democratic society than the British and the French. They voted on most things. And the earl or king was only allowed to have power as long as they were successful. The women, fantastically, could divorce their husbands. They could own property. They could fight as equals. The attitude towards women was remarkable in some ways. Their technology, their boats. It was still an iron age people compared to the Franks or the Saxons and yet they had some abilities that no one else had. No one else had boats like the Vikings. No one else could cross open oceans and sail up rivers. They had bad press because they were always written about by their enemies. They were written about by Saxon monks, so of course they wanted to trash their gods and exaggerate their dirty habits. The Vikings actually happened to be very clean. A Viking warrior would always take a change of clothes and a comb in the boat with him on a raid. Apparently Irish women thought that the Vikings were very attractive because they were very clean, so who knew?
You’ve had to compress some stories to make your own. What’s been most challenging about that?
As a dramatist you take the raw material. Life doesn’t have form. Life is just life. Art, in any medium, is about imposing form and structure. You take all the information you have, you take all the stories and storylines and you make structures out of them. You can compress or you can follow some storylines more than others. So long as you’re responsible and you know what you’re doing and you’re not completely making it up and you’re not being gratuitous. The thing that I’m most conscious of is that the show’s violence—of course the Vikings are violent—is not gratuitous. If you notice how we deal with violence, we don’t show slow motion. We don’t do it for effect and we don’t do the sex for effect.
It’s certainly not treading the same ground as Spartacus. The blood eagle scene, where a man is tortured by cracking open his rib cage and pulling his lungs out like wings, was implied more than it was shown. Was there a more graphic cut of that scene?
There is. There are two versions of the show, one for the History Channel in North America and the other for the world. Vikings is now being shown in 125 countries. The world edition is more graphic, so we’re allowed to push the boundaries a little more. It’s not so much that I care about that. That particular scene is unlike any scene you’ll see on TV. Obviously it involved extreme physical suffering but it was served in the context of extreme spiritual suffering, so it had a very positive point to it as well. The Viking who suffered that knew that if he suffered that he’d go to heaven.
There was an article in an American newspaper that said Vikings is the only network show that takes religious beliefs seriously, and I think that that’s true. It’s not gratuitous. I didn’t write that to shock anyone. It actually happened. That’s what the Vikings did, but they did it for a reason. I’m not just glorifying violence or sex. I’m not trying to do that at all. I think it was extraordinary drama. We shot that sequence over one whole night. The sense of being in a significant moment was very intense and all the actors knew it and all the crew knew it. It was fantastic. We weren’t showing off and being gratuitous, we weren't trying to shock people unnecessarily. It just happens to be a shocking event.
Who amongst your actors do you see being the most successful Vikings?
We had problems casting lead characters because we were being offered very attractive, young, often British actors. I said, “They couldn’t lift an ax, let alone use it.” We ended up with an Australian lead [Travis Fimmel] and a Canadian lead [Katheryn Winnick] and three of my ladies are black belts. They’re wonderful. My faith in them has been rewarded a thousand times because they’re believable and they’re not Viking clichés. They’re interesting people in their own right. They’re believable farmers and wives and husbands and fathers and mothers and warriors, which is what the Vikings were. I’m very pleased to say, the head of Scandinavian studies at Harvard, who’s a Swedish professor, said this is the first time his culture had ever been taken seriously and intelligently. I was really touched by that. I think that Travis, Katheryn, and Gustaf, all those guys are fantastic.
The character who struggles, Athelstan, it’s because he’s caught between the cultures. We don’t see much of that on TV. It’s a noble idea and Athelstan has a problem about becoming a Viking. We get involved in that struggle. He’s a very important character for our audience because we like taking our audience into a Viking world with its very different attitudes and ideas. The Vikings laugh at suffering. It’s odd but it’s true. And then Floki is sort of Pagan fundamentalist. It’s interesting that they recognize that one religion or the other must win in the end, and it happened. The Viking age lasted three hundred years and by the end of that they were all converted to Christianity.
What excites you most about season three, when the Vikings will attack Paris?
There are some woodcuts, some pictures of the attack on Paris and it’s unbelievable. Paris is just an island, where Notre Dame is now, but it was Roman. It was the city the Romans had left. It was almost unconquerable and the Vikings sent about 120 boats and hundreds of warriors and it’s so exciting. That’s at the level of spectacle, and at the same time, of course, for me, some of the most important things are the personal relationships and the family relationships. It continues to be the story of Ragnar and his family. Those two things must always co-exist, the big visceral scenes and the small intimate scenes. That’s what the show really hangs on.
For you, has the fulfillment of doing a television series over years, where you get to develop characters and create a whole culture, become more exciting than working on movies?
Yes, in many ways it has. There’s another element to that, which I’m always happy to share with people. As a writer on movies you’re not wanted. Even on Elizabeth, when I was best friends with the director, I wasn’t really wanted on the set because the director is God. In TV series, the showrunner is God; you���re treated with respect. This was such a wonderful strange experience for me and it’s hard to get enough of that. I’m certainly not a traditional American showrunner. I don’t insist on running the show. I love to delegate, but nevertheless, as a writer, to be treated with respect is a very unusual experience for me and I do rather like it.
The thing is, now TV is better [outlet for] creative people than movies. That’s why a lot of big directors and writers and actors want to be in TV, because movies are now run by accountants and executives and they’re all tentpole movies from comic books. And who wants to be in a comic book movie? As a human being, what can you say? You can’t develop your character. Your character is one-dimensional. It’s all CGI. What’s the pleasure? What’s the creative pleasure? It doesn’t exist anymore.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)