The Viking code of honor called for fidelity above all else, a belief in unequivocal loyalty to those closest to them. It would appear that The Witch and The Lighthouse filmmaker Robert Eggers adopted a similar ideal even before he set out to make The Northman, having already worked with the same cinematographer, editor, production and costume designer on each of his films. That fidelity also meant that costume designer Linda Muir knew what to expect out of an Eggers production, albeit never before on this scale.
"He does an incredible amount of his own research in the writing process with Sjón" — the Icelandic novelist who co-wrote the script with Eggers — "and he loves it. He's passionate about the research," Muir tells A.frame. Upon receiving her copy of the screenplay, she was also given extensive backstories for each character and a primer on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth.
The Northman tells the story of Amleth, who witnesses the murder of his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), at the hands of his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and vows revenge. He flees the kingdom and joins the Vikings, only to return years later (played by Alexander Skarsgård) to get his revenge. The original legend dates back to the 13th century and is set in the year 914, and Eggers aimed to be as historically accurate as possible.
"And then I start off with my own research that is purely costume oriented," Muir explains. She delved into her own research on Scandinavian Vikings and Rus Vikings, as well as the Slav people of that time. "That was particularly challenging, because much of the information is written in Polish or Ukrainian or Lithuanian," she says. "So, I really had to have a lot of translations done and keep at it and keep at it until I understood what I was dealing with."
"The what is the beginning, and then, where are we going to find this stuff?" she explains. The Five Ws, as it were, became the battle cry for the costume department as they set off. "Everyone was on the same page in terms of why we were doing what we were doing, why we were doing so much hand-sewing, why we were doing so much embroidery — and how we were doing what we were doing."
The Northman opens with Amleth as the young prince and future king of Hrafnsey, and Muir costumes him as such: His clothing is colorful and features precious metals detailed by hand -- both indications of high status in that period. When we rejoin him as an adult, the change of time and place has been fastidiously considered, even if it goes unnoticed to most.
"We now see buttons," Muir points out of the costume Skarsgård wears as a berserker. "This is something that perhaps two people in the audience might notice. But there are no buttons in Hrafnsey — they weren't used at that period at that place — so now we move to the land of the Rus, which is where they were used. So, his linen shirt features a whole row of hand-cast buttons."
From a character perspective, Amleth's costuming proved an interesting challenge once he departs his Viking brethren. Through the remainder of the movie, he is not wearing his own clothing, but that which he adopts through circumstance on his path for vengeance: The disguise of a dead Slav, the meager trappings given to him as a slave, the stolen clothes of a fellow Viking.
"With each film, the trust deepens, the friendship deepens, the ability to say completely what you think [deepens]."
Each outfit is rooted in Muir's research, but, at the end of the day, the costume designer had to weigh form and function in her execution. "Comfort was a huge thing for Alexander," she says, "because he's in every single scene. He's on set basically every day, in very inclement weather. The physicality is amazing, and he was such a trooper."
Which means that contrary to an erroneous quote circulating online, Skarsgård did not, in fact, wear one pair of boots throughout the entirety of filming. The Northman may be historically accurate, but it is a Hollywood production, after all.
"He wore the same style of boots throughout the film. He had many, many, many, many, many, many pairs of boots," Muir clarifies. "They were in varying levels of distress. We actually made boots that looked like they had wraps of leather to make it look like the character was trying to keep them going. But it would be insane to ask someone to do that long of a shoot in a single pair of boots, and I'm not insane."
Historical fact is only the starting point for legend, so The Northman expands to allow for ancient Warrior Kings resurrected in battle and witchy women who foretell the futures of men. Still, Muir remained steadfast in immersing the audience in authenticity, even as she herself was confronted with the supernatural.
Take Anya Taylor-Joy's cunning Olga of the Birch Forest and Björk's Seeress, the latter of whom offers Amleth a vision of fire and brimstone that begins his journey. Though their abilities extend into the otherworldly, their roots are in Slavic culture.
"Women embroidered the clothing for themselves and their families with motifs at the neck and the sleeves and the hem to ward off evil spirits, yes -- but more than that -- it was a call to the Slavic gods," Muir says. "There is an interesting fact that I learned, which is apparently the word for 'embroidery' at the time was the same as the word for 'writing.' These women were writing a future, praying for a future, encouraging a future. So, the Seeress is like the uber-writer."
"Her costume had embroidery in spades" — all of which was hand-embroidered, photographed and screened onto the costume — "and her skirt is many, many Slav belts sewn together, with a beautiful barley headdress, and the shells and bells which were for fertility, and the bells to ward off people's spirits. Björk's costume is an intense magnification of all of those cultural aspects."
In a way, the Seeress then becomes the author of Amleth's legend. And through Muir's costume work, she becomes a writer on The Northman. That level of authorship is one of the reasons she remains as loyal to Eggers as he remains to her. "With each film, the trust deepens, the friendship deepens, the ability to say completely what you think [deepens]," she considers. "And it's lovely for us in the costume department to have those threads carry through."
—Reporting by Tony Maccio