ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames had the opportunity to speak with The Northman production designer Craig Lathrop about his work on the Robert Eggers film, which is out now on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD.
Lathrop previously worked with Eggers on The Witch and The Lighthouse, as well as the films The Empty Man, The Devil All the Time, and Shimmer Lake.
Jeff Ames: You’ve worked with Robert Eggers before on The Witch and The Lighthouse. What was your reaction when he approached you to make a Vikings movie?
Craig Lathrop: I wish I could tell you it was shock, but at this point there’s not much Robert could do that would shock me. What was the first thing that went through my head? I guess just the scope of it. The film was exciting; and I wasn’t a Vikings scholar by any chance when we started this. So, I was excited to start doing the research to learn about what was coming up. He talked to me about the film pretty early on, so I did have a jump start on it.
What were some of the initial images that popped into your head when you first read the script?
Well, that’s going back a ways. Probably the opening shot where you’re flying with the ravens over the village. That was probably the first image I had. The truth is, I needed to do a lot of research first.
With that, I began on the internet like so many people. I picked up every book I could find and watched Neil Price, who had a lecture series from Cornell, just to get a feeling of the time period and the people. There’s a lot of stuff on the archeology that’s available. That’s where you start, you start at your museums. That’s where I started digging in.
Was there a key visual that you discovered that helped you unlock the look of the film?
I wish I had a perfect example for you. There were a number of different items I found through the research. There was so many different places we had to go to. For the final location in the film, maybe Stöng, Iceland was the biggest reference. I wish I had my notes in front of me!
There was one image I found in Orkney that was a piece that happened much later. I wanted the interior of the main longhouse to have a stone floor. I loved the idea of stone floor because I liked how it sounded in my mind when the horse came in. Most of the references had wooden floors. Then, I found a relatively new dig site in Orkney that had a stone floor, so I based that longhouse on that particular floor.
Normally, you let the research direct you where you’re going, but in this case, I was hoping I could find something like this. I was actively searching when I found this dig site of a longhouse that’s actually underneath a church that was put up sometime — I think — in the thirteenth century.
Were there certain aspects of Vikings culture that you were surprised to learn about?
It’s such a rich, rich world that they lived in. I kept getting blown over by the carvings that I found. I went to Copenhagen to see those museums to see some of the stuff in person and it was just absolutely amazing. I really wanted to capture that. Most of the rich carvings are in the first potion because that’s one of the wealthier crafts that you see of the three different areas we were in — out of the Land of Rus and Iceland, that was the richest. There was more carving there than anywhere else, and I wanted to make sure I caught that.
How difficult is a project like this, because I imagine there is a struggle between delivering what the audience expects to see versus what transpired?
Rob likes to be authentic and I certainly agree with him. When you get it right and find something truly authentic, it’s actually more transportive. It brings you back to that time and that place. So, I don’t think it was too much of a problem. When I started working with my team, they quickly came on board, but they tended to do things that were more in the fantasy world, which is how most people have depicted Vikings in the past. I thought reality was so much richer and interesting. I’m glad that’s where we went.
How much are you involved with the special FX, background plates, and all that?
I had a great working relationship with BlueBolt, the group that did the special effects. First off, most of the actual buildings we built. There wasn’t a lot of set extensions. There was a little bit for Hrafnsey in the beginning. We only built the main street where the characters came down and there was extensions on either side. But we gave BlueBolt drawings for what buildings we wanted them to build and in this one there was lots of conversations and I did a lot of concept art for their visual effects group for some of the stuff – and a lot of stuff you wouldn’t even realize where VFX were involved.
We tried to do most of it for real. We did run into Covid. We couldn’t do as much as we wanted to do in Iceland, which meant we had to lean a little on VFX just so we could have the actors walk across this incredible landscape in Iceland. Some of it we actually shot because we did some additional photography after the first cut, but a lot of the stuff we had done earlier was composite work with visual effects.
What was the most difficult aspect of the production to nail?
There were so many places that were difficult in a weird way. We built on some very difficult locations to get into and build, like, for example, Hrafnsey. There were a lot of challenges. I’m not sure if I could rank them. Was it during the longhouse interiors where we had to have the walls moved out of the way so we could do those long shots through it? Was it all the grass building we made for Iceland? They each had their challenges.
What I can tell you is that it was terribly fun. It was a lot of fun to do. Truly, the most difficult thing was Covid. We were just about to go to camera, and we were shut down because of Covid. And we didn’t know if we were going to come back. But we did. We kept working when we were down, mainly from home. That was probably the most difficult challenge – how we were going to get back. Now, everyone has worked on a number of films since Covid, but back then we weren’t sure how to handle it.
Do you plan on teaming up with Robert in the future?
Yeah, we are working on an upcoming film that I can’t talk about because it hasn’t been announced. But we are working on a couple of scripts and one we are actively working on. We’re in pre-prep, we haven’t started prepping it, but hopefully everything comes together soon.