THE NORTHMAN PRODUCTION DESIGNER CRAIG LATHROP

We chat with The Northman’s Production Designer Craig Lathrop. 

Craig has worked with Director Robert Eggers on his three landmark feature films: The Witch, The Lighthouse, and now The Northman, Eggers’ most ambitious film yet. 

“It was the biggest thing I’ve ever done, honestly. I think it’s the biggest thing that any of us have ever done in our careers.” 

Production Designer Craig Lathrop

This is your third film with Robert Eggers, after The Witch and The Lighthouse, and the scale and ambition of The Northman are bigger in scope than his previous two films. How has your working relationship evolved over the last eight or so years?

Along with myself, the four people that have been working with Robert Eggers this whole time are Costume Designer Linda Muir, Director of Photography Jarin Blaschke, and Picture Editor Louise Ford. The four of us have gone from The Witch to The Lighthouse to this. 

Rob likes to do a lot of research, I like to research as well. It’s tied to how we met. Our “origin story” is that I got the script for The Witch and I loved it. I probably geeked out more than I should have. I did a ton of research and for our initial meeting, I had brought at least 100 historical reference images with me. The meeting was going well, and then Robert opened up his bag of research, and it was almost the exact same images. That’s when I knew things were going to be great.

Since then he’s grown as a filmmaker, I’ve grown as a filmmaker, things have gotten larger, and things have gotten a little bit more ambitious. Strangely, they always have felt very ambitious. The Witch was a tiny film budgetarily, so it was ambitious for what we were trying to squeeze out. It was the same thing with The Lighthouse. We had a bit more money, but it was still a very challenging film to do, especially with that budget level. Then with The Northman, it was still challenging because we had lots more money, but we had lots more to do. So it was this sort of the same thing, just writ large. It was the biggest thing I’ve ever done, honestly. I think it’s the biggest thing that any of us have ever done in our careers. 

While most of The Northman’s exceptional production design was all practical, there is more CG and VFX in this film than in Eggers’ previous two features. What was it like to play with VFX for some of the film’s most visually striking scenes, like the visions of Valhalla and the Tree of Life, with Amleth’s ancestors literally tied to the branches?

We used a little bit more visual effects than Robert and I would have liked, but that was because of COVID. After the shutdown when we came back to set, it was decided that the first unit would not be going to Iceland. We had planned to do big sections of the film in Iceland – the transitional scenes, travelling on horseback across the country, and Fjolnir’s farm was always going to be shot in Ireland, but we shot in Northern Ireland instead. There were a lot of visuals that we wanted to get of Iceland, but we couldn’t do that. It ended up becoming a lot of heavy lifting for the Visual Effects Department, they composited groups of actors walking across fields and shot the plates in Iceland, and then we put them together. We didn’t end up going to Iceland at all until we did some additional photography at the end. So it’s a mix of some composited shots, and some shots actually shot in Iceland. I think the Visual Effects team did a great job with that. As far as those two specific scenes (Valhalla and Tree of Life), it was great.

It’s funny – when ‘the Tree’ was written on the page, everybody kept on going “I don’t know what the scene is,” but what I had in my head was pretty much exactly what was shot. That’s not to say we didn’t go round and round. We had many meetings on that, and we did sketches and concept art and pre-viz. And then we hung some people up in front of a green screen!

Yeah, you know, just a normal day. 

There were several archaeologists and consultants on the film, and dozens upon dozens of historical sources to ensure everything was as authentic as possible for a film that takes place in the 10th century. The Northman heavily features Viking myth and religion – how much of that is available to us through historical records, and how much of it is reading between the lines and using a little creative license?

A lot of everything is the latter, but there is a lot that is known. Neil Price (an archaeologist and professor at the University of Uppsala and the author of Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings) is my favourite of the group of people that joined us as consultants. It was great to run things by them and get notes. Neil Price had the most influence on me because I saw his lecture series from Cornell, which is online, when I was doing my early research. I sent those videos to Rob Eggers right when I saw them. I bought all of his books. So by the time I met Neil, I had this full-on man crush, and I was like, “I hope you like what I’ve done!” He’s an amazing man. 

One of the things that you’ll discover when you start to study the material world of the Vikings is that a lot of it is lost, especially when you get to the architecture. There’s a ton that you can learn, and there are people that spend their whole lives researching this. But most of what’s there, in present-day, are scars on the ground and post holes. There is not a single longhouse that’s still around. There’s nobody alive that’s seen one, but there are some experimental archaeologists who have built a few. For me, I was working on the backs of all of these people, and trying to figure out what this world have looked like. When it comes to the rituals, as far as the material world, nobody knows for sure. I built these nine-foot-tall wooden idols, but I couldn’t find anything other than writing that indicates that there probably was something like that in the Viking world. You can see all of their beautiful carvings, but most of that stuff is all from gravesites. It’s all small pieces, and a little pewter that we think are idols. So we had to make it up – but to make it up, we did a ton of research because I wanted to make sure that it all seemed right. We didn’t want it to feel like a fantasy, because even though there are a lot of fantasy elements in this film,  we wanted the world to be very grounded, and as real as possible. There’s still a bit of speculation among experts, and the funny thing is if you get 10 Viking experts in a room and start asking questions, you’ll get 10 different answers. 

“Most of what’s there, in present-day, are scars on the ground and post holes. There is not a single  longhouse that’s still around. There’s nobody alive that’s seen one.”

Production Designer Craig Lathrop

Part of the historical accuracy of The Northman is how lived-in and natural the Production Design looks – and in at least one case, this was due to an unexpected COVID silver lining. 

Oh, yes. My sets grew!

So we were supposed to go to camera, and the week before, we ended up shutting down because of COVID. The sets were there, and they were looking pretty good, but they hadn’t settled in as much as I would have liked. I built all those turf buildings for Fjolnir’s farm, and I’d pushed weeds and grass into the sides, and there was sod there. It had grown in a tiny bit, but it really needed to sit there for a while, which we didn’t have the luxury of doing until COVID. As a matter of fact, when we got back from the COVID break, I had to trim them – they were actually getting too long! 

What materials did you use and how did you get them to look just right – aged and worn, but contemporary to the setting? 

It depends on what you want to do. On The Witch, for instance, I wanted those buildings to not look too aged. It was mostly split timber and we had to age it a bit, to take the newness off, but not really weather-worn because they haven’t been there long. For The Lighthouse, we had to fake it, because the US Lighthouse Service has very specific things that they do every day to maintain the lighthouses. A polished lighthouse didn’t fit the emotional beats in the film, so we took liberties with that and made it really old and worn and falling apart. That’s mainly Scenic work. I did a lot of salvage on The Northman, which was even heavier for Scenic work. I was in Northern Ireland, so we hired a lot of people from Game of Thrones for the construction, and Tom Martin, who’s an amazing Construction Coordinator. If we really used those wide, thick boards of wood from the period, it would have cost a fortune. We would have had to chop down a couple of forests, and there aren’t a lot of forests in Ireland, so most of that is actually moulded plaster. The plastering team was just brilliant, they’re miracle workers. I just kept pushing them and pushing the Scenics to try and make sure it looks old and lived in. I’d say probably 80 to 90% wasn’t even wood. 

For the swords and weapons, most were actually made out of metal. If there was a scene where special effects were involved, then that team would create those based on the stunts and so on, but mainly they were made out of metal, although they weren’t sharp. Nobody sliced anybody’s arms off but it would have hurt like hell if you would hit somebody. The Stunt Coordinator, C.C. Smiff, was amazing and on top of all of that. We had most of the pommels 3D printed and then cast with mainly fake jewels, but some of the gems were actually real garnets to stand in for rubies. 

The longboats in this film are fantastic – do they really work? 

They did, but that was funny because they weren’t quite as big as I wanted them to be. They couldn’t be as wide. We had a Marine Coordinator, who had built a bunch of boats for films so they could get certified. Because we’re putting them in the ocean and on a lake, they had to be certified for safety reasons. I went to this guy in the Czech Republic, just outside of Prague. He’s building these ships in a landlocked country, so I had to put them on wide-load trailers, drive them across Europe, and then put them on a ship to get them over to Ireland. Those really wide-load trailers that you see out on the road – that’s how wide you can be. So that was a limiting factor. We tried to shrink them but still get them as close to real as possible. And we got really close. 

“In general, we are designing all the visual elements of the action. We’re there to create, but some people think that we’re just decorating, or confuse it with interior design or architecture. What we’re doing is similar, it’s very relatable to those two, but we’re doing it in the service of a story and characters. We’re designing for characters and we’re designing for the emotional beats for the film.”

Production Designer Craig Lathrop

Lighting Round Questions:

Do you have a favourite place that you’ve ever visited for production?

I’ve visited a lot that I loved. I loved working in Nova Scotia for The Lighthouse. And of course, here in Ontario. I just started on a production in Prague and quite like it there as well, and I love working in the UK.

16mm versus 35mm – which do you prefer?

Can I say 60mm instead?

Do you own any design-based pieces or objects? Did you get to keep anything from this film?

I have a few bits and bobs. We did a lot of sculptural work, so I have some of that, just a couple of metals. Depends on what I could fit in my suitcase! 

Any recent films or TV shows that have inspired you?

I haven’t watched anything for a little while, so nothing recently. I have my whole huge list of Wong Kar-wai films. We watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev over and over when we were making The Northman. So there are lots of older ones, but there’s brilliant stuff being designed right now, especially in TV. The quality has gone up so tremendously recently.

What do you think people, maybe even people in the industry, don’t understand about the work of a Production Designer? 

In general, we are designing all the visual elements of the action. We’re there to create, but some people think that we’re just decorating, or confuse it with interior design or architecture. What we’re doing is similar, it’s very relatable to those two, but we’re doing it in the service of a story and characters. We’re designing for characters and we’re designing for the emotional beats for the film. 

What most people don’t get is things like Set Decoration. There are great Prop Houses, but we have to build most of the Props. People don’t realize you can’t just go to Ikea or to Home Depot and pick up 10th-century items. They’re just not available, unfortunately. Sometimes I’ll surprise people when they ask me, “Where did you find that?” I’m like, “I didn’t find it, we got a blacksmith and we made it!”

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