Creator of the History channels hit historical drama Vikings, Michael Hirst recently took part in an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. He answered some interesting questions about past seasons and whats to come.
We’ve picked out the best questions and answers for you, but do read the full AMA on Reddit here
How much of the writing is based on actual historical stories rather than being pure fiction? How do you make the historical parts fit in with the story you’re telling?
The story I’m telling comes out of my historical research. I don’t have a fictional story that I just add historical details to. Everything I do starts in research, and reading. And during the research / reading, storylines and characters start to emerge. And although I can take these characters for a walk, I never leave their historical reality behind. It’s like putting down an anchor from a ship – you could sail the ship away from an anchor to an adventure, but you are still anchored to the reality, or what you know of the reality. So for me, that’s the dichotomy between fiction and history. It’s something I am very proud of, that VIKINGS is as real as we can make it – I don’t like fantasy myself, because fantasy can be very, very entertaining, but it’s ultimately meaningless because it doesn’t hold a mirror up to us the way that history does. Whereas a show like VIKINGS can get people interested in Viking culture, and if they are interested in Viking culture, they can go read history books, check out the facts, see what is real or perhaps what I might have pushed too far. But it’s a real show about real people and real events, and it’s also done in a real way, and that is something else that I am proud of. We do use CGI – of course we do, for that sense of scale – but we don’t use very much of it, and our cast (women and men, Vikings and Shield-Maidens) – they really fight. The show is choreographed wonderfully, but they really fight, they ride horses, they row boats. We shoot it in a very real way. And i think that marks it out from other shows, and even something like the movie THOR where all the action is CGI. I am very, very pleased and happy that we do it for real.
So of course you’re not watching history, you are watching a show – this is the twenty-first century, and we’re in a studio, and our actors are dressed-up – but having said that, everything you see on the show is researched. The buildings, the costumes, the furniture – everything has been researched, and talked about, and is as real and authentic as we can make it.
How does the research process work for your show? Obviously you are passionate about the subject matter…but is there a team that goes about fact-checking, finding legends, and seeing what really happen to find what would make great TV?
Yes. I work with two people, one of whom I’ve worked with for many years, and that’s a historian called Justin Pollard. Justin is an expert in the Dark Ages, and will check through everything that I write to make sure that it’s plausible and real. We’re not making a documentary – so you can’t ask for everything to be accurate. After all, this is the “Dark Ages” and there is very much we don’t know. But I have to say this: I had a radio interview, with the head of Scandinavian Studies at Harvard University, who is a Swedish professor. And we showed him the first 3 episodes of the first season, before they were broadcast, and I thought he was going to eat me alive… but what he said was “this is the first time my culture has ever been taken seriously, and treated intelligently.” I believe that a Canadian network has done some small documentary films to accompany the show this season, and they went to Scandinavia to ask academics and interested people how authentic they thought the show was. And they said “We had academics begging and pleading to be part of this programme. They love it in Scandinavia!” and that is fantastic, as far as I’m concerned.
The other person that I – I don’t work with him, but he surprised me with story-lines from Norse Sagas – is an Icelandic novelist, Ólafur Gunnarsson, and I am very grateful to thank him for the authentic insights on the mythic side of Scandinavian and Viking life.
I want to ask about Ragnar’s eyes. What was the reasoning behind making them almost glow bright blue? Is it to show Ragnar’s affinity with the gods, or to punctuate certain events?
Well, there’s a certain amount of discussion about this, actually, on the production. Some people swear that that’s their actual colour, haha! He certainly has very striking eyes. Slightly hooded at times, and then really flashing. I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether they are enhanced or not. But i’m not told everything. So if there’s some secret that ward-drobe and makeup have, that they don’t divulge to me… I guess it’s just… an advantage to have eyes like that, whether you’re a woman or a man!
What was your favorite scene to write in Vikings?
Ehm… oh I have lots of favorite scenes. I think one of the most powerful was the blood-eagling in Season 2. I knew, when I wrote this, that it was a controversial scene and would be difficult to shoot, and it was challenging to shoot because it’s very extreme, but I wanted to write it and wanted to shoot it because it takes us deeper into the heart of the Viking experience and the Viking beliefs and Viking society. So that was an important scene. I loved writing the episode called “The Sacrifice” in season 1, that had many wonderful, I think, revelations… it took us deeper into the heart of the Viking Paganism. But at the same time, I love writing the family stuff.
I really enjoy the idea that the show is also about love, and the women, the parents, the children, and in that respect, one of the greatest scenes – for me – was Ragnar on the beach, at the beginning of season 2, the first episode of season 2, talking to his dead daughter. I wrote this – it was very emotional for me to write it, because i have several daughters, many daughters, and I was thinking of them when I wrote it. But Travis, who has no children, made it even more emotional when he delivered it – and he himself said it was his favourite scene so far as a Viking. And it was beautiful.
And the reason it was beautiful was because it was not just historical, it was a human scene – it could happen at any time, to any one. And that’s really what I am trying to do, with all my writing, really – is to connect the past to the present, so that we are looking back at a different culture which happened hundreds of years ago, but seeing them as human like us, they had feelings like us.
And scenes like Ragnar lamenting the death of his daughter make that connection for me very strongly.
Remember to check out the official AMA on Reddit for more questions and answers with Michael Hirst here
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