Bringing an epic saga to the screen always requires equal parts hard work and faith, but when those two things come together, magic happens. Many times, the magic happens when you least expect it, when you’re so caught up in other things that you nearly miss it.
This Sunday, just such an epic begins when "Vikings," a new scripted series debuts on the History Channel. The series portrays the world of the Dark Age raiders, traders and explorers, not from an outsider's view, but through the eyes of those within the Viking society.
The series, which stars Travis Fimmel ("The Beast"), Gabriel Byrne ("In Treatment", "The Usual Suspects"), Jessalyn Gilsig ("Glee", "Heroes") and Katheryn Winnick ("Bones"), was created and written by Hirst, whose previous work includes the Academy Award winning film "Elizabeth" and the critically acclaimed television drama, "The Tudors." Hirst also serves as Executive Producer on the series.
Following the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok (Fimmel), a curious, rebellious young man who is always looking to discover new civilizations, "Vikings" is filled with conflict, warfare and bloodshed, but it is also a family saga as Ragnar's wife and young son play a large role in his journey to conquer new worlds.
Hirst, whose previous work includes the Academy Award winning film "Elizabeth" and the critically acclaimed television drama, "The Tudors," clearly brings a level of knowledge to historical projects that is well regarded. But, all the accolades in the world sometimes don't make things move quickly or smoothly.
When asked about the production challenges that arose during the creation of the series, Hirst responded, “We really wanted it to look filmic, but because of the scale of this project, we knew that that wasn’t going to be the easiest thing to do, but It was imagined on a cinematic scale and I really think that fits in with the subject matter.”
Persistent and new approaches helped achieve that goal. “I learned a great phrase, ‘Hose it down’,” revealed Hirst. He went on to explain the meaning of the phrase, saying, “On most television shows, each scene is absolutely covered form every conceivable angle; the main shot, the close-ups, the reactions, and so on. We agree that we’d treat each scene on its own individual merit. We may use just one camera for an intimate scene and or we might use five cameras for a battle scene.”
Delving more into the technical side of the production, Hirst went on to say, “The other amazing thing with this project is that normally on a series you work under a sort of 70/30 rule, meaning, 70 percent of the time you shoot in-studio and 30 percent of the time you’re outside, on location. When you’re outside, obviously you’re at the mercy of the weather and other factors. We ended up shooting 50/50.” Explaining why this was such a big factor in the production, Hirst says, “When you think of what that meant in terms of organization and doing full scenes a day, it’s almost inconceivable. We were only able to do it because we talked so much with the whole crew about how we were going to shoot everything and what we were trying to do, the look that we were determined to create. Because of the incredible organization of our crew, we were able to fully realize the very specific look we were after.”
Hirst continues, “The look was so incredibly important. Seriously, you can’t have the Vikings in a sun-drenched area. It really just wouldn’t ring true.”
The magnitude of creating this authentic world provided the cast and crew with some extremely remarkable and memorable moments.
“We built the Viking ships for this production so we knew exactly what they looked like and everything, but one morning, when we were rushing about in production, here come those ships down the river; everybody stopped and looked. It was very early and there was a mist coming off the water as these three boats came toward us; these amazing carved boats with the shield down the sides. To see them and hear the crash of the oars, it was absolutely awesome.”
Hirst goes on to say how symbolic that moment seemed, “This is how most people in Western Europe would have seen the Vikings for the first time; in just this manner. This is exactly what it would have been like. It was a great feeling.”
Another eerie event occurred when the crew was preparing for a major turning point in the series.
“About every nine years the Vikings would gather and they would sacrifice nine of everything, including nine humans,” explains Hirst. “I always wanted to feature that somehow, so we found this amazing, mysterious glade, and we started to build the pagan temple there. Very early one morning, our production designer was there, checking on the work and there were carpenters and there was a lot of sawing and hammering and banging things, and suddenly out of the trees came this huge stag with its 14 point antlers. Everyone completely stopped what they were doing as this huge beast walked slowly across the set, moving right through the temple. When it got to the far side, it raced off into the trees. I remember saying to everyone, ‘You don’t really think that was just a stag, do you?”
Discussing the writing process, Hirst offered this, “I’d written five or six episodes when we started shooting. It’s always a work in progress because once a director comes in and you’re casting, it’s very serious. Suddenly, you hear things like, ‘We can’t afford those two big scenes in this episode.’ So you have to make choices. Or, maybe you cast someone and you want to use them more. There’s exploring and developing throughout the whole process. The script is rewritten all the time, right through editing to the final cut.”
Seeing the finished product, the writer is extremely happy with the outcome. Revealing a bit about his initial expectations and the actual final results, Hirst says, "I learned that as a young writer, many times what you see on screen is a pale imitation of what's been playing in your head. But in this case, it looks better; it's more fabulous and richer than it was in my mind. I’d really like the audience to make note of episode 8 which I think is best thing ever made out of my writing.”
This is quite a strong statement from someone with Hirst’s professional background. But all of the accolades have certainly not gone to his head, as evidenced by this statement about this project: “This was a deeply humbling experience for me, “confesses Hirst. “You spend five months, six days a week, 12 hours a day working with people to make something that you hope is amazing. After we’d finished, I thanked everyone that I could find because it was an extraordinary collective experience and I think we truly accomplished what we set out to do.”
Marrying elements of history with mystery and magic, “Vikings” is, at its core, a show that Hirst wants viewers to know "is based on research, but it's a drama so there is shaping things. You make choices about how to tell the story. I'd like people to watch it not thinking, 'oh this exactly how it happened', but rather in a way that if it piques your interest about the subject matter, you'll go and read the books. That's what they're there for." He goes on to say, "This is the dark ages, not very much is actually known about the Vikings so I just want people to watch it generously, knowing that we did our best to tell the story in a truthful, compelling manner. "
"Vikings" airs Sundays at 10e/p on the History Channel.
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