Claudio Fäh, director of the film Northmen – A Viking Saga spoke with us about his new movie. We discussed filming on location in South Africa, what it took for the actors to develop their characters and some of the production ideas that led to making the film into a gritty and entertaining action-filled adventure. Here is the official synopsis:
Northmen – A Viking Saga tells the story of a group of Vikings in the ninth century who sets sail for Britain, aiming to plunder the rich monasteries in the northern part of the island. But a storm smashes the ship to pieces on the rocks off the coast of Scotland, the only part of Britain without any Viking settlements. Soon thereafter, the daughter of the Scottish King falls into their hands and the Vikings see this as an opportunity to demand a large ransom. The King immediately sets his ‘wolfpack’ — a group of mercenaries well known for their savagery — on the Vikings. The “Northmen” with their hostage now have to force their way through the rough highlands, where they meet the brave and mysterious Christian monk Conall (Ryan Kwanten). Having the wolfpack close on their heels, a desperate race against time begins. A battle over life and death…
Hello Claudio Fäh. This is Andrew Hawkins from CHUD.com, how are you sir?
CF: Hey Andrew. Great, how are you?
AH: I’m doing good. I wanted to see if I could talk to you for a few minutes today about your new film Northmen – A Viking Saga.
CF: Absolutely. I’d be delighted to do so.
AH: First I’d like to get started by by asking you, how did this film come about? What got you interested in this project and what led to you becoming the director for this?
CF: It was really the main producer Ralph Deitrich of Ascot Elite whose been a friend of mine for a number of years now. He had this desire to do the Viking movie, and him being a distributor in Switzerland and Germany sort of knew that this is a genre that is maybe one of the last few genres that can be put together and financed on the content of it all. And he asked me if I wanted to direct a Viking movie and that’s really all it took for me to say yes (laughs) because it was a complete boyhood dream come true.
AH: Did you grow up on Viking films? Were there any influences that helped you form ideas for Northmen?
CF: There’s definitely a lot of influence in movies that I’ve seen when I was growing up. I always had a knack for action-adventure even as a child with filming my toys at home. But really, I realized throughout the making of it all that I think one of the major influences was Spaghetti Westerns that I loved growing up. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that my cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore really comes from a family of Italian filmmakers and he sort of carries that in his blood. And together we decided, “Let’s try to do a David Lean meets Spaghetti Westerns on a budget!”(laughs) And that was sort of our approach, and I love that.
AH: Yeah, it comes across as kind of being an Odyssey picture and I can definitely see the correlation with films like The Magnificent Seven where you’re with this group that is completely out of their element, and then things start happening one after the other. This film looked like a huge undertaking. You mention that it was a co-Swiss production and there’s credit that you did some shooting in South Africa. How was it doing such a big international film?
CF: Well that was one of the biggest challenges I suppose. We decided early on that we didn’t want to shoot this movie against green-screen and rely on visual effects to create the epic feel of man versus nature, which is really sort of what this movie is about. And we decided to travel to these far off locations and shoot this away from civilization, and we found what I consider absolutely spectacular locations in South Africa. It was one of the toughest shoots I have ever undertaken, getting out there with a pretty sizable crew and sometimes 25 horses.
Coordinating them to do battle, and all of that on a budget that is no where near what maybe our idols would have had,(laughs) that was very tough. And we had inclement weather, not the kind of weather you normally associate with South Africa. It was quite the opposite; very cold, very harsh winds, lots of rain. But I think it benefited the movie. It really made it feel like you were there because we were there. (laughs)
AH: Especially in parts where your guys are going through the muck and the grime and the brutal nature that they’re dealing with. I even saw in the credits that you had some scenes filmed in Ireland. I’m assuming those were the shots on the coastline near that big final moment where they have to flee or fight. Was Ireland similar at all to South Africa?
CF: Yeah. That really came on the heels of not finding the kind of cliffs that would lead into the ocean in South Africa. So what I ended up doing was a scene where I had to resort to visual effects. We shot everything below their feet in Ireland and everything above their feet with the actors was shot in South Africa. It was a combination of both countries which I think it turned out very seamless and we felt like we needed these precipitous vertical cliffs to jump off of and those didn’t exist per se in South Africa.
AH: It seems like making the decision to not do film green-screen was the way to go because the movie has a very organic, very real feel to it. You mention these huge action scenes, how did you make sure that your cast and crew were fit and able to film through the weather and fatigue that resulted from your bigger scenes?
CF: Well the first thing that you said I want to pick up on, going out there and making it real and tangible and boots on the ground, that again also goes back to wanting to make it look like a Spaghetti Western where people are dirty and worn. But also to get people to work under these conditions, that’s where the South African spirit and the crew that I had really helped. I mean they are really hard to kill down there, and they go with you. They do these kind of crazy things and I think in other countries people are a bit more soft.(laughs) But not in South Africa. You can really motivate people easily to go out there. And they love their country, they love being out there.
AH: Very cool. It seems like everybody really had to have a thick skin to make this film happen, and it’s a very intense picture. Going back to wanting to do a film about Vikings, did you have any interest in Norse mythology and Viking lore? Did that factor into pre-production at all?
CF: I did develop a great interest in the Norse mythology throughout the making of it and in preparing for the movie. It dawned on me that it’s something that strikes a chord within me, and I believe that one of the elements of the story where this sort of cliche of the Viking being a plunderer and a rapist and all that is quickly disposed of in the movie. The story is really about a bunch of outcasts and loners who really belong nowhere, having to overthrow their prejudices against each other.
We have a bunch of Vikings whose designated enemy really are the Christians, and they run into a Christian monk and there’s a great deal of disrespect and suspicion, and they have to overcome that. And in the midst of it all, there’s a Celtic princess who starts out as their hostage, but then we see these disparate groups of different ideologies and religious beliefs coming together and only when they stand shoulder to shoulder do they have a chance to survive. And at the end of the day they sort of sit in the same boat even, and that’s a nice sort of undercurrent in the story.
AH: Yeah, it seems like there was a lot more focus on the characters as not sort of stereotypes where you’re expecting to see Vikings plundering and pillaging and all of that. I think it really comes across with that great cast that you were able to get together. How was it working with all those guys from Leo Gregory to Tom Hopper to Ed Skrein and Ryan Kwanten, it seems like they really delivered on screen. Were they great to work with behind the scenes?
CF: I think I was really blessed with cast of guys. They not only hit it off behind the camera, they had great chemistry going and we really had a ball despite all the toughness of the shoot. The production challenges and all; it was not a picnic. But they definitely pulled together and became a great group of friends, and that friendship amongst many of them still goes on and I’m very happy about that. But really what I have to give all of them a huge amount of credit for, is that they’ve been able to take a script that understandably in this kind of a movie, you have very limited screen time for each character to devote to their humanity and three-dimensionality, if you will.
And to a huge degree, it was them working on their own characters, working on their attitudes towards each other; the brotherhood, the loyalty and everything that goes on between them and really fleshing that out. All of them had huge amount of backstory figured out in their heads that just helped them show up with an attitude, with something that tells us more than just what we see. They did a fantastic job in filling out these characters in a movie that really is sort of going from one battle to the next with a short chase in between. So it was a tough job on them, it was a really tough job, but at the end of the day they were highly motivated and I think all of them were a complete pleasure to work with I must say. I’d love to go with them again and do a sequel or prequel or whatever. (laughs)
AH: Yeah. Seeing another adventure continuing on with what happens after the end of the film would be something I know I would be all about, and I think a lot of our readers who see Northmen will definitely want some more of that too. One thing that I did want to ask you, which a lot of folks think about with Vikings is Valhalla and celebration and the feast after the battle. When you guys wrapped the picture did you do anything like that? Did you pass around jugs of mead and have a good time?
CF: Well, we did. It was right after the last day of principal photography, straight on location in a huge wine estate. We ended with a big party and most of them got way too drunk. I think I couldn’t drink that much because on the day after that, we still had to do all these aerial shots with stunt people and horses, and so I had to get up early again one last time. So I was like the one odd man out in the party where everybody was drunk and I was like, “Whoa man, it’s not even funny!”(laughs) So I was that guy, but I think they had a great time.
AH: That’s very cool. Do you have anything coming up that we can look forward to?
CF: I think it’s best to follow Northmen. With regards to my new project, there is a movie that is about to seemingly go into production in a couple weeks, but I’m not gonna say what it is ’cause I don’t wanna jinx it. But I have a movie that is called Shoedog by the great George Pelecanos who wrote The Wire and it’s based on his own novel and it’s a phenomenal script. And I look forward to hopefully getting that together for next year.
AH: Well we’ll be looking out for it. Claudio Fäh it’s been great talking to you about Northmen – A Viking Saga. I’ve had an excellent time speaking with you. Thank you for your time and we really appreciate it.
CF: The pleasure was all mine. To Valhalla!
AH: To Vallhalla!
Northmen – A Viking Saga is now playing in theaters and is available on VOD.