From show creator Michael Hirst, the History series Vikings follows the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), an actual historical figure and the greatest hero of his age, who leads his band of Viking brothers and his family on his rise as King of the Viking tribes. As well as being a fearless warrior, Ragnar embodies the Norse traditions of devotion to the gods, both on the battlefield and off.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, executive producer Michael Hirst, who has also written every episode of the series, talked about what compelled him to tackle Vikings, how he found his story’s hero, how challenging it can be to write every episode and have multiple scripts in various stages of production, why the “Blood Eagle” episode stands out in television history, whether he’d ever considered another outcome for that character, where things will go from there, how far along he is in the writing of Season 3, and that they will be branching out to Paris next season. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
MICHAEL HIRST: That’s a big question. After I’d written Elizabeth, I wrote a screenplay about an English king called Alfred the Great, who fought the Vikings. I did some research about the Vikings and I realized that there wasn’t much to research about them. No one knew about the Vikings, but I was interested in their sagas, their myths and their gods. I hoped that, one day, I could talk about it. Ultimately, two years ago, someone said, “Do you want to write about the Vikings?” And I did. To write about the Vikings is not a punishment. It’s a gift. It’s fantastic.
From the moment that you set out to do this show, did you always know who your hero would be, or did that evolve out of the research that you did and figuring out how you wanted to approach the storytelling?
HIRST: I remember reading everything I could read. And then, I have a friend who’s a historian, who is an expert on the Dark Ages, if indeed you can be an expert on the Dark Ages. I think he said, “Look at Ragnar Lothbrok. He’s the first guy who emerges from the myth and legend. He had lots of sons, and he probably was the first person to attack England. Look at him.” So, I found my hero in that way. I thought it was really clever because I had a lead character who had a lot of sons. I thought, “This series could go on forever.”
Have there been any points, along the way, that you thought you were crazy to tackle writing every episode? Did you ever consider sharing that work load?
HIRST: Well, for many years, I wrote movie scripts because no respectable writer would write for TV. And then, things slightly started to change. A young American producer asked me if I could turn The Tudors into an American soap opera, and I said, “I don’t know what you mean. What kind of standard are you talking about here? Do you want me to dumb it down?” I said, “Could you send me lots of examples of good, recent American TV shows?” And he sent me lots of different episodes, but they were all episodes of The West Wing. I thought, “Okay, I’m supposed to do something entertaining that can also be intellectual.” So, I wrote The Tudors. I didn’t know that I could write series TV, but I found that it was very enjoyable. I loved being able to design the characters.
So, I wrote The Tudors and it wasn’t that stressful. It had a great production in Ireland. And then, we went on to Vikings. I must be a control freak and don’t give away anything, but I just felt that I could do it. It’s my thoughts and my ideas, and I have very strong thoughts about Ragnar and Lagertha, and all of these characters. I just love these characters and I love being with them, so why would I give that away? I didn’t want to give that away. It is hard. I confess, it does get hard. Last season, there was a moment when I was writing, we had a director shooting his two episodes and he wanted rewrites, and we had a director that was prepping the next two episodes and she wanted rewrites, and I hadn’t written the last two episodes. So, I was writing six episodes simultaneously, and that was hard. But in the back of my mind, I always knew what I wanted to say.
There was a lot of talk about Episode 7 being everyone’s favorite episode. Why do you think the “Blood Eagle” episode stands out, in this particular season?
HIRST: It’s a very important episode to me. It’s a very significant episode, and I think that everyone who watched it will never forget it. It gets you deeper into the Vikings experience, and it’s a profound experience that you were witness to, with suffering and spirituality. Those are the two things that are very basic to this show. There is suffering and fighting, and all of that, but it’s always attached to something greater, with spirituality, religion and belief. It was very important to me that it’s not for shock value. It was not gratuitous. I don’t write anything, and I don’t want anything to be shown, that’s gratuitous. What I write is what actually happened. The Vikings were like that for particular reasons, such as their faith.
I think it’s very sincere. It’s shocking, but it’s not shocking just to be shocking. It’s shocking because it was actually shocking. We shot it in ways where you think you see things, but you don’t see things. I would also say that we had a female director for Episodes 7 and 8, and she was amazing. We shot that last scene over a whole night. We were there all night, and it was an amazing place to be. There were hundreds of candles, and the actor Thorbjørn [Harr] is a very famous Norwegian actor who is unbelievably great. We played most of it off of his face, and he was unbelievable. I think it’s a wonderful moment in television history, where we connected with something that is powerful and horrific, but it’s also deeply spiritual. We didn’t do it for affect. We did it to make something real, that happened at the time. And I’m really, really proud of it.
You had dialogue in the episode that alluded to other possibilities for Jarl Borg, including escape. Did you always know that you were going to kill him, or did you think about letting him live and having something else play out?
HIRST: No, I was always going to kill him, and the actor knew that that was going to happen. We had some really interesting discussions about it and he said, “I found Vikings who were guilty of terrible things, but they were exiled and they want wandering around the world.” I said, “I would love to do that, but then I’d have to show you in Paris, in a café. So, I have to do this to you, but this makes you eternal. I can’t tell you how many times this scene will be shown, in the future of TV.” He did such an amazing job. When we witnessed it, we were aware of how extraordinary the moment was. It proved to me how much greater TV is than film.
What can you say about how the events in Episode 7 will affect the remaining episodes, this season?
HIRST: What some people have picked up on is that Floki is falling out of love with Ragnar, and Ragnar is on a limb now. Maybe his rule is being questioned. The rest of the season is very much about whether Ragnar can survive, and what his future projections are. I can tell you that Episode 10 is astonishing.
Once you get to know the actors that you’re writing for, and you even have your own family on the show, does it change or affect your writing process, at all, when you’re writing for the characters?
HIRST: I always try not to let it, but it does. I’ve begun to write more knowingly about Travis [Fimmel] and Katheryn Winnick, and that’s inevitable. You work out their strengths and what they can do, but I like to challenge them, too. It’s a dialogue that you go through. The more famous they become and the more successful they become, the more empowered they are. I was very powerful in Season 1, but as the showrunner, I’ve become less powerful, later on. I’ve probably got to become a little more evasive and mysterious. I don’t know how to deal with these empowered women and men. It’s a dialogue, and a negotiation.
Should viewers be worried about any more cast members not making it to the end of this season?
HIRST: All I would say is that Season 2 is hugely better than Season 1, and it just builds and builds and builds. You cannot believe what’s going to happen. King Ecbert is such a great new character. Many, many different things will happen, and Episode 10 is just fucking wonderful. After Episode 7, it just builds and builds. We had great directors this season, and we have a great cast.
How far along are you, into the writing of Season 3?
HIRST: I’m on Episode 5.
After opening the scope of the show so much more in Season 2 and making the series feel that much more epic, what can you say about what you want to explore with Season 3? Will it be even bigger?
HIRST: Yeah, we’re gonna attack Paris. Paris was the most extraordinary city. It was still a Roman city, and it was like nothing else on earth. We’re just building that, at the moment, on the backlot. It will also be CGI. Ragnar attacked Paris with one hundred ships. We just get bigger and better, I think.
Vikings airs on Thursday nights on History.