How do you do a story where the protagonist can’t voice what he wants to achieve?
A rune-stone in Delaware, a Mario Bava film, a Creepy comic and a 1950s science fiction novel inspired Nicolas Winding Refn to make his English-language Viking film Valhalla Rising, starring Mads Mikkelsen, and shot in a remote, windblown corner of Scotland.
The Danish director – best known for the popular Pusher trilogy, Fear X and, most recently, his critically acclaimed, English-language film Bronson – actually doesn’t care for Viking films and he doesn’t know much about the Viking age. But the challenge of plunging into a genre that’s barely breathing, as he puts it, appealed to him.
So, this unusually uncompromising, style-conscious iconoclast with a soft spot for, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of, popular culture – not least oddball, often vilified B-movies – decided to do a Viking film that doesn’t look like a Viking film.
Valhalla Rising is the story of a nameless, one-eyed, mute ands apparently invincible bare-knuckles fighter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who escapes from his long-time captors and goes on a quest through a dark and mysterious land with a party of Christian Vikings headed for Jerusalem.
It’s an unusual film. Laconic and almost meditative in some places, brutal and gorgeous in others, veering from contemporary handheld camerawork to well-composed classic photography, courtesy of Winding Refn’s regular DP, Morten Søborg, and featuring a both sensual and industrial score by Peter Peter and Peter Kyed. And no, it doesn’t look like other, more traditional Viking films.
Runes, vampire movies and science fiction
The jumping-off point for Valhalla Rising, co-written by Winding Refn and his good friend, the Norwegian writer Roy Jacobsen, is a rune-stone discovered in Delaware, USA. The rune-stone turned out to contain a warning. “I was interested in discovering something in the unknown,” he says. “An almost sci-fi-like journey into uncharted lands where a warning is issued. Like an alien, a sign.”
The director says he got some of his inspiration from the Italian cult director Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), from a Creepy comic and a science fiction novel he read when he was five or six. The Creepy story is about a young married couple lost at sea, sharing a single life preserver and fending off sharks after their sailboat capsizes. One day, the husband wakes up and finds his wife dead, seagulls pecking out her eyes. That story scared young Winding Refn senseless.
As a child, he also read a 1950s science fiction pulp novel with a spaceship on the cover, the story of a father and son who travel to the moon to explore it and discover a coffin in a cave, a human casket. “I don’t remember what happened next,” Winding Refn says. “I don’t remember how the coffin had ended up there, but every time I’ve walked by a used book store since, I’ve hoped to see that cover again, so I could find out that happened. That’s where I get my desire to make a movie about rune-stones: the sign from another world.”
Winding Refn had been working on Valhalla Rising for several years before he finally got the money together for it in 2008 – in part by directing Bronson and two episodes of the Miss Marple TV series in the UK – and he had already written the screenplay.
“We really tried out a lot of different approaches to the story,” he says about his collaboration with co-writer Jacobsen. “The story was pretty conventional, until one day I had this dream that the hero didn’t have a name, couldn’t speak and came from a place no one knew. Only then did the film begin to take its present shape.”
Of course, it’s hard to do a film where the protagonist doesn’t talk, Winding Refn concedes. “After all, you can’t have him say what he wants to achieve, dramaturgically speaking. And I didn’t want to do an arthouse film. I wanted to do a mainstream movie, like Bronson, which is both things at once. How do you do a story where the protagonist can’t voice what he wants to achieve? But of course, that’s an exciting thing in itself, too.”
Everything was pretty much ready to roll when the director came to Scotland, a few weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin, to look over costumes and locations and it became clear to him that he really had no interest in Viking culture and Norse mythology.
“I simply couldn’t relate to Odin and Thor,” he says. “It’s all so backwards to me. I had a hard time getting a handle on how to make it modern.” Winding Refn sent for Jacobsen, who immediately came to the director’s aid. “He came over and found me sitting there in a hotel room staring at the floor. Then he told me, ‘Did you know there were Christian Vikings for two centuries?’ I didn’t, but it piqued me and that was a huge relief. And so, three weeks before we started shooting, we began to restructure the whole universe of the film to make it about Christian Vikings on their way to Jerusalem.”
Spaghetti westerns and Scottish highlands
It also came in handy that, in Bronson, the director had already got to use some of the visual and thematic ideas he had really been saving for Valhalla Rising.
“I’ve learned that I can’t hold on to one thing for too long,” he says, “or it starts working against me. If you’ve been running on the same things over and over again, you eventually lose interest in them. Valhalla Rising let me start over again. I really didn’t know what I would be doing. Taking that tack was good for me – and as always I shot in sequence, which meant that the film’s universe was unfolding in front of me. It’s more fun – to return to the story of the moon and the coffin – to venture into the unknown and discover something rather than reconstruct it.”
The director was equally adamant not to turn Valhalla Rising into a period film, the kind of film that puts you back in history class in school. “I was never interested in doing an authentic film about the Viking age. Historical films quickly get heavy, because they’re all about accuracy. There are exceptional historical films, of course, but they’re tough because you’re subject to so many restrictions in terms of how things were. The fun thing about doing science fiction is you get to take a shot at how things might be.”
For the same reason, Winding Refn didn’t do any research but relied on Jacobsen’s knowledge. Meanwhile, he insisted on shooting in remote locations that were untouched by human hand. Nature would be left intact, nothing would be constructed and the costumes would be as anonymous as possible. “For me, it was more about, Does it look interesting? than, Is it right? My films are pretty simple, and simplicity is a powerful effect. The simpler, the better. Less is more is my philosophy, nothing is everything.”
Valhalla Rising was originally supposed to look like Pusher, with raw handheld visuals, but that turned out to be impossible because of the rough terrain in the Scottish highlands. “Morten couldn’t move around,” Winding Refn says. ”The terrain was so rough that he couldn’t move around without breaking his legs. He couldn’t see where he was putting his feet. So we agreed to do a spaghetti western instead. A film Morten and I both love is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.”
The interview was made for FILM#SPECIAL AUTUMN 2009