This week, The GCE had the pleasure of taking part in Take 5’s presentation of the season 4 fall premier of History’s Vikings. Without giving anything away: yes, yes, yes. We’re finally delving into the heart of the legend, where it starts to become clear that Ragnar’s legacy does not end at his conquests. After the show, an in-depth Q&A followed with producers Sheila Hockin and John Weber where they discussed everything from the beloved characters and their family relationship to the filming and production and how it takes shape.
Host: Where is Ragnar at this point in the season? Can you give us a bit of a window into where he is now at the beginning of the season? What does he want to do, where is his heart?
Hockin: That’s a really big question. And one that I think Travis would answer differently than any one of the rest of us because he has a very deep inner monologue about Ragnar and what’s motivating him. But he’s been away for about 8 years in some sort of hermitage and everybody assumed that he was dead. He has come back motivated by lots of revenge for what happened in England, retribution, remorse over some of his own actions, regrets about his relationships with his loved ones, so I think all of this is rolling around in his head at this point and he feels he has things to resolve at this stage in his life.
Host: One of the things that I’m so fascinated by in this episode is we get to know Ragnar’s sons really well. We saw them briefly in the season finale in the spring but here it’s really Michael introducing them to the audience for the first time. How are these 4 sons by Aslaug, and then Björn, different from one another? What do they have in common with Ragnar?
Hockin: I think you’ll figure it out on your own as you watch things unfold but I think we already know in what ways Björn is like his dad. One of the strongest things he shares with his dad is his wanderlust. From the time we met him when he was young he was always a very determined young boy and he grew into a questioning but fairly determined young man so definitely he carries his father with him, from those early days when they first walked to Kattegat together and he asked him “What’s a man, what does a man do?”. So he was, of all the boys, the most influenced by Ragnar because he spent the most time with him. We all feel that Ubbe has his father’s complexity of thought and complexity of perspective on the world, and his humanity and his sense of compassion. Which you will also notice as things unfold. Ivar is Ragnar’s raw drive and ambition, and his sort of [singular] focus. He goes after something and he cannot be deterred from that. Hvitserk and Sigurd are probably less particularly like their dad [even] with Ivar being the youngest. Hvitserk is just pure boy he has that aspect of his dad, his playfulness and his lightheartedness. We always joke about when we get a new scene in editing: “What’s Hvitserk eating?”. Because you’ll notice he’s always eating something. Everyone else is always thinking or talking and Hvitserk’s like, “What’s on the table to eat?”. He’s an uncomplicated boy. And Sigard is I think the least like Ragnar; he’s always been a very serious little boy and worried about things, worried about his parents, he’s the most sensitive and the least like Ragnar, I would say.
Host: It’s fascinating that they’ve taken different things from different aspects of their father’s personality and for those of you who’ve already explored the sagas: Ivar the Boneless he has an incredible journey. Not only is he a figure of the saga but a historical figure. History Canada has commissioned a series of documentaries produced by Take 5 called Real Vikings and one is going to debut this Saturday night called Ragnar and his Sons. It’s an incredible look into the actual historical accounts of Björn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless. Because this is history, of course, what was Ivar’s place in the sagas?
(Note: skip greyed section if you wish to skip the brief historical account of Björn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless.)
Hockin: Ivar ultimately became more famous that his father. As did Björn Ironside. Björn travelled much farther that his father ever managed to travel. He made it to the Mediterranean and onwards from there. And Ivar became a massive, conquering hero in the British Isles and eventually brought, what is called by historians, the great Heathen army onto English soil. It was an army of about, estimated between 3000-4000 Vikings which was unheard of, an army of that size. Because everything was small, [with] feudal kingdoms, you only had an army of a couple hundred people. So he became an extremely famous conquering warrior even though he had mobility issues.
Host: And of course was known for being terrifying.
Host: Lagertha seems to be planning something. At this stage in her life, what are her ambitions? What’s a priority for her?
Hockin: I think that’s she’s been ruling Hedeby for about 8 years now and I think from the very first time we met her in episode 1 of season 1, she’s not a woman who messes around. If somebody comes at her she’ll deal with it, she’s always been a very strong, clear-headed person and I thinks she’s probably enjoyed ruling in Hedeby; it suits he skills, she can help her people and I think her ambitions stretch beyond Hedeby at this point.
Host: Lagertha’s always growing, she’s always reinventing herself. [But] do you think that she still loves Ragnar?
Hockin: She’ll love him until the day she dies. He’s her one true love. And she is his but of course—in the course of events and trying to figure out what the gods wanted him to do and what were his responsibilities—he made a mistake and he lost his family as a result but he still loves Lagertha and she loves him.
Host, on behalf of audience member: The show draws on both legend and historical fact so how do you both meld the two and navigate the two in the storytelling? Where do you draw the line between the two?
Hockin: The sagas, of course, were stories told from person to person because the Vikings at this time didn’t read and write so most of their stories were passed verbally. And then the history that’s written about them at this time was mostly written by English monks who would record the invasions and attacks on small towns and so on. So when you’re looking at it, Michael has drawn from both of those records, both the British records who tended to portray them as being absolutely terrifying and horrible and violent people—they were probably no more violent than the British, than the Saxons at the time—and also the sagas, in the big, epic sweeping stories of heroic deeds and all of that. That said, all of the characters exist in the sagas as you probably know: Ragnar Lothbrok, Rollo (a Rollo married a French princess and was given Normandy and France, and “Normandy” came from “Northman” so “the land of the Northman”), Björn Ironside existed, Ivar the Boneless existed, they all existed. And Michael has to create a world in which they all [co]exist, in which you connect with them on a personal level and want to follow. We have an extremely wonderful historical advisor Justin Pollard, who is deeply nerdy about history and he keeps us on a fairly straight path.
Host: You’ll be fascinated by the Real Vikings specials that are coming up because one of the things that Michael Hirst gets to do, since he likes to interact with history, is actually go to a site of England that may house the actual skeleton of Ivar the Boneless.
Host, on behalf of The GCE: During the creative process, how much time would you say goes into researching all of the visual elements of the show? Things like the historical parts: the costumes, props you might see around the set… How was the visual look of the show cultivated and how does it continue to evolve and change?
Hockin: There was a long prep period and of course, on any historical drama, you’re usually having to create everything from absolute scratch because none of this exists anymore. So there was a very long prep period, the productions design and props, and makeup, hair and wardrobe all had an extensive period of development. They worked out how their swords and their shields were made and so on, costumes were worked from drawings, but it’s obviously our interpretation of what it would have looked like; we can’t be entirely sure.
Host: I remember in the first season too, we got a lookbook because part of the challenge is that Michael’s created this wonderful world on the page but then it actually has to take a shape. And you sent over some ideas for the hairstyles that Johan Renck had put together—a whole lookbook heavily inspired by punk and punk aesthetic—and it’s interesting because the Vikings were actually quite attuned to their hairstyles and they were buried with combs; that was one of their great prized possessions. They did put a lot of care into their hair and how it looked and the styles but there was an interpretation there as to what were they going to do with it and it was a fascinating influence because it was a way to bridge their outlook on the world with some modern inspirations.
Host, on behalf of audience member: Since the program started, there’s been a lot of discoveries regarding historical Viking [artifacts] that have surfaced. The costumes have evolved to be more elaborate this seasons go, was that a [conscious change with respect to the new historical findings]?
Hockin: I think the answer is no, I think what you’re seeing is an incremental increase in complexity of materials and looks and so on as we go from poor farming people to traders. They have found Viking artifacts in the Middle East, they have found Arabic artifacts in digs in Scandinavia so people were really starting to trade. As Michael always wanted to show: as Ragnar took his people out into the world and into Europe during what the English call the Viking Age (which is late 700s to 1100s) their lives got more complex and richer and more affluent. Different influences came into their world and they had a little bit more time, a little bit less struggle so they could make more beautiful things, they could do prettier things with their hair.
Weber: Even the colours, you could see in the sails, they’re more vibrant.
Hockin: So it’s very astute of you to notice that but that has been planned as an incremental change in the look of their world as they became a more affluent trading nation.
Host, on behalf of audience member: The tattoo artwork on people that are cast in this show, is there any historical basis for the tattoo work or was that left up to the creativity of the production department?
Hockin: There’s a little bit of a competition going on in the cast sometimes, how many tats can they load on them. The tattoos themselves, our chief makeup artist has mostly drawn from historical designs of the time. So most of them aren’t just made up they’re actually drawn from ancient drawings and so on and they get put on every day. It’s a process. In Ragnar’s case, for example, [Travis Fimmel] wanted to become more and more tattooed as time went by. So the individual actors have a certain amount of control over theirs. You’ll see in late season 4/early season 5 which we’re working on now, that Gustaf [Skarsgård], who plays Floki, he has a lot more tattoos under his clothes than you might have expected. I think they were a tattooed people, culturally, and in some of the episodes—there’s one I think in this season that’s about to air—where they’re in camp somewhere and you just see somebody working away on a tattoo on somebody else. I think it was sort of a hobby.
Host, on behalf of audience member: It seems like you have Paris, you have England and then you have the Mediterranean. Are all of these locations in production at the same time? What kind of challenges would that bring?
Weber: Yes, but they’re all staggered because different episodes will carry different parts of that story so pretty much all of the filming—and I’m trying to get my timeline right cause I don’t want to give anything away here—most of the shooting has all been done in Ireland, all of the city of France and the France invasion was all shot in Ireland, but not at the same time as England… But up until what we’ve seen now it’s all been shot in Ireland and Canada.
Hockin: That said we are—in the season we’re shooting at the moment—physically going to shoot in 2 very different locations representing how the Vikings did begin to really spread across Europe and North Africa, how they were on the move.
Host: I think this season really starts to introduce the height of the Viking Age where they really start to stretch to many remarkable corners of the earth, well beyond Scandinavia, England and France.
Host: There are a lot of Canadians over there both in front of the camera and behind the camera and it is incredible when you can draw on two talent pools, two countries. We even managed to do a little bit of shooting here in Canada earlier this season up in Sault Ste. Marie. Do you want to talk about what was captured up there?
Weber: We went up and shot Bjorn’s journey when he left and went out into the wilderness and we brought in two massive Klondike bears from Alberta. One was named Whopper and one was named Ursula. Big Mac was the father of Whopper. So there are these massive Klondike bears and we went up to Sault Ste. Marie and we brought all the Irish friends to their first hockey game watching the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and we just had a blast. But it was just a great experience everyone involved and added more Canadian elements into the series and I think it added a look to the show that you wouldn’t necessarily get over in Ireland.
Hockin: The Irish crew couldn’t believe how cold it was. That’s the first real snow we’ve had in the series so it was wonderful.
Host: We do winter well. This is an Ireland-Canada co-production which creates a fascinating kind of partnership. How does a show like this work creatively? How difficult is it to build a series across an ocean?
Weber: This is a massive series so it is a big undertaking, particularly in the first season, putting all the pieces together when you have a massive ocean between you. But they’re partners we’ve worked with in the past on the Tudors, Camelot, Borgias and other series and there’s an incredible amount of trust, I think, creatively; the trust that Michael Hirst would have in Sheila and her team of editors and the creative people here in Canada, reciprocally, the trust that Sheila would have to have on Michael Hirst and Morgan and the producing team in Ireland. I think it’s the only way series like this work. It’s a huge collaboration of talent and the series this season was about $130 million so you’re trusting people to make smart decisions both financially, creatively and to get the most value on the screen. The production value that you get from a show like Vikings I don’t think can compete with any other show that we’ve been part of or any other studios that we’ve seen. It’s all on the screen and it’s because we have developed a great way of working with partners in Ireland, the partnership we have with History here in Canada, History in the US and MGM, the international distributor, all of those pieces have to play together with a great level of trust and I think what you get is ultimately what you see on the screen.
You can catch the Vikings season 4 premier on Wednesday November 30th at 9pm E/P on History. Real Vikings airs on Saturday, November 26th at 9pm E/P with subsequent episodes starting Wednesday, December 7th at 10pm E/P, right after Vikings.