A scene from Michael Hirst's favorite "Vikings" episode "The Sacrifice"
HitFix: You mentioned before the importance of the Viking belief system and religion. This obviously isn't a show that contains supernatural elements, but it's a show about people who believe in these supernatural things and it seems like the show's MO is to honor those beliefs. Could you talk about the approach that you take to that aspect of the story?
Yeah, you're completely right. I've never watched "Game of Thrones," but I'm not interested in fantasy, because for me fantasy is ultimately meaningless, so I want to root it in reality, but I wanted to tell this story from the Viking point of view and I knew that from the Viking point of view, psychologically, they saw their Gods in the landscape. They saw their Gods walking around in their company. So I wanted to give a sense of that in the show, but I didn't want it to tilt into something for people to think, "Oh, this is a fantasy and I can kind of reject it" or whatever. As far as we know, this is what the Vikings
actually saw. They saw Odin walking on the battlefield and they saw the Valkyries and the Gods were real to them. Very occasionally there are some things in which you see strange things and then, of course, the Gods were also known as shape-shifters, so they changed into different animals and birds and things. Quiet often you'll see a raven and, of course, it's not a raven. It's a God. This sounds awful, but I'm trying to educate the audience into accepting that from the Viking point of view, these natural things could have symbolic meaning and when they looked to the landscape, it was different from how we look at the landscape.
I'll tell you a little story that happened while they were building the pagan temple. So Episode 8 is when they go to Uppsala, the pagan temple. It's called "The Sacrifice" and the sacrifice nine of everything. While they were building that temple, I wasn't there, but the designer went up just to see how the building was going and there were a lot of people making a lot of noise and the structure was going up and there were carpenters and everything. And suddenly, this huge stag walked out of the forest and walked up to the set and it was one of those huge beasts with 14 points on its antlers. Everyone stopped working and everyone stopped to stare at this stag and the stag walked through the temple and it walked to the steps and when it got to the other end, it ran off back into the forest. The designer said, "The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It was amazing." I said, "Do you REALLY think that was just a stag?" For the Vikings, that would have had huge symbolic significance. So what I'm trying to say is the kind of natural thing, you know, that they just looked at nature in a different way. It's just a different way of looking at the world.
HitFix: When you did the first season, were you surprised by any limitations you did or didn't face working with History Channel, rather than with Showtime or Starz with their looser set of content restrictions?
Michael Hirst: Yes. Absolutely. I remember in an early meeting with History when they bought the show where they were telling us what you couldn't show in terms of sex and violent. It went on and on and on, what you couldn't show. When they stopped, I looked and them and said, "Do you realize you've just bought something called 'The Vikings'?" But then Johan Renck and I, we talked about this and we agreed, actually, that certainly the sex thing wasn't a problem, because we both felt... And I know, I'm guilt as anyone else... I know that there's a lot of sex in "The Tudors" and it comes as gratuitous. But I just felt and feel that a lot of the cable shows have pushed the gratuitous elements of sex and violence so far that you have to pull it back. And, as I say, I've never watched "Game of Thrones," but I have heard that most scenes start with two semi-naked women in a room and then two guys come in and scene starts. I just thought, "Well, we won't do that. We don't need to do that. We'll just concentrate on the story." So there isn't a huge amount of sex in the show. Hopefully there's a lot of passion, but there's not a lot of sex, at least of the gratuitous kind. And the violence, we tried to be as limited as we could be and we tried to make the battles and the fights different and I think we pushed the envelop quite a bit, but I think it's all for the story. I think it's very honest. It's authentic. It's a very honest piece. Perhaps I shouldn't say that, but I do feel that and all of us who were involved in making it felt that it was very honest. When we saw the Viking boats, when put them on the river and saw them coming up-river on a misty morning, we were like, "This is how people in the West first saw the Vikings. We're actually reproducing that experience." So it was very dear to us that we be authentic and real.
HitFix: As a last question: We're approaching Emmy season and whatnot. Is there a moment or an episode that you can look at and go, "This is the embodiment of what we were trying to do with this show"?
Michael Hirst: It's a whole episode and it's Episode 8, it is "The Sacrifice," because I had to fight so hard with the network and with everyone else for that episode. There was no fighting in it, there are no battles. It's just religion -- It's pagans, it's paganism, it's trying to get deeper into pagan psychology and it was very important to me. It was very important because it was like, "I'm not just doing this for entertainment," you know? We had a director at that stage, a Canadian director, and he'd been an altar boy in Canada, Catholic, and he understand completely the ritualistic side and we worked out that Catholicism has borrowed so much from paganism, so we made the rituals very, very real and rather Catholic and it's such a powerful, powerful episode. I think that it's probably the best thing I've ever written.