Interview with Vikings Creator Michael Hirst

Vikings Cast Photo for Michael Hirst Interview
Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) walks armed along the beach, leading his crew after landing ashore in the west - Photo by Jonathan Hession / HISTORY Copyright 2013

A tease of season two of History Channel’s critically acclaimed series Vikings shows that Floki (played by Gustaf Skarsgard) may not be around for the whole upcoming season. But while series creator Michael Hirst says Floki’s one of his favorite characters to write for, he won’t guarantee us at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con that he’ll continue to write scenes for Floki much longer. Asked about keeping Floki around, Hirst replied, laughing, “Sometimes you have to kill the thing you love.”
Hirst also talked about the reaction of viewers and scholars as well as his writing process in our Vikings interview in San Diego.

Michael Hirst Vikings Interview:

What’s the general overall fan reaction to the first season? Have they been suggesting to you where they want you to go next season? What has it been like?
Michael Hirst: “It’s been surprising to me from my experience because it’s been overwhelmingly positive. It was interesting this evening when I answered a question about the gods, and the people really responded to that. There’s something in the atmosphere at the moment. The Christian-Pagan thing is working so well that that’s getting a big response from people. I don’t know why, particularly.
I don’t know why a few years ago I wrote a movie script about Alfred the Great, who was an English king who fought against the Vikings, and I told people I was working on The Vikings and Alfred the Great, and they were, ‘Okay.’ Last year or the year before when I started working on this, I was telling people I’m working on the Vikings and I get, ‘The Vikings! You’re working on The Vikings! How amazing!’ I realized then it was in the zeitgeist, that things had changed, and I can’t explain that. I can’t explain that.
I think the reality of the show appeals to people. I think it’s a great cast. It’s finding out about something you think you know, but you actually don’t know anything, really. Everyone thinks they know about the Vikings, but most of it is bullsh*t the Christian monks told us. I think it’s been interesting for a lot of people to find out what the Vikings were really like, or find out that all of their prejudices were wrong.”
Did you write all of the episodes of the first season?
Michael Hirst: “Yes.”
That’s a lot of work.
Michael Hirst: “Well, I wrote all The Tudors. I wrote 38 hours of The Tudors. I’ve written the first nine episodes and I’ve now written seven out of the 10 episodes for next season. It’s a lot of work, but I’m very bad at delegating; I like it too much. I love it.”
Do you have a story arc set up over a certain period? Do you know where you want it to end?
Michael Hirst: “Yeah. I spend a lot of time reading, thinking, sketching out things. I’ve kind of learned from experience not to set sail on an open sea without a soundboard. You have to know where you’re going, because you can get very lost. What I tend to do now is quite detailed outlines. Sometimes, the actual writing I can do quite quickly. I can do an episode in ten days or two weeks or something, but that’s because I know exactly where … or more or less exactly. There’s always a little part of it that I leave open, that I don’t know what’s going to happen myself. I want to be surprised by the people or something that pushes me, because that keeps it fresh for me and exciting.”
Will you be able to keep to that story arc if it lasts eight seasons?
Michael Hirst: “Yeah, I can go on. Ragnar had a lot of sons and the sons were quite extraordinary. One of them sailed around the Mediterranean. They attacked Paris. They came here to North America, or at least to Canada. Oh, there’s plenty. The Viking period, that is, the Pagan Viking period lasted about 400 years as we know it from the first attack on Lindisfarne Island. But the Pagan gods are much older than the Christian gods, you may say.”
Is there any character you like writing for more than any other?
Michael Hirst: “I love writing for Floki. That’s a character who’s developed partly from talking to Gustaf [Skarsgard] and watching how he does it. It’s interesting how characters develop. Henry James used to talk about characters as being either fixed constituents or free spirits. By ‘fixed constituents’ he meant characters who do a job for you. You put them in place and they do what you want them to do. Free spirits are characters who are more real and who you’re not quite sure always what they’re going to do. For a writer, that’s much more interesting, obviously. I try and keep as many free spirits going as I can. I’m interested in the continuous dynamics between these characters who are very close. Even with people who know each other, there’s always the unexpected. In fact, the better I feel I know them, the more I can allow them to do things that might be out of character. It’s very important for me because, as you say, it is a lot of work so I have to be interested all the time. I have to be passionate about it.”
How tough is it to balance that ensemble when you have so many interesting characters? How do you make sure you’re spending enough time with each one?
Michael Hirst: “When I do the outlines, I ask myself whether I’ve followed through…I’ve always got these storylines going through…and whether I’ve done justice. To be absolutely honest with you, the character of Siggy was a very, very minor character when we started. Just Earl Haraldson’s wife who had nothing to say in the first two episodes, but we’d cast a great actress and I was going, ‘Goodness, I’ve got this great actress and she doesn’t say anything. She loves this world she’s in.’ I started to develop the character and then she became a really interesting character. It added to the burden because here’s someone else in play, but it also opens the world up a bit more.
When I started writing The Tudors, I didn’t know that I could write series TV. I’d never done it before. I had no idea. Then I found that I could, and that I enjoyed it. Therefore, my experiences writing TV on the whole have been much better than writing movies. It’s partly the fun I have on making these connections and telling these stories. I’ve time to develop storylines in TV in series drama. In a movie, you reveal characters because you don’t have time to do any more, but in TV you can spend time developing them and find out about them. It’s a lovely process. It’s a privilege, really.”
Michael Hirst: [Laughing]”Sometimes, you have to kill the thing you love.”
The seer character is so creepy and supernatural. Will we see more of that?
Michael Hirst: “You say again that it’s supernatural, but it’s not fantasy because in the sagas you read about the seers or prophetesses … sometimes they were women. I read one saga in which Odin goes to see a prophetess, a seer, and I just quote part of it because the seer complains bitterly that he, or she, has had to get out of the ground. In other words, they’re dead, really, but they come out to answer Odin’s questions. Odin asks a question about his son, and it’s very terrible, terrible. So I had this person in mind. It was real for me, not a fantasy and to the Vikings, a very real person in their society. It was, I think, our first director decided what he would look like. He’s hundreds of years old. He’s seen everything. Or he’s not…he’s just a grumpy old man.”
As you mentioned, the history of the Vikings have been distorted and is somewhat vague. As a writer, did that help you in creating the outline knowing this or did it help you be creative because there wasn’t as much source material?
Michael Hirst: “It was quite liberating because, you know, I’d occasionally got into trouble writing Henry VIII. Lots of English historians were saying, ‘Oh, it wasn’t like that,’ as if they were there. [Laughing] Because actually, I was remarkably scrupulous about this. I can defend most of the things I wrote in The Tudors. But, never mind. I was still attacked. But here, it’s wonderful because I just go around saying, ‘Hey, buddy, it’s the Dark Ages.’
I had a radio interview in Boston with the head of Scandinavian studies at Harvard. He’d watched the first two episodes and I thought he was going to chew me up. He said, ‘Listen, this is the first time my culture has ever been taken seriously, so thank you.’ There probably are mistakes and stuff, but, hey, it’s the Dark Ages, and he said that.”

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