I’m Michael Hirst, creator and writer of HISTORY’s scripted series Vikings. I am a historical story-teller; some of my other work is The Tudors and Elizabeth. I’m here to answer your questions before the Season 3 premiere on Feb. 19th. Victoria will be assisting me via phone.
Watch a special sneak peek of season 3 here and if you need to catch up on Season 2, you can do so here.
How much of the writing is based on actual historical stories rather than being pure fiction? How do you make the historical parts fit in with the story you’re telling?
The story I’m telling comes out of my historical research. I don’t have a fictional story that I just add historical details to. Everything I do starts in research, and reading. And during the research / reading, storylines and characters start to emerge. And although I can take these characters for a walk, I never leave their historical reality behind. It’s like putting down an anchor from a ship – you could sail the ship away from an anchor to an adventure, but you are still anchored to the reality, or what you know of the reality. So for me, that’s the dichotomy between fiction and history. It’s something I am very proud of, that VIKINGS is as real as we can make it – I don’t like fantasy myself, because fantasy can be very, very entertaining, but it’s ultimately meaningless because it doesn’t hold a mirror up to us the way that history does. Whereas a show like VIKINGS can get people interested in Viking culture, and if they are interested in Viking culture, they can go read history books, check out the facts, see what is real or perhaps what I might have pushed too far. But it’s a real show about real people and real events, and it’s also done in a real way, and that is something else that I am proud of. We do use CGI – of course we do, for that sense of scale – but we don’t use very much of it, and our cast (women and men, Vikings and Shield-Maidens) – they really fight. The show is choreographed wonderfully, but they really fight, they ride horses, they row boats. We shoot it in a very real way. And i think that marks it out from other shows, and even something like the movie THOR where all the action is CGI. I am very, very pleased and happy that we do it for real.
So of course you’re not watching history, you are watching a show – this is the twenty-first century, and we’re in a studio, and our actors are dressed-up – but having said that, everything you see on the show is researched. The buildings, the costumes, the furniture – everything has been researched, and talked about, and is as real and authentic as we can make it.
I can’t watch your show because the main actor is too good looking and my girlfriend won’t shut up about him. How does that make you feel?
I’m not quite sure…how to respond to that?
I think, it’s true, of course, that part of the appeal to VIKINGS to women is … Ragnar, and there are a number of other good-looking guys. But I don’t know how to help you.
I mean, it is an extraordinary thing that VIKINGS is on History channel, and traditionally, it’s a male-skewed channel, but VIKINGS has developed a big female audience, and I think for 2 reasons: one is the good-looking guys, the other is the strong female characters.
Who knew you’d have to go back to the Dark Ages to get good, strong, female characters?!
It’s a kind of criticism of where contemporary TV is today.
And you’ve just got to grit your teeth and watch it.
And there are some very sexy scenes towards the end of season 3 (with very sexy women) that you should look out for!
How does the research process work for your show? Obviously you are passionate about the subject matter…but is there a team that goes about fact-checking, finding legends, and seeing what really happen to find what would make great TV?
Yes. I work with two people, one of whom I’ve worked with for many years, and that’s a historian called Justin Pollard. Justin is an expert in the Dark Ages, and will check through everything that I write to make sure that it’s plausible and real. We’re not making a documentary – so you can’t ask for everything to be accurate. After all, this is the “Dark Ages” and there is very much we don’t know. But I have to say this: I had a radio interview, with the head of Scandinavian Studies at Harvard University, who is a Swedish professor. And we showed him the first 3 episodes of the first season, before they were broadcast, and I thought he was going to eat me alive… but what he said was “this is the first time my culture has ever been taken seriously, and treated intelligently.” I believe that a Canadian network has done some small documentary films to accompany the show this season, and they went to Scandinavia to ask academics and interested people how authentic they thought the show was. And they said “We had academics begging and pleading to be part of this programme. They love it in Scandinavia!” and that is fantastic, as far as I’m concerned.
The other person that I – I don’t work with him, but he surprised me with story-lines from Norse Sagas – is an Icelandic novelist, Ólafur Gunnarsson, and I am very grateful to thank him for the authentic insights on the mythic side of Scandinavian and Viking life.
What was your favourite scene to write in Vikings?
Ehm… oh I have lots of favourite scenes. I think one of the most powerful was the blood-eagling in Season 2. I knew, when I wrote this, that it was a controversial scene and would be difficult to shoot, and it was challenging to shoot because it’s very extreme, but I wanted to write it and wanted to shoot it because it takes us deeper into the heart of the Viking experience and the Viking beliefs and Viking society. So that was an important scene. I loved writing the episode called “The Sacrifice” in season 1, that had many wonderful, I think, revelations… it took us deeper into the heart of the Viking Paganism. But at the same time, I love writing the family stuff.
I really enjoy the idea that the show is also about love, and the women, the parents, the children, and in that respect, one of the greatest scenes – for me – was Ragnar on the beach, at the beginning of season 2, the first episode of season 2, talking to his dead daughter. I wrote this – it was very emotional for me to write it, because i have several daughters, many daughters, and I was thinking of them when I wrote it. But Travis, who has no children, made it even more emotional when he delivered it – and he himself said it was his favourite scene so far as a Viking. And it was beautiful.
And the reason it was beautiful was because it was not just historical, it was a human scene – it could happen at any time, to any one. And that’s really what I am trying to do, with all my writing, really – is to connect the past to the present, so that we are looking back at a different culture which happened hundreds of years ago, but seeing them as human like us, they had feelings like us.
And scenes like Ragnar lamenting the death of his daughter make that connection for me very strongly.
I want to ask about Ragnar’s eyes. What was the reasoning behind making them almost glow bright blue? Is it to show Ragnar’s affinity with the gods, or to punctuate certain events?
Well, there’s a certain amount of discussion about this, actually, on the production. Some people swear that that’s their actual colour, haha! He certainly has very striking eyes. Slightly hooded at times, and then really flashing. I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether they are enhanced or not. But i’m not told everything. So if there’s some secret that ward-drobe and makeup have, that they don’t divulge to me… I guess it’s just… an advantage to have eyes like that, whether you’re a woman or a man!
How does being the sole writer compare to working with a team?
I’ve never worked with a team, so I don’t know!
I came late to the television game – I wrote movies for years.
And when I was asked to write a television drama about the Tudors, I didn’t know whether I could. So it was a great delight and joy for me to discover that I loved the opportunity to explore and develop characters, and complex storylines, and the projects I’ve done (and especially now VIKINGS) – they are so close to me personally, that i would find it very hard to give it up to…to anyone else.
It is hard work, I admit that.
But I collaborate with so many people in the making of the show, many of whom are hugely talented, some of whom are geniuses, that I feel blessed to be in the position that I am in, and these people of course do a lot of the heavy lifting for me. So I’m not an isolated figure, I’m not carrying the whole burden, it’s a very happy production, and as long as all that continues (and I don’t see why it shouldn’t continue) I am looking forward hugely to beginning the shooting of Season 4, hopefully, this April.
I just love going back into this production.
Do you plan on following the oral histories of Ragnar and his sons as we move thru the next season?
hm – yes I do!
VIKINGS, in a very important way, is a family saga.
It’s about a man, his wife, his children, his extended family, and I think it’s one of the reasons the show is a success – because people are engaged by the family, are engaged and interested in the people, and can identify with the dynamics of family life, and that specific family, from hundreds of years ago.
So Ragnar continues to be the central character, a wonderful character, a very interesting man, a very deep man, and his son Bjorn is grown-up now and will likely represent a challenge to him in the future, and he has other sons of course… And historically, his other son did things just as extraordinary as Ragnar himself. So the story of Ragnar and his sons is very rich in exploration, and dramer, as we move forward through this next season and hopefully seasons beyond.
Do you have any plans to branch out into the tales involving other famous characters?
I have an open mind, about where we’ll take the show. As I say, I am constantly being prompted by my Icelandic friend, who tells me about fascinating sagas and storylines, and of course in the short-to-medium term (if I can put it like that) I focus on Ragnar, but i often feed into the narrative details from other sagas, or stories, because the sagas tell stories about the Gods, which aren’t specific to any historic moment, so I feel that I can put in details from the sagas into my storytelling. But I’ve just got an open mind about it. I don’t totally know where I’m going to take the stories. So it’s an adventure to me too.
When I come into my study every morning – I know these characters so well now. It’s almost as if I come in here to find out what they’ve been up to. And that’s a wonderful feeling.
History tells that Ragnar died a few years after become king. It’s that possible that, one day, Vikings continues without him?
Ehm – I certainly hope so! Because as I said, his sons also became famous, particularly Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless, and indeed, Bjorn became famous because he sailed around the Mediterranean. He went to Spain, he went to Italy, he was chased by pirates in the Mediterranean – who knows? He may have gone to Portugal, we don’t know that. But there was so much material – the Vikings went everywhere and left their imprints and their DNA from the Urals to Canada, and indeed, to Africa – they found Viking DNA in Africa. So this story is, for me, I’ve only just started to tell this story. And it’s a story that waited a long time to be told, because up ’til now, the representations of the Vikings have largely been cliches, and totally wrong. So I’ve said, many times, and I hope it comes through (but you never know) but I would like to continue writing VIKINGS until they discover America.
How do I become a Viking?
Perhaps. I mean, in terms of your DNA, you might get a test and find you have some Viking in you, because many people do!
Why did Ragnar’s iconic braid go away?
We wanted Ragnar to have a slightly different look once he became Earl, even in the second season – the point was, okay, here’s the truth: Travis’ idea of his character is very much that he’s the Che Guevera of the Viking world. That he’s a revolutionary. He’s not interested, per se, in power. He’s certainly not interested in power dressing. There were some suggestions, at one point, that he should wear a bigger fur coat, or more bling – and he just refused. He said “Whether I’m the Earl or the king, I”m going to dress the same way, because I never wanted to play someone who wanted to be king. The only reason I want to be king is so I can do things I really want to do.” And I thought that was wonderful, and agreed with him. And we also felt that he should look a little different – because he had new experiences. I can’t go into the fact that there are images of him bald now, because that’s really an important storyline, it’s an important event that leads to that. You’ll have to tune in to find out.
My next question is will there be a time jump at the beginning of this season like there was last season?
We’re going to pick up where Season 2 ended, because there were various issues that needed to be resolved in real-time.
Is there anyone more badass than Ragnar Lothbrok?
Eh – yeah, in a way, although p’erhaps he doesn’t think so, but King Ecbert in his own way, is almost as badass as Ragnar, but he’s smoother…but of course, there isn’t anyone like Ragnar. Ragnar is a creation, I think, of both me and Travis, and he’s what I always wanted my Viking to be – I was fed-up of loud pretend Vikings with horns on their heads. I wanted a thoughtful, introverted Viking leader. I’ve always thought of the Scandinavians as being rather deeppeople. And so I wanted to see a man to lead my show, and Travis surprised people – his performance surprisedpeople, because it was quiet. Because he reflected a lot. Because he didn’t always join the conversation. And I think that was what I wanted. I wanted people to have to think about the Vikings, about what makes a great leader, what makes a charismatic character, and figurehead, and Travis has become this… obviously, this iconic figure, who – without wanting power, without being interested, really, in power, particularly – has made himself king. And I think that’s so much more interesting than characters who are only motivated by the desire to rule and be king. I think Ragnar’s whole philosophy is more interesting. He’s motivated – not by the need for power, and plunder, and greed, and pillage – he… identifies, he thinks he’s the descendant of the god Odin. And Odin was not only the god of slain warriors, but he was also the god of poetry and knowledge. He sacrificed an eye to look into the Well of Knowledge.
And I suppose that his descendant, Ragnar, would have the same level of curiosity. So Ragnar is motivated by two main things: one, his curiosity that wants to know what other lands are like, wants to know what other cultures are like. But he’s also like every Viking – he is motivated by the desire for fame. Not for celebrity, but fame for pursuing great things, major things. And of course, he did become famous. He is a very famous historical and mythic character. But I think he is a genuinely interesting character. And I don’t think there are many like him on TV.
Are we gonna see Lagertha be more powerful?
Lagertha is an amazing character. And I mean, she has exceeded even MY expectations of her, and what her role could be. One of the things that struck me very much when I was doing my research was how the Viking attitude towards women was much more enlightened than the Saxons, or the French attitudes of the time – that women could divorce their husbands, they could fight in a war with their brothers and sons, they could own property, and they could rule. And I thought this was so cool, and so unknown, that i wanted to have a female character who embodied a lot of these freedoms in Viking society. And I knew that – Lagertha is a historically accurate character, and she was married to Ragnar, and we know she was a “Shield-Maiden,” so she must have fought alongside him. And she’s become – she has a very moral sensibility, too – she’s another very thoughtful, very strong personality – and she’s become a feminist icon around the world. I get emails about her from everywhere. And I don’t think – and someone told me this – there is no one like Lagertha on Network TV in America. And that’s because she is a wife, she’s a mother, and she kicks ass. And there are no other women characters like that on TV. And I am so proud of being part of creating her. Katheryn has, of course, been absolutely elemental in helping to create her. She has issues that other women still have today. She might be able to rise to be an Earl, but she can still be challenged in that position. She had an abusive second husband in season 2… she faces a lot of issues that women still face today, the only difference being that she also carries an ax, haha!
But she is one of my absolutely favourite characters to write about.
So you will have to wait and see how her life continues, because it is full of twists and turns and unexpected events and tragedies and joys… and that will continue!
What sort of education/qualifications does it take to create such a program?
It’s funny that, with many of these questions, it’s clear that people can’t quite believe I write the show myself?
Well, I think there’s such disbelief in the States, that there’s a lot of people churning out material, and it’s a collective thing?
But I have a very academic background. I went to 3 universities, including Oxford. I thought I was going to be an Academic, until I happened to meet a film-maker who read some of my short stories, and wanted me to write a script. So I sort’ve stumbled into my career. And as I said, I have a historical consultant who has many degrees, is extremely bright, and you know, every department at the studio – the costumes, or the production design – all those departments themselves will do a great deal of research, and work on the period, and the details, and it’s fantastically creative and exciting, finding out what people have found out, and what we are doing.
And here’s a very important thing: if you include Latin as a dead language, we have FOUR dead languages in the show. We have people speaking Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Old French (when they raid Paris, which sounds more like German than French, actually) and Latin, and can you tell me ANY other network show that has people speaking four dead languages in it? No! I mean, they don’t speak it much, but you can tell that is what they are speaking. I wanted people to hear what those languages really sounded like. It’s a very important part of the authenticity of the show.
And of course there was INTENSE excitement in the Academic community when they were asked to translate some dialogue into Old Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, because these languages haven’t been spoken or heard for Hundreds of years? So there were academics at Cambridge, who were not only asked how to give us the words, but how to pronounce them. And it’s part of the living texture of the show, that people don’t just dress up like the period, theyspeak like the period. And that is wonderful.
I think it’s utterly fantastic.
What are your thoughts on the Minnesota Vikings? Should they keep Adrian Peterson, or release him?
Ah! I’m not up to speed on the Minnesota Vikings. But I think that what the Minnesota Vikings should drop are the horns on the helmets. That’s not real, you know! It’s a historian invention. What they ought to have is a picture of Ragnar, instead.
How long do you have to write a season? I know you write all the episodes yourself, but do you ever feel overwhelmed in the writing process?
Ehm – yes, I always have a fairly strong idea of where the next episodes will go. Although usually, I’ve only sketched it out, and then I have to go do my research in my books. I have to evaluate what are the best storylines, who were the most interesting characters from the previous season, so that I build on what was successful – a lot of these shows build up momentum, and you have to keep that momentum going. My writing process is that I would start by writing a “Bible”, the outline of more or less all the episodes, and those outlines will be quite detailed – they will be about 10 pages per episode, meting out what the episode is about, who the main characters are, what their storylines are – and then I can share those outlines, that Bible, with other interested parties – with the network, with production, and get feedback.
And actually, with a detailed outline in place, writing the episodes doesn’t necessarily take me very long.
So, you know, I can probably write an episode in a couple of weeks? It just depends on how complex and challenging the episodes are. But I do like to be in a position so that when we start shooting, I’ve written at least half, if not more than half, of the episode that we’re going to shoot, because when we start shooting, there are other issues – there are inevitable production issues about what’s possible and what is not possible, I have meetings with directors, and I want their input – they will want to put their “imprint” on the show too – and then of course the actors. I like collaborating, Ilike talking to directors and actors, but it means the script is evolving and changing all the time, every day – so it’s true, in response to the question, that there are times when it’s very hard work, and difficult.
I remember last season, about halfway through the season, when I was working simultaneously on six episodes with 3 different directors, as well as trying to finish the last 2 episodes… so that was challenging.
But I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way. Perhaps it’s selfish of me, but I feel as long as I can do it, as long as I can maintain the standard, I want to. I want to keep writing it, I love this show so much, I love the characters and I love interacting with the heads of the various departments, with the directors and the cast, they are amazing, a wonderful cast – and they do a fantastic job, as I’ve said before.
Did you like the 13th Warrior?
I haven’t seen it all. I looked at it when I was beginning my research, and I like some of the actors in it. I got a very interesting email a while ago from someone, I think, in Sweden or Norway? Because he said in Sweden & Norway and Scandinavia, they’ve made quite a few Viking programs and dramers, but he said nobody in Scandinavia ever differentiates between the characters. So all the Vikings look the same? So he said I love your show, because I know which one is which. And I thought that was very funny.
My evenings are pretty limited in terms of time. Why should I start watching Vikings?
One, it’s one of the most interesting and real shows on television.
It’s about real people, real events, and about a fundamentally fascinating Viking culture that we know little about, but it’s always been badly portrayed in drama up until now.
So I think people will be surprised, and excited, to go into this unexpected Viking world.
And finally, I guess, I think that the more you understand about history, the more you understand about yourself, and remember that the Viking explorers discovered America hundreds of years before Columbus.
How big of a risk was to put a show together with bad guys as the main characters?
That’s a very good question!
Many people told me that it was impossible to write a show about the Vikings precisely because Vikings have always been seen as the “other.” As “bad guys,” the guys who break down your door in the middle of the night and plunder and raid – so how are you ever going to make them the interesting guys, the guys you were rooting for?
Well, there were 2 answers to that.
One is the reputation of Vikings had nothing to do with them, because they never wrote anything down. They were non-literate. Their actions were mostly written down by their enemies, the Christian Monks, who had every reason to diss – not only their behavior, but their pagan beliefs. It was their paganism that really frightened the Christian Monks. So there is a lot of propaganda about the Vikings, and I became aware, during my research, that there were many more things to say about Vikings and Viking Culture – not in the least their technological abilities to build these extraordinary boats, which could cross open oceans and sail up rivers, their democratic habits as a society (they were much more democratic than the Franks, or the Saxons – people were elevated largely on merit), and they had some very good laws – when they finally occupied large areas of the center of England, that was called the “Dane Law” because they imposed their own laws, some of which continued to this day. So I had another agenda – I wanted to open a dialogue about an unexpected group of people.
And one of the things that was fascinating to me was their pagan beliefs. I am so curious about them – I think they are pretty weird, but very exciting. The Vikings were the last pagans in Europe. And Paganism is a lot older than Christianity. And I really wanted to dramatize, and show audiences today, what that might have meant and what Paganism might have looked like, and how interesting and fascinating their religious beliefs were. So that was one aspect, I thought, that I could create that would be very interesting.
And the other thing is – if you think about it, if you think about most other successful TV shows of the last few years – all the major characters in the shows are complex. And some of them are quite terrible, or gangsters, or drug-providers, or you know, monsters or whatever. Because good doesn’t really make good dramer, you know?
Ragnar is complex. I would say he is neither good nor bad. And he is driven by his curiosity, and finding some good farming land for his people, so he has good motives.
And one of the things that makes these shows works is that the lead character has to have the power of life or deathover the other characters.
It’s true! If you think about a lot of shows, the lead character has to be a powerful character.
As a woman, I want to thank you for portraying excellent strong female characters on a tv show. We just love and worship badass Lagertha and clever Siggy and are starting to like motherly Aslaug. Will we continue to see this strong characters in season 3? Will they change? Will we have more female strong characters?
Well, thank you very much!
Yes, those 3 female characters – Siggy and Aslaug and Lagertha – are essential parts of season 3. And they are all strong women, in their own way. I think things happen to Aslaug that will probably increase interest in her. There’s an unexpected side to her that will be revealed. And there are going to be some NEW strong women coming from an unexpected place, which is Paris, as you know (it’s no secret) the Vikings are attacking Paris, so we are going to spend some time with the Frank side of defenders. And there are a couple of strong female characters who will emerge from that side of the conflict. But i like writing female characters. I did my thesis at Oxford on the stories of Henry James, and Henry James always said that he preferred to write female characters! So I’m glad that people respond to this. I of course wrote ELIZABETH – that was one of my favourite things I ever did – and maybe it’s something I can’t entirely explain, I do have a lot of daughters, that may have something to do with it, but somehow I just find women characters just more complex, more unexpected.