Vikings’ Michael Hirst explains why he writes every episode of History’s new hit drama himself and recalls how a single conversation changed his life forever.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(June 21, 2013)
If, as was famously written in the ‘80s “pop will eat itself,” history on TV also appears to be having quite a feast. This has become the era of Historical Drama on American television and British scribe Michael Hirst is the affable, unassuming man behind the curtain pulling the levers. Having brought to life the lustily massive series The Tudors and Camelot, he has now moved to History for his latest hit, Vikings – the saga of one of Western civilization’s most important and least understood people.
Given the sweeping popularity of this genre, you’d think the former London School of Economics and Oxford grad had some kind of grand plan for his success, but nothing would be further from the truth.
Much like how he writes, Hirst has let life come to him in its unknowable, magical way. In fact, he’s where he is today because of a single evening of martinis in 1979 that changed his life forever. He was in his early 30s with a doctorate in American literature, planning a life as an academic, when director Nicolas Roeg, whose hipster masterpieces include the 1970 Mick Jagger vehicle Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie, changed his life.
“Nick read some of my short stories, which he liked, and he invited me to his apartment in London, and he got me rather drunk,” recalls Hirst. “He was saying things like, ‘What is it you really want in life?’ And I had no idea… We talked and talked, and I felt that my whole life up to this point has been shallow and rather not truthful, that I’d just followed the line of least resistance. I’d never done anything that really meant anything. By the end he said, “Okay, I want to work with you. I know you must be clever because you’ve been to Oxford, but I’m not interested in your cleverness, that’s just information. I just need to know if there's anything you have to say or is there anything interesting about you.’”
At four in the morning, when the two finally parted ways, Hirst says he “knew my life had changed. I gave up academia and wrote something for him… So in fact I’m still the same person I was on that night that left his apartment, but I’m just slightly better at what I do.”
Photo: © 2013 HISTORY
Travis Fimmel in Vikings.
Hirst spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how he’s merged his love for letters and history with his love for writing drama and why, because most of their history was written by anti-pagan Christian monks, the Vikings are so deeply misunderstood.
Can you to narrow down to a single element what is most excitingly different for you about working with this material, the Vikings, versus for example, Henry VIII?
The huge difference is that this is about stories and Henry VIII is about information in the sense that you can read any number of books about Henry VIII and his court, you can read any number of transcripts of things that were actually said, you can retrieve all this endless material – but here, this is the Dark Ages. The Vikings themselves never wrote anything down. They had an oral history, they told stories, they told sagas so this is more than ever like about being a storyteller.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that what history exists was written by fairly anti-pagan, anti-Viking Christian monks. Have you developed some sort of built-in way to re-center the perspective of the Vikings?
Yes. Because I wanted to tell the story from the Viking point of view I obviously had to find ways of making them more than their traditional cliché. Because the Vikings are always “the other,” they’re always the guys who come and knock your door down and rape and pillage.
So, for a start, I had to find interesting, complex things about their culture, and we can find enough of that out. We have the Sagas which tell some of the stories, but there’s other information we have about, for example, how much more democratic they were as a society than the French or the English, how their attitude toward women was much more emancipated, that women could divorce their husbands. They could rule, they could fight, as they did in the Shield Wars, they could own property. They had this amazing technology for building boats and navigating. So part of the whole effort of this thing is to redeem the Vikings from the kind of lazy prejudices that were encouraged by the Christian monks who, after all, had an axe to grind, which is a bad metaphor, but...
Yeah, nice one. I mean the Christian view of the Vikings was in many ways propaganda.
Yes, it was propaganda. That’s not to say, of course, that the Vikings weren’t extraordinary warriors, because they were, but their reputation for shock and awe kind of started in the west when they first attacked the Lindisfarne Monastery and news of the brutality of the attack went around the western world and shocked many people in the western world. It didn’t do them any harm to develop a reputation for shock and awe so that their very presence intimidated the Saxons or the French. And of course they were extraordinarily daring. I mean they attacked Paris and Ragnar took a piece of one of the gates of Paris back to Scandinavia to show that he’d done that. They were formidable warriors, but their culture, their gods, everything else about them was deliberately suppressed by the monks and by the Scandinavian Christians when, of course, after 400 years or so all the Scandinavian countries became Christian, and they pulled down the pagan temples. They made every effort to destroy any evidence of pagan life and beliefs.
And to relegate it to this dark, purely black chapter.
Yes, yes. And we’ve inherited, as you say, a lot of those attitudes. We have a kind of internal horror of paganism. We associate paganism with terrible things. I find the pagan gods fascinating, wonderful and rich. When you study them, you see some interesting parallels and crossovers. Odin, for example, was the father god – the Father of fathers. He was not only the God of Fallen Warriors, he was also the God of Curiosity – he sacrificed an eye to look into the Well of Knowledge. But he also wanted to know what it would be like to die, so he hanged himself from the World Tree, and while he was hanging from the tree [he was] stabbed him in the side with a spear. I don’t know about you but I’d kind of heard that story before.
Do you find a lot of these parallels where the Sagas, the mythology have been grafted into biblical stuff or certainly non-pagan Judeo-Christian…?
Yes, you can… you know, and Thursday is Thor’s Day and Friday is Freya’s Day. You know, it’s there in our days of the week. We still have pagan festivals... So there is this crossover. However, going back to the first point I made, if you read the Sagas they are really weird stories. I mean their gods are up to many strange, crazy things, and their relationship to the gods is very different from the Christian relationship to God and Christ. It’s a much more active relationship, their gods were much more present.
They walked on Earth, they walked among them?
You mentioned in an interview you did with us about The Tudors, that when you were doing that show, you were trying to develop ways of sticking as close to the history while making it entertaining for a TV audience.
Have you gotten that down to a science and would you say now that you’re on History, are you able to get more historical detail in now?
I’m still doing essentially what I was trying to do then, which is to connect the past to the present and to make the past resonate with contemporary audiences and meaningful to contemporary audiences. So in the same way that I guess at its heart The Tudors was about love in its many forms, there’s a sense in which Vikings is a family saga – it’s about a guy and his wife and his children and how he gets on in the world, and it’s all based on what we know of these characters, about Ragnar.
Nevertheless there’s a kind of determined attempt on my part not to make the past a foreign country, you know? Somewhere where they were completely unrecognizable as human beings. Despite all the clichés, the Vikings were human beings, they loved their wives and kids. It’s a kind of false dichotomy to say that it’s either more or less historical because you can’t see drama in that way, in a sense. All I would ever say is, it’s not a documentary. It’s only applicable if I’d said I was writing documentaries and then people could say, “Well, do we really know this or are you guessing or are you speculating?”
All I’m saying is everything I write is absolutely rooted in research, it’s based in history, it has some historical claim to authenticity, but it’s a story, it’s a drama, it developed out of my reading and out of my research. It’s just I’m doing the same thing, I’m trying to make the past live in the present.
And to be clear, you are still writing everything yourself as you did on The Tudors?
Which is so unusual.
Yes, I understand that it is. I mean I don’t know any other way of doing it, and I suppose I’m very bad at delegating.
Right, or just opening up the process…
Yeah, because the process is also quite a mystery to me. I kind of know what I’m doing and I know how I begin, but halfway through writing an episode something will occur to me. I’ll dredge up some memory of something or something will occur to me that I never, ever thought of, and this thing that occurs to me will often shape the next two episodes or give birth to another character. So how could I explain that process to anyone else? And I’m not working from a text, you know… this isn’t Game of Thrones. It’s not based on books. You can’t just point to the book and say, “That’s the next part.”
So is there kind of an unknowable fragility or nebulousness to the process for you?
That’s right. The poet Dryden said that the art of creativity is thoughts and ideas that are tumbling over each other in the darkness, and that’s the way I like to start when I’m doing my research and thinking about possible storylines and things. I just let all these things tumble around and try and find a shape inside them.
But then you get more disciplined, of course you’ve got to turn out episodes, and you’re working with production, you’re working with actors, you’re working with directors, but there’s still a part of the process that I keep open, and it isn’t closed almost ‘til the last moment. It isn’t closed until they actually have to grab the scene, that something might happen or someone might say something or I might re-read something in one of my books and go, “You know what? I missed this. I missed this storyline. I missed this idea and it's crucial.” So it’s difficult for me to delegate in those kinds of circumstances.