In early 2020, The Northman production designer Craig Lathrop was ready to hit the ground running in Iceland to film much of director Robert Egger’s Viking epic. He had spent over a week scouting the island country, making stops at the Fjallsárlón glacier lake, Laundmannalaurgar’s colorful geothermal pools, lush Þakgil, and Mount Hekla, one of the Iceland’s most active volcanoes. But then COVID hit, and transporting the entire cast and crew (which includes Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Björk) to Iceland amid a pandemic was no longer an option. A masterful pivot ensued, expanding The Northman’s filming locations across Ireland and Northern Ireland to bring Iceland to life, some 900 miles away.
We sat down Lathrop to get insight into how The Northman faked Iceland’s unique and otherwordly scenery, what it was like to build entire Viking compounds from scratch, and where travelers can see the movie’s filming locations for themselves.
What was the research process like for this film? What places were you looking at to create this Icelandic vibe?
There were three different vibes that we’re trying to do: Hrafnsey, which is a fictitious island in the North Atlantic; Iceland; and then the Land of the Rus, which would be sort of Kievan Rus’—what’s now Ukraine. Rob sent me the script really quite early, so I had a couple of months to dig in and do a lot of research and familiarize myself with the period and the locales. We went on a scouting expedition to Iceland for a week and a half and that was spectacular. [Iceland] just blows your mind away. So often when I’m scouting, I get to see things that people don’t get to see when they’re on vacation. And this time it was more that I got to see things that I could never even imagine. We spent a day and a half or two days in the helicopter flying around Southern Iceland, and the landscape there was absolutely mind-blowing. And I think it’s really why Robert chose to do the script.
One of the scenes that immediately transported me to Iceland was when Amelth (Alexander Skarsgård) and Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) land on the black sand beach. Where did you film that and what was that experience like?
It’s a long, funny story. COVID really messed us up in terms of our Icelandic shots. We had wanted to go to Vestrahorn but what we ended up doing for that scene, because we couldn’t go to Iceland to do what had had initially planned, is shooting it at Five Fingers Strand in County Donegal, which is absolutely beautiful on its own. But most of it we erased as we turned around out of the water, and replaced it with the black sand beaches that we were able to photograph and map out digitally, so that we could get that beach scene that we wanted. It was really a shame but I thought that they did a fantastic job. I think it looks beautiful—and I don’t know that anybody notices. But because of the pandemic, we couldn’t get back there. We did a lot of scouting and I will say that I feel completely blessed not only for myself—because honestly, it’s the greatest vacation ever—but when we came to Northern Ireland and we realized that we had to fake it [more than we had planned], I had a real good sense of what Iceland was.