Interviewing Michael Hirst (Creator & Writer)

Vikings Season 4 premiered on the History Channel on February 18, 2016.
The first three seasons of Vikings are currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Some of MICHAEL HIRST’s credits include:
TV Series:

Vikings (Writer/Creator, 2013 – Currently airing)
Camelot (Creator, 2011)
The Borgias (Producer -First Season, 2011 – 2013)
The Tudors (Writer/Creator, 2007 – 2010 – Emmy® and Golden Globe® Nominated)

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Elizabeth (1998 Academy Award® Winner)
Meeting Venus (1991)
The Deceivers (1988)

MICHAEL HIRST was headed for an academic life, having achieved his First Class Joint-Honours Degree in English and American Literature by the University of Nottingham, and completed his studies on Henry James at Trinity College, Oxford…

But Nicholas Roeg read some of his short stories and saw what today millions are able to see, too: A writer who blends history, legend and fiction with alchemic intuition, as he mixes the chemistry of our species’ will to survive with our common existential questions, thus threading the complexities of the individual into those of societies, and, ultimately, into what we know humanity is capable of.

There is no intent to shock for dramatic effect, nor the need to entice by all means necessary, in his work. Much less the temptation to relay on clichés. Vikings is a prime example of his alchemy as creator and sole writer, but also of his wisdom in letting the creativity and genius of each individual have their righteous space. The fourth series is about to start, so, if you are not already a fan, it is time to jump on this ship. There is only treasure ahead.

SRM: Michael, thank you very much for participating in this interview, I am delighted. Nicolas Roeg, who has influenced filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, Tony Scott, Ridley Scott and Danny Boyle, among others, spurred you into a screenwriting career; as a writer, who would you say are your biggest influences?

MICHAEL HIRST: Well, I did my PhD on the short stories of Henry James. But that meant that whenever I tried to write prose, I had the Master standing behind my shoulder, shaking his head at my feeble efforts. So when Nic asked me to write a screenplay (he’d read some of my short stories) I jumped at the chance. I had no idea how to write a screenplay, so I was free of influence and fear, and had the best mentor in the world.

SRM: You have a gift for the threading of existential questions, personalities and subsequent facts; does a good writer need to have a keen insight into the human physique from the start, or can it be trained?

MICHAEL HIRST: No one can teach you how to look into the secrets of the human heart. I suppose I always had an interest because I grew up in the 1960s and was very influenced by existentialism. But now I’m older, it’s more to do with experience and the gift of empathy that all writers must have.

SRM: Absolutely, without empathy there is no possibility to even begin to understand the complexities of the human mind, especially where experience is lacking.

You have always shown a great interest in history, as most of your work reflects, particularly that of dynasties. Remembering the famous saying “Reality is stranger than fiction”, what is that one bit of information, found in your research for any of your works, that most surpassed in fantasticality what you could have only imagined as fiction?

MICHAEL HIRST: Almost every day I read something, or my historical advisor sends me something – some stray fact, perhaps – that blows my socks off. Who knew that most Viking graves contain a comb? They were so clean.

SRM: I am ever so excited about the new season of Vikings. What prompted this project originally? Did you, like many other people, already have a fascination with the fierce Scandinavian seafarers?

MICHAEL HIRST: I did. I wrote a feature many years ago about Alfred the Great. He fought against the Vikings. I became fascinated by them – especially by their paganism and rituals.

But what actually prompted the project was that MGM approached me and asked if I had any interest in a Viking project (Whatever goes around comes around.).

SRM: Whilst based on some historic accounts, Norse legendary sagas are also partially fictional tales based in oral tradition, written down between 200 to 400 years after the events they depict. There is still discussion amongst scholars on whether Ragnar Lothbrok, the Norse ruler and hero of several sagas around whom Vikings is based, ever existed, although his sons are in fact historical figures. Where did you draw most of the inspiration to build his personality from, the sagas, other historical figures, your intuition? Has Travis Fimmel (who plays Ragnar with magnetic charm) contributed to that process?

The Borgias (2011 – 2013) The Tudors (2007 – 2010) Elizabeth (1998)

MICHAEL HIRST: From my reading and research I already knew that the received and cliched view of the Vikings was false. Christian monks had given them a very bad press. I was also unimpressed by the idea of a Viking cheiftan as a loud, ignorant, brutal, raping and pillaging savage. I don’t think Scandinavians are like that now, and I don’t think they were like that then. Indeed, Scandinavians, in my experience, are rather deep and thoughtful, even introspective. 

And I wanted a hero for my show who reflected these characteristics, and was motivated above all by curiosity. Travis gave me that personality. He has reinvented the Viking. We spent hours discussing Ragnar’s philosophy and outlook. Magic times.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok

SRM: It was about time someone busted that particular cliché, so congratulations on that; it is an achievement that is magical to watch, too. Vikings also introduces us to the notion of shieldmaidens, women who chose to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Whilst you are no stranger to depicting strong female characters, has the role of Lagertha (which Katheryn Winnick seems to embody like a first skin) presented you any challenges in character development, due to the lack of background on this type of figures? Has Katheryn’s input influenced any of the role’s personality subtleties?

MICHAEL HIRST: There has been some academic debate about whether or not women (or “shield maidens”) actually fought in the shield wall, but now there seems to be a solid consensus in favour of the idea. Lagertha is certainly described in the saga as a shield-maiden, and that’s always how I wanted to portray her. Initially we had tremendous difficulty trying to cast the role. We were offered many beautiful young models. I thought it unlikely that any of them had ever had two children or killed a lot of men. Katheryn was brought to my attention because she was a martial-arts black-belt. Well, that sounded like a good beginning! I also thought she was ready for a break-out role.

Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha

I still remember that her first scene was a love-scene with Travis… and she was good but slightly uncomfortable. But then she had to deal with two nasty guys who turned up at the farm, when her husband was away, intending to rape and murder her – and all her instincts took over, and she was sublime and totally convincing in the subsequent and somewhat violent scene. Katheryn and I have built upon her character now over four seasons.

Sometimes I take her character to places that Katheryn is initially unsure of. Like, having left Ragnar because he betrayed her, she ends up in an abusive relationship with another Earl. Katheryn worried that we’d established Lagertha as a strong character, so how could she justify becoming a victim? I managed to persuade her that this was a truth for many women, strong or not – and it was how Lagertha dealt with the situation which would actually enhance her feminist credentials. And so it proved.

I have often placed Lagertha in difficult and compromising relationships, because I think that is true to the experience of women then and now. And each time, Lagertha finds a way to deal with the situation. I love Katheryn and I’m not surprised that she’s become as popular a character as Ragnar. It’s just that – it’s more difficult for women to achieve that level of recognition.

SRM: Another reason, and achievement, as to why so many love Vikings. Fortunately, both Lagertha, as a character, and Katheryn, as an actress, have many many fans out there, which gives us hope with regards to women getting that much deserved type and level of recognition.

Katheryn Winnick (Taekwondo 3rd Dan Black Belt) began training in martial arts at age 7, obtaining her first black belt at 13. By age 21, she had started three martial arts schools. – Source > Lagertha & Ragnar (Vikings)
Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki

And there is also much humour in Vikings. How much fun is a character like Floki (played exquisitely by Gustaf Skarsgård) for a writer?

MICHAEL HIRST: Tremendous fun. The Joker! The Lord of Misrule!

What a character to throw into a drama – and how wonderfully Gustaf has embodied and then flown with the character. Now, I can’t even imagine Vikings without him.

SRM: Neither can I (so, please, do not ‘kill’ him any time soon). Rollo (played with great presence by Clive Standen) is said to be based on the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror. Is that true? And if so, how did you have the idea for that reference?

MICHAEL HIRST: Yes it’s true. We knew that already. But it’s also true that I’ve brought that story-line forward, historically speaking.

But you have to understand, I never know from one year to the next wherther the show is going to be re-ordered.

So, if there are great events I want to dramatise, like the attack on Paris for example, I better get them in sooner rather than later.

Clive Standen as Rollo
SRM: Makes perfect sense, that’s where the fictional comes in, as well; it is not a historical documentary. But it feels utterly authentic and that’s yet another great achievement. Vikings is both gripping and philosophical, powerful and compelling. Will the inner and outer struggle between religions continue to be one of the themes in season four? And, in your opinion, why do we appear to be condemned to repeat history again and again, or is it the fact that we do not really pay attention to history the reason as to why we repeat it?

MICHAEL HIRST: The short answer is yes. I would never have even considered writing the show if I couldn’t explore the religious and spiritual aspects = the conflict between paganism and Christianity. I’m proud of that. We deal with real issues in the real world. Vikings is not escapist fantasy.

SRM: Right on. With regards to the visual flow, the cinematography, the costumes, the direction, are also key elements to the Vikings stellar effect. As a creator who has also shown proficiency in finding the right combination of professionals for your projects, what advice would you give to production newbies when it comes to building a successful team?

MICHAEL HIRST: I was lucky enough to inherit a great production team, lead by extremely talented people. I like to delegate. I like to give these geniuses the opportunity to do their best work. I HATE it when show runners take possession of the whole production, and tell the Director how to direct and the Director of Photography how to light. Who are these idiots who think they know more than people who have trained and worked and have so much creativity to give? Frankly, to create a succesful team you have to trust other people and forget your own stupid ego.

SRM: Thank you for sharing that piece of wisdom. I hate spoilers; I do not encourage them and do my best to avoid them, but curiosity is only natural, right? Without giving too much away… What can we expect to be most prominent, amongst the masterful ingredients of your writing, in this new season? Suspense? Political intrigue? Action? Philosophy? Emotional drama? Spiritual and intellectual awakening? Humour?

MICHAEL HIRST: I think the big theme of this new 20-episode series is: identity. Bjorn has to go into the wilderness to find out who he is. Aslaug is trying to discover the deeper, darker roots of her Viking identity. Ragnar is still trying to understand what it means to carry the great burden of kingship – and can you escape from the burden?. That’s also a question which will haunt King Ecbert. Frankly, now I think about it, my existential reading in the 60s turns out to be what it’s all about. Who knew?

SRM: Life is a ‘circle’, isn’t it? Michael, again, thank you so much for taking this interview. I am also looking forward to 1906. Have you started working on it? Also, any other projects in the pipeline?

MICHAEL HIRST: 1906 is a dead project from a long time ago. I have many other projects in various stages of development. But my heart belongs to Vikings.

SRM: Oh, wow, well, someone needs to update that information on IMDb. In the meantime… All hail Vikings!

Season 4 * Mid-Season Teaser


Michael Hirst on IMDb >
Vikings‘ History Channel sites:
UK >