Michael Hirst is an English screenwriter and producer, best known for his films Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, as well as the Emmy Award-winning television series The Tudors and Vikings.
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I am a television and film screenwriter. My credits include the feature films Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the television series The Tudors and Vikings on History Channel. The season four finale of Vikings is tomorrow, February 1. Check it out - https://twitter.com/HistoryVikings/status/825068867491811329
Why do you think Vikings were so invincible, even when the western armies had better weapons, more modern war tactics (described in books) and sofisticated defense mechanisms (like that one in Paris)?
Part of it is counter intuitive. The Vikings were happy to die. The only way you could get to Valhalla was to die well in battle. So, Christian forces were fighting against Pagans who didn't mind death. Of course, as well, they were awesome warriors who well deserved their reputation as incredible fighters. That's why for many many hundreds of years the holy Roman emperor had a Viking bodyguard.
Will we see the Vikings go to America or Iceland/Greenland ?
We will certainly see them go to Iceland.
The rest is in the lap of the gods.
Was there much hesitation in losing the main character of the show and thinking whether it would hugely affect the series?
That's an interesting question. I think there was considerable nervousness amongst the network. Frankly, I was never concerned, because I've always said this was the story of Ragnar and his sons. I knew that his sons went on to do amazing things which I wanted to dramatize. I think people don't watch the show because of any particular actors. They just like the show. Our audience numbers have actually gone up since the death of Ragnar. People want to know what are the consequences of the death of a major character.
Hi Mr Hirst! Thank you for doing this Reddit AMA. I have 2 questions.
At one point in the story of Athelstan, why did you use crucifixion? Do you think it could happen despite being forbidden by the emperor Constantine?
That was based on historical fact. There were two Christian monks who were captured in England by the Vikings and taken to Scandinavia. At least one of those returned with the Vikings army and was captured and crucified. This is true. It happened. I made it happen to poor Athelstan.
Are Helga and Torvi your daughter's? Or just a coincidence with the name (Hirst)?
They're my daughters.
How did you originally come to the decision that Ivar wouldn't be able to walk? The historical record on him is pretty unclear on the meaning of "Boneless."
That's true. There are various interpretations of what "Boneless" actually meant. If I was writing a documentary, I would cover them all. I would say all of these were possible. But, I'm not writing a documentary, I'm writing a drama. So I'm looking for the most dramatic. So, a "cripple" became one of the most feared warriors of all time. There's a lot of evidence that Ivar was carried into battle on a shielf.
Who is your favorite character of the show?
I don't have a favorite character. I live with daily with all of the characters. I was as invested in Lagertha as Ragnar. As a writer you have to love your characters in order to make them live on the page and screen. All of the characters have a little bit of me in them.
Thank you for doing the AMA,
What's your favorite episode/moment in the entire series? By the way, I loved the way you ended it with Ragnar, one of the coolest, if not the coolest characters ever in a TV show.
I agree Ragnar just was one of the coolest characters ever because he wasn't a conventional Viking. This whole show is about questioning the cliches about the Vikings. And Ragnar was a thoughtful, deep introverted character. And, Travis played him amazingly. And, should have gotten a lot of awards for his performance. There isn't anything like it on TV. My favorite episode this season was 14 (and 15)...that to me, was like one episode. Episode 14 was Ragnar and King Ecbert together, two characters who were so different but in many ways so similar. And, then of course, the scene of the death of Ragnar which I think is some of the most powerful TV I've ever seen.
Thanks for the AMA
How much of the show is based on actual history?
It's all based on actual history. It starts life with my research into the sagas and into the history and I have historical advisers who helps me. And even though I'm not writing a documentary everything is based on historical fact and I would only say that Vikings is the second biggest show across Scandinavia and they think that it is pretty authentic and pretty real. I had a conversation with the head of Scandinavian studies at Harvard and he said to me "this is the first time my culture has ever been taken seriously and intelligently." I went to the Vikings ship in Oslo and the curator said "I just want to say thank you. Because of your show twice as many people come to the museum. You have reawaken the interest in our history."
Did Ragnar realize (Or even care) by telling Ivar to attack wessex, Alfred could be hurt or killed?..
No, he didn't care about Alfred. Ragnar is an interesting guy. He had lost his faith in the pagan gods, but he was still a Viking. A Viking code of honor is revenge. He knew he was going to die and he wanted his sons to avenge him. He knew Ivar would do the job most efficiently.
Regarding the founding of Normandy, hadn't been there more norsemen settled aside from Rollo?
Historically speaking yes. Normandy means literally the land of the North men so Rollo succeeded in bringing many of his kinfolk into France to settle there. So, the Viking DNA is pretty heavy in Normandy still.
Hello. I don't know if you can answer this but I'll ask anyway. Do you know how many ships have you used and how many of them were destroyed during the production?
In the first season, we had one ship. It was a ship manufactured in the Czech Republic and carried over to Ireland. We now have 9 or 10 ships and lots of smaller ones. We've never destroyed a ship but it's an amazing symbol of how the show has grown. In the back lot, we used to have 4 wooden houses and now it's like 2 acres of buildings and towers and walkways. It's just grown and grown, same with the number of ships. Now we can put hundreds of warriors out to sea. The show has just grown incredibly. It's amazing to see the kinds of ships. When I went to the museum and saw a real Vikings ship, I could see the difference. I could see how absolutely beautiful these ships were with craftsmanship I don't think could ever be repeated.
Hi, mr. Hirst! I want to know: why Hvitserk never speaks? I really wanted him to be more important.
That's a good point. Hvitserk is going to start speaking big time very soon.
A lot of fans were hoping Athelstan /Ragnar would be reunited, even for a moment after his death why did you choose not to do that?
Because Vikings is about reality. It's about real people and real events. So, I don't show Valhalla. There's no fantasy in Vikings. I couldn't show anything that was fantastic. The only exception - this is a show told from the Vikings point of view and they believe that Odin was present in person on the battle field. I can show that, because that it was Vikings believed. I can't stretch reality that far, but Athelstan and Ragnar continue to live on in the show. Their presence is always felt by the other characters. They never go away.
Why is Ivar so evil? Damn.
Well, he's in a way not evil. He has brittle bone syndrome. It's a terrible disease and what we've learned is people suffering from this syndrome and they're at risk for breaking their bones every day, they're angry. Ivar has grown up with this condition and he's angry. He feels he has to do better than his brothers to succeed, and he pushes boundaries. He knows that he was left outside to die by Ragnar, and he's always trying to prove himself. He doesn't recognize boundaries. I have huge sympathy for him. I don't condone what he does, but I understand why he does it. And, it makes him an amazing character to write about b/c I never know what he's going to do next.
What are some of your favorite stories of women from the sagas? Who were your favorite characters? Do you ever use them as inspiration for writing your own characters?
I loved writing female characters. I'm incredibly proud of the fact that the History channel is a male skewing channel but now it has a huge female following b/c of Lagertha and the strong female characters in the show. I like writing female characters. I hate shows that just have female characters as decorations, and have female cliched characters. I think all of the female characters in Vikings are interesting. I'm invested in them and they have a huge role in the show. I draw them in from the sagas and from historical records, but I make sure they are just as important in the show as the male characters.
Will Alfred- Ivar have a similar relationship to Ragnar- Ecbert going forward?
I don't think so.
How does the writing for Tudors and Vikings differ? Weren't our better knowledge of history in Tudors more restrictive for building dramatic archs?
With Tudors there is a mass of real information. There is so much recorded history. To write a drama about it is a lot to do about selection, select what story lines you want to pluck out of the material. You have to make big choices what to ignore. With Vikings, there's very little raw material. The sagas were written a hundred years after the end of the Viking age. And, the other information comes from Christian monks who were the enemy. So, in theory there is a lot more freedom writing about the Vikings. But, I had a settled purpose that I wanted to be as truthful to them as I could be. I wanted for the first time to tell the story from the Viking point of view.
Hi Michael! Will the Vikings saga be complete? Will you make it until the Battle of Hastings?
That would be season 320 so probably not. That's a long way in the future. The great great great great grandfather of Rollo.
It's too far away but that isn't the end of the story anyway. The Vikings age lasted for about 400 years. At the end of 400 years, all of the Scandinavian countries had become Christian. When the last pagan tent pole was torn down, that's the end of the Viking age.
Are we ever going to go back to Andalusia?
We are going to go back to the Mediterranean for sure.
Hi Michael. Vikings appears to have been a huge success. Are there any other historical time periods or civilizations you'd be interested in portraying?
I'm working on a couple of other ideas right now of different civilizations. All kinds of civilizations interest me. Partly because you can't make this stuff up. The real stuff is 1000% more interesting than anything that you can invent in fantasy. There's so much more I want to do with my Vikings characters and their journeys are far from over. I love history. I love connecting the past to the present.
Hi Michael! i love the show! i have 2 questions
how old are Bjorn and his brothers in the show?
Something has been bugging me and i feel like the Entry into Algeciras was way to easy for the vikings, why did you decide to not give the muslims some kind of defence ?
Would you rather live in 2017 Scandinavia or ~700 Scandinavia?
If I lived in 700 Scandinavia, I'd be dead by 28, which was the average life expectancy of the Vikings male. So, that's not too attractive. Vikings has opened a window on to a culture that has been sort of neglected and satirized for too long, a culture that's rich and fascinating. And it made an impact on the whole world.
Why was it decided to have Bjorn lead the Great Heathen army instead of Ivar?
Bjorn is Ragnar's eldest son. Bjorn has had more experience in war. There are many tensions between the brothers which will actually explode in time. But, for the purposes of revenging their father's death, it's natural that Bjorn should lead them. And, only Ivar of course objects to this b/c Ivar objects to everything.
What would be the major differences between writing the script for Vikings and a novel about them in terms of the writing process in your opinion? And would you ever consider writing a book series for alongside the TV show?
I use history books as my resource. I'm not attracted to the idea of writing historical fiction. I love visual media. I love movies, working in television. I like telling stories in pictures, and I think you actually reach a wider audience if you dramatize these stories in television.
How challenging has it been for Alex Høgh Andersen to adapt to playing Ivar the Boneless? And is Ivar a hard character to write?
When Alex first showed up to read for Vikings, he was reading for some of the other brothers. When I saw him and when I heard him, I thought he had the potential to be an amazing Ivar and I knew Ivar was going to be a big character to me, so he read for him and we cast him. He's perfect. He's very young, but he's a great actor and he's going to have a great future.
Good morning and thank you for doing this AMA!
Just one question...If you lived back in that day and age, do you think you would be a Warrior or a Tradesman?
The Vikings were not literate. They told stories through symbolic carvings. I would hopefully be a symbolic carver. I don't really want to fight in the war. The idea of trading ax blows is not attractive to me. I'd be hanging back a bit and writing the ruins.
Thank you for your show! All the team of Vikings France thanks you. Are we going to see France again in the future?
I don't think so.
Well, actually I shouldn't say that. We are going to see Duke Rollo again, and thank god for that.
Do you have any screenwriting advice?
Wow. Whatever subject or period you're writing about, write a scene with 3 or 4 characters and obviously the first time you write it, all the characters explain who they are and what they are doing. And, it's important that you start at that point. But, then...you throw that scene out the window. You rewrite the scene with the same characters and they should all conceal who they are and what they want. And in that way, you start to get closer to what human interaction is actually like.