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History, written in mud
Hirst doesn’t pretend “Vikings” is a documentary, but he has a solid reputation for weaving in as much factual history as he can.
Shortly after writing 1998’s “Elizabeth” — a multiple Oscar nominee that gave Cate Blanchett her breakthrough role as the Tudor queen — he started working on a screenplay about Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex who successfully prevented a Vikings conquest. That project didn’t go anywhere, but his research paid off when producers started looking for an authentic take on that rarely explored period in world history.
Filming primarily in Ireland (for tax-break purposes), Hirst wound up shooting about 70 percent of the series outdoors, a serious challenge given that region’s spotty weather.
“We were shooting a battle while it was pouring rain with five cameras going, 200 extras and 50 horses, all covered in mud,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is wonderful. This is how it should look.’ ”
The actors found much of the shoot harrowing, although Standen seemed to be almost salivating as he shared tales from the set.
“Yeah, you get scars on the face and spears coming through shields, but you’ve got to shrug them off,” he said. “If anyone complains, they’ve signed up for the wrong job.”
A bet of biblical proportions
History Channel executives may not have any war wounds, but they’re taking a risk of their own.
Expectations are high following the 2012 success of their first scripted project, “Hatfields & McCoys,” which earned Emmys for stars Kevin Costner and Tom Berenger and drew more than 14 million viewers. Dirk Hoogstra, History’s senior vice president of programming, said “Vikings” doesn’t have to put up those kind of numbers, but if it does moderately well, he hopes to turn it into a continuing series.
The only big name in the show is Irish actor Gabriel Byrne (“In Treatment”), and he’s largely a supporting player. Hoogstra admits it’s hard to get well-known stars to commit to something that might become a series.
On the other hand, the network already has drawn good audiences for documentaries on the Vikings, even without having George Clooney running around in sheepskin trousers.
“From a marketing standpoint, you don’t have to do much more than put up a billboard that says ‘Vikings,’ ” said Hoogstra, who is also using this Sunday to launch “The Bible,” a docudrama produced by “Survivor” creator Mark Burnett. “Something like this can appeal to someone who’s not just a pure history lover. Having an American football team gives it instant brand recognition.”
But perhaps Hirst and the History Channel can cry victory only if Ragnar the mascot sees this miniseries and returns next season without the horns — and about 50 pounds lighter.
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