Vikings interview: Behind the camera with Katheryn Winnick for ‘Valhalla Can Wait’

Katheryn Winnick directing on the set of HISTORY’s VIKINGS Episode 608: “Valhalla Can Wait.” Pic credit: Jonathan Hession/History

Last night’s episode of Vikings was an intense return to many storylines, after Lagertha’s death and funeral dominated the previous two episodes, justifiably so.

However, Katheryn Winnick had one more farewell note to fans as she got behind the camera for the first time to call the shots and direct last night’s episode.

And what an episode it was, from Bjorn’s emotional and cathartic catch and release of Hvitserk to Ubbe and Torvi’s journey to Iceland with Flatnose and the Russian army making their move towards Norway.

Monsters & Critics spoke to Winnick about her work on this episode.

Monsters & Critics: Katheryn, let’s talk about this 608, Valhalla Can Wait. Now, this was a tough episode to direct because you’re coming out of the emotional drain of Lagertha’s funeral and get back running with Bjorn dealing with Hvitserk, the Kiev story boiling over, and the Iceland story picking back up. This is an experienced production to lean on, but what were some of the things that were uniquely you.

Katheryn Winnick: Yes, it was definitely a challenge because you had so many characters, and you had to be able to propel the storyline.

It was also important for me in this episode to show the different kingdoms, to light them differently, and show different sides of the inverse, with Oleg, Ivar, and the Russian King Igor.

So I was blessed to work with Daniel (Kozlovsky), who’s a great actor and Oran (Glynn O’Donovan), a child actor, and be able to tell a story differently.

I used some of my favorite movies as references to show the directors of photography the mood I wanted to create. Here’s where I want to switch the lens; this is how I want to tell this story.

I’m a new director, but I’ve had the experience of being on a set for over 20 years. I know how things work on set, and an outsource of information, and there’s such amazing filmmakers that even if you don’t have the right techniques or experience.

For example, in that scene in Russia, I used the Dark Knight and the scene with Joker as inspiration.

M&C: What were some of the scenes you walk away with that you were most proud of?

Winnick: Probably when Bjorn was on the pier making a speech. It was written and all, but I wanted to be able to show creatively, it’s his downfall. He’s actually saying the speech on his own with nobody there. We were pressed for time, but I talked to VFX, who suggested a green screen, but I wanted to do it all in one shot.

We ended up doing it as it is. We had the entire set, one away from the camera, just make that scene work so they would disappear, and it was just guerrilla shooting that the cast had to move, move the set, and take out the snowstorm, so it looks completely authentic and real.

M&C: I noticed too that there’s a beautiful time-lapse shot with Bjorn being pensive and Kattegat moving behind him. That felt very different for Vikings, but also beautiful for what you were communicating.

Winnick: Mmm. That almost didn’t make it. That also wasn’t written on the page, and I fought for that one creatively, and I’m glad that it made it.

It was important for me to show that Bjorn was in a different mindset, and the whole world is going by him. That was very tricky because Alexander had to stand very still [laughs] and find the perfect position and had everybody else move around very quickly for 20 minutes just to get enough time on camera, then sped it up in post.

Katheryn Winnick directing on the set of HISTORY’s VIKINGS Episode 608: “Valhalla Can Wait.” Pic credit: Jonathan Hession/History 

M&C: How did knowing your cast, and being on the other side of the camera help you as a director? 

Winnick: My episode was really Bjorn’s downfall as a king and to show that vulnerability. So having the luxury to know Alexander as a friend, (I consider him family), and to be able to work with him and to pull who he is as a person into his character, there’s a bit of secret language that we have.

As I’ve done with most of the other actors because you know them so well, you can call them out on their own bullsh*t, and you can challenge them in different ways. Usually, new directors that don’t have that relationship have a hard time tapping into that. 

M&C: What did you set out to accomplish in this first dive at directing?

Winnick: I feel more of my strength is working with other actors and knowing how they approach things.

Even though the clock is ticking and every second counts, especially when you’re shooting in daylight dependent. There is no overtime, and you cannot go over budget, so giving them the time that they need and not feel rushed and creating an environment on set where the actors don’t feel that pressure so that they can create the best work was always a challenge, but I understand that.

The worst part is when you feel the stress of the crew members rushing, rushing, rushing to get the shot in. As an actor, you have to mentally prepare for that.

It’s important to make that environment a safe one and not have the actors feel pressured, but also feel challenged and not get away with things that I felt could have been pushed even further.

M&C: But this was a packed episode, a winter shoot, and an episode you should be really proud of.

Winnick: Creatively, I wanted the snow, the fire sequences. I got to write a battle sequence and make it mean something. It was definitely very challenging.

And to get the respect from crew members, and really be definitive and know what you want and when if you only have so much time to shoot something, to be able to pick your battles on which shots are more important than others.

M&C: I’m getting the feeling that we’re going to be seeing you in this role more, if not with Vikings or the spinoff Vikings: Valhalla, then perhaps with something else?

It was important to me to be able to visually tell that story creatively as a director. I really enjoyed directing it, I got a chance to direct a Netflix show (Wu Assassins) as well this year, and I definitely want to do more of it.

Watch the final two episodes of the Vikings Season 6A on HISTORY, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST.

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