Image courtesy G. Pimentel

Interview: Director Ken Girotti steers Vikings ship

Ken Girotti has directed some of the most critically acclaimed—and entertaining—television shows in recent years. In the U.S., he’s worked on Denis Leary’s firefighter drama Rescue Me, Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent and spy drama Covert Affairs.

In Canada, the homegrown man behind the lens has worked on Combat Hospital, Flashpoint, the Stargate franchise, ReGenesis, Copper, Bomb Girls, Orphan Black and Saving Hope.

Girotti’s work can currently be seen on History’s sweeping Vikings, tracking the ongoing adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok and his followers as they explore the ancient world, and includes an attack on Paris later this season. We spoke the veteran director about the challenges and rewards of working on a series like Vikings, which involves filming longboats on rough seas and choreographing intense battle scenes for the small screen.

Vikings is a really cinematic series that deserves to be on a feature film screen.
Ken Girotti: I have to agree with you. The scope and scale of the show looks pretty good up there.

Are you the type of director who can just watch you work afterwards and enjoy it, or are you picking things apart?
Oh no, I play director. It never stops with me. It’s either, ‘Wow, that worked out really well,’ or ‘Oh my god, how could they have done that?’ or a mixture of those things. That’s part of the deal when you’re in television.

vikings

When you get a script from Vikings creator Michael Hirst, what is the first thing that you do? Walk me through the process.
The first thing I do is sit back and have a good read and see how it all washes over me. Almost always with any script—whether it’s from Michael Hirst or anyone—you’ll have questions about what exactly some things mean. And sometimes you never ask those questions because you want them to remain questions. Then I take a second read and try to fine-tune the script and put it through a filter. Are things clear? I’m starting to circle a place where I see the story unfold in my mind in pictures and words. That’s when the real job of directing begins because I start to interpret what Michael has written for me and try to embellish it and move it forward.

Directing is such a collaborative process. You have your vision and you’re getting into someone else’s sandbox. Is that sometimes a challenge?
On something like Vikings it’s pretty easy because I share a sensibility with Michael. I feel like we have a commonality in the way that we approach life and truth, beauty and art and all of those things. I have a deep respect for his writing; he writes in such an evocative way that speaks to me personally. There are some things that I become completely obsessed with. One little line.

One of the things that I never really observed about Vikings before is the exploration into religion.
I think it’s very subversive. It’s never on the surface. There’s slashing with axes and stuff, but everything that they do has an effect on the next thing that they do. And that’s very existential, I think.

Filming those longboats must be a challenge.
They are the most difficult things to manage ever. They’re difficult and annoying and beautiful all at once. You think about moving a camera while moving an actor on dry land and camera goes this way and the actor goes that way in a nice little coordination of movement. Then you add an element where you can’t predict where anything is going to go and that’s water. It creates organizational anarchy. The marine guys are amazing and my first AD, Raymond Kirk, is truly an amazing first AD. They had to build docks for these boats. They hoist them in with cranes. It’s immense and the logistical challenges with regard to the boats is just huge.

The battle scenes are intricate work too. I’m thinking of that battle in Episode 1 of this season.
We were on that site for six days, I think. It was a pretty big sequence. What we tried to show there was sort of a storming the beaches at D-Day. There was something similar earlier in the series where Jarl Borg rolls up on Kattegat. This was quite a bit bigger and we tried to stay on the beach for as long as we could and we wanted to show how hard it was to get your feet out of the water as a Viking and fight against those Mercians.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a Mercian and see these big, ugly, hairy guys with axes on boats rowing towards you. It must have been horrible.

Vikings airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on History.

(Image credit: G. Pimentel)

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and partner at TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from countless programs. Survivor winners, Donald Trump, Jerry Bruckheimer ... he has interviewed (literally) hundreds of TV people over the course of his career. He is a past member of the Television Critics Association.
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