People who create and produce music or movies and television have a lot more in common with entrepreneurs than you might think. They use their creativity, skill, and experience to turn their ideas into reality.
Case in point: Michael Hirst, the creator, writer, and executive producer of Vikings, the HISTORY ratings juggernaut that starts its sixth and final season on December 4th. (I've seen the first ten episodes; it's great.)
Which made it the perfect time to talk to Michael about creativity, the nature of inspiration... and what he's most proud of where Vikings is concerned.
Some musicians constantly to a wide range of music for inspiration. Others don't so they don't get influenced by trends, etc. Where are you on that spectrum?
I don't really watch any other shows -- partly to avoid any suggestion that I have been influenced.
I'm not influenced at all by what might be trending in terms of storytelling or production.
If I need inspiration I tend to reach back in time. One of my biggest cinematic influences is the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky, but I was also deeply influenced by my mentor, the British director Nic Roeg. And I love Scorsese, obviously.
In terms of literature, I think the last great novel was A Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel as I understand it is now dead.
I love poetry but not much contemporary stuff. Seamus Heaney is an exception. Keats and Eliot were the greatest poets of the twentieth century.
And of course I have lived more of my life in the last century than this one!
In a broader sense: Besides research, where do your ideas come from?
The research can lead to the inspiration. Discovering the Norse gods was incredibly inspiring! Likewise the importance of women in Viking society inspired me to try and tell their stories.
Other than that, who knows where inspiration comes from for an artist? The imagination is an unscientific concept.
One of my favorite things about the show is the strong female characters, something no male character ever makes a point of it. Ubba would never say, "That Lagertha; for a woman, she's a darned good fighter." They just are who they are.
For a male character in the show to ever make the point that women being strong, good fighters, or equal partners might be unusual and worthy of comment would mean that the male character was speaking from our world, and not the Viking world. That would be introducing a modern person into my Viking world.
For Vikings, these are things which they would have taken for granted. And that's rather the point.
It was, in fact, the Christians who took away all the women's rights that the pagans took to be natural.
Were you disappointed that Clive Standen wasn't available and you couldn't continue to tell Rollo's story? (I was: Love Rollo.)
When Rollo because Duke of Normandy, his personal narrative took him outside the story of Ragnar and his sons that was always at the heart of my show.
Rollo did, of course, make a brief return into the Vikings world, but without setting up a parallel universe I couldn't incorporate him further.
However, and mysterious though it sounds, do not altogether believe that you have seen the last of Rollo!
Speaking of characters, how do you avoid the temptation to explore a particular character's story in greater depth because the actor is so compelling? For example, the role of Ivar is great, but the way Alex Hogh Andersen plays him...
Alex has done an amazing job with Ivar. Ivar was and is an incredibly challenging and difficult role: a Viking hero and warrior and war leader who is also a cripple.
He could have played it so many ways -- including playing for sympathy! Instead he embodied a character who transcended his physical infirmities, who rose to prominence through force of will and intelligence.
There are other actors who have taken their characters to places I did not expect them to go. Henry James said that in fiction there would two sorts of characters: fixed constituents and free spirits. The fixed constituents do what they are meant to do in terms of the plot and its exigencies; free spirits, to some extent, have a life of their own.
One of my favorite free spirits has been Harald Finehair. Peter (Franzen) brings so much to the role -- including a touch of humor, which is so important.
Once or twice I considered killing him off, but I could not do it; his will was stronger than mine.
Showrunning is all-consuming, yet you're in an industry where you never know what the future will bring. How do you plan for the future when the present is overwhelming? And still maintain some semblance of work-life balance?
Being the showrunner on a big show is an overwhelming experience -- although I never tried to micromanage Vikings. I like to collaborate and I was working with so many hugely talented people. I wanted them all invested in the show.
Still, at the end of -- what is it? -- seven or eight straight years of writing (and re-writing) every one of our 89 episodes, I felt relieved to relinquish some of the burden.
I did do a few other things during those years, but my priorities were always clear. The show came first. Now, I can think seriously of other projects and ideas.
As for work-life balance, that was hard. I worked a lot at home but my work was still almost all-consuming. My children were growing up and I played as much a part in that as I could, but my wife Deb carried a lot of the day-to-day burden.
We are a close and happy family though, and I feel blessed because of it.
Fans love to complain about final episodes of iconic shows. How much pressure did you feel to come up with a satisfying conclusion?
I always knew how I wanted the show to end. I told HISTORY when we first pitched the show how I wanted it to end.
Of course, I had no idea that we could ever reach that conclusion. As the seasons rolled by, however, and the audiences across the world grew, I became slightly more confident that we might get there.
I watched the final scene being shot with tears in my eyes. It's true that many shows have unsatisfactory endings, sometimes because of the friction between the writers and the network. Sometimes a more "open" ending is what the networks want, just in case they can bring the show back. And endings, it's true, are not easy -- especially when, as in my case, I lived with these characters for so long that they almost had lives of their own.
But I do believe strongly that the ending of my Vikings is emotionally and intellectually satisfying.
The audience and me, we've been on a long journey together... and I had no intention of cheating either them, or myself.
Looking back, what are you most proud of where Vikings is concerned?
What am I most proud of?
In a way, of helping give so much quality employment to so many people over so many years.
When individual members of the crew came up to me quietly and said "thank you" because their sustained employment on the show had allowed them to buy a house, get married, send their kids to school... I always felt that my writing was not just to entertain people.