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March 23, 2016

Going Solo

The scribe behind History's Vikings thrives with singular scriptwriting.

Paula Hendrickson
  • Richard Cannon

"I respect showrunners who work with a writers' room, but I'm not sure I could do that," says Michael Hirst, creator, executive producer and sole writer of History's drama, Vikings.

"It's enough for me to be dealing with production, so if I had to be rewriting scripts and dealing with other writers' egos, I'm not sure it would be a very enjoyable experience for me."

Already neck-deep in writing the show's fourth season — which began in February and will be the longest to date, with 20 episodes — Hirst isn't daunted. After all, he served as the sole writer on his previous creation, Showtime's The Tudors.

"The Tudors was a learning curve for me. Certainly it was tough sometimes, but it was good. I loved it. So I wasn't going to do it any differently on Vikings."

Hirst calls his writing process — which takes place mostly at his home outside Oxford, England — "organized chaos," with ideas floating around his brain.

How does the chaos turn into scripts?

"I'll do a huge amount of reading," Hirst says, "and talk with the [series'] historical consultant, Justin Pollard. I'll do an overview. I'll do a bible.

The bible might be huge — 60, 70 pages per season. I break episodes down to about 30 pages of outline, and then I start writing. From that outline I can write an episode in a couple of weeks."

Getting a script from an initial idea to the screen takes a year, Hirst estimates. "But at the same time, all of the other episodes are being processed."

Unlike showrunners who write every episode to maintain creative control, Hirst does it because he'd rather write than manage others. "I'm a slightly unusual showrunner because I want to delegate. I want to give department heads freedom to do their best work."

Pollard is the person Hirst relies on most when plotting new episodes. "If I forgot something, he reminds me. It's like, 'This is what actually happened, Michael. Please focus.'"

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