"You have to create characters -- certainly in series TV -- who people engage with. They don't have to be nice, you don't have to agree with them. But they do have to be compulsively watchable and believable and human and you want to know what happens to them," Hirst told United Press International in a recent phone interview.
"I'm interested in general in the Vikings and their culture and their gods, but at the center of the drama is a human drama, a family story," he noted. "It's a kind of balance between the historical material, the big overarching story you want to tell about Viking culture and why they went west and so on, but unless you root it in real experience, you're not going to have an audience."
Starring Travis Fimmel, Gabriel Byrne, Jessalyn Gilsig, Gustaf Skarsgard, Clive Standen, Katheryn Winnick and George Blagden, the nine-part series about medieval northern Germanic pagans, raiders and explorers premieres on the History channel Sunday night.
The network's first scripted drama series, which was shot in Ireland and Norway, follows the adventures of a pair of brothers who defy the local chieftain by building their own boat, hiring a crew and setting sail in hopes of finding their fortunes in western territories the earl ordered them to stay away from.
"I've been interested in Vikings for a long time. All little boys are interested in Vikings," said Hirst, who also penned the films "Elizabeth" and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," created the TV drama "The Tudors" and produced "The Borgias."
"After I wrote 'Elizabeth,' I did a script about Alfred the Great, who fought the Vikings and I got interested in them then and I found there wasn't much written because they didn't write anything down. They were a non-literate culture," Hirst explained. "Occasionally, Arab traders would write about Viking burial ceremonies and I just became really interested in them and I read the sagas and about the Norse gods, but that [Alfred the Great] film didn't materialize and then MGM turned up about a year and a half ago and said, 'Do you happen to be interested in Vikings?' And I was and it all seemed like the right time to do it. Before, when I was working on the Alfred script and I told people what I was doing, everyone was like 'OK, fine.' Now when I told people I was working on the Vikings, everyone was interested. It was a strange thing and you can never tell, but it was in the zeitgeist and people are interested. You can't quite explain it and it seemed like the right time to tell that story."
So, did Hirst feel limited in how much sex and violence he could depict on the basic cable channel as opposed to pay networks such as HBO or Showtime where pretty much anything goes?
"There are very severe restrictions," the writer-producer acknowledged. "When History first said they wanted to do it, they said, 'We have fairly tight restrictions on sex and violence.' And we said, 'You do realize you just bought a show called 'Vikings?'"
However, Hirst said he and the series' directors decided to see the situation as an opportunity instead of an obstacle.
"We said: 'Don't think of this in any way as a difficulty. Let's think of it as an opportunity to be imaginative about the way we tell our story.' Because I have to say, personally, and I don't think I'm alone, but a lot of the cable shows are simply gratuitous in the way they show sex and violence just because they can get away with things. ... I think with our show there isn't actually very much. There is love and passion, but not much gratuitous sex that you see. There is violence, but sometimes in the mind's eye. It's the way you set it up and the way it's delivered. So this is a creative challenge. This is a good thing to have."
Hirst said he loves the way the show has turned out thus far and hopes it runs for "three, four, five seasons."
That said, he admitted one of the biggest challenges in tackling an epic project such as this is setting everything up in the pilot so audiences care about the characters and understand what's going on without boring viewers with too much explanation.
"First episodes are difficult things to write," he confessed. "I urge people to bear with us because, from my point of view as the writer, I'm introducing characters who are very important. I didn't want to be gratuitous in the way that I did this. These characters are very important and I want the audience to know them and love them as I love them. You have to get to know them and the themes of the story and what it's all about, they have to be properly launched. So it is a difficult balancing act because you want people to be engaged with the series from the start, but you do -- I think, anyway -- have a responsibility to set it up properly and by the time you're at Episodes 5, 6, 7, you're really rooting for and caring for these people. But that's because they have been set up properly and they're human beings. I didn't want to take any shortcuts with that. ... It is wonderful, really, but you have to wait for everything to explode."