Sunday night’s Battle for Castle Black promises to be the biggest war scene in Game of Thrones history, with the entire episode focused on Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch fight with The Wildlings. Below, Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss tease up (spoiler free, of course) the epic confrontation, as well give some insight into last week’s Red Viper vs. Mountain fight and Sansa Stark’s big transformation. Note: The following answers are culled from two interviews, one conducted last week via email where the producers replied with joint statements, and the second by phone shortly after episode 9, “The Watchers on the Wall,” finished filming.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: [Last Sunday’s episode was] your first arena fight, a trope of the genre from Gladiator to Spartacus. Was there a sense of challenge to make this scene stand out vs. the ones we’ve seen in the past?
David Benioff and Dan Weiss: Yes, we’ve had a few other trials-by-combat, but this is the first time it’s been in a proper arena setting. A lot of what sets this one apart is the specific situation that led to it, one that ties the fates of the fighters and spectators together so inextricably. The intimacy of the smaller, VIP arena adds to this feeling. There was also something unique about the contrast between the Mountain’s and Oberyn’s very different fighting styles. We were looking forward to watching this massive, powerful monster fighting this lightning quick showboater. The real trick was finding actors capable of embodying these characters in physical performance. We got very lucky on that score — Pedro [Pascal] and Hafthor [Björnsson] are both gifted fighters, and they both worked their asses off. More than anything else, they’re what sets the scene apart from other scenes in the “arena fight” genre — how invested we are in them, and in the other characters whose fates are linked to theirs.
Looking back at making that fight scene, anything in particular you recall that was memorable about shooting it?
Benioff and Weiss: Hafthor is an extraordinarily nice young man. He’s also 6’9”, 420 pounds of Icelandic muscle. There is no stunt double in the world big enough to match his size. Which meant that Hafthor had to do all his own fighting, while wearing a full suit of armor in the hot Croatian sun. After approximately twenty straight takes where he hacked at Oberyn with his great sword, a drenched Hafthor tore off his helmet and shouted, “Armor off!” Believe me, no one on set was going to argue with him.
One thread this season is the Stark kids figuring out how to survive, and not a moment too soon (The Hound’s line to Arya, “You’re learning,” could be said of all of them). Sansa’s growth in particular is perhaps the most notable this season, which we really saw when she testified for Littlefinger. Can you talk about how she’s adapting?
Benioff and Weiss: Ever since her father’s death, Sansa’s experience has been one of more or less perpetual terror, never knowing where or when the next threat or humiliation was coming. That’s made it easy to underestimate her, to think that she was doing nothing more than surviving. But she’s been doing more than surviving. She’s been paying attention. She’s been learning about everyone, and from everyone — especially Littlefinger. Shrewdly, Sansa understands that Littlefinger, whatever his flaws, is her best bet for survival. For his part, Littlefinger has always been in teacher mode with Sansa. He taught her the importance of lying to survival. He taught her the importance of knowing your strengths and using them wisely. He dispensed wisdom that he never really thought would stick — until this scene, where thanks to the brilliance of Sophie Turner, everyone sees how apt a pupil Sansa has been all along. She knows the leverage she has on Littlefinger, and she’s ready to use it to her full advantage.
So for episode 9, what’s uniquely challenging about this battle compared to previous ones you’ve staged?
Benioff: Well it’s at The Wall. Which is tricky. Because there is no Wall.
Weiss: Just the general visual effects integration of this episode.
Benioff: Giants. Giants are tricky. Having Neil Marshall directing it, you have confidence; like going to a really good doctor who’s going to make everything better. Neil is very soft spoken, but he’s the kind of guy when he’s on the set everyone is calm because he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s a very intense episode, more intense than Blackwater. We’re seeing it now, even before visual effects have gone in, and it’s still magnificent.
Weiss: With Blackwater when we got the episode in, so much of it was visual effects dependent we were kind of unsure — the performances were fantastic and the action was great, but we weren’t entirely sure what we had until the pieces were put together. But with this, even Neil’s first director’s cut that we saw without a single frame of visual effects finished, just something about it really grabbed us by the neck that’s very rare even with the great directors we’re fortunate to work with.
Benioff: In terms of the sets, our new production designer Deborah Riley did this magnificent top-of-The Wall set, far bigger than what we had before, so you can do walk-and-talks, you can have massive action sequences. It’s completely surrounded by green screen, which is apparently the biggest green screen in Europe.
Weiss: Neil and Deb both spent a lot of time watching the Kubrick film Paths of Glory to get a sense of how to apply trench warfare set-building to an icy top-of-The Wall environment. She did a really fantastic job. It has to be the biggest Styrofoam piece in existence.
What was the biggest challenge to shooting the episode?
Benioff: I wouldn’t say it’s wall-to-wall action — because it doesn’t start right away — but once it gets going about 15 minutes into the episode it doesn’t stop. And we’re still on a TV budget. So the amount of action beats Neil had to shoot every day with a limited number of takes with the number of visual effects shots makes everything more complicated.
Weiss: With so much action, the more layered it gets, and then the easier it is to stop making any sense and just show a lot of random guys hacking and beating away at each other. And Neil’s sense of what was happening in an extremely complicated environment is so strong.
Thrones recently set a new ratings record to become HBO’s most popular series of all time. EW.com will have live recapping of Sunday’s episode plus post-episode interviews.