It was a sequence so spectacular that the Game of Thrones team thought they could never pull it off.
When showrunner David Benioff first read George R.R. Martin’s novel A Dance with Dragons, he contacted the author after finishing the climactic Meereen fighting pit chapter.
“I remember calling Gerorge and saying, first of all, congratulations, that scene’s incredible. Second, I have no idea how we’re ever going to put that on screen,” Benioff told EW. “And he kind of laughed. Until this year, I thought it was a scene that we couldn’t afford. Every time you see a dragon on the show, it’s incredibly expensive. This season is more dragon-heavy than any we’ve done before, and how they interact with people. The scene has 500 extras, it’s got people burning, Dany flying away—all things that are really hard to do.”
Part of the “problem” was that Thrones showrunners Benioff and Dan Weiss have very high standards for special-effects-driven scenes. Starz’ Spartacus, for example, depicted gladiatorial combat scenes, but at the expense of realism. And in Thrones‘ first season, the series scaled down Martin’s vision of The Hand’s tourment because of how difficult it would be to realistically portray such a spectacle on the show’s budget. “Our attitude with effects is, if we can’t do it well, we don’t do it,” Benioff said.
But this year, HBO gave the show additional resources to produce season 5—which included not only the Daznak’s Pit sequence, but also the CGI-heavy Hardhome battle in episode 8. “What was different this year was: before, I’d hear, ‘Do we have the money to do that?’ and someone would say ‘no,'” recalls actor Kit Harington. “This year it was, ‘Do we have the money to do that?’ and somebody would say ‘yeah.’ And that was the big change. I think [HBO] realized to keep people engaged with this show, the big setpieces have to be bigger than the ones before.”
The Daznak’s Pit sequence was shot in the Plaza de Toros in Osuna, Spain, with the help of hundreds of extras that producers credit with working tirelessly to infuse the scene with high emotion and passion—which was especially crucial since members of the crowd become a surprise threat when the Sons of the Harpy attack Dany and her entourage. (Though one extra apparently snapped a photo of Tyrion and Dany together and leaked it onto the Internet before the season started, spoiling for some fans what was supposed to be a major secret this season).
For star Emilia Clarke, the actual dragon riding was accomplished in the studio, with the actress astride a large mechanical device. “It’s green and shaped like a dragon’s back on hydraulics,” she told EW. “It looks like a ninja turtle!”