How Miguel Sapochnik pulled off the greatest battle sequence in 'Thrones' history
Note: This post contains story details from Sunday night’s Game of Thrones episode, “Battle of the Bastards”…
“The most logistically complicated thing I’ve ever been involved in,” is how director Miguel Sapochnik describes making Sunday’s absolutely incredible Game of Thrones episode. Below, the director gives EW a candid and detailed account of what it took to bring the Battle of the Bastards to life; an interview that not only lends an intimate perspective on staging the Jon Snow vs. Ramsay Bolton face-off, but also gives you a unique sense of what it’s actually like to direct a major battle sequence behind the scenes. Previously, Sapochnik helmed last season’s “Hardhome,” and he’s also directing next week’s 69-minute Thrones finale (related: see our exit interview with Ramsay Bolton actor Iwan Rheon).
Entertainment Weekly: We’ve seen field battles in so many films. Were there any particular elements that you were trying to emulate or, for that matter, trying to avoid compared to what we’ve seen on the big screen before?
Miguel Sapochnik: I watched every pitch field battle I could find (footage of real ones too), looking for patterns — for what works, what doesn’t, what takes you out of the moment, what keeps you locked in. The big reference was Akira Kurosawa’s RAN. Interestingly one of the things I noticed is that staging of these battles through the years has changed dramatically. Back in the day you’d see these huge aerial shots of horse charges and there were two big differences. First, it was all real — no CGI or digital replication. And second, often when the horses would go down, you can kind of tell they got really hurt. Nowadays you’d never get away with that, and nor would you want to.
Also, the more I watched these scenes the more I felt like those aerial shots that are now so synonymous with a final charge they kind of take you out of the moment. That is to say, you experience this moment as an objective observer in all its glory with no sense of danger from the inevitable impact of hundreds of these huge stampeding animals. I was interested in what it must feel like to be on the ground when that sh— happens. Absolute terror? A moment of clarity? What goes through your head when you are right in the thick of it?
After “Hardhome,” there was a lot of happy campers in the Game of Thrones offices. But there was also a sense that we somehow had to make “BOB” bigger and better. I personally felt the pressure in that respect and so I tried to quash it as quickly as possible by using as my mantra this response: “Let’s just make it the best we can.” That doesn’t mean making it better or avoiding how others have done it because, let’s face it, battles have been done every which way. It just means understanding the story and trying to service it the best way you can for the money and time you have. Most of all, it means choosing a point of view.
Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have said the team looked to real-life historical battles for staging this. What specific battles or tactics did you draw on?
Very much so. Initially we based BOB on the battle of Agincourt which took place between the French and English in 1415. But as needs changed, as did budgets, it became more like the battle of Cannae between the Romans and Hannibal in 216 BC.
The strategy and tactical aspect was a key thing for David and Dan. They wanted to specifically focus on that so that we could really see the way Ramsay ensnares and outguns Jon in the almost exactly the way the same way Davos had planned to defeat the Bolton army. I also did a bunch of research into Alexander the Great who was legendary in his strategic battle prowess.
That said at some point you need to put all the research down and tell a good story. The Bolton Shield wall, for example, was a production-friendly way to emulate a “double envelopment pincer move” [without] using horses as originally scripted, and also as a way to avoid seeing horizons on the field and therefore having to dress fewer dead bodies or stage background fights so deep because we didn’t have the money.
I also really liked the visual of a wall of Bolton red and white crosses on the shields. It felt very fascistic and graphic.
My understanding is that adding horses makes everything harder. What was the toughest part of that?
The time factor. Everything takes about 50 percent longer. Also they need relatively solid ground to run on, and when it rains the field would turn to into a bog and we’d have to lay down tons of gravel to sure up their footing. Horses also get bored and spooked and some perform better than others. They also need an entire separate field to rest in. Oh, and they sh— and piss all the time.
In fact, one of the hardest scenes to shoot was the parlay between the different factions prior to the actual battle. Getting a bunch of horses to just stand there all day and do nothing is much harder than getting them to run around. They would fart and pee a lot, often in the middle of [star Kit Harington’s] lines.
What was the biggest overall challenge about puling this off?
The sheer logistics of staging a battle scene this size was like a battle in and of itself, minus the life/death thing. For example: The number of days to shoot it, where we shoot it. What happens if it rains? How do you feed 600 people every day? Don’t get me wrong, I personally don’t have to decide that stuff. But the creative decisions I make are heavily influenced by simple practical concerns. Like every time we charge the horses it takes 25 minutes to reset all the fake snow on the field and rub out the horseshoe prints. So how many times can we afford to charge the horses each day knowing we need to give time for a reset that’s 10 times longer than the actual shot? Another thing was how to make 500 extras look like 8,000 when you are shooting in a field where there’s just nowhere to hide your shortfall. It becomes a bit like a bonkers math equation. And finally: How do you get these guys riled up enough to run at each other and get covered in mud and stand in the rain and then run at each other again and again for 25 days, 10 hours a day, without them just telling you to piss off?
The other real challenge was the schedule. After I first read the outline (we didn’t have a script yet) and we went to take a look at the location, a privately owned piece of land called Saintfeld in Northern Ireland. The producers asked me to ballpark the number of days I thought it was going to take to shoot it. After a few hours and a fair bit of guesswork we said 28. They said we had 12.
Both myself and Charlie Endean [my first assistant director] read the script and got on the phone to discuss a revised number of days now with the actual script in mind. Rather than [my estimated number of days coming down] — which is what we all had hoped — the number had gone up to 42 days. I called Bernie Caulfield, the producer, and sheepishly told her that I wasn’t even going to bother sending her that schedule because we all knew that wasn’t going to happen. Suffice to say, something needed to give. Then began the process of creatively focusing on the most important aspects, searching for more effective ways to shoot the sequence and a more-or-less nonstop back and forth between myself, Charlie, Fabian (our director of photography), and the producers. Eventually — probably a few months later — we ended up with 25 days, including the parlay on the battlefield prior to the actual battle and all the scenes in Winterfell in the aftermath of BOB. Reaching that number was the biggest challenge. Finding a way to cram in and organize everything so that we would use every single minute well in order to squeeze every ounce we could out of our time was the most logistically complicated thing I’ve ever been involved in.
When all was said and done, we had around 500 extras, 160 tons of gravel, 70 horses and riders, 65 stuntmen and women, 7 principle actors, often 4 camera crews, 25 days to shoot it and a call sheet with often up to 600 crew members.
I know that when shooting you look for story and character moments along the way, is there a good example of that?
One day in the middle of shooting BOB, there was a moment when I realized we just could not complete the sequence as planned. Three days of consistent rain had turned the field into a bog nine inches deep with mud so thick things were slowing down, and morale with it. The crew are a tough bunch but when the wind and rain is blowing in your face 13 hours a day and for weeks on end and it’s literally a game of death to make it up the hill to grab a drink or use the loo because it’s so slippery, everyone gets a bit down.
One evening I got home and I kind of knew we couldn’t finish in the time we had left so I wrote a long email to David and Dan and the other producers to suggest an alternative that I thought we could achieve in the remaining time, but that would mean going “off book” for three days. That is to say, we’d be shooting without a script. I finished the email and made a cup of tea (no whisky in the house) then waited for the response, which I fully expected to be a public chastisement and general reaming for even suggesting that (Dan and David like their scripts executed the way they wrote them, and with good reason).
It was late already and if were going to do this we needed to employ this idea first thing the next day. But I couldn’t move forward without their consent and they were in L.A. at the time. I hadn’t even worked exactly out how I’d do it, I just knew we need a Plan B.
Anyway, not 15 minutes later, I get a ping on the email and David and Dan have replied. They said it sucked not to be able to finish as scripted but they also understood the crunch we were in and that they trusted me and to have at it.
I think that this section of the fight — in which Jon is almost buried alive by a stampede of panicking wildings — turned out as one of my favorite little moments in the sequence. No VFX, no fighting, just Kit giving a stellar performance and a crazy top shot as he pushes his way back out (we affectionately called it the “rebirthing” shot). The other reason I liked it is because of what it meant to be allowed to follow my gut and go for it. That kind of trust you can’t buy and it felt like a privilege to have been given that kind of support to go into unchartered territory by the producers in such a high stakes game.
When Ramsay played his hunting game with Rickon, was Jon Snow his true target there?
Absolutely. In the scenes leading up to the battle Sansa warns Jon not to fall for Ramsay’s tricks, which is exactly what he does. Rickon’s death is all just a ploy to bait Jon, and it’s incredibly successful.
Shifting to Meereen, we get a triple-dragon action sequence, which we’ve never had before. What were your goals for that sequence and how tricky was it to do an action scene with three virtual dragons?
Well it helps having Joe Bauer and Steve Kullback (VFX supervisor and producer). The dragons are really their baby so after you previz it and shoot the live action elements it’s really a case of turning it over to them and watching what they turn out.
For this sequence David and Dan said that what they wanted to see was a “demonstration” of what’s to come. So I tried to approach it in the most elegant, epic, big-movie way I could.
With BOB only around the corner these two sequences were in constant competition for resources and that played as a big factor in what we shot. Whereas the shooting of BOB was a bit looser due to the nature of the live-action elements, the Slaver’s Bay battle had to be planned on a shot-by-shot basis.
We talked a lot about how to shoot the dragons so that they didn’t stand out as too fantastical. I kept pitching the idea of designing shots that felt like they could have actually been shot in real life (if dragons were real) and based most of my choices on footage I’d seen of WWII Supermarine Spitfires in action.
I also pushed for the idea of allowing the dragons to constantly break frame. That is to say framing slightly smaller than the actual dragon is so that it felt more like wildlife “on the fly” photography. These things should be so big and fast it’s hard to keep up with them.
Then we had to burn a bunch of boats and soldiers for real — which was fun considering it was raining and we only had one boat which we couldn’t actually burn for real. Lots of time filming is just trying to fit a square peg into a round hole like that.
Once it’s all shot, VFX and production constructed a multi directional computer-controlled hydraulic gimbal device shaped like the upper shoulders of the dragon for Emilia Clarke to ride and us to film. Basically it’s her own mini theme park roller-coaster which we shot in Belfast and then composited into the final shots.
Oh, and although this was all meant to take place in the dry hot climate of Meereen, we actually shot it in the mostly cloudy, grey pouring rain of Banbridge in Northern Ireland.
Without talking specifics, obviously, what in general excites you about next week’s super-sized finale?
That it feels equally as epic as episode 9 … but for completely different reasons.
Keep reading: Sapochnik also weighed in on staging Ramsay’s final scenes (the producers wanted blood).
More “Battle of the Bastards” coverage: Read our exclusive exit interview with Ramsay Bolton actor Iwan Rheon. Here’s our deep-dive recap with our thoughts on “Battle of the Bastards.” Sophie Turner reacts to her final Ramsay scene. Below, check out the latest episode of our Game of Thrones Weekly podcast where we’ll talk about our time on the BOB set.