'This is an expedition of guys who hate each other being forced to work together'
Jon Snow was getting a bit of advice for handling, well, snow.
On the Game of Thrones set last fall, director Alan Taylor was offering some suggestions to his cast as they pretended to struggle against a raging blizzard. Giant propeller fans blew tiny pieces of paper “snow” into their faces for creating the zombie polar bear fight in “Beyond the Wall.” While certain shots for the sequence were filmed in remote locations in Iceland, the Army of the Dead action scenes were staged in a Belfast quarry due to the amount of production support required to pull off the complex sequence. The quarry was transformed into the ice lake and rock island you saw in the episode, with additional backgrounds added via computer effects.
“You can’t see more than 10 feet ahead of you,” Taylor reminds his cast. “Just be mindful of zero visibility, there’s a different way you run when you can’t see anything.”
The cast was bundled in thick winter gear, but underneath they’re getting quite hot on the Northern Ireland set. Their suits contain a tube system through which cold water can be circulated between shots using a portable pump to keep them from getting overheated — a bit like the Stillsuits in Dune (amd in the case of The Hound actor Rory McCann, getting overheated can mean his prosthetic facial “burns” melting right off).
Jon Snow actor Kit Harington was one of the actors not wearing anything covering his head, which admittedly isn’t very realistic given they’re trekking into a blizzard, but, as Taylor points out, the audience wants the King in the North looking like a hero.
Between takes we got to ask a few questions of Taylor, who has a pivotal history with the HBO drama. The Sopranos veteran first helmed the acclaimed final two episodes of season 1. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss were so impressed they brought Taylor back to direct four episodes in season 2 (including its premiere and finale) before Hollywood snatched him up to direct Thor: The Dark World and Terminator: Genisis (the latter with GoT star Emilia Clarke). Now he’s back to helm this week’s sixth episode, “Beyond the Wall.”
RELATED: Hear the latest from EW’s Game of Thrones Weekly podcast
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I feel like even though you first contributed to Game of Thrones at the end of season 1, your direction in those final two episodes really helped establish the style of the show.
ALAN TAYLOR: I would love to go with that narrative and think that. But I was aware at the time that I got lucky because I got to chop off Ned’s head and bring in the dragons. I do think [director Tim Van Patten] coming in and reshooting the pilot lifted the bar way up. His White Walker sequence North of the Wall that opened the show, when he re-did that scene, it was a great guide for how to shoot things. And he was working with [director of photography] Alik Sakharov who was a big part of setting the look because of the style of lighting he did.
You’ve seen where the show has gone since then, direction wise, most notably with Miguel Sapochnik’s acclaimed episodes last season. What’s it like coming back into this?
It’s been surreal in so many ways. It’s all gotten so much bigger. When I was here before, we were being encouraged to shoot away from the green screens because [visual effects] were too expensive. Then I went from [GoT] to do Thor 2 where we were encouraged to shoot toward the green screens because there’s so many effects. Now we’re shooting with green screens all the time here. I guess there’s more money, but the dragons have also gotten bigger and armies have gotten bigger. So you spend a lot of time in visual effects land. The machine they have going now is so honed it’s like a freight train and you have to jump on or get run over. Also, the cast have become famous since I was last here. The kids have grown up. And the cast has gotten so confident and so dependable, which makes things easier.
How did you approach the polar bear attack and ice lake battle?
I’m excited about the [zombie polar bear]. The creature was designed by WETA. It’s my understanding David and Dan have wanted to do [the bear attack] for quite awhile. It kept landing in various episodes. It’s incredibly daunting. I read the lake scene and I got excited for shooting it in Iceland and then I realized you can’t — there’s too much production, you have to do it [in Belfast]. So we’re once again shooting in a quarry and the transformation they’ve done is amazing. But then there are more visual effects on top of that. It’s big in terms of what we’re trying to achieve but the story is quite small in there are only seven characters. It’s not like The Battle of the Bastards where you have this huge scale and Kurosawa-like armies moving back and forth. This is six-to-eight guys stuck on a tiny rock and trying to bring some life into that.
Do you have any specific inspirations for the sequence?
My hope is that since we don’t have the scale some of the others battles have had, that we’ll make up for it in intimacy. Every character on the island is a major character with a long story and relationship with the audience. You care about each of these guys. This is an expedition of guys who hate each other being forced to work together so it’s like any of those movies, like The Magnificent Seven or The Dirty Dozen. So there’s some fun there that they barely tolerate each other and in this scene the start to fight back to back and are being forced to work together. We’re trying to find little moments to make it feel intimate and connected.
You also have to kill off a beloved character, a dragon.
It’s the biggest emotional punch of the episode. If you kill a main character, like chopping off Ned Stark’s head, people are upset. But if you kill a dog [viewers tend to be even more upset]. To me it comes down to making sure you give the dragon one moment [of connection with the audience before it dies]. A lot of the emotion from that will come from Dany’s response and Jon and Jorah’s feeling for her.
Read our Beyond the Wall coverage:
— Emilia Clarke on Daenerys’ ‘heartbreaking’ loss
— Thoros of Myr actor on leaving the show
— Our popular deep-dive recap
— HBO’s season 7 finale preview reveals epic reunion scene
— GoT stars explain that Sansa vs. Arya tension
— Our podcast (new episode Monday) where we’ll talk about what it was like on set for that polar bear fight
Game of Thrones airs Sundays on HBO.