The snowy ground is streaked with blood.
Beloved heroes lay dead outside the castle gates.
Winterfell is quiet.
A sudden roar from above. A gust of wind. A blur of low-flying movement.
An ice dragon?
“F—king spoiler helicopter just flew right over the set!” says an alarmed crew member.
This could be a disaster. It’s April 2018 on the set of the final season of Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland. The helicopter seemingly came out of nowhere and flew directly over a ridiculously sensitive scene from the show’s final season. The production is supposed to have government-protected airspace — no planes, no drones, and sure as the seven hells no mystery choppers buzzing Winterfell. If paparazzi armed with cameras were on board, their photos would cause an explosion in the entertainment universe. Did anybody get its tail number?
The production calls the Civil Aviation Authority to track down the pilot’s identity while showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are informed of the potential breach. As usual, they are calm. You cannot command a set as sprawling and intense as Game of Thrones and lose your cool every time there might be a catastrophe or you’d never stop hyperventilating.
“There’s always a crisis, there’s always an imminent disaster,” Benioff says. “You never quite know where it’s coming from but, over time, you get a sense of where the real catastrophes are and which ones are probably going to be okay.”
After a tense hour, the news comes down: It was a police helicopter. So GoT’s secrets remain safe for now. All the while, the production never stopped moving. The show must go on, after all, and the HBO drama’s final season is the biggest show on the planet, spending 10 months filming just six episodes for its climactic season 8. Expectations are incredibly high.
“The fans will not be let down,” says director David Nutter. “There are a lot of firsts in these episodes. There’s the funniest sequence I’ve ever shot on this show, the most emotional and compelling scene I’ve ever shot, and there’s one scene where there’s so many [major characters] together it feels like you’re watching a superhero movie.”
Nutter tackled three episodes in the final season, including a calm-before-the-storm entry that might surprise viewers with its play-like intimacy. The showrunners also directed one episode: the mysterious series finale. (More on that in a bit.)
But it’s the season’s most ambitious entry — we can’t tell you where it falls in the season, but it was arguably the most difficult-to-produce episode in television history — that’s expected to be particularly staggering.
The episode chronicles the great battle of Winterfell, pitting an uneasy collection of allies against the Night King and his army; a face-off teased from the series’ very first scene. It’s one of two in the final season directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who previously tackled “Hardhome” and the Emmy-winning “Battle of the Bastards.” Here fan favorites like Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) are fighting for their lives, impossibly outnumbered against a supernatural enemy.
The episode is expected to be the longest consecutive battle sequence ever committed to film, and brings the largest number of GoT major characters together since the show’s debut episode in 2011 (“You can’t have this many actors on set, there are too many egos!” jokes Harington).
“What we have asked the production team and crew to do this year truly has never been done in television or in a movie,” says co-executive producer Bryan Cogman. “This final face-off between the Army of the Dead and the army of the living is completely unprecedented and relentless and a mixture of genres even within the battle. There are sequences built within sequences built within sequences. David and Dan [wrote] an amazing puzzle and Miguel came in and took it apart and put it together again. It’s been exhausting but I think it will blow everybody away.”
“Exhausting” is quite the understatement. The episode required 11 weeks of grueling night shoots. Imagine up to 750 people working all night long for nearly three months in the middle of open rural countryside: The temperatures are freezing in the low 30s; they’re laboring in icy rain and piercing wind, thick, ankle-deep mud; reeking horse manure and choking smoke. The stars of Game of Thrones require some coaxing to get candid about their experience because nobody wants to sound like they’re whinging (as The Hound would say). But if you spend even a brief time on set you realize staging the battle was unprecedentedly brutal.
For Williams, the episode marks Arya’s first Game of Thrones battle, an irony that isn’t lost on her. “I skip the battle every year, which is bizarre since Arya’s the one who’s been training the most,” she says. “This is my first taste of it. And I’ve been thrown in at the deep end.”
A full year before filming began, Sapochnik phoned Williams to warn her. “Start training now,” he said, “because this is going to be really hard.”
“And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’” Williams recalls between takes, looking ultra-grimy with dirt and mock blood on her face (as do all the actors). “But nothing can prepare you for how physically draining it is. It’s night after night, and again and again, and it just doesn’t stop. You can’t get sick, and you have to look out for yourself because there’s so much to do that nobody else can do… there are moments you’re just broken as a human and just want to cry.”
Williams’ feelings are backed up by seasoned action veterans on the show, such as Iain Glen, who plays Ser Jorah Mormont. “It was the most unpleasant experience I’ve had on Thrones,” Glen says. “A real test, really miserable. You get to sleep at 7 in the morning and when you wake in the midday you’re still so spent you can’t really do anything, and then you’re back. You have no life outside it. You have an absolute f—ked bunch of actors. But without getting too method [acting] about it, on screen it bleeds through to the reality of the Thrones world.”
Concurs The Hound actor Rory McCann: “Everybody prays they never have to do this again.”
To get periodic warmth, actors occasionally huddle around a space heater in a tent or duck inside the production’s cramped, bare-bones trailers. But for the show’s crew there is no relief. “I heard the crew was getting 40,000 steps a day on their pedometers,” Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos Seaworth) says. “They’re the f—king heroes.” Sporadically, one of the crew members is switched to the day shift, during which a different episode is being shot and you can instantly spot the gaunt, gray-faced battle episode workers. “It’s like seeing Nosferatu coming in,” Benioff says.
When preparing for the shoot, Sapochnik tried to find a longer battle sequence in cinema history and couldn’t. The closest was the nearly 40-minute Helm’s Deep siege in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which he studied to determine when the audience would get “battle fatigue” from too much hacking and slashing. “It feels like the only way to really approach it properly is take every sequence and ask yourself: ‘Why would I care to keep watching?’” says the British director between takes. “One thing I found is the less action — the less fighting — you can have in a sequence, the better.”
Another directorial challenge was figuring out which character to focus on in each scene when so many heroes are involved. “The [GoT battles] I’ve done previously were generally from Jon’s perspective,” Sapochnik says. “Here I’ve got 20-some cast members and everyone would like it to be their scene. That’s complicated because I find the best battle sequences are when you have a strong point of view. I keep thinking: ‘Whose story am I telling right now?’”
Part of Sapochnik’s strategy is asking the actors to fill in the blanks of their storyline of what happens whenever the camera cuts to somebody else. As John Bradley (Samwell Tarly) explains: “We may not have seen Sam for 10 minutes but something has happened to Sam in those 10 minutes — you’ve been fighting, or you’ve been running, or you’ve been hiding. How has your story developed? You have to hold in your mind what’s happened since we saw you last.”
To keep actors focused during the long, cold hours, Sapochnik surprises them with questions. “You’re in the middle of a battle and Miguel comes up and goes, ‘Why are you here?’” McCann says. “Why am I here? It gets you thinking. Then he’ll go to another actor and go, ‘What are you fighting for?’” (One actor snarks back, “My close-up!”). As Glen notes: “Everybody is fighting for a personal reason and Miguel tries to imbue every moment in that.”
During one scene that requires a lot of standing still (not during the fighting) one of the show’s series regular actresses abruptly collapses. “Medic on set!” a crew member yells. The showrunners are out of their tent in a flash and run to her. For a few still moments, it feels like the whole cast and crew are holding their collective breath. Then the news circulates that she’s okay, “just fainted.” The actress goes home early and is back the next day.
Filming wasn’t always going to be this tough. The original schedule made the battle easier by breaking up filming into very short, specific shots that would, on an average night, require a smaller cast and crew. That’s the standard Hollywood approach to assembling an action sequence.
“We built this massive new part of Winterfell and originally thought, ‘We’ll film this part here and this part there,’ and basically broke it down into so many pieces it would be shot like a Marvel movie, with never any flow or improvisation,” Sapochnik says. “Even on Star Wars, they build certain parts of the set and then add huge elements of green screen. And that makes sense. There’s an efficiency to that. But I turned to the producers and said, ‘I don’t want to do 11 weeks of night shoots and no one else does. But if we don’t we’re going to lose what makes Game of Thrones cool and that is that it feels real.’”
The producers agreed. “When you have rapid cutting [in an action scene], you can tell it was all assembled in post-production,” Benioff says. “That’s not the show’s style and it’s not Miguel’s style.” So they approved a schedule that became infamously known among the team as “The Long Night.”
Being surrounded by the expanded Winterfell sets, shooting such long takes with so many actors working amid such rough conditions, reality began to blur at times. “The Winterfell set is unlike anything I’ve seen in my life,” says Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson. “It’s not like most sets you walk through a door and you see [a wood panel] and equipment. You can walk into rooms and cross into tunnels and find yourself in another part of the castle. It’s really immersive. Especially when there is haze and snow and people running around, you can get genuinely lost. There were a few moments where I forgot it wasn’t real, which is bizarre.”
Amid the exhaustion, every detail still counts. During one scene, Bradley’s Sam wields a sword at undead wight attackers played by stuntmen (the script playfully says of the wights: “They’re zombies but not zombies, we have our own thing.”)
“Sam looks like a badass,” I say admiringly to Cogman.
The producer turns to others: “You hear what he just said? That’s the problem. Sam isn’t supposed to look like a badass.”
I suddenly wish I hadn’t said anything. But Bradley quickly adjusts his performance. The next take he looks more confused, awkward and startled by each new attack. It clicks. Suddenly you’re not seeing badass Bradley, but Samwell Tarly.
“When doing these huge fight sequences, you get carried away sometimes,” Bradley says. “You want to make yourself look as good as possible. Miguel said to me, ‘I know that you want to show you’re quite good at this. But remember your character. Sam’s not that good at this. You have to play him because that’s what’s going to be truthful. So stop being so good!’”
The battle scenes shot inside the studio during the day are tough as well. The production’s cavernous Paint Hall hangar is kept full of smoke created by a combination of paraffin and fish oil heated by a machine. Soon the cast and crew find themselves coughing up fishy candle wax. Protective paper masks multiply in popularity and one crew member has an asthma attack and is taken to the hospital.
Amid some rare downtime in the dim, smoky hangar, two seated figures enjoyed a moment of respite with some tea.
“We’re no longer the little kids of Game of Thrones,” Turner reflects.
“Thank God,” Williams replies.
“You know the Titanic was built here,” Turner says. “All that child labor went into it and the child labor continues here today.”
“Except they had it worse, they weren’t brought tea,” Williams says.
Sapochnik suddenly appears and halts their banter: “Do you know what you’re doing next?”
“We think so,” Williams says.
“Have you seen your scene?” he asks, referring to a “pre-viz” animation he mocked up of the battle episode.
“Yes,” Turner replies. “Can we see the whole episode?”
“Rumor has it it’s 90 minutes long,” she helpfully prods.
Sapochnik just smiles and darts to his next task. He’s directing three different units shooting three different scenes all at the same time, which is, frankly, bonkers. “If Miguel lives through this it will be the hardest thing he’s ever done,” executive producer Bernadette Caulfield says, “the hardest thing all of us have ever done.”
Spoiler: The cast and crew lived. And all our favorite characters? Well, their fates remain to be seen. Crew members don triumphant “We Survived The Long Night” jackets and the actors can now tell their war stories. “The hard work pays off on this show,” Williams says. “After one of those really tough days, you know it’s going to be part of something so iconic and it will look amazing.”
Yet there’s another episode in the final season where fan expectations are running even higher: The show’s extremely top-secret final episode, directed by Benioff and Weiss.
For the finale, secrecy was ratcheted up to another level. Only crew members wearing a special Episode 6 badge were allowed on set during filming and some scenes were shot on a closed set. I joke to the showrunners that I wouldn’t be surprised if they directed the finale themselves just so they wouldn’t have to reveal their ending to one additional person.
“When something has been sitting with you for so long, you have such a specific sense of the way each moment should play and feel,” Weiss explains. “Not just in terms of ‘this shot or that shot,’ though sometimes it’s that as well. So it’s not really fair to ask somebody else to get that right. We’d be lurking over their shoulder every take driving them crazy making it hard for them to do their job. If we’re going to drive anybody crazy it might as well be ourselves.”
And what will the Game of Thrones ending feel like? The show’s cast have teased a wide and conflicting spectrum of reactions in media interviews. You know this is a story that subverts conventional fantasy storytelling. And you might also know Benioff and Weiss have long said they ignore what fans say they think they want in their story.
Still, make no mistake…
“We want people to love it,” Weiss says. “It matters a lot to us. “We’ve spent 11 years doing this. We also know no matter what we do, even if it’s the optimal version, that a certain number of people will hate the best of all possible versions. There is no version where everybody says, ‘I have to admit, I agree with every other person on the planet that this is the perfect way to do this’ — that’s an impossible reality that doesn’t exist. I’m hoping for the Breaking Bad [finale] argument where it’s like, ‘Is that an A or an A+?’”
Adds Benioff: “From the beginning we’ve talked about how the show would end. A good story isn’t a good story if you have a bad ending. Of course we worry.”
The finale will air May 19. Tens of millions of fans around the world will tune in to see which characters perish, which survive (if any) and who sits on the Iron Throne (if anyone). And then we’ll enter a post-Game of Thrones world, with all our watches having ended.
Benioff is pretty blunt about his finale viewing plans. “I plan to be very drunk,” he says, “and very far from the internet.”
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