HELEN SLOAN/HBO

Game of Thrones: A new oral history of the Red Wedding

The show's author, producers, and actors look back on creating one of the most traumatic death scenes in TV history
March 08, 2019 at 11:00 AM EST

In the third season’s ninth episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” Game of Thrones staged its most notoriously disturbing sequence: the postnuptial slaughter of heroic Robb Stark (Richard Madden), along with his mother, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley); pregnant wife, Talisa (Oona Chaplin); direwolf, Grey Wind; and thousands of his bannermen — all while Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) approached outside to reunite with her family. The sequence was a largely faithful adaptation of a chapter in George R.R. Martin’s book A Storm of Swords. Here the GoT team (in a combination of new and previous EW interviews) takes us through the creation and filming the haunting affair.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN (Author): I like my fiction to be unpredictable… I knew [I’d kill off Robb Stark] almost from the beginning [of writing the first book]. I killed Ned because everybody thinks, “He’s the hero [and], sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it.” The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. Everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do. It was the hardest scene I’ve ever had to write. It’s two-thirds of the way through the book, but I skipped over it when I came to it. So the entire book was done and there was still that one chapter left. Then I wrote it. It was like murdering two of your children.

DAVID BENIOFF (Showrunner): In the book, when the band starts playing “Rains of Castamere,” you know something bad is going to happen. It’s the strongest physical reaction I’ve ever had to reading anything. I didn’t want to turn the page because you know something horrible is going to happen and you can’t quite believe it and you don’t want it to happen. You spend so much time with these characters before then. In the show, we’ve [spent more time focused on] Robb than in the books, mainly because we love Richard Madden as an actor.

RICHARD MADDEN (Robb Stark): A thousand people spoiled it for me before I had a chance to pick up the third book. I read [the books] by season-by-season. I don’t want pre-empt where Robb is going and that’s what I’ve done since the show started. I also made the fatal flaw of Googling. So that kind of reinforced what people were hinting — saying that something terrible was going to happen and giggling.

MICHELLE FAIRLEY (Catelyn Stark): I read the [books], so I knew what was coming, and I also knew how many years I signed for. It’s something that anyone who’s read the books will talk about it. So people take great delight in knowing. There’s something incredibly dramatic and brutal about The Red Wedding, the shock of it. I met somebody who read it on the plane and they were so heartbroken they left the book on the plane. For an actor to be given that part to play you want to grab it and go straight into it.

OONA CHAPLIN (Talisa): I knew it was going to deviate a little from the books [where Robb’s wife is not at the Red Wedding]. I also knew I was going to come to a demise at the end of season 3. So I knew when my time was up but I didn’t know much else. I was praying for a cool death and when I read [the script] I was like, “F—, everyone dies!” But even when it was on the page it was nothing compared to what it was like on the day.

DAN WEISS (Showrunner): The Red Wedding was the thing we always told ourselves, “If we get to this moment that’s in the books, and if we do it right, then [the show will] be in a pretty good place and the energy that [the twist] injects into this story will be enough to get us through to the end.” When it came time to shoot it there was so much pressure. We had gotten to it, which was great, but given where the show was at at the time [in terms of production resources], it was a very complex thing to shoot and get right.

The Red Wedding was filmed over the course of five days in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2012. It was scheduled as the final sequence Madden and Fairley would film for the show. The first half of the banquet lulls the viewer into a feeling of ease. Walder Frey (David Bradley) has seemingly forgiven Robb for breaking his vow to marry one of his daughters, while Robb and Catelyn — who had been in conflict earlier in the season — have reconciled and are bonding over Talisa’s pregnancy.

Helen Sloan/HBO

DAVID NUTTER (Director):The blocking was important — I spent several weeks of sitting in preparations with a blank piece of paper doing schematics. One Saturday morning, I felt like I cracked it and put it up on a white chalkboard, like how a football coach would explain stuff to his team. And I said [to the producers], “This is how I think the tables should be, this is where we should put our heroes,” and talked through the whole sequence.

MADDEN: It was challenging to not hint at anything [in my performance] even though I know its coming, especially with Catelyn knowing what the Freys are. We have to hint the Freys aren’t good guys but hopefully kept the element of surprise.

CHAPLIN: We had become such a family. I hadn’t clocked that the end was neigh. I was in quite happy disbelief for all the scenes leading up to it.

FAIRLEY: We were very fortunate — we had a week to shoot the whole wedding sequence and did it chronologically as well. So every day we edged closer to the slaughter. By the end of the week, you were getting emotional. You know it’s coming and it’s calm and it’s a wedding, but as the week progresses you’re nervous and you have to remain concentrated. But you have to remain [looking] fooled as well.

NUTTER: Pretty chronological, you can’t do it too chronologically. But I made sure that the most powerful points were near the end of the shoot. These are beloved characters that everybody loved being around. You want to build up the emotional journey of the sequence.

BENIOFF: [Robb and Catelyn] have been through so much. They’ve been through the death of Ned. They had a major falling out after she released Jaime. They managed to get through that and work back through into a loving relationship.

NUTTER: The most important part to me was the surprise element and making sure the audience was involved with the story. Just before things start to turn, Catelyn Stark, Robb and his bride have a discussion about the baby that’s coming. He’s so happy with that and feeling so good about that. And there’s a real connection with his proud mother. Catelyn and Robb are having this conciliation. I wanted the tightest bond moment with our heroes before it began and to give the audience a sense of ease, that this is a happy ending and some hope that everything is going to turn out well. I didn’t want to make the audience feel like something bad was going to happen. And then one of Walder Frey’s children closes the big door, and you start to get the sense that something’s not quite right here. It was all about touching it softly, not quite hard, so it could build up even more.

The doors close, the band plays the Lannister-themed song “The Rains of Castamere,” and Walder gives Robb his “wedding present” — a man stabbing Talisa in her pregnant belly as crossbow bolts wound Robb…

MARTIN: It’s a betrayal. It comes out of left field. It’s at a wedding feast. Robb has made his peace, and you think the worst is over. Then it comes out of nowhere. There are also secondary characters killed. Then outside, hundreds of Stark people are killed. It’s not just two people.

CHAPLIN: Beat, beat, beat, beat — which surprised me. It surprised me every time, the gallons of blood coming out of my belly. It’s quite a violent thing when somebody creeps up behind you and starts stabbing you. It was horrendous, very little acting required.

Helen Sloan/HBO

NUTTER: There is a moment when Robb goes over to Talisa and sees her life fade away. I remember talking to Richard about love and about relationships and honesty and how much she means to him, and he was really getting into it. He’s such a tremendous actor, and he was hitting a home run. I remember hearing people crying, and it was the hair and makeup people. I thought, “If we can make ourselves feel something while making it, then this will translate.”

CHAPLIN:I was actually crying while I was dead. The director had to come over: “Oona, you need to stop crying, dead people don’t cry. You’re dead, just be dead.”

BENIOFF: I remember turning to the to the script supervisor after one take where Richard was dying and I was like, “That was a good take.” And she was just bawling. It’s a bittersweet thing. You’re making all these people sad. But on the other hand, that’s kind of the idea. If we shot The Red Wedding and nobody got emotional, it would be a failure.

MADDEN: Arya being so close to getting to me really cut me up even more. With every episode, Robb’s been further and further from people he loves. That’s what we’ve all wanted—to get the family back together — even if it was only one of us coming back. And that’s what made me really emotional about it.

Catelyn makes a desperate last stand. She holds one of Frey’s young wives hostage, but Walder says she has no value to him and has Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) finish off Robb. Catelyn decides to kill the girl anyway and then waits for death…

FAIRLEY: At that point, you’ve been living [a character] for three years. You know what drives this person, you have to watch her whole insides ripped to shreds watching her son be murdered. The woman is just grief-stricken. But she doesn’t lose control. She knows she’s dead — and in her mind she wants to be dead — and wants to get revenge as well. Because of the way it’s filmed, you felt incredibly static, which is just powerful — she stays rooted to her spot. Her grief has to be expressed in some shape and form, and that’s vocally and through her face.

MARTIN: [Catelyn] has the moment there, to plead. There’s also her murdering the hostage. [She’s not a wife] Frey particularly values. So, in the end, her bluff is empty. And she carries through. There’s a certain power to that too, hopefully.

Helen Sloan/HBO

FAIRLEY: You want retribution for her son’s death. It’s brave and it’s gutsy and I don’t give a flying f— what happens to me. I’ve lost all my children and my husband, so what else do I have to live for? She comes from a very honorable family. Her whole life has been about honor and doing the right thing. In some way, she’s been held back by her sense of honor and duty. She’s constantly questioning her motives and actions. This is one where she doesn’t. I’m not questioning this, I’m just doing it. I think it’s incredibly liberating. She’s standing there after like there’s nothing left for her. She’s dead already. She wants it. She can’t go on.

NUTTER: We organized it so that Catelyn losing it at the end was the last scene we’d shoot of [the episode]. And we talked about how long she would stand there before the guy comes up and puts a knife in her throat. I told David [Benioff], “I’ll start it off so she kills Frey’s wife and then she’s in her moment of pure despair and starts to lose herself, I’ll just hang there and wait until you nod your head and then I’ll cue the guy to come in and cut her throat.” So I called “action.” She takes the one girl out and she’s crying and crying — and I look over at David — and she’s crying, and she’s losing it, and suddenly David nods and actor comes in and cuts her throat. The knife cut wasn’t exactly the right positioning, it wasn’t the right inch, but it looks so good, I thought it was going to work and fortunately it did.

BENIOFF: Michelle is such a powerhouse… [it’s] one of the greatest death scenes that’s ever been shot. Her performance in that scene is just epic.

MADDEN: It was, Michelle and I, our last scene on Game of Thrones. It had been an exhausting five-day shoot. We were mentally exhausted. I cried my eyes out, completely — as did a lot of the crew and other actors. It was very emotional. The wrap party was that night, but I had to start filming another job the next day. So I washed my blood off and got on a plane.

WEISS: We tried to call Michelle afterwards. She wasn’t answering. A week later she wrote an email saying, “Sorry, I haven’t been able to talk to anybody because I’ve been so shattered.”

FAIRLEY: Dan had left me a voicemail and I did try to ring him back. But by the end of the day, I was a walking shell.

HELEN SLOAN/HBO

The sequence aired in June 2013, shocked audiences around the world, raising the bar in TV death scenes and changed the world of Westeros forever…

CHAPLIN: They totally one-upped [what I imagined]. When I was there I wasn’t seeing everything. They killed his wolf! And Arya was there! All of this stuff was happening around it. And then there’s this silence — there is no music in the credits. It just sits in your belly. I don’t like violence and this was actually really well done. It was more about the emotion. It felt like the relationships carried more depth to them than the blood, which is really amazing and it breaks your heart even more. Michelle’s scream was like, “That’s it.” My heart was broken. I was like, “I’m never watching this show again — I’m out!” And then I watched seasons 4, and 5, and 6, and 7.

MADDEN: It was an amazing experience, all because of David Nutter directing it. He made it an operatic epic sequence that just blows you away. The shocks you get in the book and subtleties from the book I remember reading. Those little details that suddenly all piece together in one big slamming action.

NUTTER: I tend to beat myself up when making something like this and I remember getting in my car to go back to my apartment and I said to myself, “That wasn’t so bad.” I felt good about it. No one knew the response would be so immense, but for a television director it was a wonderful feeling knowing how much I affected people in the process of telling a story. It was the best gift I could have ever had.

WEISS: One of the things that make people respond so strongly in George’s writing, and hopefully the show, is it’s not that nobody ever triumphs over adversity. Like Daenerys [unleashing her dragon] in the Plaza of Punishment is such a rousing “f— yeah!” moment. It’s mixing up those moments with somebody making a horrible mistake and paying the worst possible price. If everything was gruesome and terrible all the time you’d always know what was going to happen since it would always be the most gruesome and terrible thing. The range of different possibilities that play out makes it more real because that’s what the world is like. Sometimes wonderful things happen and sometimes horrible things happen… [and in the Red Wedding] they’re the machinations of other characters we know. In the case of Charles Dance [Twyin Lannister], it’s a character we like in spite of ourselves. A monster doesn’t come out of the woodwork and chop these people up. The monsters are our other characters who aren’t monsters but people with their own motivations and goals. The fact this thing is happening because of somebody else we know lends to its epic tragic dimension. It’s the kind of thing that hammers home that everybody’s life is precious and precarious.

BENIOFF: We’re used to, in books and movies when a major character dies, we’re used to a bittersweet final moment. The death speech. You don’t get that here at all. There’s no redemptive moment. There’s just horror and slaughter. You want revenge so quickly for it and you’re not getting it, so you’re deprived of even that satisfaction. It’s just like a kidney punch. That’s the feeling we got in the books and that’s what we’re trying to emulate on screen.

MARTIN: When the book came out I got a lot of emails, and I still get them, saying, “I hate you, how could you do that, I’m never going to read your work again.” Others say, “I threw the book across the room and a week later I picked it up again and it was the greatest thing I ever read.” What can you say to someone who says they’ll never read your book again? People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what [A Song of] Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also had pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.

Also: Read EW’s new cover story going behind the scenes of season 8 in Belfast while the action was being shot amid some tough conditions that put all the stars of the show to the ultimate test. Check out our cast portraits gallery, which has some gorgeous photos and all sorts of storyline teases from the cast. Game of Thrones returns April 14. EW.com will have daily coverage up until launch and through the season. Follow @jameshibberd for GoT scoop.

Get your copy of Entertainment Weekly’s biggest Game of Thrones issue ever: 78 pages of exclusive stories and photos on the past, present, and future of the HBO hit. Buy your choice of 16 different covers now, or pick up the issue on stands Friday. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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See all of EW’s epic Game of Thrones covers

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Game of Thrones first look: Inside the brutal battle to make season 8

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