Emmy-winner Miguel Sapochnik on directing the upcoming Battle of Winterfell: 'This is survival horror'

By James Hibberd
April 26, 2019 at 10:31 AM EDT
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Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik returns to Westeros in Sunday’s third episode of the final season chronicling The Battle of Winterfell. The Emmy-winning 44-year-old director previously helmed acclaimed episodes such as “Hardhome,” “Battle of the Bastards,” and “The Winds of Winter.” Last March, EW took a late night walk with Sapochnik between takes on the set of season 8 in Northern Ireland for a spoiler-free discussion about bringing together the super-sized episode where a sprawling assembly of fan-favorite characters face off against the Army of the Dead in an apocalyptic struggle for survival.

The interview below gives some insight into the extraordinary effort that went into pulling off episode and the GoT team’s endgame perfectionism. Some of Sapochnik’s quotes were previously published in our recent cover story going behind the scenes of GoT detailing the extremely difficult working conditions that the cast and crew endured to make the battle as convincing as possible. “Miguel is an animal,” praises Ser Jorah Mormont actor Iain Glen. “He takes care of each individual storyline so well. I don’t know how he does it — to stay as engaged and fresh as he does with this weight on his shoulders.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How eager were you to dive back into this? It’s great when you get so much praise for an episode like “Battle of the Bastards,” but there’s also now pressure I would imagine.
MIGUEL SAPOCHNIK: I wasn’t eager to go back and do anything bigger, no. The thing for me is that everything should be appropriate for the job. [Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] asked if I could come back for season 7. I said I couldn’t do season 7 and 8, I could only do one. And thankfully, they said season 8. It meant I had a year off and got to miss Thrones, which is good, because you don’t miss Thrones as much when you’re on Week 6 of night shoots. So I was eager to come back. And yeah, there’s always a bit of trepidation because now there’s this expectation that you have to beat yourself, which I loathe.

I heard originally you were doing 3 episodes, perhaps even more, and then eventually settled on two.
I wanted to do 3, 4, and 5 and there literally just weren’t enough days because we shoot two units. Then I said “4 and 5” and they said, “No, you have to do 3 and 5.” What I really like about 3, 4, and 5 is they’re a complete piece with a beginning middle and end. I try to approach all these [episodes] like they’re one. Like in season 6, [episodes 9 and 10, “The Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter”], were to me one thing. Yes, there was talk of that. Thank god it didn’t happen. I would be so dead right now.

Can you give me a sense of the amount of work you’ve done?
I’ve been working on it since June of 2017. I’m shooting for seven and a half months, which is like 130 days, which is longer than most of the big movies that get made. So in terms of the amount of work, it’s been six- and seven-day weeks, 16-to-18 hour days and, yeah, it’s a lot. I knew that was a lot when I came on board. I felt more confident because I’ve got a format now for how to approach [the episodes] and break them down into pieces. As usual, the scripts are bigger than what we actually end up making. The process of whittling it down took longer this time. Because David and Dan wanted everything. We all want everything but we were up against the reality of what we could achieve in the time we had. The thing I’ve put the most hours into was is how, in episode 3, how to not have an audience feel battle fatigue. After 20 minutes of watching a battle, you’re over it. So how do you stop it from being a battle in that sense?

And the action is around an hour I’ve heard?
I hope not more.* It feels for me at some point you exhaust an audience. For my reference point I watched [The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers] because the siege is a 40-minute sequence, but it’s actually three different battles in three different places intercut. That was the biggest thing I could think of that was contemporary. I was trying to get a sense of when do you tire out. I think we’re going to blow past that. 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?” One thing I found is the less action — the less fighting — you can have in a sequence, the better. We also switch genres. There’s suspense and horror and action and drama and we’re not stuck in killing upon killing because then everybody gets desensitized and it doesn’t mean anything.

Each battle you’ve done have has a different feel and tone. What is this one like?
This is survival horror. That’s the whole episode for me. What we realized is you look at like Assault on Precinct 13 — movies where a group is under siege — usually there’s an ensemble cast and a central theme in there. So I’ve been trying to work out whose story this is. That’s different than the stuff I’ve done previously which was generally from Jon’s perspective. 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, and here the point of view is objective even when you go from one person’s story to another. Because when you’re cutting back and forth, [the perspective] becomes objective whether you want it to or not. I keep thinking, “Whose story am I telling right now? And what restrictions does that place on me that become a good thing?”

There are also dragons.
The visual effects stuff is where you really where you do the pre-visualizing. But we’ve been trying to hold onto the ability to improvise. We have a way of shooting the dragons this time that’s a little looser. When you put an actor on a rotating buck and then you blast them with wind and they’re on a green screen set, the last thing they think is they have to give a performance. So my focus this year is: How can we get a performance from the actor so their story continues even though they’re on a dragon?

The Winterfell set, and [another new set that hasn’t yet been seen], are pretty amazing. They’re like these giant sprawling playspaces. 
That’s what I like about Game of Thrones. 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. Everything would be broken into little morsels to be put back together. 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 think there’s something that you lose when doing it that way; you lose the spontaneity of being able to move the camera anywhere. And I was walking around [the Winterfell set] thinking, “This is a really cool set. I can find angles I would never have found beforehand.” [And] I turned to producers and said, “I know it’s 11 weeks of night shoots, I know it’s s—ty and going to be cold. I don’t want to do 11 weeks of night shoots and no one else does. But if we don’t we’re going we’re going to lose what makes Game of Thrones cool and that is it feels real — even though it’s supernatural and we have dragons.”

Speaking of which, the showrunners are writing a Star Wars movie next. If they asked you to direct it, are you down?
Ah, you’ll find out. Who knows? I don’t know. Let’s get through this first.

EW will have full coverage Sunday night and Monday with a recap and several exclusive interviews about the Battle of Winterfell. 

Game of Thrones season 8, episode 2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” coverage:
‘Game of Thrones’: Emilia Clarke defends Dany’s reaction to Jon’s parentage
Maisie Williams discusses her surprise Gendry scene: ‘At first, I thought it was a prank…’ 
‘Game of Thrones’ releases ‘Jenny of Oldstones’ performed by Florence + the Machine
Game of Thrones’ writer breaks down ‘play-like’ season 8, episode 2’s big scenes
Deep-dive recap for “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” 

*It’s more.

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HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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