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behind the scenes

Game of Thrones Director Alex Graves on Lady Stoneheart and the Show’s Most Expensive Scene

The following interview deals with both the events of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones and the books on which the series is based. Spoilers abound.

The most-talked-about moment from last night’s Game of Thrones finale just might be a scene that didn’t air and wasn't filmed. Book readers and Game of Thrones obsessives who’ve had certain plot points spoiled for them had been anticipating the resurrection of a certain character brought back to life in the epilogue of A Storm of Swords, the third book in the George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. But the only thing that rose from the dead were those skeletal zombies known as wights — fortunately, they were pretty cool. Still, Vulture went ahead and grilled frequent Game of Thrones director Alex Graves about why we didn’t see that pivotal reawakening, the challenges of dealing with 114 characters, and what next season is really about.

Lena Headey led us to believe that we’d be seeing Lady Stoneheart at the end of this season.
Oh, really?

Yeah, she Instagrammed a picture of a heart made of stones. How did the decision not to include her (yet?) get made?
Well, she was never going to be a part of it. I know it caught on on the internet, and people really started to believe it. I think the bottom line is that there was so much going on, at least from where I stood, that it wasn’t something to get into because, you know, when you get into taking Michelle Fairley, one of the greatest actresses around, and making her a zombie who doesn’t speak and goes around killing people, what’s the best way to integrate that into the show? I don’t think there was room for it this season. I don’t know what they’re going to do about it, because it is certainly something people attached to. I was attached to it because I established Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion last year in the story to rejuvenate her. I have no idea what they plan to do about that because honestly, it just wasn’t talked about. It wasn’t on the radar.

It never came up?
It didn’t come up in season four. I asked it last year in season three, when I was doing the Beric scenes. They said, “Oh, yeah, you know, that’s a whole thing that we’re just not sure what we’re going to do about.” That was the conversation.

You’ve read the books, right? I haven’t, but according to friends and colleagues who have, Lady Stoneheart does become important later on. Can you see how they might work her in later?
From what I know of the books, it’s like, Okay, what’s she really there for? Because I think she goes around — and it’s vague to me because I haven’t had to direct it, so I haven’t looked at this in detail — but essentially she’s a reaction to the Red Wedding. Part of the reason I think people got so wound up with her coming back, I think, was because of the emotional toll of the Red Wedding, which I totally get. Like, Bring her back and have her kill some people! Joffrey’s death was meant to play to that need a little bit. And also Tywin’s.

The episode ran a little over an hour, and I imagine you shot more than you could use. What kinds of things didn’t make it into the episode? Any heartbreaking cuts?
My director’s cut was 66 minutes long, and I was really worried, because I usually get everything to time and I never have to cut anything down. A couple of weeks after I was done, David Benioff called and said, “HBO’s going to air the whole thing.” I was so thrilled. As you can see, it’s a very tight hour, and if we had cut six minutes out of it, you really would have lost something, which we didn’t do. So nothing was cut. There was tightening, but you look at those moments, and what would they have done? Make Tyrion kill his father faster?

The showrunners said the finale contained the most expensive scene the show has ever produced. Which one was that? The wights, a.k.a. the skeleton zombies?
It was the wight attack because there’s probably a huge article to be written on the execution of that sequence. Man, from the outline last January to when it was finished two weeks ago, it was the most involved thing I’ve done on the show. It was like a poor man’s motion-control process that involved stunt actors repeating takes with exacting movement, choreography with the actors over and over again. It was really involved. The filming of that attack was five days. Every single take and angle had to be shot three times. It’s a real methodical process.

What made it look so cool for me was that it looked like it wasn’t entirely rendered in CG.
They were the skinniest stuntmen we could find in all of Europe, wearing green suits with skeletal applications on top and a lot of motion-control tracking dots. Even when it was done, they were squeezed to be even thinner. I mean, it was a very long process.

Did the dragons come any easier?
It was also all storyboarded out. And then it was the FX guys hopping around with their poles and their balls, tracking where the dragons are supposed to be. I stand around, acting out crying for Mommy and how their necks should spread and all that. Everything after that is just Emilia Clarke acting, and you’re completely covered when that happens.

You’ve directed several episodes of the show these past two seasons. What have been the challenges of directing some of what I’ll call standalone stories, i.e., characters like Bran and Reek and Ramsay, and even Daenerys? Obviously, they’re a part of the show’s long game and someone like Bran will be important later on, but how do you make them interesting and relevant now when they really aren’t a part of the main action?
I think the first thing I experienced watching Game of Thrones toward the end of the first season goes into that, which is that I had no idea what was going on. But I knew the showrunners knew. That was very seductive. The big thing for me was asking David and Dan way too many questions for them to be comfortable with about what happens. And the more you learn about not only where the characters come from and where they’re going next year and the year after, it’s relevant because you are directing that setup.

Right. For some of these characters, seasons of setup.
So they tell me and then I know, and then in knowing, I can put that knowledge into these particular stories so the audience feels like, Okay, I don’t know what this is, but I know it means something.

Sometimes for me it’s the difference between knowing what a character is after or not. Especially for the non-book-reader, there are so many characters to invest in the interests of, and then there are those who who might matter down the line but not right now, like Ramsay and Reek.
You’ll know why Ramsay being King of the North is important next year in a very clear way. And I promise it affects more than one of the other characters. That the thing. Something that’s abstract is actually [in the] bigger picture. That’s the fun of it. The whole thing for me is when it’s done and we all go back and watch the download, or however we’re going to get it later on, and we go, “Man, the whole story is told correctly.”

You had to create the fight between Brienne and the Hound you had from scratch. What was that like?
The fight is all about Arya. The Hound in some ways loves Arya, and Brienne has dedicated her life to taking care of Arya. They meet, and by God, they both want her, but we’re at the point in the story where Arya needs to go her own way. She finally has no one taking care of her, and that’s really what next season is about. As for what I wanted from the fight, I liked the idea of starting with two serious warriors and having it just turn into a freaking street fight. I remember telling Gwyn [who plays Brienne], “Now stop right there, look him in the eye, and spit the ear out.” She was like, “Yes! I love this.” I mean, to have the Hound kicking Brienne in the balls, that was all the choreographer and such a great idea.

Was Arya always going to be the final shot of the season?
That was always the ending — it was the only way they’d spend the money on that shot. When I handed in the storyboards for the episode, there was a definite stroke/heart-attack from production like, “We’re not going to do this.” Then we figured it out, which was great. It’s a real ship that they’ve used on the show. It’s in a parking lot somewhere. But what made it expensive and tricky is that it’s a very huge, long dolly shot and a very big setup. We ended up pulling off since they [knew] it [was] going to be the final image people have of the season.

Tell me about sending off Charles Dance, who plays Tywin.
His final day was shooting the death scene, and it was just another day like they all are. You’re filming this thing that you want to get right, and everyone’s very focused on that. At the end, I made a very big, impassioned, overly mushy speech about how much everyone loves Charles. He loved it. Then we sent him on his merry way back to the movie he was making at the time.

Did he say anything about having to die atop a toilet?
His reaction was a lot of really great one-liners. It’s the perfect place to kill Tywin. George R.R. Martin had him there. It’s funny, I always thought that death was kind of awkward and I wasn’t sure how it was going to play, and then at first rehearsal, when Peter opened the door and you just saw Charles sitting there, it was so awful that I thought, Oh, he’s so brilliant, this George.