Why Sunday Night’s Game of Thrones Was More Difficult to Film Than the Red Wedding

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Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

Spoilers ahead for Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones.

Despite Stannis Baratheon once doing everything in his power to help his greyscale-afflicted daughter, in Sunday’s “The Dance of Dragons,” the wannabe king let his little princess Shireen be brutally snuffed out to assure his ascension to the Iron Throne. We caught up with the episode’s Emmy-winning director David Nutter — also behind the camera for the Red Wedding in “The Rains of Castamere” — to discuss sweet Shireen’s shocking flame-out, Daenerys Targaryen’s flamethrower, and why “The Dance of Dragons” was more difficult to film than the Red Wedding.

Once Stannis sent Davos to Castle Black, with his request to take Shireen denied, we kind of knew her fate was sealed. But it was still shocking to see her holding Davos’s stag and being led to the funeral pyre as evil Melisandre assured her, “It will all be over soon.” Why wasn’t Stannis at least by her side?
Stannis was in the right place. No, he didn’t have a ringside seat. But where he was — steps outside of his tent — felt very appropriate for his character.

What was filming that scene like, and the mood on set? What kind of direction did you give Kerry Ingram (Shireen)?
It was quite a serious and somber day. Basically, the world you’re filming and the tone on set have to match. As with any story with such an intense nature, you try to match real-world reality. Even the reaction of some of Stannis’s soldiers indicates they didn’t sign up for this, and sadness on their part. But Stannis has been told that this is his destiny, and it had to happen. So the situation for me, doing a sequence like this that’s on a huge scale, is about making sure the actors don’t have to wait, so they can keep their wits and emotions about them. As for Kerry, she’s a wonderfully talented and seasoned actress who understood very clearly how she would react as a young woman in Shireen’s place.

Was all of her shrieking recorded separately?
It was all done during production on the day.

Before Shireen gets flambéed, there was an intimate tête-à-tête between father and daughter, with Shireen talking about the book she was reading, The Dance of Dragons. You cut between close-ups of Stannis and Shireen’s faces, and she tells him she wants to help him. So in his mind, is she giving him permission to sacrifice her? And how does that square with the fact that he moved heaven and earth to cure her greyscale?
One of the important things was to “sell” their relationship. The more you saw them together, and saw them look at each other, the more you saw a father-daughter relationship that was quite powerful. Stannis has been overtaken by the fact that this is his destiny. His feeling that his destiny is worth any price is established in the early episodes.

After the father-daughter close-ups, you chose not to show Shireen in flames. Instead, we only heard her desperate pleas for help, first for her father and then her mother, Selyse, who broke down and tried to save her, only to be restrained by soldiers. Shireen’s piercing screams and death occur offscreen, and we only see shots of her parents suffering. What went into your decision about how to film that scene?
In anything with such sensitive material that can be interpreted in many different ways, I felt it was best to play on the reactions of the people who put her in that position. It was much more emotionally powerful. The rest I felt would have been very gratuitous to even attempt to visualize.

The camera similarly panned away during Sansa’s rape, and we heard her screams. Yet we saw Mance Rayder burn a few weeks back. With Shireen and Sansa, were the decisions for similar reasons?
I can’t speak to the Sansa episode. But as far as Shireen is concerned, that was the intent all along from David [Benioff], Dan [Weiss], and myself.

To never show it, and let our imaginations run wild.
Yes, exactly. I wouldn’t say run wild. But at least to play to the intensity of the reactions of what was happening, and how it was affecting the people who had actually sentenced her to this.

After Joffrey had two prostitutes beat each other bloody in season two, has there been more sensitivity to showing violence against women?
I can’t answer that. But David and Dan are such that they do what’s best to tell the best story. They’re not guys that are easily swayed.

The scene of Stannis, Selyse, and the army watching Shireen’s sacrifice overlaps with the sound of roaring applause from the Meereen fighting pit. We’d heard Tyrion and Hizdahr debate the merits of violence as entertainment. Was this an intentional comment on bloodlust?
Well, that’s Hizdahr’s point of view, that nothing is gained without sacrifice or death. And Tyrion takes a much different point of view. So that was more Hizdahr’s experience and background.

But it was your choice to have the overlapping applause as Shireen is burning, no?
No, that’s really more of a situation where I would say, as a director, I hand in my director’s cut, and the producers are basically involved in all the postproduction. [The Game of Thrones world is] complicated. And it may have been about tying the different worlds together.

So at least one royal — Daenerys — didn’t go down in flames this week. Instead we got to see Drogon flambé the attacking Harpies. Can you talk a bit about what it took to pull that scene off?
Years ago, when I did the Red Wedding, I thought that was the craziest thing I would ever get. But when I got this script, I had to read it about a thousand times before figuring out how to do it. It was like a pyramid that you have to take one block at a time because of the complexity of it all. The more organized you are for the riotous moments, the more it feels like it’s out of control. But it was extremely controlled. The first part of the sequence is the gladiator battle, then there’s the second gladiator battle, and then the riot. You think it’s over, and then Drogon appears. Each subsequent sequence trumps the last.

This was tougher than filming the Red Wedding massacre?
Oh yes, much more involved because of the scope of it, and 1,000 extras every day. It took 12 days to shoot the entire sequence.

How much of the stadium was CGI?
It was a combination, like the movie Gladiator. We had thousands of extras, but we didn’t have quite as many as you’re seeing.

You also directed next week’s season finale. Anything you can share?
[Laughs.] As you well know, when it comes to Game of Thrones interviews, every word one says is examined, so I think it would be best to not comment till it’s seen.

Will it rival what happened this week?
All I can tell you is that it’s like no season finale they’ve had before.