Spoilers ahead for the most recent episodes of Game of Thrones.
The last two episodes of Game of Thrones, “The Door” and “Blood of My Blood,” benefited from having a director at the helm who had both experience with the theater and the wonkier side of time travel — Jack Bender. While new to the Thrones team, Bender’s used to working on TV shows with rich mythologies and obsessive fan bases, thanks in large part to his time on Lost. That may be why showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss recruited him, but the thespian in him was also thrilled that his episodes included a play within the show, “which brought back the Tragedians from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Bender, who’s also a painter (you can see some of his most recent work in The Elephant in The Room) says his artistic style was an influence as well — as in painting, you might have a initial plan, but spontaneous decisions on set often add some of the most interesting elements to the overall picture. Vulture caught up with the director to find out how he framed five crucial Thrones scenes.
The attack on the cave. This sequence had so many moving parts — the stunts, the special effects, the acting — it had to be meticulously plotted out in advance, with storyboards and pre-visualization, to replicate the camera moves and angles. “It’s not like it’s the gospel, but it’s the path,” Bender explained. It was a challenge to figure out how the Children of the Forest could defend themselves “against that massive multitude of the dead,” he said. “We had a lot of meetings and discussions about it. If there is an army of that many dead people out there, how are we going to keep them out of the cave? And I remember the ring of fire idea wasn’t something we had early on.” Once they decided that a firewall would keep the army of the dead from penetrating the entrance, they realized the wights would still find another way in — from above. “We wanted to make sure it was going to be believable in real time,” he said.
A number of sacrifices are made to keep the wights and White Walkers at bay long enough for Bran and Meera to escape — Summer dies, the Three-Eyed Raven dies, Leaf dies, and finally, Hodor dies. Bender wanted to ensure that it didn’t seem like a horror film (“I didn’t want to see a guy’s flesh get ripped off his face”), so when he discussed the sequence with the showrunners, he suggested that the shot rest on Hodor, while a high shot would move down on Hodor’s past self, Wylis; then, the two be intercut so they would play in parallel time as the scene reached its climax. In both shots, we stay on their faces as much as possible. “I had that image of more and more of these dead arms and hands pulling him in, and eventually as the camera was getting closer and closer, the camera would engulf him,” Bender said. “Even though he’s being ripped apart, and he’s risking his life for his friends to get away, it’s not just cool action. It’s got heart. Emotionally, you’re really with him.” If you cried, Bender is happy. “That was the objective.”
Bran’s visions. The Three-Eyed Raven overloads Bran with visions to sort through during his escape, and most of them should be familiar to fans of the show because we’ve seen so many of them before — the Red Wedding, Ned’s beheading, Dany’s dragons. A few of them, however, were newly filmed for this episode. “The Mad King was one of the new things that was shot for that sequence,” Bender said, clarifying that the shot was not taken from a similar scene filmed for the original unused pilot episode. A shot of a wildfire explosion from a possible future was also new, as was an image of a wounded body and a bloody hand, which some interpret to be a vision of Lyanna Stark’s body and Ned Stark’s hand, inside the Tower of Joy. “I wish I knew the answer to that, and I’m glad I don’t,” Bender laughed. “And by the way, if I knew the answer, which I don’t, I’d probably be crucified if I spilled the beans.” More than that, Bender can’t say, other than to emphasize that each detail, each vision, and the order of each vision was in the script for a reason, “and they all reverberate.”
The play. Bender was a theater director in his early 20s, so he took a more theatrical approach to staging what he calls the Game of Thrones players. The actors rehearsed on the weekend, as if they were putting on a separate play, and then performed it for the show’s producers. Bender had fun adding to the play’s backdrops, props, and jokes, especially during the moment depicting King Robert’s death by boar. The backdrop is meant to look “almost like lollipop trees,” but then turns black during the attack as a way to bring the throne in. The cut-out boar for the attack was Bender’s idea, and he worked with production design so that “the guts that poured out were red pieces of cloth.” “We wanted the whole sequence to be true to what would have been used in the theater of that time, so it wasn’t historically ridiculous,” he said, while still allowing for some ridiculous, bawdy moments, including fart jokes. “I confess, being a 14-year-old at heart, I always love a good fart joke, and I added more [than were in the script],” Bender said. “I was concerned that maybe we were mocking the show too much, but David and Dan didn’t think that for an instant! They loved the attitude.” The much-ballyhooed male nudity was included in the script, and he didn’t have to do any special “penis casting” to find the right one, he said.
The kingsmoot. Actor Pilou Asbæk has Bender to thank for “drowning” him during his scenes as Euron Greyjoy. Although we had seen a similar baptism happen with Theon Greyjoy in season two, Bender wanted a shot of Euron underwater to show how the ritual worked. “Usually when you see people drowning, they’re being held down against their will,” he noted. “Eventually, they can’t breathe anymore, and they inhale all that water. I had a thought that he would open his mouth voluntarily, and let the water in.” This way, whoever tries to claim the Salt Throne has to intentionally drown. If he survives on his own, he can be king.
Dany’s dragon speech. Daenerys Targaryen has given a lot of speeches, but this was to be her only one so far on top of a dragon. Bender first worked out how many flying shots he could have, and how she would fly in, before an idea came up that helped add tension to the scene. The horses for the Dothraki weren’t settling down during the rehearsal, and one of the assistant directors suggested that perhaps this would be a good thing for the scene itself — keep them agitated. “The Dothraki are more and more enthralled with what she is telling them, but the horses keep moving around,” Bender said. “If you have her on a 747 of a dragon up on that hill, those horses would be fucking freaking out.” The end result is that the scene strikes a note the producers and director didn’t anticipate, resonating “on an animalistic level.” “Historically, there are echoes of that kind of speech,” Bender said, “seeing that kind of fervor for that kind of leader. Power is a seductive thing, and you have to decide whether to use it for good or bad. Every great leader has to know how to wield that sword, and she certainly has the charisma and the power to get them to back her. Where it goes from here, who knows!”