Game of Thrones Director on the One Battle Scene He Improvised

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Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

Alan Taylor has played the game of thrones before, but never on this scale. The director helmed the final two episodes of Game of Thrones season one and the first two installments of season two, a stretch that included the series-defining death of Ned Stark. In fact, a look at Taylor’s IMDb page reveals that series-defining deaths on HBO are kind of his specialty, from The Sopranos to Deadwood to Rome.

Since then, Game of Thrones has become one of the biggest shows on TV — literally so, in terms of the scale of the production — so even a big-screen blockbuster vet like Taylor (Thor: The Dark World, Terminator Genisys) was shocked by the sheer size of it all. Indeed, “Beyond the Wall,” the episode he returned to shoot, is one of the series’ most epic installments, filled with zombie armies and dying dragons — as well as tense moments between rival sisters Sansa and Arya Stark (Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams). We spoke with Taylor about balancing huge moments with intimate ones, dealing with audience concerns about logistics, his reputation as prestige TV’s executioner-in-chief, and what the hell is going to happen next week.

It’s been several years since you last visited Westeros. What was it like to come back?
I thought I was gonna be going back to the familiar, but in fact I was stunned by how things had changed. It’s like knowing someone when they’re a little kid, then you go away and by the time you come back, they’re in college. The first thing was the scale of what we were trying to achieve in every script. It wasn’t just my episode that had a big action thing; every episode had big components. That was new. And the scale of the army — I remember walking on the stages and passing through bunker after bunker of activity. Whereas in the old days it would’ve been one building, now it was ten. And because things like the dragons have grown up, there’s a huge effects component that wasn’t there before. It’s [in a booming voice] BIG.

The more human part of it was actresses like Sophie, who was a kid when I first worked with her in season one and has grown into this wonderful actress. The stuff between her and Maisie has gotten so dark and layered and mature. I’ve watched those characters grow up and watched those actors grow up. It was a delight to come back and play on this new level.

The amazing thing is, it still feels like it’s being run on a really tight budget. [Executive producer] Bernie Caulfield, who controls the money, runs it really tight, and every dime winds up on screen. The actors sit on milk crates. They carry their own gear up and down the hills when we’re in Iceland. It hasn’t gotten bloated at all, it’s just gotten grand.

You filmed a big battle, but it’s unusual in that it’s not two armies fighting out there — it’s an army of zombies versus a bunch of individual people, and eventually dragons.
It’s funny. When I saw it, I thought, “This is nothing in terms of the scale of the battles they’ve done.” I still think “Battle of the Bastards” is the greatest battle ever portrayed in television history, and I think it will be for a while. So when I read this, I thought, Okay, well, we’re not doing that. It’s not a matter of scale. This is more a matter of intimacy: the fact that we only have seven characters, but the audience cares about each one of them and how they interact is going to be important. We let that be the guide in terms of how we handled the scene.

When Tormund almost gets killed on the island, that wasn’t in the script. That was something we fabricated because we wanted to use the fact that the audience cares about these characters and is sort of expecting somebody to die. I did a calculation thing: “Well, it’s believable Tormund could die here. [Laughs.] No one thinks Jon Snow is going to die in the penultimate episode of season seven.” So we didn’t go into that a lot. He had some wonderful action, but we didn’t put him in peril the way we did Tormund on the island. Even when Jon falls into the ice, I think you sort of think he’s coming back again.

You have no shortage of experience filming major-character deaths. I’m not even thinking just about this show. If you look at the episodes of The Sopranos you directed — I mean, it still hurts my heart to think about some of those. [WARNING: Spoilers for The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Rome, kinda.]
I’m glad you made that connection. I’m so proud of that! I don’t know where I got this résumé, but I got to kill Ned Stark, Christopher Moltisanti, Wild Bill Hickok, Julius Caesar, and now Viserion the dragon. I didn’t set out to be an executioner, but some of the most satisfying work is when you can end a character who’s been really invested in. You get a chance to really, really connect to the audience. I’m lucky that way.

People like to nitpick on Twitter, obviously, and a lot of the focus of discussion about the episode was stuff like, “How did he throw the spear that far? Why didn’t he throw it before? How did Jon not die of hypothermia?” As a filmmaker, do you prepare for that kind of response?
Yes. We really do care about believability. There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into making the dragons as believable as possible. It’s funny: The most unbelievable things, like lizards as big as 747s that can throw flames, people don’t have any concerns about the reality of that. It’s the smaller things that people get hung up on. I don’t dismiss it, because it’s important for us to tell the story in a way that that doesn’t get in the way for too many people. I have no problem with the way the Night King throws his spear, and the fact that it does kill a dragon and knocks it out of the sky. I think that’s fine. I think haggling over that is ridiculous. I get people’s time-frame concerns — you know, “Gendry must be running really fast! The ravens must be flying really fast!” [Laughs.]

I think if the show was struggling, it would be a drag to have people getting distracted by this stuff, but obviously the show’s doing pretty well, and it’s working. So when things like this come along, they’re plausible impossibilities. You’re hoping that even if something doesn’t quite add up, if it works within the story for us, it can carry the day. So for me, I think we were aware of the time thing, and I was thinking, Okay, if you say that Gendry is really fast, which I’m willing to say, and if you say ravens are super good at what they do, which I think you can say, and if you say the time on the island is a bit hazy because it’s an eternal twilight up there north of the Wall, so we’re not really sure how much time has passed, that’s an episode where the calculation of minutes fades away and you just sort of enjoy the story. But I did read one review where the guy got his calculator out and he could not get over the raven-speed. [Laughs.]

You mentioned the scenes between Sansa and Arya, which could get overshadowed by the stuff with dragons and zombies and ice demons. What’s it like to handle both halves of that episode?
Well, that’s the thing. So much of our attention, resources, and time was going into the frozen lake stuff and the dragons, and at the time I was anxious about the Sophie/Maisie scenes: “My God, it’s eight pages of them standing there talking.” But when we started doing them, I realized how much both actors had upped their game. Those are now some of my favorite moments — the tension between the two of them, and the way we blocked it so you feel the power balance shift one way and then the other. They’re both lethal now, and I think it really does raise the question of, “Okay, one of those girls could die. It could happen very soon.” I enjoyed the nuances of the power struggle there as much as anything else in the show. I hope it doesn’t get lost in the tumult. It’s certainly a big part of the storytelling in the episode, what’s evolving there, and how it’s going to pay off — as soon as, perhaps, next week! It’s as big a part of the show as the Night King getting his first nuclear weapon.

What else can you tell us about where things are headed next week?
Everything’s moving faster and faster, the wheels are spinning faster, and the story’s getting tighter and tighter, which was always the intention of the big arc of the show. Obviously, there’s a game-changing moment in my episode. I can say that this process of tightening, this amping-up and this barreling towards the final outcome, gets bigger and faster next week. There’s a plot point next week that’s the biggest one yet.

Thrones Director on the Scene He Improvised and What’s Next