After seasons of buildup, winter finally arrived on Sunday night’s Game of Thrones, in an episode that finally made clear one of the lessons of George R.R. Martin’s books: The jockeying for the Iron Throne is nothing but a petty distraction; the real terror is the White Walkers and their ever-increasing army of the dead. The 20-minute battle scene that made up the climax of “Hardhome” was a mini-masterwork on the part of director Miguel Sapochnik, who invested the proceedings with a chaotic intensity (and plenty of reliable action-movie beats). We caught up with Sapochnik — who also handled the previous episode, “The Gift” — by email to discuss the episode.
I understand you didn’t read the books before taking on the directing gig. Was that a matter of wanting to bring your own vision, or simply a timing issue?
I wish I could have. It was simply a timing thing. Whatever project I sign up for, I try to familiarize myself with the material as much as possible before I start. In this case, being up to date on the show and all six scripts of the current season before my own was a priority over reading the books.
This was the longest look we’ve gotten at Wildling society in a while. What conversations did you have with the actors who played the Wildlings to bring out their unique culture?
[Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] really wanted to make sure that in the scene where Jon tries to persuade the Wildlings to join him shows as many of the different clans as possible represented. So we tried to show that the Wildlings consisted of many different groups. If you look closely, you will see that represented in the background players. There were no formal conversations about Wildling culture that I was part of. I think that being a Wildling is essentially about surviving the cold, and in that department, the extras on our shoot excelled and needed no help from us. They showed up day in, day out, got drenched to the bone by torrential rain in heavy costumes that retain water, and still managed to run around like crazy whenever called for.
We want to talk a lot about the big fight scene that occupied the episode’s last 20 minutes. Can you describe the process that goes into preparing something like that a little bit? I imagine it was slightly different from the intimate dialogue scenes in episode seven.
I try to approach all episodic work the same. No matter the content. I look for a dramatic or emotional spine to the story I’m telling, something that stands out to me thematically about the episode and its relationship to the rest of the season/series. Then I talk to the writers or showrunners about what their expectations are or what they are trying to get from this story. For example, one could say that episode seven was about the rope being coiled tighter and tighter until it was about to snap. Then episode eight was about release. Once you have a blueprint down, you start talking to all the other heads of department to see if and how they can help to execute what you’ve imagined, and so things change and evolve. And then you have to make it work within the budget and time frame, so things change even more. It’s your job to keep reminding yourself, and everyone else, what the spine of the story is.
With “Hardhome” it was the same, just bigger and more to keep in your mind at any one time. But you keep turning it over and over and eventually the good ideas stick, the bad ones fall away, and by the time you come to shoot, you’ve imagined it enough that shooting is, on the one hand, academic, and on the other, this great opportunity to free yourself up to exciting mistakes and discoveries you never could have thought of. But all the while knowing in the back of your mind that you still have this solid version you worked out that you can always fall back on if things stop working when you are shooting.
What was the biggest challenge, then?
Time, money, weather, lack of control over all the above. Oh, and lack of snow.
Did you take any inspiration from Neil Marshall’s big GOT battle episodes?
They were a great bar to aspire to. I met Neil just after I got the job on GOT. He’s already done some fantastic battles outside of GOT, his movie Centurion, in particular, which you should see if you haven’t already. We had a coffee and I was very grateful to be able to pick his brain a little about his GOT experience.
How do you see the White Walkers? Are they an unstoppable force of nature, or are they something more cunning than that?
They seem kind of pissed off to me.
How do you interpret the Night’s King’s interest towards Jon throughout the battle, and at the end?
I think the Night’s King is curious about Jon Snow. Who is this human who kills my soldiers and rises up against my army? At which point he raises his arms as if to sing the English stadium chant, ”Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.”
Is there any shot from this week that you’re particularly fond of?
There’s a shot from high up looking down on the Jon after Edd picks him up, and for a moment they hold their swords to each other’s throats. Ed’s cloak is kicked up by the wind, and it looked marvelous with their black silhouettes against the white blood-splattered snow. It got cut from the final edit.
This interview has been edited.