Director Miguel Sapochnik on the Most Difficult Shot in the Game of Thrones Finale

“Emilia got so cold, her jaw started shaking uncontrollably.”

Go-to Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik — who’s behind episodes like “Hardhome,” “The Battle of the Bastards,” and “The Winds of Winter” — brings a cinematic touch whenever he helms an episode. “The Battle of the Bastards,” for instance, drew upon such varied films as The Lord of the Rings, Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, and Kurosawa’s Ran, while a Godfather influence runs through the opening sequence of “Winter.” Sapochnik, who is still recovering from the finale, took a moment to answer a few questions for Vulture via email.

How did you go about conceptualizing the opening sequence? We can detect The Godfather, but what were some of your other influences? What were your goals?
The Godfather
definitely had a hand in the conception of this sequence, but I also looked at various James Bond sequences for the explosions of the villain’s lairs. We wanted to make sure that it didn’t feel like a cheap trick to blow up the Sept of Baelor, and at the same time embrace the fact that it was something that people probably saw coming. How could we make it still feel like a shock?

I imagined a lot of it would be in the cutting, so I set about trying to break each scene I had into small beats, so that I could essentially cut up a scene into satisfying chunks that would go one after the other. That said, with all the planning in the world, when there are that many scenes, it’s a bit like the end of The Return of the Jedi — eventually you’re going to make it up in the edit room. And once we’d shot everything we thought we might need, that’s what we did. Slowly whittling it down until it felt like it was all one scene and of a piece. Then it was all about find a fitting piece of music that could convey the building tension and inevitable sense of something reaching a conclusion.

What did it take to do the wildfire explosion — visual effects and practical effects both?
A majority of the wildfire shots in the explosion are real explosions filmed at high speed on half-scale sets. These explosions are then digitally integrated into plates shot of the full-scale sets, and CG exploding barrels are added by VFX. The actual Sept of Baelor exploding is a CG digital concept from the ground up. The most fiddly shot was getting the candles in the green goo to go out and the wildfire itself to light up at the same time as Lancel performs, and the camera pulls away from us. That took a very lengthy number of tries before everything lined up and we got the shot.

What was the most difficult or complicated shot to get in this episode?
The final sequence of seeing the armada on its way to Westeros was complicated because it involved so many different ships, and we only had one that we had to redress and shoot again and again. It was also raining and freezing when we shot it, and it was meant to be a Mediterranean climate. Emilia [Clarke] got so cold, her jaw started shaking uncontrollably and she totally lost her thread as far as what she was meant to be thinking in that moment (the cold will do that). She asked me to help, so I suggested that she just hum the theme to Game of Thrones in her head while we were rolling the cameras, and apparently that worked because it’s the take we used in the final cut!

GOT Director on the Hardest Shot in the Finale