It started with a summit between nearly every major character, ended with the destruction of the Wall by the Night King and his dragon, — and had Sansa Stark’s triumph over Littlefinger and the first love scene between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen sandwiched in between. As director Jeremy Podeswa puts it, in Game of Thrones’ seventh-season finale, “It’s all there.”
No stranger to the world of Westeros — this is his sixth episode as director — Podeswa tells Vulture he was pleased to play on such a large canvas this time around. “You get so many different colors in this episode,” he says. “You have these amazing reunions with people. You have these scenes of real consequence and drama and tension. You also have this epic finale, which is potentially the beginning of the end.” Below, he explains just how he put together such a supersized episode.
First you got everyone together, then you broke everything apart. What was more difficult to shoot?
Really, the most complicated thing to shoot was the [summit in] the Dragonpit and the lead-up to it. It was about six days of shooting. Because there’s so much to cover within that sequence, so many people involved, and so many small moments to capture, we rehearsed it and directed it almost like a play. It has many different movements within it, with the wight and Daenerys’s arrival and Cersei’s exit and Tyrion going after her and then coming back. There are many characters, a lot of whom have never met before. It’s very layered and complex in terms of the interpersonal relationships. And the potential for it to blow up is enormous. We don’t know going into it if it’s a trap or not a trap. There’s tension underlying the whole thing, and you have to sustain it for a really long time. It was a real challenge to do it justice.
It was also interesting because having these actors all together, with actors they don’t normally get to work with, was almost like a party every day. They’re having such a good time working together, it was constantly reminding people that we’re there to work. It’s really fun, but it actually has to happen. But they were great, and they got it pretty quickly. I think there was a real sense of accomplishment. It was a coup, actually, to pull it off in the amount of time we had. Everyone knew it had this historic quality to it, and that it would be a very big moment for the fans. It was challenging, but very satisfying.
Lena Headey’s Cersei is one of the primary elements of that sequence. She’s lying, but she has to convince everyone that she isn’t.
Well, for me, she’s one of the most transparent, interesting actors around. She’s a minimalist in a way, but at the same time everything is coming through her. She’s able to surprise even though we know her. That turn during her scene with Jaime when we realize that she was lying to him, lying to everybody … Up until that point, I don’t think anyone would have expected that to be happening. Look retrospectively at her performance for clues, and I think you may find them, actually. She’s smart to have put them in. [But] as those scenes are happening, you would never, ever know that that’s where she’s heading.
In those two scenes with Tyrion and Jaime, I just think that’s some of the finest work out there. You have to believe in both of those instances that, despite everything, she could kill both of those guys. I watched this episode with a group of 20 people, and they all gasped during that Jaime scene because they actually thought she was going to kill him.
I did too, 100 percent.
[Laughs.] You believe that anything is possible with her and that she’d kill the person she loves the most, but you also believe that she can’t at the same time. Lena can make you believe anything she wants you to believe. The turns are entirely convincing.
I loved working on both of those scenes with her, and I know it was fantastic for Peter [Dinklage]. They had been separated for such a long time, and it was very, very powerful for both of them. It’s the same thing for Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau] in that last scene — a scene that tears them apart. It’s a big moment, and they knew it.
Early in the season, Sansa said that she learned a lot from Cersei. Now we know they basically pulled the same scam, convincing their enemies they’re doing one thing when they did the opposite all along.
I think you’re exactly right. It’s that same poker-faced quality. They can fool everybody around them, but they’re also the smartest person in the room. Neither of them can be underestimated. We’ve seen Sansa go through things where she has no control and no power and learn how to become the person that she is. She’s learned from Cersei, but she’s also learned from experience and hard knocks about how to succeed in the world and move through the world in a powerful way. Her growth and maturity … I don’t think it’s made her like Cersei, but there’s a certain parallel there in terms of knowing how to navigate in a man’s world. In the end, it’s not a man’s world. It’s very much a woman’s world in the show.
I want to talk to you about Littlefinger’s last stand. Aidan Gillen has often talked about how he tries to bring out a sense of playfulness in that character. This was the worst moment of his life, but it was still so funny to watch, simply because you’ve never seen him in that position before.
It starts that way, because it’s always fun to watch a player finally get played. Seeing the tables turn on him has a kind of cosmic justice to it. But I think what’s so great about Aidan’s performance in that scene is that quickly goes away. Even though you know he’s been manipulating and taking advantage of so many situations, that his intentions are more than questionable much of the time, in the end, you really feel for the guy. You feel he loved Sansa, and his sense of being betrayed by her, in a way, is really intense and powerful.
I was very moved by his performance. I think everyone was moved by that performance. You think, “Yeah, he had it coming to him,” but in the end you think, “Oh my God, that’s so horrible.” It is horrible, because he makes you feel his humanity. Underneath all the scheming and the game playing, he’s somebody who loved Catelyn, loves Sansa, and this is a horrible death. He knows he’s been outplayed by the person he loves the most.
Beyond Sansa and Arya’s rapprochement, the episode ends with Dany and Jon’s love scene and the fall of the Wall.
Yeah. It’s what the whole show is talking about, really, and why there is a summit at the Dragonpit in the first place. The show is so much about people fighting for power and one-upmanship and control, but at the end of the day, it’s a metaphor for life. Whatever we try — to be rich, to be happy — death is unavoidable. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, it doesn’t matter how much love you have. At the end of the day, it’s all heading that way. It puts all this gamesmanship and fight for power in relief, and it’s a big part of what this show is about.
Coming so hot on the heels of the Jon and Dany scene, which was about life and love and all those powerful forces, I was really struck by the shot you did of the zombies just watching as the Night King and the dragon destroy the Wall. There was an awful sense of violation about that.
Something that Game of Thrones always does successfully is that action sequences are never just action sequences. There’s always a point of view, and you’re always identifying with one person or one group of people. I think in this case, it’s not that you identify with the White Walkers, but there is a strange consciousness among them. It’s not spectacle just for the sake of spectacle. There’s actually a human drama that’s being played out here, and in this case this is the implacable enemy. It’s the forces of death over the forces of life. You have to believe in them as a kind of real, living, breathing, sentient mass.
The way to create drama in a sequence like this is by making it about these figures, not just about a Wall coming down. It’s really about the forces of good versus evil, and evil has a face.
This interview has been edited and condensed.