How Game of Thrones’ Fiery Dragon Battle Came Together With Dozens of Burning Stuntmen

Dany and Drogon. Photo: HBO

“The Spoils of War” marked Matt Shakman’s (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mad Men) directorial debut on the series — he shot this coming weekend’s “Eastwatch” as well — and presented one of the biggest, bloodiest, burning-est battles in the show’s history. For the first time, we saw Daenerys Targaryen unleash the fury of the Dothraki horde and a full-grown dragon on Westeros. And for the men on the other side of the battle, most notably Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jaime Lannister and Jerome Flynn’s Bronn, the experience was utterly horrifying.

Shakman talked to Vulture about working with the actors, the stunt crew, and showrunners and co-writers David Benioff and Dan Weiss to drive home the horror of a whole new form of warfare.

Last night’s battle was the talk of Twitter. Have you ever been a part of something that — pardon the pun — set the world on fire like that? 
[Laughs.] No, nothing to this degree. I’m not on Twitter or Facebook. I’m completely analog in my life, other than email and cell phones and stuff like that, so my wife has filled me in. It’s definitely a new experience for me.

With an enormous battle sequence like this, how much of it is based in the script and how much do you have to create there on the set as you see what’s going on?
There’s definitely no room for improv, unlike my other job in It’s Always Sunny. When you get to down to horses and fire and stuntmen and the possibility of danger and injury? No room for improv at all. And when you’re integrating so many visual effects, in terms of the dragon and the fire, you need to have everything planned out well in advance. Everything is storyboarded, everything is turned into what we call a previs [shorthand for previsualization], which is an animated version of the sequence, so we can then use the previs to break down all the elements we need for each frame.

I dreamed bigger than I could ever have imagined, and showed up with this previs that I thought was unmakeable — and then everyone around the table nodded and said, “Alright, let’s get started. Let’s figure out how we’re going to do this.” That’s an incredible team of producers as well as development heads. We approached each frame one at a time and figured out how to do it. It was incredibly wonderful.

In terms of when it goes from script to what we actually shot, the basic structure was there in David and Dan’s script. I thought through it and figured out how I wanted to weigh the different points of view.
I wanted to focus on Jaime and Bronn and what it was like to be on the ground in battle when you see warfare change forever — when you see this giant weapon from sky, [like] when napalm or the atom bomb was introduced into traditional warfare, and what it was like on the ground. That changed some of the sequence. Also, going to Spain and figuring out where and how we were going to shoot it changed the topography, the order of events, and who could see what when. All that stuff that affected how it was structured. Then I would bring all that back to David and Dan and pitch them different things, and they’d say, “We love that,” or, “No, keep it the way it was.” We ended up with a script that reflected what we could do on the ground with the resources and the time we had and that made sense for the story we were trying to tell.

I’m glad you brought up the focus on Jaime and Bronn. The thing that sold the menace of both the dragons and the Dothraki the most was seeing these two guys, who are never fazed by anything, looking terrified for minutes on end. After you’ve watched them for seven seasons, it’s so unnerving to see them scared shitless.
Yeah. That was one of the goals, certainly with Bronn who, like you said, is one of the coolest of customers. When he is forced to go to the scorpion on the other side of the wagon train, through the densest part of the battle where the Dothraki are completely in control and there’s fire all around and death everywhere, we see pure terror on his face. That was the goal. That’s why I wanted to do it in one shot, like in Children of Men when you follow Clive Owen through the chaos. You could see Bronn in that environment and see Jerome’s terrific acting as he’s navigating all of that and the terror that he brings. Those guys, Nikolaj and Jerome, were just so dedicated from the beginning. They worked their butts off for weeks on end doing this battle. They did a great job.

In Entertainment Weekly, both David Benioff and stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam were talking about just the sheer, record-setting number of people who were literally set on fire for this battle. What’s it like to helm that?
We wanted to make sure that the size of Drogon was reflected in the impact on the ground. He’s the size of a 747 this year. The cone of fire that comes out of his mouth is 30 feet in diameter. It was really different from, say, Daznak’s Pit, where he first shows up to save Daenerys from the Sons of the Harpy. There, you see him burn people and they’re half caught on fire, running around. This is a much larger dragon. When he unleashes his fire on the Lannisters, the people in the center of that cone of fire are carbonized almost immediately, like Pompeii. There’s almost nothing left of them. As you get progressively to the edges of the cone, people are partially on fire and cooking in the armor as they rush to the water. We really wanted to show the horror of what it was to be like to be on the ground during something like that.

Burning a lot of stunt men was essential to that, in terms of both the scope and the humanity, as Jaime watches these guys die. In one particular shot, we burned 20 stuntmen completely for about 15 seconds, which is the most you can do. It’s a very long 15 seconds as they hold their breath.
I understand that is a record. I would refer you to Rowley Irlam, our stunt coordinator, for confirmation, but that’s what he said. In total in the sequence, I remember when we wrapped [there was] a count of around 63 people burned. I also heard online someone say 73, but I remember 63 as the total number of people burned in the sequence. Yeah, I think that was essential to telling the story and the scope of what it was like to be in a dragon battle.

When things like this happen on Game of Thrones, it’s not just like, “Wow, look at the size of that explosion.” The pain and suffering is made audible and visible, especially in the shots of the soldiers desperately dousing themselves in the water. It was gutwrenching to look at.
Thank you. I certainly looked at Saving Private Ryan for that sequence. Jaime’s on the beach and he’s looking around and taking in the “all is lost” moment, when the sound drops out and he’s watching all of the people die around him. It’s very much like Tom Hanks when the sound drops out in Saving Private Ryan. He looks around and sees the men on fire left and right. You need to have that strong point of view in a battle in order to get the humanity of it. You need to have someone whose eyes you’re looking through, and Jaime is the one down in the mess who we really connect with.

Then you have Tyrion above, who’s another audience stand-in. He shows what it’s like to be torn between two people that you love in a battle — Daenerys on one side, and Jaime and Bronn on the other. That is another thing that’s unique about the battle. Here’s the first time where two people you like are coming together and fighting each other, as opposed to Jon Snow versus Ramsay Bolton.

Near the end of the battle, there’s a shot of two white horses who are hitched to a wagon that’s on fire. They’re desperately trying to run away from it, but of course they’re attached to it and can’t. Both the audience and some of the characters watch it happen. It really got to me, and a lot of other people too. What was the origin of that image?
We wanted something that was iconic and that could fit in the “all is lost” moment, something that really helped tell the story of the horrors of war, and something that could unite Tyrion and Jaime. Both of them are looking at the same image at the same time; it helps you understand where they are in the battlefield in relationship to each other, and that they’re both having the same experience as the potential end of the Lannisters is happening in front of them.

A few years ago [in season five’s ninth episode, “The Dance of Dragons”] there was the burning horse in Stannis’ camp. It’s quite a horrific image, as the horse runs by fully on fire. We talked about images like that. But then it became more compelling to do this idea of a wagon on fire, with the horses fleeing even as they’re still tethered to it. You have this idea of the wagon train that was supposed to be orderly and safe and heading to King’s Landing — now here it is, off in the wild, dragging flames behind it. I felt like it was a pretty good image to tell the story of the horror of that moment.

Game of Thrones’ Dragon Battle: How It Came Together