[Warning: this story contains spoilers for the fifth episode of Game of Thrones‘ seventh season, “Eastwatch.”]
Bronn of the Blackwater (Jerome Flynn) would love nothing more than to take full credit for shooting Drogon, but another man was at least equally responsible for shooting the dragon: Matt Shakman, director of the past two episodes of Game of Thrones.
Shakman, best known for directing several episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is the filmmaker who brought the Loot Train Battle to life in “The Spoils of War,” and assembled one of the greatest bands of warriors we’ve ever seen on Thrones by the end of “Eastwatch.” Across both episodes, he advanced the rapidly growing closeness between Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), almost killed Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), gave Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) an up close look at the horrors of war, and dropped a game-changing revelation about the King in the North. So when Shakman describes his experience helming two episodes of Game of Thrones as an “opportunity of a lifetime,” it’s safe to say he means it.
“I was a huge fan of the show before I got a chance to work on it,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter about his work on the HBO series, “so it was definitely a dream come true. Everyone there is the top of their field and are amazing collaborators, starting with David and Dan at the very top, to the visual effects department, the special effects department, the cinematographers, the art department — everybody. It was a huge canvass. It’s also very difficult. It’s definitely a seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day job, but it’s hugely rewarding. To be able to craft something as large as the Loot Train Battle and also be able to handle some of these more intimate scenes that are furthering characters we know and love and have been watching for years was deeply satisfying.”
Having already debriefed us on last week’s “The Spoils of War,” Shakman (who won’t be returning for the final season of Thrones) opened up to THR about what was involved in bringing some key moments from “Eastwatch” to life.
What was the main challenge of crafting “Eastwatch,” which doesn’t have the same massive set piece as last week’s episode?
There isn’t the same massive set piece, so it’s really about establishing what’s coming next for the season. It’s a bit of a reset. There are some major character revelations and further development of relationships, especially the people who are reunited and are now seeing what’s happening as they navigate their new relationships with the people they haven’t seen in so long. There are also a couple of new reunions, Jaime and Tyrion being one of the most important, as well as Jorah (Iain Glen) and Dany. We’re setting the table for what’s coming in the next couple of episodes. The title refers to Eastwatch at the end, so we’re getting Jon and his party there for the beginning of what’s going to be a big adventure to come.
Is the group of warriors at Eastwatch the best group ever assembled on Game of Thrones? It’s a real who’s who.
We kept referring to it as The Wild Bunch, and I even tried to put a direct homage [director Sam Peckinpah] as they walk off in their phalanx out into the blizzard. It’s meant to evoke that image of the Wild Bunch walking into town before the big shoot ’em up begins. I love all of those characters, and all of those actors are fantastic. Getting them in the same room together for that jail cell scene was a dream come true.
It’s a very tense meet-up, with everyone airing their grievances against one another. What do you remember about shooting this scene at the Eastwatch jail?
We spent one day shooting it. I would have loved to have had a little more time. It was a lot of folks in a very small place. Everyone was terrific. There was this idea of bringing back Gendry with Thoros and Beric, who haven’t seen each other in a very long time, and the revelation that Jorah is who he is, his father’s son, that Tormund discovers as well… there’s just so much tension happening with everybody, and we’re setting up this idea that this is a group of very unlikely comrades heading out to perform an impossible task. All of those actors are fantastic. Building the tension between each of them wasn’t that difficult, given how smart they all are as performers.
Was any part of you disappointed you couldn’t join them beyond the Wall?
For sure, 100%. (Laughs.) I haven’t seen the episode that follows [mine], I’ve only read it. But it’s going to be extraordinary.
The episode begins with Tyrion exploring the aftermath of the Loot Train Battle, in a series of haunting images…
He’s our audience’s point of view. In the battle itself, he was stuck between Jaime who he loves and Daenerys who he loves and has decided to support. He’s stuck between both of those things. In the aftermath of that, he continues that same uncomfortable position, stuck between the horrors of war Dany is responsible for, and also seeing the dead bodies of Lannister soldiers getting pillaged by the Dothraki, and his heart goes out to them. They’re people. No matter how much distance he felt from his father and feels from his sister, his heart still goes out to all of the people who died in this battle. That walk through the field, I think Peter did such an amazing job. We created things for him to look at that were evoking Pompeii, the aftermath of the dragon fire and what it does to the humans all around him, as well as the destruction of the actual wagons. We walked Peter through that, and let him react to what he was seeing. The effect is pretty powerful.
We have seen Daenerys address large groups of potential new followers many times in the past, but this is the first time she’s addressing a large group of people from Westeros — and it’s right after she’s given them a severe, mystical, fire-breathing beatdown. How did that gravity influence the way the scene was filmed?
She has to appeal to them, and she wants to expand her circle of support, but at the same time, she’s coming off of a pretty intense moment of fire and blood. She’s only willing to give so much. It’s that sort of toughness that Tyrion is afraid of, and obviously what happens to the Tarlys is fairly brutal. She’s reached a moment where she’s going to be as fair as she possibly can be, but there’s going to be a limit to that. There’s a line she’s drawing. I thought Emilia was great in that scene. She’s very strong, she speaks her mind, and she’s willing not to compromise at all.
Daenerys returns to Dragonstone, leading to an anticipated moment in which Jon reaches out and touches a dragon for the first time. What was Kit stroking on the day of the shoot — was he just grabbing at air?
It’s a true testament to his ability as an actor, because yes, half the time, he was acting with a green partial dragon snout, and sometimes nothing, and sometimes just a tennis ball. We created a pre-viz so he could see what the scene would actually look like when it was finished, and he understood just how big Drogon was, and we set up all the proper eyelines so he could get a sense of how large he was and what was happening at every moment. He just continued to refer back to that so he could see the context of the moment. It’s tremendous acting, to be able to invent your scene partner, and to be able to navigate a scene like that. Bravo to Kit Harington.
Across your two episodes, you directed several scenes featuring Jon and Dany’s growing closeness. What were you objectives in helping to establish the dynamic between these characters, two of the most identifiable protagonists on Game of Thrones, but until now the stars of their own separate stories?
Even though they haven’t interacted much on the show at all, except for this season, [Harington and Clarke] know each other very well. So there’s a familiarity there that helps them as actors. They both have great respect for each other and are both very talented, so the scenes are relatively easy to craft due to the familiarity between them that works. The scene we see of them in the cave in episode four is definitely the most intimate we see them. In episode five, when Jon Snow is departing, we get the sense that she’s quite sad to see him go. Even in an earlier scene at the conference table when they’re coming up with the plan to go north to kidnap a wight, we see that Daenerys doesn’t want to let him go there. She’s quite unhappy about the King in the North leaving Dragonstone. It’s a lovely beginning, middle and end to that relationship across those two episodes, at least as far as we are in the series. When he wishes her good luck in the wars to come, it’s quite a powerful moment. She watches him head off into an unknown future, and we can tell that she’s quite sad to see him go.
Arguably the most important scene of the episode is the one between Sam and Gilly about Prince Rhaegar’s marriage annulment. What were your thoughts on how to pace out this scene, and how to balance the big reveal about Jon with Sam getting lost in his own frustration about the Citadel?
I just focused on Sam. I knew the information was huge, and there’s no need to underline it at all. I put all of that information off-camera and pushed in on John Bradley as he was dealing with the crisis of the moment, which was his frustration with the maesters and ultimately coming to the conclusion that he doesn’t want to be a part of it anymore. The fact that it happens to be dropping a giant piece of information about Jon’s lineage and his claim to the throne, I felt it was better to have that happen without any kind of underlining. That piece of information is so important in the middle of the episode, because even as you see this growing closeness between Daenerys and Jon, now you’re also seeing that there’s this huge piece of information not only about who Jon’s parents are, but perhaps he’s also the rightful heir. All of that will effect the way the viewer looks at their relationship as it changes.
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