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'Game of Thrones' Director: Jon Snow Bloodbath Was 'Justified' Violence (Q&A)

Michelle MacLaren tells THR that she trusts viewers to keep up with the big reveal, calling back to the 2011 pilot: "Audiences are really, really smart, and you want to give them some credit for being invested in the storyline."

Game of Thrones Jon Snow - H 2014
Screengrab provided by HBO Production

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Sunday's episode of Game of Thrones, "First of His Name"]

Director Michelle MacLaren continues to take Game of Thrones beyond George R.R. Martin's novels.

MacLaren's White Walkers reveal had fans buzzing last week, and this week she oversaw an epic battle that never happened in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.

The fight between Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the vile mutineers at Craster's Keep was among the most challenging parts of the episode. It was shot in the "deepest mud" MacLaren has ever seen and was a scene showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss considered carefully.

"I don't believe in gratuitous violence. I think it has to serve the story," MacLaren tells The Hollywood Reporter of the bloody scene. "I was talking to David and Dan, and we decided when we see these guys in episode four, it's got to be horrible. They've gone over to the dark side. So when Jon and his guys show up, we want them to take these guys down."

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MacLaren also discusses the revelation that Littlefinger was behind Jon Arryn's murder and talks about her faith that the audience would remember the plotline dating back to the show's pilot: "Audiences are really, really smart."

You were able to broach beyond the books last week, going into territory we haven't seen. This week was the same. Is that a scary prospect?

It's really exciting for the writers and the fans to broach beyond the books. It's exciting to explore different areas that are obviously inspired by the books. Dan and David are such great writers; it's exciting to see where they're going to go, moving beyond the books, which is starting to happen more and more.

Last episode, you established how horrible the mutineers at Craster's Keep are. Was that so this week viewers would feel the violence was justified?

These guys are horrible, and they are doing horrible things. I don't believe in gratuitous violence. I think it has to serve the story. It's got to be justified. I was talking to David and Dan, and we decided when we see these guys in episode four, it's got to be horrible. They've gone over to the dark side. So when Jon and his guys show up, we want them to take these guys down. We want them to rescue the wives at Craster's Keep, and I think we've wanted that for a long time.

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That was quite a battle, and it took up a good chunk of the episode. What was shooting it like?

It was shot in the deepest mud I've ever seen in my whole life. It was so hard to walk through this mud, let alone do a sword fight in it. It was really impressive what these guys did. Kit Harington is an amazing sword fighter, and he does all his own work. He is quite exceptional. We had a double there for him, and when we were rehearsing I watched Kit, and I thought, "We don't need the double."

Bran has to make a big sacrifice by not calling out to Jon. What did you and actor Isaac Hempstead Wright talk about for that part?

It's really important for him to take the time to see the decision on his face. With every one of these big decisions, it's almost like these young people are growing up and taking on the responsibilities of what's been dealt to them. In that moment, he needs to make that really tough decision, and it's heartbreaking because he wants to be with his brother.

This episode has the major reveal that Littlefinger was behind Jon Arryn's poisoning. That's pulling together plotlines going back to the pilot, and you don't stop to recap it, really. Did you worry people might not remember that far back?

In these highly serialized shows, you have to trust and hope your audience is following along. Audiences are really, really smart, and you want to give them some credit for being invested in the storyline and not throw everything out really easily for people. There are these moments when you go, "Wait, what did they say? Oh! That's because in season one this happened and in season two this happened."

We got a brief but very powerful scene with Dany. What was the key to getting that right?

It was really important to see that moment where she realizes that she needs to become a queen in the true sense of ruling her people. She needs to rule by example. Right before she says "I going to do what queens do. I'm going to rule," there's a calm confidence that comes over her. In that moment, I really think she steps up to a whole new level of being a queen. It was really important to feel that she's a ruler. It's pretty impressive. She's very determined in that moment and very queenly.

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How long will she stick around Slaver's Bay?

I can't answer that.

Tommen's coronation looked great. What were your goals with that scene?

The throne room is such an incredible set. It gives you a lot of flexibility, but it's hard to fill -- you need too many people. We had to be very creative because we didn't want to have to do crowd duplication. Our assistant directors did such a great job of laying out the background players. When I was shooting it, I said, "You know, if we move the camera over here, and we move the extras here, I think we can get away without the crowd duplication." I think it looks expensive in the way a royal coronation should. It was one of the nights where the AD team and the visual effects guys really collaborated.

What was the most challenging scene to film in this episode?

They are all challenging in their own ways, and they are all wonderful in their own ways.  I loved shooting Arya and the Hound in Iceland. We drove over this hill through all this volcanic rock, and we looked down into this valley that was so green with a river running through it and two giant waterfalls. It just took your breath away. The whole crew walked down this little dirt path into this valley with all our equipment. It was logistically really challenging and stunningly beautiful to shoot.

Thrones and other series you've worked on (Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead) are dissected endlessly online. Do you read any of what people write about your episodes?

I wait for what my friends and family tell me. Sometimes I'll take a peek. Mostly it's because somebody sent me something. Ultimately, you want the audience to be happy and enjoy it and for David and Dan and HBO to be happy. If people enjoy the journey and the episode, that's great.

Stay tuned to THR.com/GoT for full Game of Thrones coverage.

Email: Aaron.Couch@THR.com
Twitter: @AaronCouch