'Game of Thrones' Director Pulls Back the Curtain on the Jon Snow Twist

Jeremy Podeswa, director of the first two episodes of 'Thrones' season six, talks the Lord Commander's big reveal.
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for episode two, season six of HBO's Game of Thrones, "Home."]

Give the lion's share of the credit to Melisandre (Carice van Houten), but she wasn't the only one involved in bringing Jon Snow (Kit Harington) back to life.

Director Jeremy Podeswa stepped behind the lens for the first two episodes of Game of Thrones season six, allowing him a unique perspective on the life, death and rebirth of Lord Commander Snow. In addition to directing the scene in which the fallen hero returns from the grave, Podeswa's two episodes featured the deaths of multiple power players — such as Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide) of the Iron Islands, killed by his traitorous brother — Tyrion Lannister's (Peter Dinklage) first-ever meeting with dragons, and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) sinking to an all-new low by killing his father, step mother and newborn brother.

With his two episodes now unveiled, The Hollywood Reporter spoke at length with Podeswa about Jon Snow's resurrection, the major events at Winterfell, and more.

What was the greatest challenge about creating Jon's resurrection scene?

I think just establishing the right amount of tension through the scene, so you really didn't know up until the last second which way it was going to go. That was the biggest thing, creating a sense of mystery and magic around the whole thing. We really wanted that scene to be very beautiful, but also fraught with tension. That's the main thing we were looking for.

How about the level of secrecy? This was the most closely guarded secret in television of the past year. 

It was kind of unprecedented. Really, we were all very aware that this would be the major spoiler of all time if it ever got out. Everybody was very concerned about retaining the mystery for the audience and giving people the opportunity to discover it for themselves, rather than having it leaked. I think that's ultimately what people want. As much as people were asking me and everybody else on the show constantly if Jon Snow is alive or dead, I think really in their heart of hearts they didn't actually want to know. For us, it felt very important to maintain that secrecy for the fans, and we worked very hard to make sure that worked out.

As the director responsible for the dead Jon Snow sequences, what's your take on the "corpse acting" performance from Kit Harington?

I think he played dead really well! (Laughs.) The great thing about Kit is he's an incredibly good sport. Whatever is required, he's there, one hundred percent. One hundred and fifty percent, really. It's obviously not the most exciting thing for an actor to play, of course, but he knew it was part of the whole arc of what he was going to be doing this season, and he was completely game. He was great. He's always a total pleasure in every way, and everyone will tell you that, I'm sure.

How much discussion went into the mechanics of how Jon returns from the dead, and the timing of the resurrection? Was there ever any discussion about fitting this into episode one?

I don't really know. I can't really speak for [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] and their planning of the season. I'm not sure if there was speculation on doing it earlier or later. For me, it felt like a great time for it to happen. There's so much in the first episode of the show, so to put [Jon's rebirth] on top of it would have been a lot. I think it extends the tension a little bit longer, too. From my point of view, it was a great decision.

Can you describe the atmosphere on set while filming this scene?

It was interesting because it was a very exciting scene to shoot, but it was also very somber in a way, because the whole tone of the scene is very moody. We were basing a lot of the visuals on Rembrandt paintings, specifically The Anatomy Lesson. It had a very rich, textual, moody, atmospheric quality. I think we were all in that space for a long time for this scene — while we were shooting all the scenes involving Jon Snow's body, really, but particularly the one where he's resurrected. Even though you're filming something and it's all scripted, there's still a sense of ritual about it because you're filming a ritual. It has all these little details that you want to capture, and a very specific mood and tone. It felt like we were in the process of a little ritual while filming it, actually. And it feels like that when you're watching the scene, in a way. 

Melisandre cuts Jon's hair as part of the ritual. How much was that a wink at all the fuss made about Kit's hair in the offseason?

I would say … (Laughs.) I would say probably not very much. From a ritualistic aspect, all of these things are very important. I won't speak to any sort of magic ritual, but it seems to me that hair and other aspects of the body are all very organic to any kind of magic ritual, especially when trying to revive somebody — that seems like it would be a natural thing to do, whether it's Jon Snow or not.

Book readers have theorized that Jon warged into Ghost before his death. During the resurrection scene, Ghost turns his attention to Jon right before he wakes up. Is there anything viewers with that theory should read into Ghost turning toward Jon?

I cannot answer this question. (Laughs.) I would say if you keep watching, all will be revealed. Better to leave it to the fans to discover.

Game of Thrones has never been afraid to take big swings at big characters, but this is a big swing in the other direction — reviving a main character, rather than killing one. What does it mean for the tone and tenor of the show moving forward to bring Jon Snow back?

I think that the tone is so well-established at this point already that anything can happen at any time to anyone. I think this is a very particular thing involving a major, major character, but I think the show is already established. There's a world of options. There are so many theories already about what this will mean. What's Jon Snow going to be like after this experience? What's his role going to be in the larger story? I think people need to discover that for themselves, but I love that there's been so much speculation and that people are thinking about it. There really are many, many ways this could go. I'm sure people will be very satisfied with the way it does go.

Turning away from Jon at the Wall to Jon's old home at Winterfell. In this episode, Ramsay kills Walda (Elizabeth Webster) and her newborn son by feeding them to the dogs. It has to be one of the most brutal scenes in the history of the show, and we don't even see a single drop of blood. What discussions went into making this scene?

There was definitely a discussion of what to show and what not to show. We all were very much in agreement that we didn't want to see anything too horrific. The suggestion was already bad enough. We've seen Ramsay do all kinds of horrible things in past seasons. This is especially horrific, but is consistent with what's already been established in a way. But we were very mindful that this was a horrible scene, and a horrible scene to film in many ways. We love the actors involved in that scene; both of them are very lovely human beings and actors. For her it was a horrible way to go, and for him it was really doing something extremely depraved. But that's Game of Thrones. It's a world where these kinds of things happen. It was a strong, dramatic scene, which makes it very exciting, even though it's disturbing. We were mindful of all of those things, really.

Was there any talk about it being too much? This is a show that deals in heavy amounts of brutality, but this happening to a newborn child and a new mom — was there ever any discussion about this scene taking things too far?

I don't know what kind of discussions happened among the writers, but I'm given the script, and this is what the script is. You read these things — and there are many things when you're reading the show, where you just go, "Wow. That's really hard-core." But it's the world. We haven't filmed anything that doesn't feel consistent with the world that's been created. This lives in that world. We tried to do it as sensitively and authentically as possible. It's not something done cavalierly. You feel the horror of it. You feel for Walda. I hope that people feel it was really well-rendered, given the subject matter.

One comment I've heard is that it's an uncomfortably long sequence. You know Ramsay is taking Walda to the kennel, and you know what's going to happen next, and you're forced to watch it all play out. Would you say that discomfort was part of the goal?

Horrific things should be presented as horrific. I think, to me, it's when you take something that is horrific and you make light of it or you don't give it its due, or you use it for exploitive purposes. I think here, dramatically speaking, the show quite consistently shows people suffering in a way that I think is good and doesn't diminish what violence actually is. You're not making it more palatable, or making it pure entertainment. The things that are horrific are horrific. I think the show consistently shows that there are consequences, feelings and human beings who are undergoing things. In this show, everybody experiences the gamut of things that are possible in life — great things and horrible things. I think the show represents these things very fairly by being authentic in how it's presented, and not taking an attitude that's slight, or doesn't give it its due.

Looking every further back into Winterfell's past, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) returns to his father's time as a young child. The scene is very evocative of the first episode of the series.

Definitely. In fact, where Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow) are situated at the beginning of the sequence — up on the little balcony — is previously where Ned Stark [Sean Bean] had been in the balcony [in season one, episode one], looking down at his children below. It's a reference to the time before.

Was there a sense of nostalgia among the crew?

For sure. It was really fun for everybody to recreate that. It was interesting, because you had a completely different vibe around that. We shot those scenes in the contemporary Winterfell and the historic Winterfell fairly close together, so there was a big changeover on the set, and you really did see how much the world and the show has changed by going back into that period of time, back-to-back. It was very interesting to experience for everybody.

In an episode already filled with interfamily violence, Euron Greyjoy killing his brother Balon was a standout moment. What went into building the tension of this scene? 

The tension's almost automatic. The situation's so visually compelling and very extreme. You have a rope bridge high above the water between these two stone edifices… so we always knew this was going to be an intense and beautiful sequence. The trick was always about figuring out how to render it in the most realistic and compelling way. It was a very difficult scene to shoot. We were shooting exteriors in Northern Ireland. It was very cold. The rain was very hard on the actors. The bridge was always moving. There was so much wind … the elements you see in the show that seem so extreme on the show were actual elements that we were dealing with in reality. The actors really had to deal with all that wind, that creaking bridge, all that rain. It was a challenging thing to shoot and a challenging thing for the actors to play, but they were really heroic and did a fantastic job.

In the books, readers don't see Balon die, but his final stormy surroundings are described in vivid detail, and the culprit is strongly implied. How closely were the books examined in rendering this scene?

I'm sure the writers examined it closely, but to be honest, I didn't as much. For me, the essential thing is to render what's on the script page as closely as possible. Sometimes I do go back to the books. I've gone back occasionally to see what the references are and whether or not that can inform what I'm doing. But with this scene, I felt it was very clear what the intention of the script-writers was, and what we needed to do. But for example, with the Stone Men [in season five's "Kill the Boy"], I did go back to the book because there were so many questions in my mind about who they were and what they looked like and how they moved. Any hints I could glean from anywhere were useful to me.

Midway through "Home," Tyrion realizes a childhood dream and meets dragons for the first time. Can you share some insight into this scene? Clearly Peter Dinklage is not having this incredibly vulnerable moment with actual dragons …

I loved shooting this scene, and I loved it entirely because of Peter. And it's interesting. That scene on the page was emotional, and lovely, but really it was completely elevated by Peter's performance. Seeing what he did with that was so great. I hadn't really anticipated that it was going to be quite as moving as it was, and quite as unique and special. We knew it was a big moment for him to actually meet the dragons, and obviously it was going to be something — that it was going to be a moment. But he really made it a major moment. He's such a fine, amazing actor. Just as soon as we started shooting it, we felt this scene was taking on a life that we hadn't even expected. It doesn't matter that the dragons aren't real. Peter invests so much in it. That's the great thing about this show. Everybody in the cast is such a fine actor that they can capture emotion in a moment, no matter if the thing they're dealing with is real or not. They're so in their characters and so in the moment that they don't need all that exterior stuff to play off of in order to bring forward what they need to bring forward. Peter was a perfect example of that. His performance was not effected by a lot of what you might imagine you would need. It's not actually there. But there's something there for him to react to, and he uses whatever he has, and it was great. 

You were responsible for bringing the first two episodes of season six to life. With the episodes now released, what would you say was the biggest challenge in crafting these first two hours of the season?

The biggest challenge is the same challenge as so many episodes. Every episode is very dense. They're very full. You're servicing so many characters and stories. There's so much anticipation coming back into all of these stories because people are so invested in them. You just want to make sure that everything lands and that the wait people had between seasons, you've honored that. You've honored the waiting. Now they're back to watching, and they can pick up the stories where they left off, and that things are advancing and moving and are exciting and interesting. I was really happy that the scripts were so great. They gave me so much to work with. I really do feel that every story was serviced so beautifully. I think everybody's very excited about where everyone is going on the show now. The setup has been really great. We've launched into what's going to be a really great season.

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