'Game of Thrones' Director on Giving New Life to Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen

Daniel Sackheim weighs in on the fiery twists and frozen turns in the past two episodes of 'Thrones.'
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers through episode four, season six of HBO's Game of Thrones.]

Not to take anything away from the importance of her dragons, but Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) can more than handle her own when it comes to firepower. 

The Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains and Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea put all three of those titles to good use in the latest episode of Game of Thrones, which saw Daenerys incinerating Khal Moro (Joe Naufahu) and his peers with fire, freeing the Dothraki from their barbaric overlords, and becoming their new champion all in one deft stroke. It not only fueled the momentum of the story, but also struck a stunning image, conjuring up memories of Dany's first trial by fire all the way back in season one's finale, "Fire and Blood."

Beyond the flames and into the frost, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) experienced some highs and lows of his own, miraculously returning from the dead but reeling from the trauma of losing his life. An episode later, Jon experienced genuine joy, reuniting with long lost sister Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) after six seasons apart. It stands out as one of tragically few moments of pure happiness on a show so often haunted by darkness. 

Director Daniel Sackheim, who helmed the "Oathbreaker" and "Book of the Stranger" episodes of season six, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about Daenerys and Jon's pivotal moments.

Episode four ends with Daenerys Targaryen burning the temple at Vaes Dothrak, and winning the loyalty of the Dothraki people. What went into creating this sequence? 

The producers are extremely generous. I should preface this by saying that. By that I mean, some of the sequences in the script are detailed to their finest, minute detail. Some sequences are more broad ideas of where you start and where you end, and the journey. In the instance of that sequence with Daenerys, it was kind of broad strokes. You needed to do something that sets the place on fire, and the guys get trapped, and then the people are assembled outside, and they start to bow as she comes through the fire. So, you go through that process. You pitch [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] on how you think you should go from point A to point B: "These are the events that transpire, this is the methodology she uses." For example, having these three or four braziers that she tips and uses to set things on fire. Just generally speaking, cinematically, how I see it. They would say, "I love this, this and this, but go back to the drawing board on that." That process takes several weeks. Then you start to storyboard the sequence. You work with the digital effects people and the stunt people, and you all jointly come up with a plan in terms of how to execute this. The interior was shot on a set we built in Belfast in a parking lot on a completely nonflammable set that we had to make look like it was on fire. The exterior was shot on location in Almeria, Spain, where they've shot many Spaghetti Westerns. That building we actually did set on fire. That was shot over the course of two nights. The interior work was shot over the course of a week. It was close to a week and a half between the two locations. The amount of time and prep that went into it all was probably about three months or more. It took two months just to build it. It's an amazing application, or devotion, to provide the resources for a building that burns down in about three minutes.

It's a massive moment for Daenerys and her story. What were your and Emilia's ideas about how to play this scene?

With the interior, there was only one way for her to play it, which is, bemused. She's the keeper of the secret. She knows how to extricate herself from this. I thought the ease with which she delivered the lines was necessary for the audience to feel jeopardy for her and for them to think she was crazy. The sequence outside was all about claiming the throne — or reclaiming the throne. I would like to think, and I do not suppose to talk about what they're going to do with her for the rest of the season, because that's not within my province — but my conversations with Dan and David were always about her showing a sort of regalness. She doesn't show a regalness in those two episodes, and we really wanted to flip the switch when she comes outside and goes through those doors. We wanted her to let everybody know who she is — including Jorah (Iain Glen) and Daario (Michiel Huisman). It's about a change of character. It's probably not all that different from the regality we've seen her exhibit in previous episodes and seasons. When she's in Meereen, for instance. But that was the idea. That was the punctuation. We wanted to clearly distinguish everything we've seen from the end of the last season and the beginning of this one.

Moving away from Essos, there was so much attention in between seasons about Jon Snow. You're the director responsible for his first scenes back in the land of the living — and he's very different now that he's back from the dead. What was your read on how Kit played Jon, now in his second life?

We talked a lot about it. We talked a lot about it with Dan and David as well. Really, in that scene when he's woken up and he's coming to terms with where he is and what's happened, we talked about, believe it or not, the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross book on the seven stages of death. We wanted to play them in reverse. Within 45 seconds of him coming to, there was this level of surprise, confusion, denial, anger, fear, et cetera. We clicked off all of those emotions. We talked about it, not surprisingly, as a rebirth — as when a child is born, they're sort of helpless. That's what we wanted to communicate. For a character who has been so immensely powerful, strong and commanding, we wanted to find the absolute opposite dynamic of that. We talked about that a lot. But also, there's a hollowness to him. He knows what's on the other side. He knows there's nothing on the other side. There is no afterlife. 

Jon Snow truly knows nothing now.

Yeah, he truly does know nothing, Jon Snow. (Laughs.) There's nothing. It's a terrible thing for him to have to live with.

How does Jon's reunion with Sansa further that journey, working through those stages of grief? It was such a joyous occasion for the characters, and certainly viewers as well.

You know, to tell you the truth, when I was in the moment, I approached it rather mechanically. And there were a couple of crew people off to the side who started to cry. When I saw that, I realized the exact power of what this was. Sometimes as a director, you're just looking at what's in front of you, and not taking into account the bigger picture and the epic nature of two siblings who have been separated for six seasons — and have never had scenes together, and were both really looking forward to it — reuniting. The only note I gave them during the scene was, "Hold yourself back. As much as it's joyous to see each other, you're equally as scared. You don't know what to expect." The operative word was fear. Fear of the unknown. In a way, it added to the emotional resonance of the scene. 

Overall, what are your takeaways from filming these two episodes, and working on Game of Thrones?

I feel pretty great, to be honest with you. It was a great experience working on the show. It was a great experience working with Dan and David. What a talented group of actors. Also, just in terms of the finished work — after I leave and move on to other projects — it's the postproduction, visual effects, the music, just all of those people are on top of their game. They do such a spectacular job. … [Game of Thrones] doesn't operate like a traditional television series. They cross-board 10 episodes at one time. Everybody's prepping and shooting the series at the same time. That's why you're there for such a long time; in my case, about six months. The amount of time devoted to prep is pretty significant, much more so than what you have on a traditional series. It's honestly prepped like a movie. You don't quite shoot it like a movie — it doesn't take that much time — but the amount of time spent going over all the details is what allows you to do scenes like the burning temple and the sword fight [at the Tower of Joy]. The amount of time and resources put into it is incomparable with respect to any other television series I've ever done.

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