'Game of Thrones' Actor Breaks Down Two-Month Shoot Behind "Battle of the Bastards"

"It felt like we were doing something much larger than ourselves," Kristofer Hivju tells THR about shooting the epic installment.
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for episode nine of Game of Thrones' sixth season, "Battle of the Bastards."]

"Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!" House Bolton's forces breathed out this horrible chant as they closed in on Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his army, jabbing their spears forward, skewering their enemies and closing the circle so tight as to choke the life out of the poor men trapped inside.

Everyone who watched "Battle of the Bastards" remembers those spears piercing Wun Wun the Giant (Ian Whyte), given his demise at the end of the episode. But Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) was on the receiving pointy end at one point as well, forcing him to retreat deeper into the circle. There, instead of finding relief, he found even more danger, in the form of Smalljon Umber (Dean S. Jagger), one of few human beings able to match Tormund's size and ferocity. 

Fans who worried for Tormund's safety in that moment, you're not alone. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Hivju admits he thought Tormund's days were numbered, hanging onto every page of the "Battle of the Bastards" script for dear life. In the end, Tormund didn't lose his life — but even survival against impossible odds comes with some downside, apparently.

Here's Hivju's view of "Battle of the Bastards," according to what he told THR.

You worked previously with director Miguel Sapochnik on "Hardhome," already one of the biggest battle scenes in Game of Thrones history. Do you recall your first conversation with him heading into "Battle of the Bastards"?

It started off at a reading rehearsal. He said, "You know 'Hardhome'? This is going to be bigger." In total, Miguel spent about two months shooting this episode. We spent at least a month on the battlefield. Everybody felt like we were going to try to do something that hadn't been done on television before. I think [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss], Miguel and some of the producers found all the fighting sequences ever filmed and they looked at them and said, "How can we top this? How do we make this even more dramatic? What can we gain?" We were over 700 people at lunch every day. It was big.

How physically grueling and exhausting was this shoot?

We understood that for us, with such a claustrophobic feeling, it would not be possible to have a normal fight. So the fight more or less ended in the mud, because we were in that space. It was pretty intense, actually. When you have 20 people running around getting squeezed together, and you're trying to chop at another bearded guy with a sword, you are not out of danger. (Laughs.) You're laying down in the mud, and one wrong step, you won't have a face anymore. It was very intense, and Miguel insisted on making it that muddy and messy. War is not beautiful. Sometimes you see action sequences where battles seem organized. I know that from how the Vikings fought. It's not beautiful. It's hard. It's hard work. We had to shoot moment-to-moment, chronologically. We would shoot one sequence 80 times per day. It was cold and it was muddy and it was raining and it was tough, but everybody felt like they were part of something big. It felt like we were doing something much larger than ourselves. So we had a great spirit, and the extras were fantastic. We have a tent with a river going through it, and there's a warmer that doesn't work — but still, we have a tent! All of these extras, the spirit they had — my people, my army — they were never giving up. They did a hard job, and they did an amazing job.

You've worked with Kit Harington for pretty much your entire run on the show. He was at the heart of some very complicated sequences in this episode. What was your take on his work during the shoot?

He is a great fighter. He's really, really good. After he shot Pompeii, he became even greater. He had some beautiful fighting sequences in [season four's "Watchers on the Wall"], and this time, he really did a fantastic job. The tracking shot — the oner, we called it — I don't know how many days they spent making that happen… maybe two or three days, just on that shot. My only worry is that on the kill score, we have Wun Wun on top, and then you have the dragon and me sharing third place. I think now, Jon Snow is maybe taking first place. That's my only worry.

Oh, you're feeling competitive?

Definitely! I killed very many people off-screen in that fight. (Laughs.) So many of his were included in the cut, so I'm a bit jealous about that! I'm trying to keep my honor up. 

Well, what did we miss? Is there a memorable Tormund kill we didn't get to see?

I came on set every morning and said, "Please tell me. How many people am I going to kill today?" I'm bringing the stunt team chocolates, coffee, and I'm whispering in their ears: "I have this really great idea for a great kill." But in the end, the edit decides.

You must be happy about biting out Smalljon Umber's throat, then.

That was great. That was a great day. I loved that take, where Tormund just… (makes throat-ripping noise) He just takes it out with his teeth. He's a great actor, Dean Jagger. We had a lot of fun. 

There were moments in the battle where it looks like Tormund might lose his life. When you read the script, or even when you first started hearing about the episode, were you worried that this might be it for Tormund Giantsbane?

I was very worried. I read it page by page and I was just waiting for the scene where he goes out. I was very happy when I came to the end of episode nine and I was still alive. It's been rumored for almost a year, that Tormund was going out, and stuff like that. But that's Game of Thrones. The people you think are going to die don't die. Then people will die in a moment when you did not expect them to die. People you're sure are never going to die, they die. There are people betting on who's going to die in the next episode every season now.

For some people, Game of Thrones is almost more of a sport than a show; it's a real event. 

Yeah! I was shooting Fast and Furious 8 in Atlanta, and I went to this bar called Bookhouse. It's a bar that gets dressed up for Game of Thrones, with the figures and the banners. Every Sunday, they meet up and watch the show together. It was like being at a sports event. When the Hound came back, people were roaring. It was so amazing. Every big moment, there was clapping and screaming and cheering. It's amazing. That's the positive side that George hasn't finished the books we're basing this on, because now everyone can see it on common ground. I think that's nice for book readers as well, to finally see this just as a show. 

You mentioned Wun Wun earlier, played by Ian Whyte, who might just be the MVP of the battle…

Right, but he works on green screen. They add him in afterwards. So we have to relate to a big green guy with a high stick and a green bowl on it. So that's our Wun Wun. This year, we kept calling Wun Wun the prima donna of the set. When we're doing special effects shots, he takes a lot of time. Wun Wun was in a lot of the shots this year. So we would be like, "Oh, great, time for Wun Wun's take. Time for Wun Wun's close-up." (Laughs.) He comes in and does green-screen so they can enlarge him, but he's huge. He's over two meters, I think. He has these big things on his feet and wears this makeup. It's a lot. He looks very much like that when they shoot it, but they have to make him even three times bigger.

Outside of the battle, Tormund has another great scene in this episode, talking philosophy with Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and trading their different perspectives. What do you remember about filming that scene?

I loved shooting that scene. It was greatly written. They find common ground and try to understand each other, because they were enemies a couple of episodes earlier. It was nice to get to know Davos that way. They share a little bit of history, you know?

Sadly, they did not share any sour goat's milk.

Now that could be a great scene, you know? (Laughs.) What if instead of "no," Davos had said "yes," and they got drunk and they have a great evening and they tell stories? We'll see. Let's hope for that.

Watch the video below for five predictions about the season six finale.

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