'Game of Thrones' Director on "Dealing Death From the Sky" in Stunning Dragon Scene

Game of Thrones - Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister and Jerome Flynn as Bronn – H Publicity 2017
Macall B. Polay/HBO

[Warning: this story contains spoilers for the fourth episode of Game of Thrones' seventh season, "The Spoils of War."]

At long last, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has brought dragons back to Westeros — but not everyone is rejoicing, certainly not anyone with a lion on their banner.

The Mother of Dragons flew into the front lines of war on the back of the mighty Drogon in the latest installment of Game of Thrones, called "The Spoils of War," in an epic action scene that's since earned a curious name: the Loot Train Battle. The name comes from the packed carts of gold the Lannisters and their men were shipping to King's Landing, following their seizure of Highgarden one episode earlier. Perhaps an even more accurate name for the battle would be The One Where Drogon and the Dothraki Totally Destroyed the Lannisters, though it lacks a certain ring to it. 

Regardless, it stands out as one of the single most intense scenes ever filmed for Game of Thrones, the fulfillment of multiple promises, including but not limited to: dragonfire scorching the Seven Kingdoms once again for the first time in centuries; the savage Dothraki ravaging Westeros for the first time ever; Bronn of the Blackwater (Jerome Flynn) almost adding "dragon-slayer" to his résumé; a blink-and-you'll-miss-it spear-toss from ace MLB pitcher Noah Syndergaard; and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally getting his groove back, just in time to charge directly at the mouth of a dragon and quite possibly drown in a nearby river for all of his troubles.

For anyone who has managed to catch their breath following the riveting sequence, here's what the episode's director Matt Shakman (best known for helming multiple installments of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, including the spectacular "Charlie Work") tells The Hollywood Reporter about how the Loot Train Battle came together, bringing the combined forces of Dothraki and dragon power to bear upon the Lannisters and more.

What was your initial reaction when you learned the scope of your first episode this season?

I was reading the script and this battle began and I kept turning pages and the battle kept going on page after page after page! The excitement, the stress and the fear all built at the same time, mirroring probably what was happening onscreen. It was a huge opportunity and a challenge. I spent the better part of six months working on that one sequence, which I started prepping at the beginning and shot it at the end of my shoot. It got the most attention of everything. But it was one of the toughest things I've ever done, and certainly one of the most rewarding.  

This is your first time stepping into the director's seat for Game of Thrones, and you were tasked with bringing one of the most anticipated battle scenes to life. Was it a daunting prospect at all? Pure excitement?

It was definitely daunting but also exciting. The first thing I did was to try to navigate these multiple points of view and figure out who I wanted to base the battle around. I ultimately decided around Jaime being the centerpiece of the battle and thematically what story I wanted to tell. And that story was what it was like to be on the ground when war changes forever. To see it from a traditional fighter like Jaime, to see what happens when you introduce something like napalm or the atom bomb into battle and all the sudden traditional fighting goes out the window. Once I figured out what that story was, I was able to build it from there. But looking at all the action beats was intimidating until I figured out what the story of it was.

What were some of your inspirations in terms of tone and style you wanted to capture for the battle? How much did you look at Thrones' previous battle scenes, like "Battle of the Bastards," ahead of time?

I certainly did look at the other battle sequences. Miguel Sapochnik's work on the show is incredible, and so many of the other directors who have done big things on the show — like Neil Marshall — they've been very impressive. I did also turn to other references, primarily Apocalypse Now. There's one battle sequence between the helicopters attacking a village that's very similar and that you are dealing death from the sky and you have multiple points of view and you're with the villagers and they have to react to this horror on the ground. I used a lot of that as touchstone imagery: the idea of these helicopters flying through the smoke is very similar to Drogon flying through the smoke. And when he lands with the spear in his side, it really felt like those helicopters landing in the middle of all the smoke. I also looked at Saving Private Ryan and the opening sequence on the beach, when the men are on fire and Tom Hanks is overwhelmed and the sound drops out. That's very much what Jaime was like in the middle of the battle as he sees these people carbonized and turned to ash. John Ford, of course, too, because it's a Western — I looked at Stagecoach. Those are the chief references.

This is the first time the Dothraki have fought in Westeros. Before we see them, we hear their war cries. This is an epic and long-awaited moment for fans of the series. What were your goals and visions about how best to realize the Dothraki ravaging the Seven Kingdoms for the first time?

I wanted to play with sound and silence. We sensed them coming before we really hear them coming. Then they're there from a distance, and we smash into the chaos of them as they approach. I wanted that feeling of a Western — this savage attack coming at this more formalized line of men, that tension of circling the wagons and trying to protect them from the chaos and the onslaught. Working with our horse wrangler, we came up with some of the specific things that they can do: We wanted to show their horse mastery and why they were so formidable in battle. Those were some of my favorite images: When they rise up to shoot arrows, they're literally standing on their saddles, defying gravity. I worked on a Western once before and did some research on Comanche war tactics and we tried to steal some of those as well. When one of the Dothraki leans completely over to cut off Bronn's horse's leg, he leans completely out of his saddle to the side. That's something I read that the Comanche did to avoid attack, arrows and gunshots. It was fun to create the language for how they would be.

What was involved in filming Coster-Waldau's scene at the end of the episode, with his character Jaime Lannister drowning in the river?

We shot some stuff underwater in a pool in Belfast, which is always a challenge — it's very difficult to shoot in water. The final image of the episode in what we call "dry for wet." He was dropped on a wire rig in a space that was completely black and we added some smoke and shot it in very high speeds of slow motion and then added stuff to make it feel like water. That's a trick used in The Lord of the Rings and a lot of other movies and gives you more control than actually shooting in water. It was definitely a challenge, but Nikolaj and Jerome were amazing during the shooting of this battle and were willing to do anything and did some pretty amazing stunt work themselves.

You directed the next installment as well. What can you say about Jaime's fate?

Nothing really, except to tune in next week. I hope people enjoy the episode. 

What was the most challenging aspect of the battle to film? And on the flip side, what was the most joyful aspect of crafting this scene?

The most difficult was safety, because you're dealing with fire, horses and actors — and those things don't do well in close proximity, yet the nature of it was to create this Bosch-like nightmare where, as the scene progresses, it becomes increasingly like you're in the pit of hell. That was difficult. The most joyful was just putting together something and seeing something happen in front of your eyes that you've storyboarded and had epic meetings around a table for months talking about every possible angle and frame. Then to actually see it come together is really rewarding. And watching it with America when it was fully finished was really exciting. 

Watch the video below for the Game of Thrones cast's preview of season seven's battles.

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