How 'Game of Thrones' Brought That Shocking Arya Twist to Life

Stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about creating "The Long Night," and warns of further final season bloodshed.
Courtesy of HBO

Everybody answers to somebody — even the Night King

In the fictional realm of Game of Thrones, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) proved to be his boss, stabbing the White Walker leader in the gut and thereby ending the Great War forever. In the nonfictional realm of creating Game of Thrones, Night King stunt performer Vladimir Furdik answers to a different boss entirely: stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam, one of the men chiefly responsible with bringing director Miguel Sapochnik's "The Long Night" to violent life.

A member of the Thrones family since 2015's fifth season, Irlam has worked with a small army of stunt workers to create the epic battles seen throughout Westeros and beyond. Among those grueling fights: "Hardhome," "The Battle of the Bastards," "Beyond the Wall" and now "The Long Night." Beyond the stunt team, Irlam has worked closely with Thrones stars such as Kit Harington and Maisie Williams, who play Jon Snow and Arya Stark respectively. In the latter actor's case especially, "The Long Night" was a milestone achievement, what with Arya's journey through the battle as an archer and eventual kingslayer in her own right. Ahead, Irlam speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about ending the White Walker war, and the wars still to come.

"The Long Night" is aptly titled, given how much was involved in creating the episode. Is there one component of building out the various sections of the battle between the living and the dead that you found especially demanding?

You have to view it as a whole. We did six weeks in Winterfell, and then we left and did two weeks at the Godswood and Weirwood tree with Theon (Alfie Allen) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright). We did nearly a week of horse work against a green screen. We had further weeks on a stage. It's really the commutative effect of the work and the hours that the team is putting in. They're spending an average of five hours in prosthetic makeup. There's two hours travel. They're shooting from eight at night until six in the morning, shooting in the cold and wet. We're doing stunts and action every single night. It wasn't just that; every piece we did was a story beat. We didn't have off nights. There were no quiet nights. There's no night where you're not doing too much. They were full on nights, every night. Every piece was different. Everything had already been pre-rehearsed and choreographed.

What was involved in building up to Arya killing the Night King?

We built on Maisie's skill set and Arya's story over the previous seasons. Her and Kit's stories have been running at the same time. Once she knew she had this pivotal part to play, we needed to give her a story to get her there — hence her quarter-staff fight turning into double sticks, then getting attacked by the big wight, who is actually Dave Bautista's stunt double, a guy called Rob de Groot. He came in for one night only at the request of Miguel. We had done an original gladiator fight with him in Croatia in season five, and Miguel wanted him. We filmed this whole journey of Arya jumping over the roof, followed by three wights chasing her. Then she falls off and into the library. There's a whole story there that builds up to her attacking and killing the Night King, played by Vladimir Furdik, who I've worked with in an excess of 20 years. It was a challenge. We shot the end piece twice. We shot it on location. It was never as clean for us as we wanted, purely because of the crane and how we could rig it. We did half of it on location, but the actual impact, we reshot and fine tuned on a stage.

You have worked with Vlad for 20 years. How would you describe the man behind the Night King?

He's from Slovokia. He truly is an international stunt performer. He's a phenomenal stuntman and a great horseman. He's been a part of some of the biggest movies shot over the last 20 years in Europe. He was the White Walker that fought with Jon Snow at the end of "Hardhome." [Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss] were so pleased with him then that they wanted him to take on the role of the Night King. The fight work and the horse work was going to increase and amplify. He's been a close friend of mine for a long time. It was great having him on in that role.

And even beyond killing the Night King and all the other action in this episode, you have clearly been working with Maisie on the stunt side for some time now…

Yeah, we've been doing the fight work with her for years, obviously. Paul Shapcott, who is one of my assistant coordinators, has done an awful lot of ground work and training with her, as has Vlad and Radoslav Parvanov, another one of my performers. They've all spent an incredible amount of time working with her and training with her for the four seasons we've been involved in the project. She's always come to work with a professional and keen attitude. We've just been able to take her literally as far as you can take her. Literally, the only thing stopping her from going further is us. We have taken her to the limit of what you should be doing with an actor when it comes to fighting.

Sounds like you and your team went to the limit as well…

It was just about enduring the hours and getting through it. I said to my guys, "You might not want to do it again, but you won't regret doing it the first time." If I'm honest? I don't want to do it again. (Laughs.) I don't want to do the sequel to that. I'm just glad we laid it down. If someone else wants to try and follow us up? Good luck.

As you say, there are so many different story beats you need to track. For example, Alfie Allen's swan song as Theon Greyjoy. Can you describe the atmosphere on set for that kind of a moment — something so technically involved, but also emotionally charged, as when you're saying goodbye to an actor who has been with the series from the very start?

Ultimately, it's not the first event that's symbolic [of that idea], and it's certainly not going to be the last. But it's an interesting feeling. On so many different levels, we're so invested. Our whole team as stunt performers work on these scenes for months and months. We're all fans of the show. Everybody in front of the camera and behind the camera, whether it's their first season or they've done every season, it's always the same: they're fans of the show. It's very poignant whenever we lose a character. It was very true of Theon. I can't really tell you what's going to come in the wars to come, but that's not the last moment of that type, I have to assure you.

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