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[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall.”]
Game of Thrones is arguably the biggest show on TV, but Sunday’s episode was ambitious even by Thrones standards.
The epic battle at the Wall featured giants and mammoths, bloody deaths and intimate character moments. Out of it all, director Neil Marshall, who is known for overseeing season two’s Battle of the Blackwater, says he is most proud of the show’s emotional goodbye to Ygritte (Rose Leslie).
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“I wanted to capture them in a little bubble. It’s in the middle of a battle sequence, and you’re going to have this strong emotional moment,” Marshall tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was the only slow-motion shot I put in the whole thing. It was to emphasize what was going on in their world verses what was going on around them.”
Here Marshall talks about Sam’s first onscreen kiss, the grueling shoot and his team pulling out all the stops to make the episode as cinematic as possible.
What was your biggest challenge tackling this episode?
The visual effects for the mammoth were the biggest challenge. Planning for that, storyboarding, doing previds for that and shooting live action and making space for the mammoth action was very complex. And integrating that in post was a challenge.
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When did you first see what the finished mammoth looked like?
I saw what the mammoth looks like four days ago.
That’s cutting it pretty close.
It always comes down to the wire because they are prepping episodes in the order of when they air, so they haven’t been working on the mammoth full time for six months. They’ve been doing bits and pieces.
Your episodes are unique in that they stick to one part of the Game of Thrones world rather than bouncing around. Is that a challenge, or does it make things easier for you?
In some respects it makes it easier. It does allow for block shooting, like you would do for a feature film. In the other episodes, which take place in multiple countries, you have to shoot a bit here and a bit there. Logistically I have to do some pretty complex stuff, so that makes it convenient to have it all in one spot.
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What was the key to getting the Ygritte and Jon scene right?
I wanted to capture them in a little bubble. It’s in the middle of a battle sequence, and you’re going to have this strong emotional moment. How do you do that? For me it was separating them from what’s going on around them. It was at first going in close and then the final shot — it was the only slow-motion shot I put in the whole thing. It was to emphasize what was going on in their world verses what was going on around them.
It seems like slow-motion isn’t generally used in the show.
They very rarely do slow motion. I think they have a rule of no slow motion. I said, “Look, I’ll shoot it in slow motion and see what you think, just for that one shot. They saw it and liked it. For me it was putting the characters in their own world.
How long were you shooting?
We had two-and-a-half to three weeks to shoot all the live-action stuff and another few days in the greenscreen studio just shooting elephants and giants.
It’s impressive how much this looks like a movie.
I directed it to be very cinematic. I wanted it to be epic and to shoot to that scope.
It’s also Sam’s best episode ever. What was it like getting those key moments?
Sam is a fantastic character and John [Bradley] is a great actor. It was really great working with him and working with him on his character. It was Sam’s first onscreen kiss, and I got to have that moment with those characters.
What kind of conversations did you and John have about this episode?
So much of it is on the page. The writers were absolutely amazing. To some extent, I defer to the actors’ judgment because they live with the characters for three or four series, and I come in for the episode. So it would feel presumptuous to tell them to do something they feel is out of character. They will tell me what works for the character or what doesn’t. We figure it out together.
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You also had that long, continuous shot. Was that all done in one take?
Yes. I’m really proud of that one. We rehearsed it for an hour — we got it in seven takes. It links all the characters together.
Did you consider fudging it a bit using postproduction tricks?
For me everybody rehearsed it so hard, and everybody was so accurate in what they were doing — I thought we can do this in one shot and we did. Afterward we all gave a big round of applause.
Do you have a favorite character moment?
There’s a lovely conversation with Jon and Sam at the beginning. I loved working with Peter Vaughan (Maester Aemon) for his scene — he’s a fantastic actor. I love the calm before the storm scenes, but probably Ygritte’s death is the one I’m most proud of.
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Was it exhausting?
For me, it’s long hours and grim weather and freezing cold and stuff like that. For the actors, it’s extreme periods of action and lots of stuff in between. And for me, piecing together that battle is mentally exhausting.
How much time did you have to prep before shooting?
Full-time I had four weeks, which is a huge amount for a TV show. We had previsuals and stuff like that — and all the stuff like the giants took a lot of work. We had sets to build and a lot of things to do beforehand.
It’s still hard to get over how great it looked — even by Thrones standards. What was the secret there?
It’s just down to the incredibly talented people involved. We set out to make it huge, and everybody committed to that and pulled out all the stops to achieve that. When we watch TV now, most of us have wide-screen TVs. Huge TVs. I watch plenty of DVDs and Blu-rays of films on my television. So why shouldn’t a TV show look that good?
What did you learn from your Battle of the Blackwater episode that you applied to this?
I applied the same rules to it. What is the strategy of the battle? Who is trying to achieve what? What do they have to attack with and defend with, and how do they use these weapons? For example, I had the idea of giving the giants bows and arrows as well so they could shoot to the top of the Wall. It was the equivalent of bringing heavy artillery to the battle.
Alliser Thorne has been a jerk this season, but he turned out to be awesome in the episode. What were your goals with him?
I think that’s what makes the series so great. One minute you hate him, and one minute you’re rooting for him. He’s been a bastard to Jon, but when it comes to the crunch, he’s a great fighter. He’s both a bitter man and an honorable man, and he’ll get the job done. In the end, he’s one of the good guys, I suppose.
Stay tuned to THR.com/GoT for more from the episode.
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