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[Warning: This story contains spoilers through episode eight, season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones.]
When last they met, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) stood on shaky ground. Indeed, Sandor wasn’t even standing at all, flattened on his back after a brutal battle against Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). By all accounts, the man was as good as dead. At the very least, it was likely the last time these two companions would ever see each other alive again.
While that still might be true, both Arya and the Hound survived that awful day and went on to survive even harsher ones. Their terrible circumstances came to startling life over the course of “The Broken Man” and “No One,” the seventh and eighth episodes of Game of Thrones‘ sixth season. Both Arya and Clegane remain alive, if not totally well, and the chances of them reuniting one day are now stronger than ever, given Arya’s announced intent to return “home” and the Hound’s new role with the Brotherhood Without Banners, heading north to battle the cold winds of winter.
Mark Mylod, director of the two episodes, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about Arya and the Hound’s big moments in his season six installments and more — including the arrival of a new breakout character.
In “No One,” the episode builds to Arya’s escape from the Waif. What went into creating this extensive foot chase?
It was really fun. It started really early. There was a loose brief on that from [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss]. They wanted the most dazzling foot chase ever seen in cinematic history, so, you know, no pressure. (Laughs) I went over to Girona, Spain, where we shot the majority of that sequence, pretty early on, before pre-production. I went over twice and basically walked around the old town and looked at what was there, and then put the shape of the sequence together according to what was available. The fulcrum of the sequence is Arya tumbling down the street in the fruit market, with all the oranges on the steps. That’s where the piece changes gear. It was a great location, and I knew I wanted to do something with it. Then I built out from there. I wanted to start at the top, and I wanted the movement to be generally downhill, with a sense of moving down darker and darker into the hinterland or underworld of the city. I wanted the streets to become narrower and narrower, and the pressure on the character to become more claustrophobic.
It then became a question of putting those tonal ideas together geographically. The town of Girona was fantastic. At that time of year, tourism is a huge thing for them, and yet they shut down huge swaths of the most impressive parts of the old town to allow us access to dress it with our incredible art department. It required a good few days of shutting down the main old town streets, and they were massively supportive of that. There’s a little bit of a gear change in the middle of the sequence, when Arya disappears into an old bathhouse. That was us taking advantage of the city. It was a great location and I was desperate to work in there and find something to do in there. There’s this idea of switching the gear so it’s not just a flat-out sprint; now we’re in this ominous, claustrophobic bathhouse for just a few moments, which gives us the opportunity to change the tone of the chase.
In terms of where it ends up, the storytelling point I was most cognizant of was this idea of really trying my best to sell to the audience with every tool at our disposal that this would culminate in the death of Arya. We wanted to sell that misdirect as convincingly as possible. Arya is one of my favorite characters, and I wanted everyone watching the episode to think, “Oh shit. Arya’s going to die. She’s really going to die.” I wanted them dreading that, to be on the edge of the couch. That was my raison d’être of why it was shot that way, building that tension and trying to sell that idea. Only looking back on it does one realize that Arya’s being very smart. She’s actually turned the tables at some point, and she’s setting up the Waif.
Right. Arya creates the bloody handprint trail and lures the Waif into her quarters.
Exactly. That sequence, I’m very proud of. I think smart viewers will have caught on to the idea that not everything was exactly as it seemed. I think it achieved its purpose. I think it felt like Arya was on the losing end until the very last second, where on second viewing, you’ll see she turned the tables earlier.
Rory McCann returned as The Hound in “The Broken Man,” the first of your two episodes. What did you discuss with Rory and the writers in terms of the changes in Sandor Clegane since the last time we saw him?
The heart of that for me was getting into the writers’ heads in the pre-production process, and then working with Rory, which is a total joy. He’s an absolute professional and the most awesome axeman on the planet. He’s a qualified forester, or whatever you call someone who is professionally qualified to use an ax in a forest. (Laughs) His use of that tool is actually quite spectacular. I suppose a lot of my questions to the writers were really about the level of humanity within the character. We had obviously seen it way back when, back when he helped Sansa in season two during the King’s Landing riot. He helps her when he doesn’t have to. We’ve seen those moments, this flicker of humanity in the character, and yet we’ve also seen him kill a child. He’s the most extraordinary contradiction, which is one of the great pleasures of working on this show; these characters can be so flawed, yet we feel such an emotional connection to them.
The question for me was about restraint. I tend to get so emotionally involved in the characters, being such a fan, that I have to pull off of them from wanting to show too much emotion with them. So I talked about how much we actually want to show. Thankfully, Rory, as with most of the cast, has a built ability to show a lot with very little. That’s one of the reasons the series has stayed so fresh over so many seasons. It was a question of how much to show, and as with everything on the show, the answer was very little, because Rory does so much himself, just with his eyes; you can see the conflict, that appallingly mistreated boy. You can see the child in there somewhere, that injured and bullied boy. I think that’s part of why we love him so much. Somewhere deep inside, you can see that vulnerable kid and how he became this man in the first place.
In “No One,” Jaime and Brienne finally reunited after almost two full seasons apart. Few characters on the show have greater chemistry than these two. What do you remember about shooting their scenes?
It had been a long time since they last said goodbye. It’s one of the greatest love stories on television for me. I just absolutely love it. The extraordinary thing for me is that they create such a beautiful, dramatic tension in any two-shot that has Nikolaj and Gwendoline. The way they use their eyes to either connect or disconnect — to avoid each other’s eyes — is so great. They play the black notes of their scenes so beautifully.
But here’s the thing: as soon as you say “cut,” they become the best of mates who just rip the piss out of each other continuously. They’re really good friends. They’re so light and such fun together. Whenever there’s a day with them, I know it’s going to be great, because they’re just going to be taking the piss out of each other from start to finish. Gwendoline has the most extraordinarily, fantastically contagious laugh in the world. It’s just this odd day of having the most fun and creasing up laughing so much, and yet, as soon as we say “action,” they switch into this wonderful sexual tension and this wonderful sense of yearning and beautiful layers of unspoken subtext between them. As actors, they understand that connection so instinctively that it was one of my easiest days as a director. They know that relationship and understand it, and there’s something about that chemistry these two actors have that fans those flames in the most intoxicating way.
If you’re looking for the breakout character of the past two episodes, and perhaps even the breakout character of the season, look no further than Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), the Lady of Bear Island. She instantly connected with viewers. What was the feeling in the room when she was playing the character? Did you know how well it was working, right away?
Oh, completely. She walked in for the casting reading, and we were knocked completely sideways. It was one of those moments where you go, “Oh my god, what a star.” You could not wish to meet a more delightful young lady. It was a four-and-a-half-page scene where we first meet that character, with Jon, Sansa and Davos all meeting her on Bear Island. We had a rehearsal day, and I think we were shooting mid-week. The cast agreed to come in on their day off to work with this young actor, Bella. She’s so young that she still works on child hours, so we had a limited amount of time with her. We knew we had to work fast, and she had so much dialogue, as you may remember from the scene. We all came in on a Saturday morning to the set, and everyone was having a jolly day, thinking we would be coaxing this shy young child through the scene. We all had kid gloves on for the day. After the first rehearsal, I remember thinking, “OK, this is going to be a very short rehearsal. She’s note perfect.” The accent was awesome, her inflection and her professionalism…we ended up rehearsing for only a half hour because she was so on it. And of course, the rest of us felt deeply ashamed, because she knew every single word and every single inflection. We all went home feeling a bit deflated. (Laughs) But also excited! Because the level of talent there is so ridiculous. She’s someone we’re going to look back on in 20 years, and she’s going to be ruling Hollywood. She’s just amazing.
What are your final takeaways from the two episodes of Game of Thrones you directed this season?
I’m a bit of a glass half empty, to be honest. I’m glad I didn’t f— too much up! (Laughs) I don’t normally watch them when they air, because by the time you’ve done post-production, you’ve kind of done your thing. But on this one, I did watch them on the Sundays they aired. It’s a combination of relief, I suppose, that they’re not too awful, and a kind of horror at missed opportunities. What do we call it, Monday morning quarterbacking? I had these genius ideas as I’m watching the episodes go out, and it’s really annoying! That’s always been the way with me, and I’m sure it’s probably the same with many directors. If there are any out there who don’t do that, I’m really envious.
What stands out as a missed opportunity?
There’s nothing specific I can give you on that. It tends to be shot grammar. Why didn’t I use that lens there? Why didn’t I take the camera back another 12 feet and use a slightly longer lens? Why didn’t I bring that camera down and flip it around? It tends to be minutiae elements. In terms of the tone, I worked so closely with the writers, in endless meetings, and with the cast to get it right. Tonally, I’m actually really happy with it. Even if I mess up, I have such an amazing cast to work with, and such amazing writers, that there are various safety nets so we don’t f— up the tone. I should refine my statement by saying that tonally, I’m incredibly proud of the episodes. It’s more the mechanics or the craft element, and what I could have done with the camera or a lighting choice…it’s that stuff, petty stuff, that I get a little frustrated with myself. That’s just my nature.
But most of all, I genuinely feel privileged to be part of this extraordinary project. I was knocking down David and Dan’s door for about a year and a half before they found a slot for me, because my background before joining Game of Thrones was not the most obvious résumé for this show. But I was such a massive fan that I basically begged them for a meeting and pitched myself until they just wanted to get rid of me. (Laughs) There’s a massive sense of privilege to be a part of it. There are five directors this season — we did two episodes each — and there’s a camaraderie to that, which is great, as well as a healthy competition. We’re competitive by nature. But mostly, I know all five of us felt really happy to be there.
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