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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for episode nine of Game of Thrones‘ sixth season, “Battle of the Bastards.”]
Fully unpacking “Battle of the Bastards,” the ninth episode of Game of Thrones‘ off-book sixth season, requires weeks and weeks of examination. The bountiful beats within the battle, from the opening act of Rickon Stark’s death on the field to Ramsay Bolton’s defeat inside Winterfell, are almost too many to count.
But if there’s one component worth exploring in greater detail, it’s Kit Harington’s work as Jon Snow, the leader of the battle. The actor, whose involvement in season six was kept under wraps until Snow’s official resurrection (even if it was widely expected by the fan base), stands front and center throughout “Battle of the Bastards,” trying and failing to save Rickon, subsequently charging into battle on his own, and nearly facing down the entire House Bolton cavalry with nothing but his Valyrian sword as backup… until his own cavalry arrives, two armies of horse-riding warriors smashing into one another.
From there, Snow fights through the field in what just might be the spectacular episode’s most spectacular scene: an uninterrupted minute-long shot, reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, featuring Harington hacking and slashing enemies, dodging downpours of arrows and sword-swinging soldiers, and witnessing firsthand a spirit-breaking level of human carnage.
Miguel Sapochnik, who directed “Battle of the Bastards” as well as season five’s celebrated “Hardhome,” says of the sequence, “There weren’t specific conversations about the details of the shot, rather once we had decided that this was what we were going to do, I would check in with [showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff] every now and then to make sure they were liking what we were thinking and then Kit and I would work through the choreography with [stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam] and add spaces for performance so that it had more of an emotional journey to it.”
In his original pitch to Benioff and Weiss, Sapochnik described the shot as putting Jon “in the middle of a super busy intersection with horses instead of cars. I was trying get to the idea that sometimes it’s not being a hero or a great fighter that means you make it through a battle; it’s a miracle, or sheer luck.
“Once we chose the moment in the battle we wanted to achieve this, then we slowly started to pre-[visualize] it and get that to a place where it felt interesting enough to warrant actually doing it,” Sapochnik continues. “Then we went through the pre-viz with all the departments and started to break it down and look for what it would take to do it as one continuous shot. The trick was to use as many real horses as was possible but safe, and then use a variety of different techniques to add more people and more horses to the fray. It took a month to work out, and a few weeks rehearsing on and off, then two days to shoot.”
Beyond accomplishing the sequence on a technical level, Sapochnik says the most important riddle to figure out was finding the narrative importance in the moment — what it meant for Jon Snow, personally, to live through this waking nightmare.
“The key was to give it a point,” he says. “Our idea was that after the chaos subsides, Jon must fight to survive, but when his men are killed in front of him, it kind of breaks something in him and he becomes somewhat of a monster himself.”
Sapochnik says this moment — taking the heroic Jon Snow and breaking him into a monstrous war machine — was referred to in the script as “the fog of war,” a notion that carries deeper into the fight, “until he’s struck down and nearly killed by a Bolton before Tormund saves him.”
But even if Jon fights through the fog, the horror is far from over. The Bolton forces surround Jon’s, squeezing and choking the life out of the men as their human circle tightens. It’s here that Snow becomes so consumed in the violence that he nearly drowns in an ocean of corpses, trapped beneath so many bodies, unable to breath. Only after a miraculous amount of effort does Jon emerge from the mountain of men, gasping for air, suddenly alive and in the fight again.
“Thematically, it represented a rebirth,” Sapochnik says of that iconic shot. “We actually shot a little section where he just gives up, the light disappears above him and for 30 seconds he’s in darkness and he closes his eyes, then something sparks and he starts to fight back.”
Sapochnik says this section of the episode was unscripted, which allowed the team to try “a bunch of things so that we had options in the cutting room floor,” he says. “It helped that we didn’t really know what we were doing or how we were going to do it in advance.”
For the version of the scene that ultimately made the cut, Sapochnik says the production utilized a fake horse corpse “as a nook for Kit to get caught under, and then we ran 250 allied troop extras over him with one stunt man lying on top of him that he could both struggle with and would keep him protected in case for any reason things went south. Then Sean Savage, our amazing A-cam operator, sat in there with a camera and someone ready to pull him out if things got hairy, and we literally covered them with extras and stunt men.”
If it sounds like life imitating art — that this part of the shoot was a veritable nightmare come alive — then welcome to Kit Harington’s world.
“Kit had mentioned to me that his worst fear is being buried alive,” says Sapochnik, “so I exploited that to its fullest — and being the amazing game player that he is, he let me.”
That level of trust between Sapochnik and Harington was first forged during the harsh “Hardhome,” and now tested further through the brutal “Battle of the Bastards.” For his part, Sapochnik’s appreciation of Harington stands high, much like Snow himself once he emerges from the ocean of the dead. “I’ve been lucky enough to do two major sequences with him and he’s not only really really good at what he does, but he’s got humility, a sense of humor and a work ethic that is like a breath of fresh air for a director,” he says. “I wish I could work with him on everything.”
Sapochnik puts it another way: “Kit is the dog’s bollocks.” Don’t let Ramsay hear that; it’s still a little too soon.
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