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There are some moments throughout the run of Game of Thrones that transcend the show itself, sequences that even the 14 individuals who don’t watch HBO’s fantasy epic know about.
The Red Wedding comes immediately to mind, as does Eddard Stark’s fate at the Sept of Baelor. Likewise, the death of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) dominated water cooler discussions from the season five finale through his eventual resurrection early on this year. But even that massive development competes with another of season six’s enormous revelations: Hodor’s birth and destruction, all boiling down to three words — “Hold the door!” — and a complicated time travel narrative that certainly left a lot of viewers with boggled brains and bloody noses.
Incidentally, the man who directed “The Door,” as well as this past week’s “Blood of my Blood,” knows a thing or two about time travel-induced nosebleeds: Jack Bender, the prolific lead director of Lost, who is well acquainted with complex chronologies given the island drama’s fifth season. Here, Bender speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about bringing the Hodor scene to life, how Thrones reinforced lessons he learned on Lost, and more.
What was your experience reading through the ending sequence of “The Door,” and working through bringing it to life?
Well, it started earlier than that. [Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] had asked me to do the show, and it never lined up with our schedules to get together. But I was a huge fan of the show. Eventually, I was asked again after working on The Last Ship, which I directed and executive produced, and the time was right. When I met with the guys, they said there was a particular episode that would be great for me. Without being specific, there were some things going on that they felt I could deal with in a great way. Once I decided to do it, I read it, and reading a Game of Thrones script — especially that one — is pretty daunting. I went to David Nutter, a friend and brilliant director who has directed so many episodes of this show, and I said, “OK, David… how the f—k do you direct an episode of this show?” (Laughs.) He just said to me, “You’re going to be surrounded by so many great people. It’s not going to be a problem.”
I have to admit I was concerned about coming onto the world’s biggest show, like Lost was. Many people believe Game of Thrones is the greatest show that’s ever been on television, and I wouldn’t argue with that. I would also say that I’ve had the real good fortune to work on some extraordinary shows! But the point is, I was concerned — and I’ll get back to the specifics of reading that sequence — what am I bringing to the party that hasn’t been brought in six years? Everybody knows more than I know about the specifics and history and how they do this brilliant storytelling.
But I decided to do it, for all the right reasons, and when I read that sequence, it was like, “Wow.” It had to be scary. The sequence had to be believable in the world of Game of Thrones, which deals with all aspects of life on our planet in a very believable way, even if the specifics seem otherworldly. But what’s great about the show is you can identify with the people and their brilliant performances. It’s not unlike what David Chase did with The Sopranos. Most of us didn’t work in the mafia, but we had kids who treated us the way Tony’s kids treated him! (Laughs.) So any great television show needs a human component that lets the audience hook into the characters.
So, back to Game of Thrones, which has amazing characters. I met with Dan and David early on and talked about the sequence. Fairly early on in prep, I had the idea to have two parallel shots. One slow push-in on Hodor (Kristian Nairn), at the door and holding the door, and one slow push-in from above on the fallen Wylis (Sam Coleman), the UnHodor, and intercut those two things. The idea is that the horror of Hodor sacrificing himself in order to allow his friends to be saved, you would see less of him, and eventually his face would fill the frame with those horrible skeletal arms engulfing and smothering and ripping away at him. David and Dan liked that, but one of the things they said early on is that it was important that the horror didn’t overwhelm the emotion.
The sequence also had to be believable. If we’re going to have that big an army of the dead in that cave, we needed to build a believable sequence where our audience would buy that the characters could get away, and there were enough obstacles in the way of this massive army. It had to have a timeline of believability. Leaf, the Child of the Forest, sacrificing herself and blowing herself up in order to slow them down, and of course [Summer] the direwolf doing the same in his own way. As important as those moments were, and the direwolf’s mission to protect Bran at all costs, that sequence needed to be more implied than shown, so you didn’t spend too much time feeling horrible and terrified by that, so we’re building toward what Hodor was going to do. That had to be the payoff emotionally.
My most intimidating night of shooting was with Kristian and doing all the shots of him at the door. In order to get enough of the stunt guys’ arms around him, but not to the point where he’s dead, and get him to act both the goodbye and the horror of what was happening to him, is what it all came down to. He really delivered, and camera really delivered, and stunts really delivered, and I really thought we had it. And it seems like it was good. That really is the payoff of the sequence. It doesn’t matter how much everything before it was. If we didn’t deliver that “emotional Hiroshima,” with that beloved character sacrificing himself in the way he did for his friends, it would not have worked.
That’s a very vivid way of describing the moment, and yet, the death itself was not shown in such a gory light. Even though this is Game of Thrones and several characters have died in awful ways would it have been a bridge too far to show Hodor’s death in graphic detail?
That was the first note from David and Dan, and I thought about that. It led me through the creation and building of the sequence. That’s where we had to land and live. That note really stuck with me. You could picture The Walking Dead version of this scene, which is a brilliant show in its own right, where the flesh is getting ripped off and you see what’s being done to him. It was important to get a little bit out of that.
That’s a nutshell of what you’re surrounded by if you get to do this show. If you’re a good director, and you’re smart, and you know how to avail yourself to the brilliant people around you, you can succeed. I learned that lesson while working on Lost, by the way. Early on, before he went to Mission: Impossible, J.J. Abrams was around for the early formation of the show, looking at cuts… but before I did that show, I saw the pilot. J.J. and I went all the way back to Felicity and Alias. We worked together very well. When he asked me to do Lost and creatively run it in Hawaii while Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were running it in Los Angeles, I watched the pilot, and I thought it was the best pilot had ever seen. I was sitting with my wife and daughters, and it ended, and I sat there dumbfounded. My wife was the first one who told me, “You’re going to Hawaii.” But I wasn’t so sure. How do you repeat that every week? How do you keep the bar that high? I was pretty terrified that I would be the guy known for blowing that pilot.
Damon and I talked a lot about how I keep the visual scope of the show, and story-wise we focused as much on the monster inside these characters as the monster outside in the jungle, then we really would pull the audience in and show them that this is about a group of people who were more lost before they became lost and started to rediscover who they were on that island and in their lives — which is why the ending is so beautiful; it’s not a gimmick, it’s about how we all live our lives, and who we live them with. I thought it was so beautiful, and of course it pissed off some fans who were expecting, I don’t know…
That the island was a spaceship, or some other big reveal.
Right. (Laughs.) A CIA moment where the island is discovered. But I bring up Lost because one of the major things I learned in six years of working with the same great people is that it takes a village to make anything good. It’s such a cliché, but if you’re with people who hopefully are great — and they were on Lost, and they are on Game of Thrones — the more you rely on the team around you to do what they do, the better it’s going to be, not to mention fun. People will be happier.
The sequence continues beyond “hold the door,” as Meera (Ellie Kendrick) races through the woods with Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), still having visions…
Which are also interrupted with flashes of the army of the dead coming until ultimately he tells Meera they’ve been found. Most of those flashes were written into the script. It’s been a while since I shot it and read the script, but I expect many of the flashes were discovered in the editing. But the juxtaposition of images are there for a reason. That falls much more into David and Dan’s mythology and vision of the show and where it’s going. There is no question that Bran is seeing the things he’s seeing, but exactly why he’s seeing every specific image? I can’t tell you. I just know he was seeing them. I can’t speak to the über reason for all of that.
Moving from beyond the Wall, there’s the theater sequence playing out in Braavos — a very different set of scenes, but this must have been an enormous undertaking in its own right.
Oh, yeah. First of all, in my late teens and early twenties, I was an actor. In order to support myself, I became a director, and I directed a lot of theater. It’s near and dear to my heart. I directed a lot of plays, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which had this group traveling the countryside, and they were a fairly cheesy lot. When I read the theater sequences, I was thrilled and titillated that I would get to theatricalize Game of Thrones in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, which is what the guys wrote. They’re the ones who wrote fart noises into the script. I might have embellished that! We actually shot more than we would be able to feature on the show, and I hope it’ll be available on the DVD at the end of the season; there are a few more scenes.
But what we did, and this was my assistant director’s brilliant idea, is that we got a great group of actors to play those parts. Once we got them, we brought them to Belfast and rehearsed for a few days like we were “The Game of Thrones Players.” We kept joking that we were going to take the show on the road. That was the plan, to rehearse the whole thing in its entirety like it’s a play. We also wanted to come up with a look to the play that would feel of the period, because it can’t suddenly look like it’s a Vegas show. So, for instance, we came up with the idea of the backdrop, that would follow the king while he’s hunting. Let’s have a backdrop with forest behind it that moves with him. Then, when he’s gored by the boar, I wanted to see some guys with a cut-out boar running on stage. We decided all the props would be very flat and two-dimensional. When the king would get gored, he would spill out theatrical red velvet guts, as opposed to splashing blood on the stage. It all had to be fake — sort of Federico Fellini fake — and theatrical.
The day we rehearsed the show, and David and Dan came to look at it on a weekend, I was a little concerned that maybe I had gone too far in mocking the show. The audience has lived through so many of those things. They were so brilliantly done, that the idea of thumbing your nose or mocking that… I was concerned about it. But David and Dan have great humor, and they don’t take themselves too seriously…
They did direct an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, after all.
That’s right! (Laughs.) That’s right. When I turned to them after the rehearsal, they had some notes — tighten this, do this, do that — but they really loved where it was going and what it was. And I told them that I was concerned we might be going too far in mocking the show. But they said, “No. We love it. Go further.” So much for taking it seriously!
Another crucial moment is when we had Ned Stark’s paper maché head on stage, and these men are throwing it around in front of Arya (Maisie Williams), and then she sees that head backstage. Having Maisie, who is such a fantastic actor — and I told her that she’s going to be a director some day; her instincts are so good that if she’s interested in doing any of that, she’ll be able to, because she gets it and can deliver extraordinary stuff — but she played those reactions perfectly. She was the emotional anchor of the whole sequence, to be able to go back to her and see how she reacts to the worst moments of her life. When she goes backstage and meets the actor, and talks about how she would be feeling — which is not based on Cersei’s son’s death, but based on how she felt when her father died, and she can’t share that because she’s pretending to be this girl Mercy with this terrible mission… it’s just fantastic.
There are so many other moving pieces in these two episodes, between the Kingsmoot, Sam’s trip to Horn Hill, and more. As someone who has directed so much television, what are your final takeaways from shooting these two episodes of Game of Thrones?
I was just so lucky to have landed those two episodes. Between “The Door,” and the great sacrifice of Hodor, and also the theatrical stuff that you mentioned, there was so much other stuff in those two episodes that I was lucky enough to get the call to do this. There’s no question that there were a lot of stories and a lot of elements, a lot of contradictory divergences, and I’m so grateful that I got to do these two episodes, and it felt like making one movie. It’s all due to this wonderful editing and music and all of these things those guys do. There’s no question that it was challenging, and I was worried that we were creating something schizophrenic, and that it would be hard to find the emotional throughline. But I’m so grateful we were able to find it. I’m very thankful.
Watch the video below for more on Bran’s visions:
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