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‘Game of Thrones’ Dragon Battle Was Inspired by ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’

On Monday, Mr. Shakman, who also oversaw next week’s episode, discussed the meaning of Sunday’s sword fight, the movies that inspired the closing battle sequence, and the challenges of directing a character who isn’t there. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.

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We’ve seen the dragons in combat before, but this was the first time they were used in a big battle, which is something the show has been promising almost from the beginning. Was it intimidating to be the one who had to present that, especially for your first episode?

When I got my script for the time first time and encountered the start of the battle, I thought, “Oh this is unbelievable.” And as the pages kept turning, it didn’t end, and it got more and more intimidating. But exciting at the same time, as you realize the scope of it.


Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in “Game of Thrones.”

Macall B. Polay/HBO

“Game of Thrones” is known for stunning combat sequences in episodes like “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards.” How was this one different?

It was the first time we saw a battle with the dragons between people that we actually like. We’ve seen them in heroic situations — Daenerys taking on the slavers in Meereen and watching from above as she deals death from the sky. But this was a chance to frame it in a different way. So one of the first decisions I made was to focus more on Jaime and Bronn than on Daenerys — to focus on what it was like to be with these men on the ground in the middle of this horrific moment when war changes forever, when traditional fighting goes out the window and suddenly you have the introduction of something like napalm. That was the chief thematic focus of the episode. To hang it on Jaime’s shoulders as he sees his men dying was the most important thing for me.

[Interview: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on Jaime Lannister’s Charge]

Did you rewatch any of those earlier battle episodes to get a better feel for the show’s visual grammar in regards to combat scenes?

I certainly did. “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards” are incredible, and Miguel Sapochnik [who directed those episodes] is a great director. Neil Marshall also did a brilliant job early on with his battles. [“Blackwater,” “The Watchers on the Wall”].

This battle had elements of the “Battle of the Bastards” in it, and it had the surprise ambush quality of “Hardhome,” but everything about it on the micro level was very different. On a macro level, too, given the dragons. So what I looked at more were things like “Apocalypse Now,” the helicopter attack on the village, which felt very similar in terms of shifting points of view and the horror on the ground. Dealing death from above — going through swirling clouds of smoke and napalm and all of that — felt much more like what I was trying to create.

The helicopter attack scene from “Apocalypse Now.”

I looked at “Saving Private Ryan,” the opening battle on the beach, where the sound drops out and Tom Hanks is watching men being burned alive and shot to death. That to me was very much what it should feel like for Jaime, watching men die left and right around him. I looked at John Ford. I looked at “Children of Men.” Bronn running through the field of horror was very similar to some of those Clive Owen oners [single continuous shots] as he’s running through hell with death all around him. I looked at a lot of different references and did what I could to pull from them as inspiration.

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So was that Bronn sequence a single shot? Or just edited to seem that way?

For the most part it is. There’s one blend when a bunch of Lannister troops flee through the frame — we pan right and we see a man on fire get slammed by a horse, then we pan back to Bronn. That’s a merge point. Then, when Bronn dives down to stab a Dothraki, and we tilt up to Drogon flying overhead and then come back to him for his final steps before a burning wagon comes through — that’s a blend. So technically it’s three different shots.

What was the trickiest thing to pull off?

All of it is difficult. The logistics of martialing all of those background performers, stunt people. Dealing with fire. The evolution of the battle as you move from an intact wagon train to various stages of attack, until finally you’re in a full field of fire — this horrific, Bosch-like like landscape at the end. Each one of those stages required a herculean effort from the art department to move things around, to adjust the landscape, the burned grass, the number of bodies and burn victims and things like that. There was a lot to track.

And when you’re also dealing with a character that’s actually not there — and that’s Drogon — it’s very difficult. You’re dealing with eye lines and tennis balls, and trying to get 200 people to react appropriately to a horrific dragon, who’s just a guy with a long stick running around.

Arya and Brienne square off in a scene from “Game of Thrones.” HBO

The battle was the big technical lift of the episode. But the sword fight between Arya and Brienne was another impressive sequence.

It’s one of my favorite scenes, too. They are so good in it, and the actors trained for so long — well over a month, I think — to be able to do that fight themselves. There are some stunt shots in it, but for the most part, that is the actors delivering it.

It’s kind of similar to the big battle at the end in that you have multiple points of view. You have Arya coming in to that courtyard, wandering around her old home, and she finds Brienne. You’re with her at the beginning. But then you shift over to Brienne as she suddenly realizes this ninja is coming at her, and she’s trying to react to it. Then you have maybe the most important point of view, which is Sansa looking down from above, seeing her sister who is no longer really this person she knew. This idea that you can’t go home again. The Arya Stark who’s arrived now is this assassin, this fighter, who’s a far cry from the little sister she knew before, so she’s taking stock of that and trying to figure out what that means for her relationship.

Is that why she reacted so strongly? Just from shock at seeing what Arya has become?

She gets hints of it earlier in the episode. Bran confirms that Arya has a list of people she wants to kill. She gets a sense there’s something different about Arya. But then seeing it in action and seeing her go up against her protector, Brienne, who has been [Sansa’s] chief bodyguard and savior — to see her fight to a draw with Arya. It’s impressive and also forces her to reconsider everything she knows about her sister.

So it’s a big moment for Sansa and also for Littlefinger, who now has to realize, How does he now navigate these three Starks here at home at Winterfell? All of them are quite different and not as susceptible to his charms as he’d like.

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