Challenges of directing Thrones

NEW YORK •British director Miguel Sapochnik, 42, did not start working on Game Of Thrones until the fifth season, but he had since overseen several of the show's best episodes.

These include the zombie-raid extravaganza Hardhome, in Season 5, and the final two last season, all of them game-changing instalments. Battle Of The Bastards, the penultimate show of Season 6, featured a thrilling dragon attack and, more notably, the show's most complex and exhilarating military clash to date.

The effort was worth it: The episode netted Sapochnik his first Emmy nomination.

He is not directing any episodes next season.

He recently discussed battling the sun and why tumbling horses cannot compete with 14-foot (4.3m) poles. Here are edited excerpts.

What's the hardest thing about directing a series with an established story and tone?

I was looking for "What's the formula here?". There was a very David Lean kind of approach to it. It was traditional, in a way, and it was naturalistic in some respects, even though it was fantasy. It's part of the function of storytelling, which is presenting a world that has fantastic elements, but not making a big deal out of them.

How so?

You couldn't do Hardhome and not go hand-held. We didn't have the time to shoot that size of show without having the freedom to move around with a camera and, also, creatively, to help form the feeling of chaos. It became a conscious choice that happened once the fog comes rolling in and the White Walkers appear. It helps set up the panic the Wildlings are experiencing. Once that worked on Hardhome, it was much easier to get into that idea in Battle Of The Bastards.

You've said the big clash was the most logistically complicated thing you've worked on.

It was death by a thousand cuts - lots of things to do and lots of things to keep in mind. A simple but amazingly complicated aspect was the fact that we were lighting with sunlight. That seems totally normal - but what I didn't realise is the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. (Laughs.) So the directions you shoot in the morning and in the afternoon are opposite to each other and we had to change the schedule to accommodate where the sun was at any one point.

Do those challenges end up improving the result?

At least 50 per cent of the time, they make it better. The example I keep coming back to is the sequence where Jon Snow gets crushed by his fellow troops and has that dying and rebirthing moment. Which really came as a result of the fact that it rained and the pitch got completely waterlogged and it slowed everything down. So I consulted with David (Benioff) and Dan (Weiss, the creators and showrunners) and said: "I think I can complete the sequence if I can go off script and shoot this idea instead, because it's more containable and it's not dependent on the weather." And they said yes and it ended up being a very personal moment for Jon Snow.

What was the toughest thing you had to depict?

Having 3,000 horses running at one another, especially after we discovered that horses cannot touch one another. It's illegal - it's a very valid rule about protecting the horses. So the very thing we were trying to do was not allowed. And we had only 70 horses.

What was the solution?

You would have one guy run into the frame and then the horse rider would pull the horse, which means make the horse fall and lie down on its side. Later we would digitally superimpose another CGI horse and make it seem like it had impacted the live one.

Pulling horses down, you can do. It's about turning their necks in a certain direction and then having two guys with a rope wrapped around the front two legs - they pull the rope and then it allows them to fall very painlessly onto a bedded mulch base. But horses are smart, so after a couple of times, they won't let you.

Which is harder to deal with? Horses or dragons?

Luckily, the dragons aren't there. The dragon on set is essentially a 14-foot green pole with a little green ball on the top of it. More often than not, it was me swinging it around and shouting cues for people to know the dragon was passing over them; the ball was there for an eye line. Amazingly, somehow when the "dragon's" on set people get excited. They all know what the dragon looks like, so it's not hard to get the excitement level up. Everyone loves horses, but we've seen them before, so they're not as thrilling.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Challenges of directing Thrones'. Subscribe