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How the ‘Game of Thrones’ Dragon-Zombie Battle Got Made

Questions for Alan Taylor, the director behind the “Beyond the Wall” episode

Alan Taylor Helen Sloan/HBO

Behind every Game of Thrones episode is the small army of people who make an epic struggle for a fictional kingdom look convincing. That’s especially true for Sunday’s “Beyond the Wall,” which pitted one computer-generated supernatural enemy against another. To head the specific small army required for this episode, the show brought in director Alan Taylor, who headed six episodes across Thrones’ first two seasons before departing to helm Thor: The Dark World and Terminator Genisys. Before those features, Taylor built up an impressive track record in prestige TV, starting with early examples like Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz and continuing through a who’s who of heavyweights, including Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Lost, Deadwood, and Mad Men.

In some ways, “Beyond the Wall” was an undertaking more imposing than The Dark World, incorporating multiple locations and months of work. (Par for the course for a Thrones episode, maybe, but Thrones is an enterprise unto itself). Taylor got on the phone with The Ringer on Monday morning to discuss what it’s like to play a part in the Thrones machine, offering some helpful tips on how to coax out a good performance when an actor’s scene partner is a floating tennis ball along the way. What follows is a look into the process behind one of the most sprawling productions in either film or TV today.

You directed several episodes in the show’s earlier seasons before returning for “Beyond the Wall.” How did that come about?

I was there in Season 1 and 2, then went off to do other things. I had always wanted to come back and join this world again. David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] and I had talked about it before, but it never worked with my schedule. My shooting schedule and theirs never overlapped in the right way, so this is the first chance we had to actually do it. Because it was one episode that was sort of stand-alone and I was just finishing something, in terms of schedule, it worked out. I could do it.

When I heard that it was going to be the penultimate episode of the season, I thought,

Alan Taylor Getty Images

“Oh boy, that’s the big one!” Because, conventionally, that’s the HBO story arc: The second-to-last episode is big, and the final one’s the denouement. But then when I started reading the scripts, I thought, “Oh no, mine’s not the big one—that’s the big one!” Because I read the loot train episode [“The Spoils of War”] and the ship-to-sea battle [from “Stormborn”], and I started to realize that in this compressed phase of the final two seasons, every episode is big. After getting over the chagrin of realizing that other episodes were big too, I was glad that I got to do something that felt unique, because this was the only episode to take place north of the Wall, and it was a major plot point, a game-changing story point—the death of a beloved character. Being able to kill beloved characters has been something I’ve really been enjoying. [laughs] I’m grateful to get to do it again. I was there first season when we sort of gave birth to the dragons, so it was nice to come back and be present for the demise of one.

And you directed the ultimate beloved character death with “Baelor,” where Ned Stark gets beheaded.

Yeah! At that point, [the show] hadn’t come out yet when we were shooting it, so I had no idea what the impact was going to be like. But it was great watching people react to that death with such dismay and such emotional investment. Before that, I killed other HBO characters like Julius Caesar [on Rome] and Wild Bill Hickok [on Deadwood]. Killing off beloved characters: It’s a great job!

What’s it like to return to a show that’s grown so much in scale?

It was stunning. When I left, in Season 2, we were still squeezing the work out of a relatively small budget. We were very wary of putting a green screen in a shot because it was so expensive to do that. I went from that to a Marvel movie [Thor: The Dark World] and was stunned by the scale, going from what felt like the indie movie of Game of Thrones to the big-budget, corporate-studio world. The funny thing was, coming back now, Game of Thrones has gotten so big that it dwarfs everything else I’ve done. Partly, it’s the scale of it: You’re working on your individual episode, but just the scale of the machine, where while we were shooting in Iceland, they were simultaneously shooting in Spain. The resources are completely unlike what we had before. There’s green screen in almost every shot. The dragons are now a big part of the story, so that was a visual-effects component that was never there before. Just walking through the crew base, the army’s gotten ten times as big as when we were there last time.

It still hangs onto its indie energy and guerrilla style sometimes. We were in Iceland; it’s very much handheld, and everybody’s helping carry the equipment, and the actors just sit in the snow between takes. It hasn’t become bloated. It’s grown exponentially, and it’s managed to hang onto its spirit despite that. It’s fun; it means you have more toys to play with. But it’s also daunting; it means that many times, when you’re shooting one shot, it’s actually five shots you have to layer together to create the effect of the story point you’re telling.

In terms of scale and planning, is late-stage Game of Thrones closer to a Marvel movie than a TV episode?

They’re similar in terms of the amount of resources you have and the level of talent you can tap into, but there is a real difference in sensibility behind it. I think Game of Thrones manages, partly in the spirit of David and Dan and partly in the spirit of HBO—and it’s partly [executive producer] Bernie Caulfield, who’s holding the purse strings and is very tough [laughs]—but it does feel more like an indie production. It feels a bit more ragtag, and a bit more energetic. There’s a similarity in terms of scale, but there’s a difference in terms of spirit.

The logistics of directing an episode alone seem unwieldy. Most individual TV episodes don't require island hopping from Belfast to Iceland. How do you manage that sprawling production? Are you sharing time with other directors to make best use of the locations?

When I got my script and realized it was going to be in Iceland and Belfast, I was very grateful for Iceland, because it’s one of my favorite places to shoot in the world, but I was disappointed I didn’t get any King’s Landing stuff, because it’s so fun to go to Croatia. [laughs] And going to Spain is also wonderful. I wanted to go everywhere! But I was in Ireland and Iceland, and simultaneously they were shooting [Dorne, King’s Landing, and Oldtown] in Spain. You’re swapping actors back and forth, and you’re swapping stuntmen and prosthetics people back and forth between two completely independent crews—one’s called the Wolf Unit and one’s called the Dragon Unit. They were doing everything at the same time.

In terms of jumping around from location to location, I’m really grateful, because HBO could take another approach where they say, “You’re going to Iceland to do all the Iceland stuff, and you’re going to Spain to do all the Spain stuff.” That would be more efficient in some ways, but it would break down the authorship of the director for their episode, and HBO’s always been supportive and respectful of the director’s voice. If you had a scene in Spain, you would go to Spain, and you would fly back to wherever the rest of your story’s taking place. You may be working with the Dragon crew in Iceland, say, and go down and work with the Wolf crew in some other country and go back again, but the director gets to see their story through.

I think in this case, I was the only director who went to Iceland, so there were a couple scenes that I did for other episodes that took place at Eastwatch. I shot those for other directors, but that’s very rare. It’s cool that HBO manages to keep it separate the way they do.

More than any episode so far, “Beyond the Wall” depicts climactic events with CG. What’s the balance between CG and practical effects?

Jon Snow in the snow HBO

As I was saying, that was new in my experience with Game of Thrones because in the old days we couldn’t afford to do the stuff we’re doing now. And the dragons were tiny, so that was a lot cheaper. [laughs] Now that you’ve got dragons as big as a 747, they’re weaponized, so they’re using flame, and they’re very up close and interactive with our characters. That level of scrutiny is really hard to deliver on, and luckily we have this amazing visual-effects team. Joe Bauer is leading it, and his rendition of the dragons is such hard work and so beautiful. It’s hard work for the crew, too; it means that any interaction, you have to make sure you are shooting the components you need on set with the actors on location, but then also getting the things you need against green screen, and also providing elements that will allow the two to interact. So if there’s fire, you have to have fire on location that casts the light the way it needs to. Then you need to shoot a fire element later against black. By the time you layer up the four or five or six shots, you’ve got that one moment where the dragon does something with Dany on top of him, and a zombie dying.

The biggest scale jump for me was realizing one shot on a frozen lake might actually be six shots over the course of several months. Layering them together and making it look believable is a huge challenge for us and for Joe and his team, and also Jonathan Freeman, who shot it, being really fierce in making sure we were getting the interactive light that we needed to. It’s tough on the actors. I love that Game of Thrones is still very much a location show; we go to the real environments, and that makes it more real for the actors. But we couldn’t get any real dragons, so you’ve gotta look at a green tennis ball and act off of that. [laughs]

How do you balance that need for artifice with organic emotion? Basically: How do you make it seem like someone’s really about to be eaten by a zombie bear?

Yeah, the zombie-bear thing took a lot of thinking. I think there’s actually some stuff online already about the making of, where you see the ridiculous rig we had that was a metal cage that could have a flame element, for the interactive light. That character became known as “Lumpy,” which was sometimes the cage and sometimes a guy in a green suit with tennis balls in various places and sometimes just a flame element. Then you’ve got wires attached to Thoros being shaken back and forth—sort of the way they did it in The Revenant, where you had to sync up the stunt action to the intended action with the bear.

It’s funny; people say, “How can Emilia stare at her dying dragon and tear up and make it believable when all she’s got to look at is a tennis ball?” But they’re pretending all the time! [laughs] She has to look at Kit Harington and pretend she’s falling deeply in love with him. They like each other, but that’s pretending too. She’s been amazing to me in her control of her craft—the fact that she can just turn it on and turn it off with such control. It’s partly a British thing. It doesn’t feel like Method acting; it feels like absolute skill and training and control, and it’s beautiful to watch.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.