'Game of Thrones' director Neil Marshall: How he pulled off that battle

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When Game of Thrones goes to battle, the producers call Neil Marshall. The director of season two’s Blackwater episode returned Sunday night to helm the most ambitious war sequence in the show’s history: The Battle of Castle Black. Below the director (The Descent, Centurion) takes our questions (spoilers) about episode nine, “The Watchers on the Wall”:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That was amazing. You had so many epic moments, plus the action remained remarkably coherent despite all that was going on.
Neil Marhsall:  Yeah, that’s always the trickiest part, to keep your handle on the geography.

What was the toughest scene to pull off?
Probably the mammoth. Everything else exists in some form or another. Even the giants are like 8-foot-tall actors that we film against green screen and make them bigger. But the mammoth is 100 percent CG. So you have to plan out these sequences where you have stunts and then you’re going to put this giant and mammoth there, and leave room for them. Easily the most complex effects work I’ve done on anything. And like you said, it’s about people understanding what’s happening where, which is kind of why I put in that one crane shot that goes all the way around Castle Black and it links all the characters together. The reason for doing that is, one, it was going to look cool, and two, because it helps the audience understand who, where and when.

There were two shots I thought were great with orientation. There was the earlier aerial shot that went from Ygritte’s party, then over Castle Black, The Wall and then to Mance’s armies in the north — showing you where everything was, and I thought that was really important because all season some have been confused on how there’s two groups of Wildlings. And the other was that really cool shot that you mentioned, which surprised me, because you’re already doing this massive battle on a TV scale then you throw in a challenge like that continuous shot. How many times did it take to get that shot?
We rehearsed it for about an hour, then we got it in seven takes.

What changed about the episode during the production?
Not a lot. There’s the scythe at the end [which slides along the Wall knocking off the climbers]. There was discussions about taking that out, but [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] and myself really fought to keep that in. The only thing that changed was there was originally going to be more mammoths and more giants. Once it was proving to be a bit of a headache we went with one mammoth and two giants.

I could totally see that note on the scythe on the chain because it’s not necessary, but at the same time, when you watch the episode you’re very glad it’s in there. Though I can’t imagine a worse mission on the Wildling side than having to climb the Wall in the middle of a battle.
I wouldn’t fancy that.

The shot with the giant of the tunnel, did you build a miniature version of the tunnel or did you use CG?
We built a half-scale tunnel for the 8-foot-tall actor to run along and combined it with shots with the other actors in the real tunnel.

So the scene where Ygritte dies. Kit Harington thought that was the first slow-mo shot in Thrones history, but one sharp-eyed reader said there was actually one during Blackwater. What’s the definitive answer?
I think I did a slow-motion shot of the horses riding in with Tywin in Blackwater. We always try not to use slo-mo, but for this particular moment it was needed to keep [Jon and Ygritte] within the bubble of their own while seeing the wider world this was happening in and try to milk it for as much emotion as possible. So I felt it worked for that shot. But I agree that in general the show works better without it. It keeps it more immediate.

What was Rose Leslie’s last day on set like?
Very sad. It’s always sad. There’s a few characters that I killed off. It’s sad when you’re saying goodbye and they’re wrapped for good. She shed a few tears.

What else was interesting about the shoot?
Obviously it’s the second episode that takes place in one location, and it’s actually shot right next to the quarry where we shot Blackwater just outside of Belfast. When we’re filming in October, it’s absolutely freezing and pouring rain constantly and it’s like mud up to your knees. It’s pretty rough. But the extras that played the Wildlings, they were so great, they kept taking punishment and kept coming back for more.

I always hear during these interviews, and noticed when was on the set in Belfast, how much it’s raining during scenes. And unless it’s really heavy, you just don’t see rain on film. Fans don’t realize how many shots on this show are actually shot in the rain.
There’s a moment in Blackwater where Tyrion does his rousing speech to the men and you can plainly tell it was absolutely pouring that night, and it had been the last few days. And when it came to doing this episode, Alliser Thorne gave his big speech and the heavens opened and it started raining. I think what they’ve done is taken the rain out [digitally], which is amazing considering how heavy it was. At the time I thought, “Oh no, people are going to think it’s my marker — that it’s raining when people give their big speeches.” It’s the rain, there’s nothing I could do about it!

Thorne was quite the badass too, which was another surprise — you end up rooting for this guy you’ve disliked for so long.
When it comes to the crunch he’s full-blooded Night’s Watch and he will fight to the death to protect Castle Black. He may not be a nice guy, but he means what he says.

And of course we also lost Grenn and Pyp too.
It wasn’t my decision to kill them, but if I am, I’m going to do justice to them. I think Pyp, it’s heartbreaking when he dies, it’s really rough. And Grenn, it’s such a sacrifice. But it was a pleasure to be involved with these guys’ last episodes.

There’s been a Thrones curse when it comes to getting Emmy nominations for directors. I think only the show’s heavily re-shot pilot was nominated for best direction, and that’s not anybody’s idea of the best Thrones episode. There’s been so much great work along the way from yourself, Alex Graves, David Nutter, Alan Taylor and others. Do you think this season might be the one where somebody breaks through?
Obviously it would be very nice. There are amazing directors working for Game of Thrones doing amazing work, so it would be fully justified. We’ll see.

Will you be back next year?
Not next season. But if they need another battle, hopefully they’ll give me a call.

RELATED:
‘Game of Thrones’ team on Ygritte’s tragic death during Castle Black battle
– EW’s The Battle of Castle Black recap: Where the Wildlings Are

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