SPOILER ALERT: Do not keep reading if you have not seen “Game of Thrones” Season 7, episode 4, titled “The Spoils of War.”
Once or twice a season, “Game of Thrones” delivers an epic battle scene unlike nearly anything previously seen on TV — Blackwater Bay, Hardhome, the Battle of the Bastards. Sunday night’s episode, “The Spoils of War,” presented yet another. The Loot Train Battle kicked off with a horde of Dothraki horsemen charging hastily assembled Lannister lines in a scene at first reminiscent of classic Westerns. But then the stakes changed, as viewers got to see a fully grown dragon flown by Daenerys Targaryen and making a first fiery assault on Westerosi ground troops. The result was, in “Game of Thrones” fashion, carnage.
Matt Shakman, who directed “The Spoils of War,” spoke with Variety about Season 7’s biggest battle thus far.
How long did the Loot Train Battle take to shoot?
The battle, I think, was 18 main-unit days, roughly around five second-unit days, and then several weeks of the effects-unit shooting back in Belfast, which is where we did Daenerys flying on her dragon and shots of flamethrowers and people turning to ash and all that stuff that got added into it.
We’re used to seeing big battle scenes in the show. What did you want to do to distinguish this one?
I started by trying to focus on whose point of view I wanted to prioritize, because there are a lot of points of view in it. You see Tyrion’s point of view, you see Daenerys, you see Jaime, Bronn. And I also decided with Jaime and Bronn to focus on what it was like to be the man on the ground in the middle of a dragon attack. We rooted for Daenerys as she burned slavers in Meereen from the sky. We’ve been with her in sort of heroic moments with the dragons. But we’ve never been in a battle between two people that we love and are rooting for, and I wanted to see what it was like for those men on the ground when war changed forever, when traditional fighting goes out the window because of a giant weapon like napalm or even an atom bomb is suddenly introduced and what that sort of horror is like on the ground.
It seemed like you were looking to play with the way that viewers have perceived the dragons so far, which is essentially that they are just really cool.
Right. The horror on the ground is much larger than it has been, I think – the damage and the destruction from the last time we saw a dragon attack in Season 6. Now Drogon is the size of a 747 and the cone of flame that he sends out is 30-feet wide. So we discussed early on that the center of that flame would be so hot that it would carbonize almost instantly. So we looked a lot at Pompei as reference, which led to the idea of people just turning to ash in an instant. The people on the edge of the fire are cooking in their armor and rushing to the water to try to save themselves. But the people in the middle, their humanity is just gone in an instant.
When Bronn was being chased by the Dothraki, it seemed like you were setting up a potential death scene for him, then subverting that. Was that where you were intending to take the audience with that sequence?
I wanted there to exist the chance for someone to die at any minute. I hoped the people watching it would fear for Jaime, that they would fear for Daenerys when she was on the ground, that they would fear for Drogon, that they would fear for Bronn — and that in this collision of all these people that we love and have been rooting for and have been following, that any one of them could die at any minute. You have Tyrion stuck between the people that he loves, watching Jaime rush to what could be his death, watching Daenerys highly vulnerable down there, pulling that Scorpion bolt from Drogon’s side. I think the goal always was to keep the possibility of death imminent. Also, with Bronn, following him through the horror, he’s really our guide through the worst part of it. He’s running through the most dangerous part of the battlefield, and that’s why I wanted to have a very long, uninterrupted shot of him.
Was this more VFX-intensive than previous battle scenes in the series?
The VFX aspect of it is enormous. Yes, you’re right that in terms of the Battle of the Bastards or even maybe Hardhome to some degree, it’s more person-on-person fighting. So the beginning of this battle in “The Spoils of War” is more similar to the Battle of the Bastards in that you have lines colliding, horses hitting men on the ground. So it’s more traditional warfare. But once Drogon comes into it, it changes completely. The dragon is able to fly to any part of the battlefield. So the rules of the battlefield changed. The geography is constantly shifting. The point of view is constantly shifting.
How did you approach the cliffhanger ending with Jaime?
David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, showrunners], who wrote script, definitely ended it the way you saw it with Jaime sinking into the deep. We shot a lot of underwater stuff, including the final shot of him drifting down which was done outside of water, but was made to look like it was shot in water. What you saw there was very similar to what the guys described in their scripts.