‘Game of Thrones’ Director Jack Bender Talks Hodor’s Sacrifice and Introducing Coldhands

Jack Bender has directed on a number of iconic shows over the course of his career, including “Lost” and “The Sopranos,” which made him a natural choice to helm two of the most pivotal episodes of “Game of Thrones” Season 6: “The Door” and “Blood of My Blood.” One episode featured a heartbreaking death, the other a long-awaited return; Bender tells Variety how he approached the gargantuan task, and shares what he learned.

What was your first impression of the script for “The Door”?

When I met with [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss], who had wanted me to do the show early on and I never could — and thankfully they asked me again this year and I was able to — they said there was an iconic sequence in the episode that they thought I might be able to pull off and do well, and I think at the time they referred to me because of my time-weaving directorial experience on “Lost.” So when I committed to doing it and read the script, needless to say, I was thrilled, because everything great starts with a great script no matter what it is. And this was a great script that David and Dan wrote, and I was intimidated when I read it, like “how the hell am I gonna pull that off?”

I think as a creative person, one fluctuates, in my experience, between audacity and insecurity depending on the moment, and as a director you have the audacity to say “this is the way I think it really should be” and get the troops over the hill; on the other hand, you also have to be open enough to say “what do the brilliant people around me think”? And somewhere, the combination, certainly on a show like “Game of Thrones,” ends up creating what you saw in that episode. I was both intimidated by it and excited by it, and I was also really jazzed at the prospect of doing those theater scenes, because I started off as a theater actor and I directed my share of rough-and-tumble Shakespeare and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” with their troupe of tragedians, so the idea of staging what was already such brilliant storytelling that was shown in prior episodes, a lot of history of the show — to recreate it as a play was also really fun and exciting and challenging to do. I was really excited and very fortunate that I got those episodes, and at the same time, just intimidated enough to know I was gonna have to work my ass off.

How did you approach saying goodbye to such a beloved character like Hodor (Kristian Nairn)?

Every great show starts at the top, and David and Dan are at the top — they have the grace to be open and at the same time, the courage to guide and say “no, this is what we were thinking.” One of the first meetings we had after I got the script and started thinking about it, early on I had an idea that I wanted to parallel [the timelines] with simple long shots moving in on both Hodor at the door, and young Wyllis, the aerial shot of him on the ground, parallel cutting so essentially it was all coming together at the end. And there were a million ways to shoot that, and David and Dan were very supportive of that idea, and I remember discussing with them, “okay, how horrific should we get?” Because when you think about that army of the dead and what those skeletal fingers were doing to poor Hodor, they’d be ripping his flesh apart, and biting at his shoulders and gnawing away at him. And what the guys said to me right at the beginning was, “the most important part of it is the emotion, and if it’s too horrific it’s going to defeat us feeling what we need to feel at the loss and sacrifice of that character.” I thought that was brilliant and exactly right.

So for me, the whole throughline of that sequence building to the end was… definitely what we had to feel throughout that sequence. I worked really hard with the wonderful actor who played Hodor, Kristian. I remember feeling the most pressure that night when we were shooting the exterior of the door because I knew that the sequence was going to live or die on his performance and the combination of what we got on film, which was his face and upper torso being engulfed and surrounded by those dead creatures.

What do you remember about your discussions with Kristian that night?

I just talked to him like A is A; I said “this is what you’re doing and you love these people more than anything, and you are sacrificing yourself in order to get your friends to safety.” There were times when I said, “look out there at them and keep reacting and know that this is the last time you’re gonna see them before they disappear into the fog, but also understand that you’ve accomplished what you had to do,” and that’s combined with feeling all of this enormous pain and pressure. Just having that big guy have to hold the door, and we really had the stunt guys behind, pushing on the door and breaking through the door, because any actor will do better with dealing with the physical in a real way. He was very available and was able to play it. With that “Game of Thrones” cast of brilliant actors, you say “thank you very much” and move on, because they’re so goddamn good.

What were the main challenges you encountered on these episodes?

Because of the enormous schedule, two units work simultaneously all the time and usually there’s two to three directors shooting simultaneously, so at one point towards the end of my time there, I think there were four directors shooting, and that was both in Spain and Belfast. Working with Ellie [Kendrick] on that sequence with Bran in the woods and the wights coming out and attacking them, I couldn’t shoot that until towards the end of my time there, which was November, because Ellie was doing a movie, so there are logistical challenges. You shoot for a little bit at a time then you stop, then you prep, then you go to Spain, so it’s a little filmus interruptus; it’s a little tricky to keep the momentum and the flow up. But the reason it’s possible, and the thing that they do which is brilliant, is every director has his team. I was very fortunate to have Jonathan Freeman — who’s brilliant and done the show before and has won countless Emmys for the things he’s done —  as my DP from beginning to end, and I had Mark Taylor, who’s a brilliant English AD, and his assistant. You go through the experience, prepping, shooting, stopping, starting, with your team, so there’s real continuity creatively, so you prep with them, you shoot with them, you eat most meals with them. That’s one of the more challenging things about doing the show, and also that’s the way it becomes possible, because even if you start and stop, you’ve got your team with you.

My first day of shooting on the show, I did that wonderful scene with Littlefinger and Sansa, and I love that scene because it’s so still, there’s so little movement. The language of Game of Thrones, like the language of “The Sopranos” and “Lost” and some of the great shows I’ve been fortunate to do, was really style and content meeting together. It’s not just swirling cameras to swirl cameras, it’s really “how do we tell the story in the best possible way?”

What sets “Game of Thrones” apart from other projects you’ve worked on?

Working in so many different locations was very unique, [as was] shooting that many days on episodes. Most great shows, they tend to start off big and end big, and the storytelling in the middle can just get you from A to Z, and not have massive, iconic sequences like I was very fortunate to get. It wasn’t easy for everyone – just the Coldhands sequence in episode 6, that was a big [scene], and they frequently don’t, in the middle of the season, do that kind of stuff. They really pushed the envelope on this one.

“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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