After the success of Season 2’s Blackwater, it was no surprise that Neil Marshall was given the reins for last nights episode, and the epic Battle of Castle Black. Not only were we treated to giants, mammoths, and a scythe surprise, but one of the most visually captivating episode of Game of Thrones to date. Set in one location, and granted a huge budget, “The Watchers on the Wall” played out like a short film as Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch defended The Wall from Wildling attack.
To no surprise, Neil Marshall is quite popular today, with interviews from the Director popping up all over the internet. Here is a roundup of Marshall detailing last night’s episode.
Marshall spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about one of the most memorable scenes, and the one he is most proud of: Jon and Ygritte’s reunion, and one of the rare occasions slow motion has been allowed on Game of Thrones.
What was the key to getting the Ygritte and Jon scene right?
I wanted to capture them in a little bubble. It’s in the middle of a battle sequence and you’re going to have this strong emotional moment. How do you do that? For me it was separating them from what’s going on around them. It was at first going in close and then the final shot — it was the only slow-motion shot I put in the whole thing. It was to emphasize what was going in their world verses what was going on around them.
It seems like slow-motion isn’t generally used in the show.
They very rarely do slow-motion. I think they have a rule of no slow -motion. I said “Look, I’ll shoot it in slow-motion and see what you think, just for that one shot. They saw it liked it. For me it was putting the characters in their own world.
Marshall spoke to Vulture about some of the more technical aspects of creating the battle, including how they handled The Wall that wasn’t there, and that tracking shot that has everyone buzzing.
The producers said there obviously isn’t a Wall either, so what went into having all the action set near something that exists?
We have a segment of wall. There’s a bit of ice wall in the studio we use for some shots and there’s a wall in the back of the Castle Black set. But everything else is fabricated, CG, or matte paintings. Then we have a set in the studio again for the top of the Wall. So everything involving the Wall is CGI somewhere. We had to build an entire new set on top of the wall. That was a huge set. We had the biggest backdrop in Europe created for this set. It’s absolutely huge. I’m sure I have the dimensions somewhere but I don’t have them on me. It’s well over 100 feet tall but I couldn’t tell you how wide it is. They made it at Pinewood Studios in London and it’s the biggest single piece they’ve probably ever made. The set itself had to be built 20 feet off the ground, so that we could get upward angles on all the guys on top of the wall. It was kind of a dangerous environment, very difficult to work in — there were ice trenches and things like that. But it looked spectacular.
There’s an uninterrupted shot that happens three quarters of the way through the episode when Jon Snow comes down from the Wall and we follow all the fighting around the entire castle. What did that entail?
The first time I walked onto the Castle Black set, I noticed that it’s a 360-degree set. When you’re in the courtyard, you have the set all around you. I immediately thought I want to do a 360-degree crane shot of the battleground. And then I figured it should be linking all the characters together in a single shot, showing where they all are in an individual part of the battle. We rehearsed it for an hour, all the extras and the stunt guys and the camera. The camera on the crane was spinning around with such speed that if it had hit somebody it could have killed them. We did it in seven takes, and there’s no tricks there, it’s all one shot. We had a great AD team and a great stunt team and they worked it out in sections. Each section had a number and as the camera went around they’d call out a number and when they heard their number they’d start their action. When you break it down like that, it becomes a lot simpler, but still, there’s always the x factor of someone takes a step to the left and the camera hits them or something.
Marshall spoke with Hero Complex about how he approaches these big episodes, and how he wanted to create danger for the men on top of the wall, who were seemingly out of reach.
How do you even begin to approach staging these sorts of episodes? It must be similar to organizing an actual military campaign.
The first thing that I do when I come to the episodes — the same as I did with “Blackwater” — I look at the scripts and I bring my own sense of military strategy to it. I’m a student of history and a student of military history particularly, and sort of apply that to [determine] what is the logic of this battle? What is each side trying to achieve? What are their assets? What can they use against each other? What can I bring that somebody else hasn’t thought of before? With the Battle of Blackwater, I invented a boat which turns upside down and becomes a canopy for a battering ram. They can use this battering ram on the gates and not be hit by rocks and arrows from above. As far as I know that didn’t exist in history. Maybe it did, but I’ve never seen it. But it seemed logical.
Did you invent anything similar for “The Watchers on the Wall”?
One of the problems we had was that the Wall is 700 feet tall and regular bows and arrows and anything that Mance Rayder’s guys had would never reach the top of it. They can’t do any damage, so the guys on the top of the wall are essentially safe. And I didn’t want them to be safe. There’s no drama in them being safe. There has to be a threat to those guys. So I came up with the idea that the Giants would also have bows and arrows, and Giant bows and arrows are like artillery — they’re like field guns — so they can go much, much further. They’re much more powerful and can go much, much further, so the Giants can shoot arrows to the top of the wall. That puts the guys on top of the wall in danger — these arrows are like spears or javelins, they’re massive things. That’s one of the things I brought to the episode.
Marshall spoke with Entertainment Weekly about the most difficult scene to pull off, and also reveals that he sadly won’t be back for Season 5.
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.
Will you be back next year?
Not next season. But if they need another battle, hopefully they’ll give me a call.
Marshall spoke with USA Today about the freedom of being a guest director, bonding on set, and his take on all of the violence.
As a guest director, how much freedom did you have to put your own spin on the episode?
Quite a lot. The writers, David (Benioff) and Daniel (Weiss), trust my instincts on shooting the action and the drama. They wanted my ideas. They wanted my input. I don’t mess with the script. For me, it is how can I translate that to screen and make it as dramatic as possible?
Who did you bond with most during the episode?
The whole crew and whole cast are absolutely amazing. It was great to work with Kit (Harington). He has a natural ability with the fighting scenes. His fights are seriously impressive because he is really good at it.
What goes on behind the scenes to make action moments so gruesome?
There is a mischievous sense of adventure between the people involved. We are coming up with new ways of killing people because so many people are dying on the show. You have to come up with new ways of doing it. When you are actually doing it on set it is so much fun. It is messy, sticky and bloody.
How do you feel about all the violence?
I think it is authentic to the world that they live in and you accept that. There is no sense of holding back. They want to show the ugliness as well as the beauty of this world. I think that is in the spirit of the books and we are just maintaining that.
Marshall spoke with Zap2It about the balance of portraying the Wildlings as villains but also somewhat sympathetic, and how they landed on the final version of Ygritte’s death scene.
How did you find the balance between portraying the Wildlings as villains but also people the audience is connected to and don’t necessarily want to see killed?
It’s something I learned while I was making “Centurion,” because that deals with things in a very similar way. I told the story from the Romans’ point of view, who were the invading army, and the supposed villains were actually just people defending their homeland. You got to see both sides of the story, and it got to be more shades of gray than black and white. I was very fascinated by that idea.
I think this is very similar that when you understand the grievance of the Wildlings and you’ve spent some time with them, then you get to appreciate their side of it. Maybe not sympathize, maybe not agree with it, but you certainly appreciate their side of the story. We inherently support the Night’s Watch because they’re outnumbered, they’re the underdogs and they’re doing what they do to the death. There’s honor on both sides, but there’s also kind of dishonor as well. There are some unpleasant characters in the Night’s Watch, and there’s also some unpleasant characters amongst the Wildlings. Certainly Styr and stuff like that are more ruthless and decidedly cold-blooded killers. But we know there’s something more to Ygritte than being a savage.
Did you conceive more ideas for how to shoot Ygritte’s death scene than the one that played out on screen?
We went through some different ideas about how to play the scene, but the scene itself was always going to be what we had. It was mainly the moment where Jon first sees Ygritte and how he responds to her. We tried it two ways: One where he kind of saw her and he was in shock, and one where he sees her and kind of lets out this strained smile because, regardless of everything that’s happened, he’s actually relieved to see her. That’s the one that I liked best, and that’s the one that we ended up using. It’s a very subtle little moment. Even though she’s aiming this arrow at him and she’s already shot him before, he can’t help but be pleased to see her.
Be sure to click through to all of the interviews, there’s plenty to read about from this action packed episode.