Interview Season 4

Neil Marshall Interview Round-Up: Detailing the Battle of Castle Black

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.


  • Phenomenal job by Neil Marshal, the episode greatly exceeded my expectations. Can’t wait for the finale

  • Outstanding job by Neil and everyone else involved with the production of this episode! I couldn’t be happier with the finished product!

  • Since I think one of the main battles, the battle of ice and the battle of fire, will be included in season 5 to have a big action scene (personally I think it’ll be the battle of ice), it’ll be interesting to see, how the new director will handle the battle.

    I hope he or she can do an job as amazing as Neil.

  • Amazing Job! I was blown away on how it was filmed and they did and incredible job. That was one hell of a tv experience. I’m not sure i understand the negativity but it is always the same 5 people that complain day in and day out on this site.

    I can’t wait to watch the next episode -Me

    I can’t wait to complain on the next episode
    – Whinners

  • Amazing episode – Neil did an amazing job.

    At first I was disappointed that Stannis didn’t arrive in this ep but upon reflection I’m glad he didn’t. This was the Night’s Watch’s hour and their time to shine – Stannis would have stolen the show from them. He can steal the show next week.

  • The assault on Castle Black is one of the two most complicated battles actually described in the books (the other being Blackwater). I was apprehensive going in, but this episode exceeded all expectations. Possibly, it’s the best extended fight yet put on TV. It a complex multi-theatre battle, and the episode not only pulls it off, but throws in some great fx and emotions too. As always, my detailed thoughts on the episode can be found on my blog.

  • Given the show’s tradition of making every even 9th episode (209, 409,…) a huge battle, I think it’s safe to assume he will be back for episode 609, presumably the Siege of Mereen or the Battle for Winterfell.

  • YezzanZoQaggaz:
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Given the show’s tradition of making every even 9th episode (209, 409,…) a huge battle, I think it’s safe to assume he will be back for episode 609, presumably the Siege of Mereen or the Battle for Winterfell.

    There’s no way those battles can be left that late in a seven season show.

  • Im sorry but frankly speaking I dont think that they showed effectively how the crows defeated the wildlings attacking from the south!

    Also the way they made this episode the attack from the north was strangely too weak that didnt really make sense,

    the biggest fire and smallest attacking force the north has ever seen…

  • Hats off to a superb performance all around. I truly did feel like I was watching a movie. Quality, innovative, production and talent.
    Thank you for a great episode. And how bout that scythe?! Cleaning off the wall like that. Bad Ass.
    Take a bow and hear my applause.

  • Sean T. Collins,

    Awesome Interview. That camera on the crane shot was brilliant. I hope we see more of Neil in the future since his the man of those big battles which are well done.

  • Am I the only one for whom only mobile version is working? Any attempt to access WiC from the browser just results in the “routine maintenance message”…

  • Sean C.,

    Hmm, episode 509 seems too soon to me for these battles, so if it’s not 609, then it will either be moved to the beggining of 6th season (which i find unlikely for a battle) or will end up like Whispering Wood/Battle of the Green Fork and will be entirely off screen.

  • YezzanZoQaggaz:
    Given the show’s tradition of making every even 9th episode (209, 409,…) a huge battle, I think it’s safe to assume he will be back for episode 609, presumably the Siege of Mereen or the Battle for Winterfell.

    That’s hardly a tradition, I think it just shook out that way. They wanted to have a battle in Baelor too but they ran out of money. I certainly don’t think that they would avoid having a battle in Season 5 primarily because they only want to do it every other year. They’ll go where the story takes them, and I certainly hope the story takes them to a satisfying conclusion to the Meereneese storyline before the end of the penultimate season.

  • One thing that came to me while reading the description of the mammoth in Sean T Collins’ review was a better appreciation for how well said mammoth was put on screen. My undersranding (though I’m certainly no expert) is that mammals are particularly hard to CGI, so bravo to them for pulling it off magnificently. Comparing that mammoth to the animals I saw in commercials for Noah…I’m glad we’ve got who we have working on this show.

  • Hodor Targaryen,

    I never said they would avoid having a battle in Season 5, and of course they will follow the story, not tradition (I know it’s hardly fair to call it a tradition anyway, with just 2 seasons to back it up). I just combined the fact that NM said he won’t be back for Season 5 and the fact there isn’t any battle that is absolutely essential to the plot in books 4 and 5 (except the very end, where the two battles I mentioned come in, which, as I said, would be in my opinion better suited for season 6).

  • So I think Marshall not coming back next year puts another nail in the Battle of Meereen / Battle of Winterfell coffins for next season. Which I think is good, myself.

  • That shot where the camera pans all the way round Castle Black & men are being slaughtered left, right & centre; that was masterfully done. It was cool seeing that “scythe” break loose, as it seemed more than even the giants or the mammoths that this is a fantasy battle.

    But the handling of Pyp & Grenn’s demise hit me more than Oberyn’s. Valar Morghulis indeed. I thought they’d kill off Edd, but maybe now he’ll be even more Dolorous. Overall I think this episode was just brilliant; every performance was great; even from the featured extras (Hobb, Hill & Cooper etc.).

  • YezzanZoQaggaz,

    I think the point people are making in response to you is that you’re very unlikely to have any storyline from Books 4 and 5 left over by the end of Season 6. The problem isn’t that it’ll be too late in the game (the showrunners say 7 seasons now, but that’s not set in stone), it’s that certain storylines in those books – pretty much all of the storylines, in fact – just don’t have enough juice to sustain two entire seasons.

    Some new characters and storylines are added, and if the show keeps them all then there’s material there, but none of the individual characters really have two seasons’ worth of story. If the Siege of Meereen is at the end of Season 6, for example, what on Earth is Dany going to be doing for the next two seasons? Or Tyrion? What does Stannis do for two seasons before the Battle of Ice?

  • I liked this a lot more than the Blackwater ep. :) My heart was pounding the entire time. And Kit is really the best sword actor (what?) in the show. His sword fights always look believable. He’s very graceful.

    I was also a bit disappointed that Stannis didn’t show up at the end but well, it was the Night’s Watch shining moment.

    I got a little confused when Jon told Sam “I need him more than I need you.” I thought he was talking about Maester Aemon. lol.

  • Adam,

    Well, you do realize that both the battles I mentioned are technically book 6? We have seen some prelude to them in books 4-5, but not the battles themselves.

    What imo WILL be in s5 for sure is the first stage of the Siege of Mereen (you know, the masters just getting there with troops and ships and camping outside for some time, negotiating with Daenerys). It is possible they will have the battle in s5, but then it would be without NM’s directing, which I find unlikely – D&D used him for both major battles with great success, why not a third one? I do realize 609 is too late, but what other option is there? To have a major and decisive battle at the start of a season?

    As for the Battle for Winterfell, my guess is it will end up entirely off-screen.

  • Daenerys Naharis,

    I don’t get the point of putting a spoiler tag around one word like this. The Unsullied don’t know who showed up, but they know someone did. And hey, there was talk of Stannis going north for a battle. Hmmm. Come on, if we’re going to discuss spoilers let’s just spoiler tag the whole damn sentence, it doesn’t do anyone any good otherwise.

  • YezzanZoQaggaz,

    Yes, of course I realize that, silly :P But they could have quite easily been at the end of Book 5 had they been fully written, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll be at the end of next season. Or they could come at the beginning of season 6, sure. It’s unorthodox, but they’ve had other big moments at the beginning of seasons before (cf. Joffrey’s death). They don’t have to put every big battle at the end of the season because Tradition or something. But putting them at the end really stretches the imagination. I just can’t see the showrunners have so many characters tread water for so long.

    So yep! Those are the most likely options, I think. End of next season (with or without NM directing) or beginning-ish of Season 6.

  • Was Ian Whyte one of the giants? I saw his name on the credits, but also saw Neil Fingleton (Britain’s tallest man at 7’8” and former college basketballer for the Tarheels) credited as being a giant online.

    I guess they may have been one each?

  • Hodor Targaryen:
    My undersranding (though I’m certainly no expert) is that mammals are particularly hard to CGI, so bravo to them for pulling it off magnificently. Comparing that mammoth to the animals I saw in commercials for Noah…I’m glad we’ve got who we have working on this show.

    More specifically, things with fur are significantly harder to CGI.

    I’m not an expert either, but I have friends who do it professionally, and their take on it was that something like the dragons are much easier to CGI because the scales don’t need to move realistically like fur does.

    Personally, the best thing about the episode (though I really, really loved the whole thing) were the giants and mammoths. The whole set up of the scenes with the mammoth being backed up to pull the gate was brilliantly done.



  • Hat goes off to Neil Marshall and his outstanding work on this episode and it’s predecessor! Sad to hear he won’t be back for Season5 but I am sure there will be an episode in the coming seasons for him to leave his mark on again. :) Awesome episode!!

  • Main issue with the battle is it went on too long. And there was a lack of bodies compared to the amount of deaths we saw. Should have been bodies everywhere. If felt too staged like a few men fighting forever. So it failed for me. Some good scenes but it cannot be described as amazing.

    Also why did they not shoot those ballista bolts at the giants when they were approching in the first place…

  • The only part that confused me was when the wildlings went inside of one building and fought some crows. I’m guessing they were fighting the stewards? One guy had a meat cleaver and another dumped boiling water in another guy’s face so I’m assuming the stewards fought them off well?