The Massacre at Hardhome is the biggest battle sequence in terms of production Game of Thrones has filmed to date. The filming schedule spanned five weeks, and, according to Kit Harrington, it was the first time the production asked HBO for more budget, and got it. For director Miguel Sapochnik, it was his first time working on Game of Thrones, and the second episode he’d filmed (the first being last week’s “The Gift.”) It was also the first huge battle sequence on the show that was not in some way directly from the books, but in fact the culmination of a story line built basically from whole cloth by Benioff and Weiss.
Perhaps that’s why it was a good thing Sapochnik hadn’t read the books. As he told MTV in a post episode interview:
“I haven’t read the books so I didn’t have to worry about what was and what was not in them. I got the outline document for the sequence first, and then spoke to Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] to get a sense of what they wanted to get out of the piece overall…. Then I just went off and tried to imagine it. Usually I get an image in my head and I start building out from there. In this case it was Jon on his knees in the snow after defeating the White Walker. At the same time I look for an emotional and dramatic spine to the sequence, whatever it is. In this instance it struck me that this is not a battle…it’s a massacre. Instead of just an action sequence, I wanted to make it a tragedy.”
There was a lot in this battle that was unusual for the show, from the cast of thousands extras to the VXF that went into it, but one of the most remarkable aspects of this battle was that, in the end, it was such a relentless, one-sided affair. Usually, the battles have ebbs and tides, with one side victorious, but not without losses, and those who lost still having something to hold on to when it’s over. Not this time. Once Sapochink determined this would be a slaughter, he worked out the rest.
“So with this in mind I just started breaking down the sequence into acts, then story lines then beats, and slowly deconstructed it until it was in bite-size chunks; pieces I could get my head around. Then I put it back together, checking as I went along that the spine was still there. Along the way there were many changes and many obstacles, but you just have to stay focused on telling that story, following the characters and setting the tone.”
Obstacles—like the fact that it was cold as anything in North Ireland, with only about eight hours of daylight to work. Part of the reason the shoot went on as long as it did was the limited working time, combined with the CGI. As Harington said in another interview, they basically were only getting a minute of footage shot per day.
Speaking of the CGI, one of Sapochnik’s big hurdles in creating this battle was constructing a zombie army that could be easily differentiated from all the other zombies currently staggering around popular culture.
Movement was a big thing. Making them feel like they swarmed where possible. The writers wanted to distinguish them as not zombies. They are puppets for the Night’s King. And they don’t think; [they] just pick a target and go after it until it’s dead, or they are cut into enough pieces they can’t chase it any more. Once you have the rules you just apply them to every beat, and see where it takes you story-wise.
Another interesting tidbit—recappers have been praising the story of Karsi as one of the parts of the battle that gave the large-scale affair some intimacy and emotional resonance, especially when she can’t bring herself to fight the children of the dead. But that nearly didn’t happen—because originally the part was written for a man.
She was a guy originally, and then somewhere in the process we thought it might be cool if she were a mother, and show her sending off her own kids to make that moment with the corpse children really resonate emotionally…As the sequence was refined, she emerged as this clear representative of all the Wildlings, which was organic, and it made us care. Then we started casting and saw Birgitte’s work and she got the part.
So put Karsi in the pantheon of roles originally meant for men that ended up working so much better with women, next to Ripley in Alien and Major Anderson in Ender’s Game. We can worry about what becomes of Karsi’s children next week, when Jon and the other survivors reach the supposed safety of the the Wall.