Game of Thrones season 8: Inside the Battle of Winterfell


Well, we’re pretty much at peak hype now.

Entertainment Weekly’s James Hibberd, long on the front lines of Game of Thrones reporting, has written an on-scene account of what it was like for the Game of Thrones cast and crew to film the Battle of Winterfell, the action centerpiece of season 8. “What we have asked the production team and crew to do this year truly has never been done in television or in a movie,” said producer Bryan Cogman, jumping right in. “This final face-off between the Army of the Dead and the army of the living is completely unprecedented and relentless and a mixture of genres even within the battle. There are sequences built within sequences built within sequences. [Showrunners] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss wrote] an amazing puzzle and [director] Miguel [Sapochnik] came in and took it apart and put it together again. It’s been exhausting but I think it will blow everybody away.”

Let’s start with the basics. We don’t know the details, but we’ve been watching the production work long enough to know that there is going to be a spectacular battle sequence set at Winterfell sometime in season 8, probably Episode 3. The living have gathered at the Stark home base. There are tensions. But the army of the dead is on its way, so the living will have to put aside their differences, cause the dead mean business and so does the show. The Battle of Winterfell will be the longest battle sequence ever, on TV or film. Sapochnik, who previously directed landmark episodes like “Hardhome,” “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter,” looked around for a longer battle sequence and couldn’t find one; the closest is the nearly 40-minute Helm’s Deep sequence from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.


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Directing something like this, Sapochnik was careful to make sure the audience wouldn’t get “battle fatigue” from the constant action. “It feels like the only way to really approach it properly is take every sequence and ask yourself: ‘Why would I care to keep watching?’ One thing I found is the less action — the less fighting — you can have in a sequence, the better.”

"The [GoT battles] I’ve done previously were generally from Jon’s perspective. Here I’ve got 20-some cast members and everyone would like it to be their scene. That’s complicated because I find the best battle sequences are when you have a strong point of view. I keep thinking: ‘Whose story am I telling right now?’"

At its heart, Game of Thrones is an ensemble show and I’m thrilled to hear that this battle will follow suit. Sapochnik has always had a way of managing storylines elegantly and making battles come alive, and it sounds like we’ll get more of that in season 8. In between takes, he walked around to all the actors and asked them why their characters were there and what they were fighting for, to make sure the scenes feel real. “Everybody is fighting for a personal reason and Miguel tries to imbue every moment in that,” said Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont).

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Credit: HBO /

John Bradley (Samwell Tarly) elaborated: “We may not have seen Sam for 10 minutes but something has happened to Sam in those 10 minutes — you’ve been fighting, or you’ve been running, or you’ve been hiding. How has your story developed? You have to hold in your mind what’s happened since we saw you last.” Sapochnik is a perfect director for this kind of complicated interplay.

And it’s not just him. Everyone on set was paying attention to the details. Sticking with Sam, there was one scene where he was wielding a sword against a bunch of wights. Hibberd told a producer that Sam looked badass. “You hear what he just said?” the producer announced to the room. “That’s the problem. Sam isn’t supposed to look like a badass.” So Bradley adjusted his performance so that Sam looked more awkward and confused as the wights came at him.

“When doing these huge fight sequences, you get carried away sometimes,” Bradley said. “You want to make yourself look as good as possible. Miguel said to me, ‘I know that you want to show you’re quite good at this. But remember your character. Sam’s not that good at this. You have to play him because that’s what’s going to be truthful. So stop being so good!’” It’s that kind of careful directing that’s going to make this episode something for the ages.

Sapochnik also lobbied the production to film the Battle of Winterfell concurrently, even though it would mean more work for the cast and crew. “We built this massive new part of Winterfell and originally thought, ‘We’ll film this part here and this part there,’ and basically broke it down into so many pieces it would be shot like a Marvel movie, with never any flow or improvisation,” he explained.

"Even on Star Wars, they build certain parts of the set and then add huge elements of green screen. And that makes sense. There’s an efficiency to that. But I turned to the producers and said, ‘I don’t want to do 11 weeks of night shoots and no one else does. But if we don’t we’re going to lose what makes Game of Thrones cool and that is that it feels real.’"

David Benioff agreed. “When you have rapid cutting [in an action scene] you can tell it was all assembled in post-production,” he said. “That’s not the show’s style and it’s not Miguel’s style.” And so the months of night shoots began, everyone working in freezing temperatures in the wind and rain, the smell of horse manure ever in the air, all to make sure this is the best battle ever committed to film. “It was the most unpleasant experience I’ve had on Thrones,” Iain Glen said. “A real test, really miserable. You get to sleep at seven in the morning and when you wake in the midday you’re still so spent you can’t really do anything, and then you’re back. You have no life outside it. You have an absolute f—ked bunch of actors. But without getting too method [acting] about it, on screen it bleeds through to the reality of the Thrones world.”

Other cast members agree that the experience was harrowing. “Everybody prays they never have to do this again,” said Rory McCann (the Hound). And Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth) reminds everyone not to forget the crew members, who had to keep working between takes when the actors could at least gather around a space heater for warmth. “I heard the crew was getting 40,000 steps a day on their pedometers. They’re the f—king heroes.”

For cast members like Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), it was their first real experience with a proper Game of Thrones battle sequence, which is odd considering all the fighting her character has done over the years. “I skip the battle every year, which is bizarre since Arya’s the one who’s been training the most,” Williams said. “This is my first taste of it. And I’ve been thrown in at the deep end.”

Sapochnik told Williams very early in the process to start training, because the shoot would be extremely intense. “And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But nothing can prepare you for how physically draining it is. It’s night after night, and again and again, and it just doesn’t stop. You can’t get sick, and you have to look out for yourself because there’s so much to do that nobody else can do… there are moments you’re just broken as a human and just want to cry.”

At one point, one actress fainted on set. She was okay and got to go home early, but was back the next day. Because of all the smoke in the air, one crew member had an asthma attack and had to be taken to the hospital.

On set, the shoot came to be known as the Long Night.

Image: HBO
Image: HBO /

Not that there wasn’t any time for humor. This exchange between Williams and Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), who took a break to have some tea inside Titanic Studios, is definitely the most delightful thing in the article:

"Turner: “We’re no longer the little kids of Game of Thrones.”Williams: “Thank God.”Turner: “You know the Titanic was built here. All that child labor went into it and the child labor continues here today.”Williams: “Except they had it worse, they weren’t brought tea.”"

These two need a reality show.

Anyway, everyone survived the Long Night. (In real life, that is; some of the characters almost certainly die in this battle.) And in the end, it’ll be more than worth it.  “After one of those really tough days, you know it’s going to be part of something so iconic and it will look amazing,” said Williams.

David Nutter, who directed three of the final six episodes, agrees, not just about the battle but about the season as a whole. “The fans will not be let down,” he said. “There are a lot of firsts in these episodes. There’s the funniest sequence I’ve ever shot on this show, the most emotional and compelling scene I’ve ever shot, and there’s one scene where there’s so many [major characters] together it feels like you’re watching a superhero movie.”

That’s also good news; Episode 3 will be an action spectacular, but like any good drama, the final season of Game of Thrones will have peaks and valleys, sharp breaths and relaxing exhales. EW notes that viewers may be surprised by the “play-like intimacy” of one of Nutter’s episodes, which happens before the storm hits.

Again, we’re at peak hype here. Let us know what you think below!

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