Game of Thrones director: The Battle of Winterfell is “survival horror”


The director behind such fan-favorite action-heavy episodes of Game of Thrones like “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” Miguel Sapochnik, is back. He directed the show-stopping Battle of Winterfell, which we’re all about to experience this Sunday. Backing the filming of the battle, Sapochnik spoke to Entertainment Weekly’s Westeros correspondent James Hibberd about what went into creating this highly anticipated sequence.


Chicago Cubs Game Of Thrones Ice Dragon Bobblehead
Chicago Cubs Game Of Thrones Ice Dragon Bobblehead /

Chicago Cubs Game Of Thrones Ice Dragon Bobblehead

Buy Now!

Buy Now!

The next episode Sapochnik directed was the season 6 finale, “The Winds of Winter,” also a Thrones classic. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss wanted him back for seasons 7 and 8 both, but he felt he needed a break, so here we are. But even with some time off, Sapochnik still wasn’t sure he wanted to face the pressure to top the Battle of the Bastards.

Anyway, then began the haggling: “I wanted to do [Episodes] 3, 4, and 5 and there literally just weren’t enough days because we shoot two units,” Sapochnik remembered. “Then I said ‘4 and 5’ and they said, ‘No, you have to do 3 and 5.’ What I really like about 3, 4, and 5 is they’re a complete piece with a beginning middle and end.” For the record, David Nutter is directing Episode 4, although it’s interesting to hear that the next three episodes are all of a piece.

"I try to approach all these [episodes] like they’re one. Like in season 6, [episodes 9 and 10, “The Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter”], were to me one thing. Yes, there was talk of that. Thank god it didn’t happen. I would be so dead right now."

Sapochnik wasn’t exaggerating. “I’m shooting for seven and a half months, which is like 130 days, which is longer than most of the big movies that get made. So in terms of the amount of work, it’s been six- and seven-day weeks, 16-to-18 hour days and, yeah, it’s a lot.”

"As usual, the scripts are bigger than what we actually end up making. The process of whittling it down took longer this time. Because David and Dan wanted everything. We all want everything but we were up against the reality of what we could achieve in the time we had. The thing I’ve put the most hours into was is how, in episode 3, how to not have an audience feel battle fatigue. After 20 minutes of watching a battle, you’re over it. So how do you stop it from being a battle in that sense?"

For inspiration, Sapochnik watched the Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, maybe the most iconic battle sequence of the past few decades. “[T]he siege is a 40-minute sequence, but it’s actually three different battles in three different places intercut,” he explained. “That was the biggest thing I could think of that was contemporary. I was trying to get a sense of when do you tire out. I think we’re going to blow past that.”

Blowing past a 40-minute battle sequence, huh? This might be a good time to remind everyone that Episode 803 will run for 82 minutes, making it the longest episode of the show. “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?'” Sapochnik continued. “One thing I found is the less action — the less fighting — you can have in a sequence, the better. We also switch genres. There’s suspense and horror and action and drama and we’re not stuck in killing upon killing because then everybody gets desensitized and it doesn’t mean anything.”

With the Battle of Winterfell, Sapochnik had to depart from the way he filmed “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” which mainly followed Jon Snow’s point of view. With Jon and Daenerys and Arya and Brienne and Jaime and Tyrion and Bran and Theon and Sam and the Hound and Jorah and Davos and Sansa and Gendry and more in the mix, this is an ensemble affair.

"That’s complicated because I find the best battle sequences are when you have a strong point of view, and here the point of view is objective even when you go from one person’s story to another. Because when you’re cutting back and forth, [the perspective] becomes objective whether you want it to or not. I keep thinking, ‘Whose story am I telling right now? And what restrictions does that place on me that become a good thing?’"

So Sapochnik turned to another film — Assault on Precinct 13 — for further inspiration. In that movie, a group of people is under siege, and the narrative switches between different perspectives. “This is survival horror,” Sapochnik said. “That’s the whole episode for me.”

Through it all, Sapochnik is very focused on getting the best possible performance out of the actors, even developing a “looser” of shooting someone on a dragon that allows for a little more improvisation. He also gushed about the expanded Winterfell set for season 8, as well another new set we haven’t seen on the show yet:

"I was walking around [the Winterfell set] thinking, “This is a really cool set. I can find angles I would never have found beforehand.” [And] I turned to producers and said, “I know it’s 11 weeks of night shoots, I know it’s s—ty and going to be cold. I don’t want to do 11 weeks of night shoots and no one else does. But if we don’t we’re going we’re going to lose what makes Game of Thrones cool and that is it feels real — even though it’s supernatural and we have dragons."

We’re all for keeping it real.

Directing these huge episodes of Game of Thrones has given Sapochnik a nice career boost. Is there any way he might direct the Star Wars films Benioff and Weiss are tackling next? “Ah, you’ll find out,” he said. “Who knows? I don’t know. Let’s get through this first.”

Yes, let’s. Here’s hoping we all make it.

To stay up to date on everything Game of Thrones, follow our all-encompassing Facebook page and sign up for our exclusive newsletter.

Watch Game of Thrones for FREE with a no-risk, 7-day free trial of Amazon Channels