The Future of Westeros: How Miguel Sapochnik won the Iron Throne

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Director Miguel Sapochnik accepts Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for 'Game of Thrones' episode 'Battle of the Bastards' onstage during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Director Miguel Sapochnik accepts Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for 'Game of Thrones' episode 'Battle of the Bastards' onstage during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) /

Bran the Broken sits the Iron Throne, but another man safeguards the future of Westeros: director Miguel Sapochnik. Here’s why that’s a very good thing.

The rumblings have been loud of late: House of the Dragon, HBO’s first Game of Thrones spin-off centering around a brutal Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of Dragons, is on the way. Production on the show began last month, with fans also getting their first look at some of the show’s major players, like Daemon and Rhaenyra Targaryen, Alicent and Otto Hightower, and Corlys Velaryon.

It’s an exciting time. House of the Dragon is based on a particularly juicy part of George R.R. Martin’s Targaryen history book, Fire & Blood. The Dance has many of the things that made Game of Thrones popular: politics, betrayals, dragons, complex character relationships, you name it. There’s a lot of potential here, and while some fans may still be understandably anxious due to the mixed reactions to and the final season of Thrones, there’s a lot of cause for hope, not the least of which is that one of the showrunners for House of the Dragon is none other than Miguel Sapochnik, the director who helmed iconic Thrones episodes like “Hardhome,” “Battle of the Bastards,” “The Winds of Winter,” “The Long Night” and “The Bells.”

So basically, Sapochnik is behind most of the largest action set pieces for the entire back half of the show’s run. That should go a long way toward reassuring us that House of the Dragon is in good hands.

House of the Dragon
Emma D’Arcy as “Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen” and Matt Smith as “Prince Daemon Targaryen” in House of the Dragon. Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO /

To be clear, Sapochnik is only one half of the showrunner team for HotD: the writing room being headed up by Colony creator Ryan Condal. If there’s one thing that episodes like “The Bells” or “The Long Night” proved, it’s that if there are issues with the writing, no amount of amazing cinematography can cover them up. Condal has quite a task ahead of him to bring the many characters and conflicts of the Dance of Dragons to life on the screen — though there is cause for quite a bit of optimism there as well: to start, Condal is a long-time friend of George R.R. Martin and has been a fan of his Song of Ice and Fire books for upwards of 20 years.

So the burden is far from all on Sapochnik’s shoulders. But the fact that he’s as involved as he is in House of the Dragon should ease the concerns of any Thrones fan. Don’t believe me? Let’s consider how he secured his current role as one of the people planning the future of Westeros.

Miguel Sapochnik’s Game of Thrones track record

Miguel Sapochnik came to Game of Thrones during its fifth season, when he took on the responsibility of directing “Hardhome” after veteran Thrones director Neil Marshall wasn’t available for the job. The Massacre at Hardhome is the largest battle scene of season 5, featuring the deaths of thousands of wildlings at the hands of the army of the dead.

“It was trial by fire for Miguel Sapochnik,” said Dave Hill, a longtime writer on Thrones. “But Miguel is a super prepper. He came in with a plan of attack. It was all hands on deck for that month, and it came out even better than what we had on the page.”

“Hardhome” exceeded expectations, because in the following season Sapochnik was asked to helm two of the season’s most crucial episodes: the epic “Battle of the Bastards” and the finale, “The Winds of Winter,” which saw Cersei blow all her rivals to fiery bits while a haunting orchestral score played in the background. While “Hardhome” definitely gave the director a chance to bring his own flair and style to Game of Thrones, “Battle of the Bastards” upped the ante in just about every way. There was pressure to outdo what was done in “Hardhome,” and while there are many, many moving parts that contributed to the episode’s success, the importance of Sapochnik’s vision can’t be understated.

We could point to any number of scenes in “Bastards” to drive this home, but to me the best example is the sequence where Jon Snow is trampled by his own men. In the original script for the episode, Jon had a totally different scene involving the giant Wun Wun smashing through the mountain of corpses, but when it came time to film, the production simply did not have the extra days needed to get it done. Instead, Sapochnik suggested the trampling scene. Despite the fact that showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff were notorious for shooting people down when they suggested going off-script, they gave Sapochnik the go-ahead. The result is one of the most memorable scenes of the episode.

“That’s a kind of trust you can’t buy,” Sapochnik told James Hibberd for his book Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon. “It felt like a privilege to have been given that kind of support to go into uncharted territory by the producers during such a high-stakes game.”

The trust was well-placed: in addition to Sapochnik helming one of the most highly acclaimed episodes of Game of Thrones, it also netted him an Emmy for Best Director.

While Sapochnik directed some of the show’s biggest episodes in season 5 and 6, he sat out season 7. Due to time commitments, the director was only able to return for either season 7 or 8, and the producers decided they would rather have him come back for the show’s final season.

Sapochnik skipped the seventh season due to time constraints, but he was back for the two biggest and most challenging episodes of the season 8: “The Long Night,” which saw the White Walkers breaching Winterfell; and “The Bells,” where Daenerys torches King’s Landing. It’s interesting to note that originally, Sapochnik was also slated to direct episode 4, “The Last of the Starks,” but due to how ridiculously intense the filming schedule was for season 8, the choice was made for him to step back a bit.

Regardless of any flaws those episodes may have, the direction itself is pretty incredible. A lot of big swings, such as doing 55 days of consecutive night shoots for “The Long Night,” came from Sapochnik. The “one-er” camera shots — single, long takes from a handheld camera that followed characters like Arya through the carnage of Dany’s attack on King’s Landing — are another example. Sapochnik suggested changing the tone of “The Long Night” so that it shifted between action, horror, and quieter character-driven moments to avoid viewer fatigue. He pushed to keep things as visceral as possible, to best transport the audience into the world of Westeros.

“That’s what I like about Game of Thrones,” the director told Entertainment Weekly. “We built this massive new part of Winterfell [for “The Long Night”] 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. Everything would be broken into little morsels to be put back together. 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 think there’s something that you lose when doing it that way; you lose the spontaneity of being able to move the camera anywhere. And 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 shitty 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 to lose what makes Game of Thrones cool and that is it feels real — even though it’s supernatural and we have dragons."

To bring things back around to House of the Dragon, that sort of mentality — of keeping things real in spite of there airplane-sized dragons flying around — will be extremely important if the show is going to succeed. Sapochnik’s understanding of how to balance spectacle with substance makes him an ideal person to helm this spin-off, as does his technical know-how. And while it’s pretty unanimously agreed upon by cast, crew and even the director himself that the grueling conditions of some of Thrones’ climactic shoots are not something they’re eager to recreate, the results are hard to deny.

Next. The writing on House of the Dragon is "really good". dark

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