House of the Dragon has returned us to Westeros in all its splendor. The man responsible for much of that is Jim Clay, a production designer who’s worked on movies like Death on the Nile and Love Actually. House of the Dragon is a whole other kind of crazy.
“The main thing about House of the Dragon is that we wanted it to be a believable and plausible world, we wanted it to be rooted in reality,” Clay told Dezeen. “I have to admit I hadn’t actually seen Game of Thrones, I must have been the only person in the world who had not – I had to have a crash course. The joy of this was that although it’s TV, it’s very much set up like a feature film – it’s just that you’re doing 10 feature films with four different directors, all at the same time.”
Game of Thrones gave us a lot of iconic sets, from the Red Keep of King’s Landing to the halls of Winterfell and well beyond. House of the Dragon has drilled down on the Red Keep, but it’s not quite the same as the last time we saw it. “Game of Thrones was essentially the European medieval sensibility; we’re trying to push it further back to Roman and Byzantines times so we’re varying the palette,” Clay explained. “The pure medieval is quite a familiar genre now in television, so we’re trying to push it just a little bit. With the Red Keep castle, we tried to introduce a bit of very early Spanish architecture.”
Building the Red Keep
And then, of course, there are the nigh-pornographic tapestries adorning the halls of the Red Keep, something we definitely didn’t see on Game of Thrones. “Part of the brief for the Red Keep was that they were living through this age of decadence,” Clay said. “I didn’t want to go down the normal tapestry route. So we had these big frescoes painted on the walls, which were taken from the spirit of Pompeii and essentially pornographic. We had to shoot that carefully and subtly so that it wasn’t entirely prominent, but it was there as a suggestion in the background.”
The Red Keep set is absolutely huge and interconnected. It measures 2,500 square meters on each of its two levels, and took a crew of 300 workers over four months to build. “Rather than creating individual sets for the [Red Keep] bedroom, the chamber and the corridor, we built one big composite set so we could take real-term journeys from one room to another, and that helped give that sort of Machiavellian feel to it,” Clay said. “I think the production designer’s role is to create a psychological climate for the story and the narrative, so that’s very much top of my mind when I’m working on a script.”
The show has already shown off the interconnectedness of the set in scenes like the one that opens Episode 6, where Rhaenyra takes her baby up to Alicent’s room:
Designing House of the Dragon is “certainly more exciting for a designer than something set in 2022”
For this particular rendition of the Red Keep, Clay was inspired by the Wolf Hall trilogy by the late British author Hilary Mantel, which depicted the rise and fall of king Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. “I took a lot from that – it is such a wonderful piece of writing, the way she captured the intrigue and the Machiavellian quality of the court of Henry VIII,” Clay said. “It stuck in my mind a great deal while I was thinking of the Red Keep. We introduced a big staircase, observation points, windows and corridors where, for example, the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, was always able to observe who was talking to who, who was walking down the corridor with who – this constant sense of keeping an eye on potential threats. I kept thinking of Otto Hightower as Thomas Cromwell.”
Of course, King Henry VIII never had a giant dragon skull in his hall, whereas the Targaryens keep the skull of Balerion the Black Dread front and center. “It was sculpted in polystyrene and covered in plaster and it’s a magnificent piece – it could appear in the Natural History Museum and no one would know it was polystyrene,” Clay said. “We felt that perhaps in Game of Thrones, the dragons’ skulls and remains had not been so revered. So we wanted to really make it a full altar with all the candles and the due reverence to the skull.”
Of course, there are sets on House of the Dragon beyond the Red Keep, and we’ll see more of them as the story sprawls outward in season 2 and beyond. And Clay will be there. “It’s certainly more exciting for a designer than something set in 2022, where you’re often forced on to real locations and your contribution is a little bit limited to the palate of the real world, whereas this is just fabulous,” he said.