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Neil Marshall Talks Directing Epic ‘Game of Thrones’ Battle–and that Long Take

Neil Marshall Talks Directing Epic 'Game of Thrones' Battle--and that Long Take

Neil Marshall is quickly becoming ‘the battle director’ for “Game of Thrones”–and he doesn’t mind a bit. “I’d love to be their go-to person for battles,” Marshall joked recently in an interview with zap2it.

First, the “Centurion” director helmed the ambitious nautical Battle of Blackwater from last season, and now he’s brought us the Battle of Castle Black from this Sunday’s “The Watchers on the Wall.”  Like “Blackwater,” this episode focused on just a single plot line, and is the most expensive ever produced in the HBO series’s history.

Marshall filmed the surprisingly short episode (just 51 minutes) last October in Belfast over three weeks with more than 100 extras, two real-life giants and a massive special effects team.  The director sat down with Vulture‘s Denise Martin to talk about the endeavor: highlights below.

Kit Harington said “The Watchers on the Wall” was the series’ most expensive yet. How does it compare to “Blackwater,” which reportedly cost $8 million to shoot?
Nobody ever tells me the budgets really. I’d guess that it might be more expensive. We had a lot more visual effects this time around, a lot more complicated visual effects. We had to build the same amount of sets I suppose. It probably is more expensive but nobody tells me the budgets. They only tell me how long I’ve got to shoot it.

How many days did you have to shoot this episode?
We had about four weeks in total. At least a week of that was spent in a green-screen studio doing motion control work, shooting the giants and stuff like that, which was very logistically complicated.

You had giants and mammoths. Was that all CG?
The only thing that’s not real is the mammoth itself, which is 100 percent CGI. The giants are both played by actors. One guy is like 7’5” and the other is maybe eight foot — he’s, like, the tallest man in Europe. They came in to the green-screen studio, we filmed them, and what we do is double them in size, basically. They’re 100 percent real, just bigger than normal.

What about when they’re riding the mammoth?
He’s real but we had a — what’s it called, the bucking bull things they have — a mechanical bull. We had a device that was like that but built on the saddle of a mammoth. He would get on top of that against green. The thing would go through all these riding motions and they’d add in the mammoth underneath him. That’s what made it so complex. It sounds quite simple but it’s really logistically time consuming.

There’s an uninterrupted shot that happens three quarters of the way through the episode when Jon Snow comes down from the Wall and we follow all the fighting around the entire castle. What did that entail?
The first time I walked onto the Castle Black set, I noticed that it’s a 360-degree set. When you’re in the courtyard, you have the set all around you. I immediately thought I want to do a 360-degree crane shot of the battleground. And then I figured it should be linking all the characters together in a single shot, showing where they all are in an individual part of the battle. We rehearsed it for an hour, all the extras and the stunt guys and the camera. The camera on the crane was spinning around with such speed that if it had hit somebody it could have killed them. We did it in seven takes, and there’s no tricks there, it’s all one shot. We had a great AD team and a great stunt team and they worked it out in sections. Each section had a number and as the camera went around they’d call out a number and when they heard their number they’d start their action. When you break it down like that, it becomes a lot simpler, but still, there’s always the x factor of someone takes a step to the left and the camera hits them or something.

How did your experience on this one compare to your time on “Blackwater,” which you were called in at the last minute to do?
Well, I had a lot more prep time for sure. I only had a week’s prep on “Blackwater.” In that sense, I went in a lot better prepared. But it’s very similar. It was trying to come up with new and interesting ways to keep the action flowing, keep people involved so it doesn’t become repetitive, but also focus on the characters and the drama and not let these bigger elements drown that out. Game of Thrones is all about the characters. Honestly, though, it was mostly the same. Last time, I had a pretty big boat that didn’t exist. This time I had mammoths. 

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