‘Game of Thrones’ Director Miguel Sapochnik on Making Brutal, Brilliant ‘Battle of the Bastards’

The most talked about episode of Season 6 earned the British director his first Emmy nomination

Game of Thrones Battle of the Bastards Emmys

Even though “Game of Thrones” now enjoys a budget on par with summer blockbusters, its creators have proven that greatness can often come from creative restriction. Just ask Miguel Sapochnik, who just received his first Emmy nomination directing the show’s widely-acclaimed episode Season 6 “Battle of the Bastards.”

While other fantasy shows and movies have shown battle scenes where the chaos is largely kept in the background away from the heroes, “Battle of the Bastards” threw Jon Snow right into — and even under — the fray, barely dodging attacks from all sides as he waded through the battlefield in an extended one-take shot. Rather than have the camera sweep across the battlefield to show the scope of the armies, Sapochnik puts the camera right on the ground to show just how harrowing and violent war can be.

As Sapochnik revealed in an interview with TheWrap, that creative decision was fueled by HBO’s safety regulations and the difficulty of getting crane shots while filming the large battle in the muddy fields of Ireland.

While Sapochnik will not be directing any “Thrones” episodes for Season 7, fans still hold out hope that he will be able to helm one of the show’s final episodes in 2018. In the meantime, the British director is set to work on the Netflix/Marvel series “Iron Fist,” which will premiere next year. We got a chance to talk with Sapochnik about the making of “Battle of the Bastards” — and he had plenty to say about filming Jon’s huge battle for Winterfell, Ramsay’s long-awaited demise, and the Lyanna Mormont face that set Twitter ablaze.

Tell us about the location you chose for the battle between Jon and Ramsay
Saintfield is a privately-owned field just outside Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is essentially a small valley nestled in the hills with forest at either end. This provides a good logic for why the armies would choose as there is cover from the trees. For budgetary reasons, it was also more conducive to have a dipped horizon (not immediately in every shot) as we quickly realized we’d be replacing most of the background landscape with snow.

Interestingly, another major factor was that we not only needed the field we would be shooting on but two to three other adjacent fields; one for the crew base, another for the horses and yet another to stage and practice the stunt sequences so as not to destroy the picture field.

Are there any historical battles that inspired the tactics we saw?
The Battle of Agincourt and the Battle of Cannae. Ideas like the body pile and being caught in the crossfire of the archers come from those battles. They also inspired the pincer move by the Bolton army. Dan Weiss (“Game of Thrones” writer/producer) is particularly knowledgeable about this stuff and was a great resource for me. I’d ask him for some obscure reference on a detail they’d written and he’d direct me towards a particular historical event or image I’d then research and expand upon.

The body pile was something we all obsessed about a bit because we wanted to make sure it was based on fact. Bernie [Bernadette Caulfield] and Chris [Newman] the producers came in one day with a huge board of pictorial images from various battles depicting these mountains of soldiers piled on top of one another. It was terrifying but also good to know that we weren’t just pulling it out of our arse.

One thing that’s rather striking about “Battle of the Bastards” is that there are very few aerial shots. Where did you get the idea to film most of the battle from the ground?
It was a combo of financial necessity and creative reasoning. These two ideas are in constant flux with each other. Each creative choice you make has ‘x’ many impacts on budgetary choices which in turn have ‘y’ many impacts on your subsequent creative choices. They feed each other. Sometimes you have to make so many you end up with something that loses the thread of what the original intention was, so it’s good to keep reminding yourself of what the point of the sequence is.

The primary notion was how do we cover the cavalry charge in a way that is impactful? The need was to have something high up and very fast moving that could be run up and down the field without leaving tracks.

I think originally we explored aerial shots, but HBO has a strict safety policy against flying camera drones over animals or people. After ditching the idea of helicopters, we discussed rigging a wire system that they use for traveling cameras at high speed over soccer matches. That also proved too complex. We did use cranes to get the high static wides, but because they left huge track marks in the mud that then had to be either physically erased or digitally removed in post it was not something we wanted to do too many times.

As we were talking through these ideas I was also researching movie battles and starting to get the feeling that most battles are shot in this very geographical way. While it helps to deliver the spectacle, it creates this objective viewpoint that for me, took me out of the story. So the natural thought was, why don’t we just never leave Jon’s side? Which is by and large what we did. That said, the one exception to that rule, we decided, would be Ramsay’s perspective of the battle when he was presented as the “conductor.”

Take us through the process of blocking that long shot with Jon at the start
We never set out to specifically do a “oner.” We did want to give the feeling of a continuous shot but it was specifically designed to push the agenda of that moment. Complete chaos and sheer luck. I pretty much pitched it to everyone the same way: I wanted to drop Jon Snow into the middle of the busiest freeway intersection you can imagine but instead of using cars, I wanted to use horses.

The process of designing the shot was an unusual one for me because usually I have a pretty good idea of how to do things in film. I am kind of a practical filmmaker in that respect. If I know what the method is, I build my shot around it. In this case, I really had no idea how to do the things we wanted to do. So we put together an animation of what, in an ideal world, we’d like to see happen. It didn’t need to be any specific length, just needed to be dramatic and hit a number ideas Dan, David and I had about situations we wanted to see Jon in.

There’s an animated version where everything is color-coded to show what’s real, what’s an element and what’s completely CGI. There’s also an elevated plan that charts each horse’s path and explains exactly where the camera points. All of these are used as guidelines to then send Rowley [Irlam, stunt coordinator] and Camilla [Naprous, horse wrangler] off to start building the sequence for real with stunt people and horses. Once again it changed and morphed as new ideas and new problems came up and we need to solve them.

Somewhere between doing this and prepping the rest of the episodes I sat down with Kit [Harington] and showed him the animation and he laughed and said “awesome” and “f—” at the same time. Sounded a bit like “awef—.” And then we just got on with it.

What was the toughest moment of filming, and were there any times when conditions forced you to make big readjustments?
Let me start by saying that compared to what it could have been, we got off lightly. We actually had sunny weather for a good portion of the shoot. That said, the other half of the time it was cloudy or raining and so when you try to match lighting between shots in the edit you run into all sorts of problems.

We would often find ourselves all set and ready to go but then we’d end up waiting for a moment of cloud cover before we could actually roll the cameras. Sometimes this would feel like hours and hours were lost all standing there completely ready but unable to shoot.

Fabian Wagner, our cinematographer, was constantly standing there using a polarized lens to look at the sun and tell us if we had the right light to shoot. There’d be 600 people and 70 horses all ready to go and he’d say “No … no … no … no …” and then suddenly start yelling “Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” and everything would kick off in the 30 seconds of cloud cover we had to make the shot work. It became a bit of thing on set. We talked about getting him a tee-shirt that said “No. No. No. No.” on the front and “Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” on the back.

And then it rained and the whole bottom of the field where we were staging and shooting most of the battle got completely waterlogged. About nine inches deep of mud. This not only made lugging heavy equipment around even harder but also made the whole place a very slippery affair slowed us down. Many people lost their boots. It was a bit like Glastonbury [festival] in that sense. Just without the music.

Everyone on Twitter was going nuts over the “Lyanna Face.” What was the reaction among the crew when you got that shot from Bella Ramsey?
Bella’s task that day was literally to sit on a horse for several hours, say nothing and then go home. It was a thankless task. What was great is she had no idea when a camera was on her or another cast member and I don’t know how many times we did the scene (probably close to 60-70 times if you add all the different shots and number of takes together), yet she just stayed in character and in the scene throughout.

Since “Hardhome” and these two Season 6 episodes have come out, what’s the reception from “GoT” fans been like to you personally?
Post “Hardhome”  was awesome, but one got the sense at times it was seen as a fluke, like a lucky mistake. “Battle of the Bastards and “The Winds of Winter” have been very different. It’s been amazing. I have a tendency to feel a bit embarrassed when approached but it’s such a thrill to know that you did something that people enjoyed so much. It’s an even bigger thrill when they talk to you about ideas that you worked so hard to get in there and they single them out as reasons they enjoyed it so much. It’s made these last three months a very special experience for me. I feel privileged and humbled by it. I also didn’t expect it and so I am making sure I enjoy it because as we all know these moments are fleeting and in the immortal words of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” If you haven’t seen that movie, by the way, you haven’t lived.

If I can, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who watched the show and took the time to write or tweet or come up and talk to me about it. It’s been awesome. You made this filmmaker very happy to do what he does. Thank you.