game of thrones
It ’s t ime to enter t he unknown... Benji Wilson i s on set for t he sixth season as Game Of Thrones goes beyond t he words of George RR Martin
“Believe it or not, we actually love
the characters we write about”
The Game Of Thrones throne room, a permanent set in one of the vast soundstages at Titanic Studios in Belfast, doesn’t get used that often these days. When you think back over the past few series much of Game Of Thrones has moved away from what used to be GoT Ground Zero. More time has been spent at the Red Keep, in Castle Black, in Meereen, in occupied Winterfell or beyond the Wall itself.
Still, at heart the throne is what everyone is fighting about and so sitting in the real thing, on set, is enlightening. Like so many of the
Game Of Thrones props and sets it’s a work of art in itself, a latticework of resin swordblades, woven together and then painted to look like burnished steel. But the most striking thing about it, when you park yourself for the money shot, is how uncomfortable it is. A few of the points of the blades jut out where they shouldn’t. This is deliberate. “They designed it at the start so that no one sits comfortably,” says Tom Martin, the series’ head of construction.
It could be one of the series’ many enduring slogans – no one sits comfortably on the throne. And discomfort is part of the Game Of
Thrones effect too. Last season was the most brutal, the most thrilling, the most ferocious, and at times the most disturbing yet: the Sons of the Harpy suddenly encircling Daenerys in the Fighting Pits, her escape by dragon, the almost unwatchable rape of Sansa Stark at the hands of the hideous Ramsay Bolton and of course the death of Jon Snow. It’s a series that looks for a reaction and very often gets it.
“We knew last season was huge and that there’d be very strong emotional responses for a number of scenes,” says Bryan Cogman, writer and supervising producer. “It wasn’t by design but we were aware when we were making season five that it was the darkest season up to that point and that we were really pushing our characters and taking them to extreme places and on emotional journeys. And our actors and crew. So we take it seriously as we are doing it and we knew it would elicit a response. But I’d rather be working on something that elicits that response than something that’s forgotten about five minutes after you watch it.”
Even Cogman admits that he wasn’t quite ready for the response to the rape of Sansa, a scene that he wrote and which wasn’t in the original book.
“The hardest scene I had to write was Sansa’s wedding night. Hard for me emotionally, because, believe it or not, we actually love the characters we write about that we spend our entire lives with; and it was very hard on the day because I was the producer on set just getting that right, making sure Sophie felt comfortable and everyone around her was comfortable and getting the right tone for that. That was certainly the one that made me lose the most sleep.
“But the reaction? I’m proud of it and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ll defend that scene until the day I die. And her story’s not over. It’s part of a bigger story.”
Everything on Game Of Thrones just keeps on getting bigger. The viewing figures beat all previous records in both the UK and America last year, and when you visit Game Of Thrones HQ in Belfast the sets are always being enlarged, rebuilt, repurposed. This year SFX notes that the Red Keep has sprouted a couple of new anterooms; the Twins, the castle in the Riverlands that was the scene of the infamous Red Wedding, appears to be back; whereas the top of the Wall, where Tyrion so famously took a leak in series one, has gone for the time being. Just when you thought the biggest TV show in the fantasy world couldn’t get any bigger, it does.
“It’s like Daenerys’ dragons,” says producer
The world of the show as we knew it was irrevocably changed in a big way
for all of our characters
Olly Butler as he shows SFX around. “This thing just keeps on growing.”
It’s an apt metaphor, because as Dany’s dragons get bigger and more powerful, they are also becoming more unpredictable. The same goes for Game Of Thrones in season six. This is the first year where the series has overtaken George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire source novels entirely. Anything could happen and it probably will.
“It’s certainly a huge challenge,” says Cogman, asked about what it was like for the writers to fly solo for the first time. “But ultimately when the outline of the season was done, in many ways it was the most satisfied I’d felt because it had been harder to get there.” What to expect then? “We hit the ground running this year,” says Cogman. “That’s a function of where we are in the story. Most viewers, if they’re with us at this point, have watched the first five series. Otherwise they’re just going to be terribly confused. So they’ll either be confused and okay with that or they’ll go back and watch the first five. In either case it makes sense to just get straight in to it.”
The end of season five – with Stannis Baratheon and Jon Snow dead ( apparently), Arya blinded at the House of Black and White, Sansa and Theon on the run from Ramsay, and Daenerys captured by Dothraki – felt like a turning point.
“The world of the show as we knew it was irrevocably changed in a big way for all of our characters – this is about the second phase of the story. The rebuilding, the aftermath.”
Cogman won’t go in to any further detail, and with good reason: now that the show has gone off book, even fans of the novels have no idea what is going to happen. Spoilers are being protected even more rigorously – this year’s scripts even had code names for characters, and the actors had to sign off just to get pages by hand.
“The reason we’re protective,” says Cogman, “is we’d love the audience to experience the highs and lows and the thrills with the characters as the characters are experiencing
The danger is that when the magical elements become bigger they overwhelm the human elements
them. We want the audience to participate in the story in that way. So the idea of spoiling it means someone might not be able to have that full experience we’d like them to have. That’s not to say if somebody knows everything ahead of time they’re not going to enjoy it in their own way… Look, you know what it is? It’s the feeling we got when we first read the books. We didn’t have the Red Wedding spoiled for us because only a few people at that time knew about it. You have that incredible rush of emotion. I threw the book across the room. We want that for our audience.”
It’s getting harder to safeguard the audience, though: this is the first year that the show has had paparazzi on set, looking deliberately for spoilers.
“It’s frustrating,” says Cogman. “I know it all comes from a love of the show and an interest in the show so it doesn’t anger me. But it’s disappointing if because of that someone who didn’t want something spoiled is spoiled.”
He’s right, yet the irony is that on set, if you’re a fan, it’s practically impossible not to find yourself scouring for clues. Unlike the Throne Room, the Grand Sept of Baelor set, a 360- degree curlicued cathedral that is the home of the religious leader the High Sparrow ( Jonathan Pryce), has obviously been in heavy use. The Sparrows and their extremist wing, the Faith Militant, are not leaving King’s Landing just yet. And the rows and rows of flayed grey tunics in the costume department, all artfully distressed, suggest that the undead hordes of the White Walkers are also set to play a major role. In the armoury, where every single weapon is made by hand, SFX thinks we can spot Jon Snow’s sword Longclaw – is this a sign that the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch is set for a resurrection?
“We keep all of the signature weapons for exhibitions and that sort of thing,” says armourer Stephen Murphy, poker- faced. So once again, like Jon Snow, we appear to know nothing.
Later, speaking to John Bradley and Hannah Murray, we find out that Sam and Gilly will go to Oldtown, the home of the Citadel, where Sam is to train to be a Maester. On the way they will meet Sam’s family, the Tarlys, with
Downton Abbey’s James Faulkner playing his father, the man who sent him away to the Night’s Watch in the first place.
“Sam’s been told by his father that fighting, martial valour, is the only way to be. That learning and magic will never help anybody. But of course the moment that he kills the White Walker with the dragonglass blade is something because it was Sam’s first or maybe second encounter with the supernatural; when he realised that there are bigger threats than threats you can just chop in half with a sword.”
This is the balance that Game Of Thrones tries to strike. It weaves in magic and fantasy to a historical framework, but not to the extent where it might scare away a non SF fan.
“What always attracted all of us to the story,” says Bryan Cogman, “was that the magic was on the periphery, at least at the beginning – and it’s slowly creeping back in. The danger is that when the magical elements become bigger they overwhelm the human elements. We never want to lose sight of that – as fun as it is to now have all these resources where you can do all these amazing special effects you never want that to be the thing you’re building a story around. The human elements are what bring people to the show.”
In other words it’s a fine balance. You don’t want to let anyone get too comfortable on the throne.
Game Of Thrones is on Sky Atlantic in the UK from 25 April.
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