It’s lunch hour in Westeros. More specifically, it’s fag-break time.
Long-haired warriors stroke gingery beards and exhale cigarette smoke into the damp air. Tall-walking, earth-shaking Brienne of Tarth tucks into a polystyrene box of stodge, a carb-heavy diet the better to march on the salad-munching southerners of King’s Landing. The newly anointed King in the North, though, isn’t quite at battle stations. Jon Snow may be fully kitted out in war-council regalia, but into his leather boots are tucked not a blade or two but an iPhone and 20 Marlboro Lights.
It’s September 2016 and at Northern Ireland’s Linen Mill Film and Television Studios, hidden in the countryside 25 miles from Belfast, it’s the calm before the storm. Filming on season seven of Game Of Thrones is in its early stages. Out here near the town of Banbridge, and in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, the vast army of cast and crew are hard at work filming episode two. Even in a truncated, seven-episode season for HBO’s fire-breathing, ratings-topping TV juggernaut, there’s still a mountain to climb. And, perhaps, a Mountain to return to his skull-crushing ways.
In season six’s thrilling climax, “The Winds Of Winter”, multiple loose ends were tied up – and many knotty problems teed up. Cersei Lannister incinerated the Sept of Baelor, and many of her adversaries, allowing the now childless queen to claim the Iron Throne. But for how long? Having triumphed over the Boltons at the Battle of the Bastards, the Starks are busy uniting the families of the North under Jon Snow – the families oblivious to the newly uncovered secret of the bastard Snow’s paternal parentage: he’s half Targaryen.
Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen has finally set sail for Westeros, mob-handed with dragons, Dothraki, Dornish, Unsullied, Ironborn and, most dangerous of all, Tyrion Lannister. What could possibly go right? In a corridor off set, one of the men charged with wrestling these competing narratives on to screen is nursing a coffee. How is it for writer/producer Bryan Cogman, orchestrating the convergence of these armies and families?
In many ways this season is an entirely different show – it’s sort of phase three
“Tremendously fun and hugely challenging,” he replies cheerfully. “I think in many ways this new season is an entirely different show. It’s sort of phase three of Thrones. Dany’s imminent arrival changes everything. So that was a lot of fun to play with. Worlds colliding is a good theme, I think, for this season.”
Also colliding for the first time: many of the actors, their storylines and onscreen locales often leagues apart in the previous 60 episodes.
“Oh yeah, that’s just so much fun,” nods Cogman. “They’ve all become really good friends through the junkets. And the fact is, we’re all here filming [interiors] at the same time, so they’ve all gotten to know each other over the years. They’ve just not had scenes together – or in some cases, haven’t had scenes together since the first few episodes of the show before all the storylines kind of broke off.
“So that’s been the greatest joy of the last three seasons, but especially this season: throwing all these characters into the mix and seeing how they bounce off each other. I think it’ll be really fun for the audience as well.”
“Prepare my horse for the battle, fleshy peasants!”