All season long we’d been teased that “War is Coming.” And then, it was finally time for Game of Thrones, the HBO hit that’s redefined fantasy television, to stage its first large-scale war sequence. Here, in an interview originally published in May, before “Blackwater” aired, Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss talk about the making of the eagerly anticipated episode, and how the hour was itself a battle to get produced. For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012: Behind the Scenes coverage.
The first part of this interview was conducted in HBO’s Los Angeles offices. The producers had just finished shooting season two.
Entertainment Weekly: So how was shooting the Battle of the Blackwater?
Weiss: The Blackwater stuff was so much fun. I mean, it was miserable. Forty-two degrees and raining and mud up to your ankles.
Benioff: This whole story of Blackwater goes back to the first season because we were supposed to have that battle with Tyrion and we ended up not able to shoot it. And so we had him go down to friendly fire early. We always promised ourselves, we’re gonna have our major battle.
Weiss: We always wanted to do it and we didn’t know if we’d be able to pull it off. I mean, it’s a massive battle and it’s a naval battle and involves so much visual effects. And at the last minute due to a personal emergency the director had to drop out. So we were left without a director and about a week before.
Benioff: We were scrambling. We were like going over the list of who is available. And most of it was really terrifying. And then on that list Neil Marshall’s name pops out. He did Centurion and Dog Soldiers, movies where the guy’s doing an incredible amount of really intensive, impressive action on a thin budget. He had never seen [Thrones] before. We had to give him a crash course. But he’s such a fast learner and so enthusiastic and just fell in love with it and ended up being a great choice.
Weiss: He was a kid with the giant crayon box with the sharpener on the side. He got to play with all these amazing toys and built this amazing 80-foot high battle set out in the middle of this quarry, with fully functional castle walls and gates and everything. He was throwing stuff in instead of taking stuff out.
And I’m assuming you set it at night so you don’t have to do full CGI backgrounds of every shot?
Weiss: It was partly budgetary. But there are certain elements of the battle we always thought will look so much more intense at night.
Benioff: Flaming arrows at night look gorgeous.
Elements of this kind of battle have been done before, particularly Helm’s Deep sequence in LOTR. Can you talk about how you went about dramatizing Blackwater in a fresh way?
Weiss: On the resources we have, you’re never gonna be able to compete with that level of spectacle. It really has to become more about pulling into the characters and making it more about their personal experience of this event rather than giving us the giant bird’s eye view.
Benioff: One great advantage we have over the movies is that when one of our characters wades into battle, we’ve spent almost 19 hours with these characters. You know them so well and hopefully you’re worried for them. And some of them are gonna die. There is a way of shooting a battle where you see an army of a hundred thousand attacking an army of two hundred thousand. There’s also the ground’s eye view where you’re an infantryman and you’re running out there with an axe or a sword or something, you’re not seeing the grand scale of it. You’re just kind of seeing what’s directly in front of you. And that can be a really visceral way of shooting a battle.
Weiss: Any time you read any military account of a soldier’s experience of battle, whether it was in ancient Rome or all the way up to Vietnam and beyond, it’s never, “Then this flank moved over here.” It’s always, “This chaotic, cluster f–k and I didn’t know which way I was going and half the time I wasn’t sure if I was shooting at my own guys.” It’s that fog of war experience that you actually can replicate without showing the giant Helm’s Deep kind of battle.