‘The Spoils of War’ director delves into Game of Thrones ‘summer camp approach’

Matt Shakman directing Peter Dinklage. Photo: HBO (via THR)

Matt Shakman directs Peter Dinklage in “The Spoils of War”. Photo: HBO (via THR)

In a new interview with a number of directors on the challenges of directing television, Matt Shakman, the man behind season seven’s “The Spoils of War”, explores the challenging yet fulfilling realities of working in such a grand, unconventional production, which involves a surprising amount of collaboration with the season’s other directors.

As a Game of Thrones newbie, there was some skepticism when he—and not Miguel Sapochnik—was given the responsibility of such an elaborate battle sequence… until the doubters watched the episode, that is. Funnily enough, I recall the same lack of confidence in Miguel Sapochnik directing Hardhome instead of Neil Marshall; I don’t need to tell you how that worked out. There is a subtle lesson here, folks!

Partly, the reason all these fine folks excelled beyond expectations is that HBO and the showrunners hire excellent filmmakers, of course, but there’s also the reality that, as directors in such a gigantic production, they aren’t working alone; and, as this is a serialized drama with its own style, they aren’t there to leave their personal mark:

“You don’t necessarily want to bring a distinctive visual style to Game of Thrones,” Shakman explains to The Hollywood Reporter, retroactively agreeing with yours truly. “If Guy Ritchie did an episode, for instance, it would feel dissonant from the series because of his particular way of directing. Coming into a show that’s operated for seven successful seasons, you’re more like an art student. You learn to paint like Rembrandt and get new tools you can add to your toolkit when you work elsewhere.”

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Maintaining this consistency across every episode, regardless of what these great directors may bring to them, is a challenge onto itself; a challenge this HBO production meets in a most unconventional way. Shakman describes it as summer camp—though, if you’re picturing a relaxing vacation, think of it more as an extended collaborative crash course: Shakman spent six months in Belfast “sharing office space and ideas” with Jeremy Podeswa, Mark Mylod, and Alan Taylor, the other season seven directors:

“It felt like camp,” Shakman says. “Of course, it was the hardest camp ever. And it was all very collegial. We were all going to the same sets, facing similar challenges.” As the only new director for the show that season, he “loved the opportunity to pick the brains of the veterans who had directed on the show before. It helped that all of the scripts get done months before, so we as directors take them and things can evolve.”

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    1. Nice article, Luka, and quite revealing about the overall approach of GoT’s many directors. No matter who’s directed an episode, I don’t recall a single one that didn’t mesh with the consistent and coherent whole. In a way, GoT seems like one very long film.

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    2. Stark Raven’ Rad:
      “No matter who’s directed an episode, I don’t recall a single one that didn’t mesh with the consistent and coherent whole…”

      I can. But it’d be impolite to name names. No one in particular would therefore be the courteous response.

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    3. Ten Bears: I can. But it’d be impolite to name names. No one in particular would therefore be the courteous response.

      What you’re referring to in “No One”, directed by Mylod, is mainly a scripting issue. A TV director doesn’t have a film director’s duties or responsibilities.

      People don’t care, though. Most fans (among the minority who care about these things, that is) are still pissed at Podeswa for “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”… because… they think he did the coreography? Because they think he was in charge of choosing the location which restricted them in terms of shooting time and space? Because of the (beautifully shot) Sansa wedding? I’m not one to encourage D&D hate, but, well, the buck stops with them. There may have been specific people who fucked up here—location manager, coreographer, director, editor; whatever—but, in the end, it’s the showrunners’ responsibility. The same goes for the “No One” Arya stabbing scene, which is a weird scripting issue that should’ve been fixed in editing, and a single problem in an otherwise fantastic episode with great writing and direction.

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    4. Because they think he did the coreography for that fight scene? Because they think he was in charge of choosing the location which restricted them in terms of shooting time and space? Because of the (beautifully shot) Sansa wedding? I’m not one to encourage D&D hate, but if there’s going to be this kind of criticism thrown at someone, it should be them; the buck stops with them.

      Are you sure? If they had unlimited resources than yes, but thats not the case. It’s still a TV show, with tight deadlines.

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    5. Balon01: Are you sure? If they had unlimited resources than yes, but thats not the case. It’s still a TV show, with tight deadlines.

      Of course. There are production realities. I was just saying that as showrunners they get the praise and the criticism, and that’s at least fairer than putting it at the feet of the hired directors, who may be excellent and quite competent, but their job is just NOT what most people imagine when they think of directors.

      By the way, the reality of that specific situation, the fight in the Water Gardens, for those who are not aware, is that it was supposed to be a night scene in which Jaime and Bronn infiltrated the stronghold in the dark (which makes *so much more sense*), but the Sand Snakes ambushed them and then they would fight throughout the gardens and its buildings. However, because a UNESCO-protected site was chosen, and one with much tourism too, they could only shoot very briefly, during the day, AND they couldn’t touch anything, understandably, so the fight had very little dynamism with the environment. These restrictions affected the coreography they had prepared, too; and the shots they had planned, I imagine, as well. Hence the nonesensical setup, the shoddy coreography, choppy editing, and generally rushed feeling.

      It doesn’t help that Dorne was written in relatively late in pre-production, to give Jaime something to do—a legitimate concern (one the book “avoids” by giving him a few chapters in two entire books); and that there appears to have been a lack of time and/or budget in all aspects of this subplot, including the Sand Snakes’ armor (re-designed to look great in season seven, by the way).

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    6. Luka Nieto,

      Luka:
      Please, please bear in mind my “98% axiom”: that 98 out of 100 scenes of GoT are nothing short of fabulous, and the 2% “whiffs” only stick out like a sore thumb because the bar has been set so high. (My favorite baseball player – the second coming of Babe Ruth – only gets a hit 25% of the time, and even then only hits a homerun maybe 10% of the time. But when he does hit a noon shot into the heavens and out of the stadium, it’s a thing of beauty. He’s batting .250. GoT is batting .980, and with rare exceptions hits a home run at least once every episode. He’s getting booed by some fans on his new team because he’s starting off slowly; by August they’ll be calling him “King in the North Bronx” and bowing down to him.
      (Sorry for that baseball analogy…)

      Even episodes that have drawn disproportionate criticism also contain many memorable scenes. For instance, I cringed at the juvenile, scatological “humor” of the rogue BwoB members before Sandor chopped them up with his axe – but I absolutely loved Beric’s recruitment of Sandor a few scenes later: “You can still help a lot more than you’ve harmed, Clegane. It’s not too late for you.” Not to mention the hysterical “negotiations” between Sandor and Beric & Thoros over how many of the three condemned men Sandor could hang, and his unsuccessful pleas to chop off body parts first. Wonderful, dark humor…ending with the beginning of Sandor’s rejoining the human race as one of the “good guys” – without losing the surliness and foul mouth that defines The Hound we know and love.

      6:10 am (to be cont. on the ride to work…)

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    7. Luka Nieto,

      “What you’re referring to in “No One”, directed by Mylod, is mainly a scripting issue. A TV director doesn’t have a film director’s duties or responsibilities.”
      *****
      “There may have been specific people who fucked up here—location manager, coreographer, director, editor; whatever—but, in the end, it’s the showrunners’ responsibility. The same goes for the “No One” Arya stabbing scene, which is a weird scripting issue that should’ve been fixed in editing, and a single problem in an otherwise fantastic episode with great writing and direction.”

      _____________

      I don’t like to name him because he seems like a well-loved director, and I am certainly not qualified to judge a director’s ability. The only thing I ever directed in my life was a Gumby and Pokey puppet show when I was ten years old. That presentation elicited blistering reviews (two thumbs way way down) from the audience. All two of them. My mom and dad.

      However, in this particular case, I’m basing my views on the director’s own statements and explanations in interviews. For instance, he himself chose to make the stabbing unrealistically severe, to manipulate the audience into thinking Arya might really die. Despite the “magical” elements, GoT is a show that hews to realism in that mighty warlords can keel over from infected scratches; and a farmer with a gut wound like Arya’s couldn’t even move because it hurt too much; all he could do was die a painful death.
      The director also chose to show Arya walking around Braavos like a carefree tourist even though she knew the FM had targeted her for termination – because, he said, she’s still a naive young girl. Uh, no. She’s not. Arya is not stupid airhead.
      And he decided to have a grievously wounded, virtually incapacitated Arya run around Braavos like a decathlete with the Waif chasing her, all because he desired to stage what he thought would be the best foot chase ever filmed. It wasn’t. It insulted many fans.

      Damn it! I feel bad critiquing the guy. He did great work with Lyanna Mormont’s introduction. I’ll have to go back and retrieve his interviews to determine if I’m whinging for no reason.

      Sorry in advance if I am.

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    8. Ten Bears: “You can still help a lot more than you’ve harmed, Clegane. It’s not too late for you.”

      Everything that comes out of Beric’s mouth is perfect, isn’t it?

      Ten Bears: However, in this particular case, I’m basing my views on the director’s own statements and explanations in interviews. For instance, he himself chose to make the stabbing unrealistically severe, to manipulate the audience into thinking Arya might really die. Despite the “magical” elements, GoT is a show that hews to realism in that mighty warlords can keel over from infected scratches; and a farmer with a gut wound like Arya’s couldn’t even move because it hurt too much; all he could do was die a painful death.
      The director also chose to show Arya walking around Braavos like a carefree tourist even though she knew the FM had targeted her for termination – because, he said, she’s still a naive young girl. Uh, no. She’s not. Arya is not stupid airhead.
      And he decided to have a grievously wounded, virtually incapacitated Arya run around Braavos like a decathlete with the Waif chasing her, all because he desired to stage what he thought would be the best foot chase ever filmed. It wasn’t. It insulted many fans.

      I’m pretty sure he was just interpreting the script in all those instances, for both “The Broken Man” and “No One.” Even if he wasn’t, it’s all planned in advance, not winged on set. So, whether D&D were present on set or not for any of this, they must have known how Mylod would direct it. Arya walking around (too) innocently and getting stabbed to should’ve-been-death was, in essence, just a bad choice for artificial drama by the writers (in an otherwise lovely series of scenes, in my opinion). Perhaps it was amplified by Mylod’s direction? Perhaps. But directors work under the showrunners in TV, and the showrunners happen to be the writers here. I honestly can’t blame Mylod here.

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    9. Stark Raven’ Rad:
      I don’t recall a single one that didn’t mesh with the consistent and coherent whole.In a way, GoT seems like one very long film.

      I think only S1 feels different. Different color palette I mean. But since S2 I think they’ve established very consistent visual identity for the show.

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    10. Luka Nieto,

      Arya getting stabbed to should’ve-been-death was D&D’s and Cogman’s responsibility ofc.

      I think they put that scene there because they thought that E7 would otherwise be too boring for GA, since it was mostly dialogue and set-up episode.

      I feel that there are moments that were written only for GA, so they could be more entertained or shocked. Thankfully, D&D didn’t do it too much to actually ruin the show, like it happened with TWD.

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    11. Luka Nieto,

      With so many crews operating at the same time in different locations, I’m not sure if it’s humanly possible for Benioff and Weiss to micromanage every scene. And directors do have leeway in interpreting scripts.

      Ahh, who knows. If I have time to find those interviews I’ll see if I misinterpreted what the director said.

      Meanwhile… I want to give a huge shoutout to Matt Shakman: a guy known for directing a comedy show episodes who turned in one of the best GoT episodes we’ve seen. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t going nuts during that last segment of “The Spoils of War”, beginning when Bronn hears rumbling in the distance and not letting up until the screen faded to black. Not to mention Arya x Brienne + dagger twirling and dagger flipping. (That made my day.)

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    12. Luka Nieto,

      I am surprised about this information, but I don’t know about how directors decisions can not sometimes improve the writting. If Miguel had directed Beyond the Wall, I think he would did a better job in the lake scene, maybe a trasition of days to show that Dany’s travel to the Wall was longer than they showed. A more subtle director
      maybe could fix some writting problems.

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    13. Sure, the stabbing, and the entire fight/chase in that episode didn’t work but Mylod’s behind some of my all time favorite GoT episodes (along with the rest of the production team, incl show runners, actors, etc., etc. of course.)

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    14. Luka Nieto: it was supposed to be a night scene in which Jaime and Bronn infiltrated the stronghold in the dark (which makes *so much more sense*), but the Sand Snakes ambushed them and then they would fight throughout the gardens and its buildings. However, because a UNESCO-protected site was chosen, and one with much tourism too, they could only shoot very briefly, during the day, AND they couldn’t touch anything, understandably, so the fight had very little dynamism with the environment. These restrictions affected the coreography they had prepared, too; and the shots they had planned, I imagine, as well. Hence the nonesensical setup, the shoddy coreography, choppy editing, and generally rushed feeling.

      Makes me wonder why they felt the need to shoot there then. It’s a beautiful place and all, but if what they wanted to do had to be completely compromised as a result, they probably should’ve just filmed elsewhere. Oh well. It’s easy to second-guess now. Hindsight is 20/20

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    15. I recall the same lack of confidence in Miguel Sapochnik directing Hardhome instead of Neil Marshall; I don’t need to tell you how that worked out. There is a subtle lesson here, folks!

      There seems to be a lot more collaboration among the directors than people realize, especially as the show matured. They do want the show to feel seamless after all. Working together and sharing ideas is a good start. As Shakman said:

      he “loved the opportunity to pick the brains of the veterans who had directed on the show before. It helped that all of the scripts get done months before, so we as directors take them and things can evolve.”

      So while we get enthusiastic to see Sapochnik directing due to his previous amazing episodes, I don’t get disappointed when we hear others are directing episodes. They learn from one another, work together and certainly don’t want the episodes with their name on them to be out of place or total shit. (side thought: can you imagine if GoT had done like some shows and made a musical episode with everyone singing their lines!? Wow, what a terrible thought!!) Shakman would have seen how amazing the battle scenes have gotten on the show when he started getting into Spoils. So not only would he want to match the intensity GoT had already set, I’m sure his own pride would push him too.

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    16. Luka Nieto,

      While I was annoyed as anyone by the miraculous survival of Arya after an obviously lethal wound… last 2 weeks on westworld just did the same damn thing with a certain character… so I’m no longer as mad.

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    17. I hope Shakman gets a directing Emmy nomination for “Spoils of War”.

      “You don’t necessarily want to bring a distinctive visual style to Game of Thrones,” Shakman explains to The Hollywood Reporter, retroactively agreeing with yours truly. “If Guy Ritchie did an episode, for instance, it would feel dissonant from the series because of his particular way of directing. Coming into a show that’s operated for seven successful seasons, you’re more like an art student. You learn to paint like Rembrandt and get new tools you can add to your toolkit when you work elsewhere.”

      If only Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson understood this. . .

        Quote  Reply

    18. onedon,

      Thanks for that link to the interview of the director. The parts I highlighted in bold bothered me:

      Mark Mylod Interview

      Q: The past two episodes have had a certain ambiguity with Arya’s storyline, both with her being stabbed by the Waif and her leading her to the final fight. Did you make that intentionally ambiguous? What were you trying to convey with those sequences?

      Mylod: “Yes. In terms of the ambiguity of tone in the chase, yes, that was very deliberate. My dearest wish, I suppose, the endgame there was for the audience to watch the chase for as long as possible thinking, “Oh my God, I’m watching Arya Stark’s death,” to be carried away on that emotional beat.
      ********
      In terms of ambiguity at the end of episode 7, in terms of “Why is Arya stabbed then? How does she allow herself to get stabbed?” — again, one of the wonderful things about Game of Thrones is that there is so much, because it’s so tonally complex and myriad that people can make a lot of their own choices. A lot of the time I’ll make choices in my own head that I don’t even wish to be pushed out into the world, and people can make their own choices. But for me I played it that the character let her guard down.
      I played it that she made a mistake, that having made that choice to get the heck out of Braavos and almost the relief, that the character has a moment of just relaxation
      — not quite relaxation, but at least a little kind of existential moment of, “Okay, you know what? This place is cool. I’m going to miss it. For all that’s gone on here, it’s a beautiful city. You know, there’s that great statue out on the harbor, it’s a beautiful place. I’m going to miss it,” and that little moment of revery, because, she’s a warrior, but she’s still a young woman, and she lets her guard down, and she almost pays with her life. That was my choice in that moment.

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    19. mau,

      Bummer – I wanted HBO to show a Game of Thrones season 8 teaser at the San Diego Comic Con….

      When will HBO show a Game of Thrones season 8 teaser????

        Quote  Reply

    20. Ten Bears,
      I’m not certain he totally understood the audience of the show that far into it the series, and perhaps not completely up to snuff on the characters. I’m fairly confident in saying that most weren’t fooled into thinking that Arya was going to die at the hands of the waif, whether they read the books to know they’re friends in that medium or not. Unless she was decapitated or something who truly bought that one of the main characters we followed from episode one would be killed on her own on foreign streets by a small role, creepy character?

      He also somewhat contradicted himself with his directing. He first had her ‘sneak’ away from the HoBaW after retrieving Needle and hide out in a small alley room. That to me suggested she knew she was in danger for preventing Lady Crane’s death. Then after that she decides to relax and go sightseeing? Arya usually is smarter than that, or has at least shown to be wary and guarded in that sort of situation (without the Hound at her side).

      I write that stuff as someone who actually didn’t mind those scenes as much as others. His explanations or descriptions of his directorial views are questionable to me though.

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    21. As I recall, people were speculating that it wasn’t actually Arya openly booking sea passage out of Braavos and flashing money about, but someone else (a Faceless Man?).

      Or that she was deliberately drawing attention to herself and was wearing some protection under her clothes in anticipation of an attack. Since she wasn’t, she should not have survived such vicious wounds.. In the context of the show, it was not believable.

      If these were Mylod’s decisions, then it was poor direction in my opinion because it did not gel with Arya’s established character, nor with the parameters already set in the world of GoT. It certainly didn’t work for me.

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    22. Ten Bears,
      Clob,

      I can say definitively that I was not fooled into thinking she might die at that moment. As one of the biggest Arya fans around, you’d think I would have had a heart attack when she got stabbed, but I distinctly remember thinking “Pff.. no way she dies here like this.” I knew exactly what they were going for. 🙂

      And I completely agree with Ten Bears about the lines highlighted in that interview. It seems as though they were his decisions in the way he says “I played it…” Having said that, D&D review all footage whether they are present during filming or not, so they must have approved it. The fault probably lies with all of them to some degree.

      Instead of having this “dazzling” foot chase, they could have gone with a much more intense chase where the Waif is using faces, Arya is leading her down dark passageways while using her blindness training and maybe even her heightened sense of hearing. It could have been a much darker and sinister chase befitting assassins than running around in broad daylight among hundreds of people.

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    23. I agree – and while I don’t blame D&D ( tho surely they watched the whole episode pre viewing?) Mylord really has to accept responsibility for how that was interpreted from the writer. (Im only referring to No One here. Not touching the other with a ten foot pole…..)

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    24. I am due to begin my season 7 rewatch when I return from vacation next week. Whilst I am a little indifferent on the season (compared to others) I must say Shakman did a fantastic job with the episode and it’s top ten overall for me.

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