Like the rest of the planet, I’m completely smitten with HBO’s Game of Thrones. Over the course of the first three seasons, the show has broken every conventional rule about what a TV show can do, and has grown in popularity every year. While we’re only half way through the seven seasons that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are aiming for, if they keep the quality at the current level, Game of Thrones will go down as one of the best shows of all time. I know it’s rising up my list of favorite TV shows and it shows no signs of slowing down, especially after watching the first three episodes of season four.
With some big events happening last Sunday night, I recently landed an exclusive interview with Game of Thrones director Alex Graves. Not only did he direct last week’s episode, The Lion and the Rose, which included the “Purple Wedding,” he’s directing this weeks, as well as two more episodes this season, including the finale. Graves talked about how he got involved in the show, shooting the wedding and the moment fans have been waiting for, how GOT production schedule is different than other shows, what kinds of cameras they use (including how he used a GoPro for a few shots), how they’re always working on the VFX until the last minute, how the fourth season finale has a massive battle, why he won’t be back for season 5, and so much more. In addition, since Graves worked on NBC’s short lived series, Journeyman (which is also worth watching), we talked about that show and what else he’s developing. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you’ll learn a lot about how the show is made without spoilers.
Note: Spoiler warning If you haven’t seen the first two episodes of season 4.
Collider: Before I jump into talking to you about Game of Thrones, which believe me I’m incredibly excited to talk about, I actually want to jump backwards a little bit because you were involved with a show that I absolutely loved from seven years ago, which is Journeyman.
ALEX GRAVES: [Laughs] Yes. Yeah.
I know you’re like, “What the hell? Why is he even bringing this up?”
I really dug it and I think it’s a really great self-contained little miniseries, which obviously you guys were hoping for more, but jumping backwards, what do you remember about making that? And do you ever talk to people like me who are like, “That was a really good show”?
GRAVES: Yeah, it’s funny, I do and also, when I was doing Game of Thrones in Europe, I saw a lot of people who loved it and asked about it. It’s so unfortunate that they canceled it as quickly as they did at NBC. Yeah, Journeyman was kind of a little love affair. Kevin Falls, who created the series, he’s a friend and a wonderful guy, and we were really close. The cast was just sort of our dream cast and we were all really close and having a great time. I think the hardest thing about Journeyman was also the best thing about the experience, was that the show was getting better and better and really finding itself and that felt really good while at the same time they were getting ready to take us off the air [laughs].
I will say though that for people who give it a chance now it does have a nice resolution at the end. It does feel like a self-contained entity.
GRAVES: Well, the self-contained comes out of the fact that I think the last two episodes of the series were really almost like when Ned Stark got his head cut off. They’re the beginning of what would have been a really cohesive, great series.
Yeah, as I said, I really enjoyed it.
GRAVES: It takes a while to get everything going on a series.
I think that one of the challenges on a show like that, and I think what NBC still suffers from today, is that it is very hard to make a show with a narrative where they’re asking you to do twenty-two episodes. It’s really hard to maintain that level.
GRAVES: Yeah. I think that doing twenty-two episodes is hard. I think the real challenge is that there’s no time to, as you said, do them and percolate it. Game of Thrones is shot on a very similar kind of schedule to a TV show, but there’s a lot more time and focus put into the script. When you finish writing the scripts they have time to take a breath and think about everything. There’s just a little more time to think. Network does not allow for that.
Totally, I hear this from everyone I know on network TV. By the end of the season you’re just beat up, and if you get picked up you’re almost jumping right back into.
GRAVES: Yeah, it is literally a grind.
A hundred percent. Let’s jump into why I get to talk to you today. Listen, I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan like basically the whole planet. Talk a little bit about how you actually first got involved with the show. I would imagine that this is the gig that everyone would like to land, I mean it’s part of the cultural zeitgeist.
GRAVES: Yeah, it’s funny. I did not watch the show the first season and in between the first season and the second season I was doing the first episode of The Newsroom and I got this call from David Nutter, who’s a friend of mine, and he said, “Hey, they just had a director drop out, you got to come over and do an episode.” And I was like, “David, I’m doing Newsroom and I can’t. I wish I could because the show sounds really interesting” And I thought, “That’s too bad, I really would have been interested to do that.” Well, David and Dan and Carolyn when they came back from Iceland at the end of filming season two, called me the next day and hired me, because they love David so much they just thought “Let’s hire this guy.” So I really owe it to David Nutter that I got involved in the show, and then I was handed my scripts and the whole season and you go, “Oh my god, I’ve got to go back to college and learn this thing.” It just becomes a gigantic- How do I visualize it? How do I do my homework? Ultimately it boils down to what happened in the past and what is going to happen in the future? Because I need to know that.
What’s interesting is of this season that’s currently airing, if I’m not mistaken you did four episodes. Am I right about that?
So how did it come together that you were directing episode two, which is a big episode, and then you’re directing the finale if I’m not mistaken.
GRAVES: Yeah, which is much bigger than episode two. Basically David and Dan wanted me to come back and do more. They asked if I’d do four and then they said, “We’re going to put all the big stuff in your episodes, you’re going to love it.” And that certainly was attractive because I knew that a lot happened, but I didn’t take them at their word that they were going to put all the big stuff in my episodes and then I got the outline, and they did [laughs]. That’s when I got really nervous.
What’s funny for me, I haven’t read the books and I know a lot of people haven’t read the books, and I didn’t know much about episode two except when I’m watching the episode and I see that it’s written by George. I said, “Oh, shit’s going down.” You know, he’s only going to write episodes where really big things happen. What was it like directing when he’s the one who wrote that episode?
GRAVES: Well I have to tell you having never met him I feel enormous pressure every day, hoping that I bring to life what’s in his head. Because I’ve been lucky enough to work with Aaron Sorkin, who I think is the greatest writer in the business, and what George Martin managed to write in fiction- it boggles my mind, and it’s really intimidating to think “Am I going off what he saw and what he hoped would come off?” Because I just couldn’t be more impressed with the feat that he’s accomplished. And I say that with some experience of what’s to come, some knowledge.
I’m so anticipating the rest of the season. Talk a little bit about how making Game of Thrones is different than the other shows you’ve been involved with. Whether it be in terms of getting revisions the night before of the script or just in general, like the pre-production schedule.
GRAVES: Yeah, it’s very different. For starters, it’s really like making a ten-hour movie, and I don’t mean that in terms of scale or coolness. It’s a ten-hour story that is very specific. Most TV shows are writing the next episode while you’re directing the one you’re doing, and they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do and they’re putting it all together. On Game of Thrones they write all ten episodes in advance, and if you’ve done your homework, you’ve read all ten episodes, so you know where you are in the movie. The task is to make sure that you’re delivering on the subjects, the pre-story and the story to come, which are known, and on many other TV shows they’re not. I mean, besides- yeah, he was an alcoholic and had a gambling problem, it’s like, “Okay great.” I’m talking about the Kingslayer and the night Tywin Lannister sacked Kings Landing and Elia Martell was killed and other things, there’s so much to know that plays into the major directing. That’s before you even get into the production of it, which is you fly to Belfast, you prep for about ten days and you start shooting, and that’s short prep, so then while you’re shooting you keep prepping for what’s coming down the pike. On weekends you’re flying to Croatia to prep, you’re flying to Iceland to prep, and you’re shooting. You’re going non-stop, hoping and you don’t blow it.
Yeah, there’s no pressure. It’s not like the world is watching. No pressure at all.
GRAVES: Yeah, it’s definitely pro baseball.
What is the typical shooting schedule for an episode? Is it seven days? Is it eight days? Is it longer?
GRAVES: There isn’t a typical, because the episodes are brilliantly scheduled and boarded out by the line producers in the most complex schedule this side of the pentagon. It’s all done by location, and the season always begins in Belfast with all the directors there shooting scenes in order, castle by castle, cliff by cliff while the sets are being built, if there are new sets, and there usually are, on stage. Then you go to Croatia and you shoot location by location, whether it be King’s Landing or Dany, everybody’s there together doing it. Then by that time you can go back to Ireland and you’ve got sets to shoot on and more locations and more things are ready to go, while you’re then finishing up getting ready to go to Iceland where it all ends. The difference in season four is that Iceland started two weeks after we started shooting because we shot Iceland in the summer, which is the first time they’ve done that. So it actually was the first year finished in Belfast instead of Iceland.
So how long are you there for directing these four episodes? What is your time commitment? When did you start and when did you finish?
GRAVES: Season three I directed two episodes and I was there for six months, season four I directed four episodes and I was there for seven months.
You directed the eighth episode and the tenth episode of the season, are those done or are you still putting finishing touches in?
GRAVES: The visual effects aren’t done.
So basically it’s just a question of dropping in the VFX, but everything else is done?
Yeah, I saw the first three episodes before the season started and it says, “not final VFX” and I could tell that they weren’t final, but it was good enough to enjoy and still get it.
GRAVES: Yeah see, I have this theory that the visual effects are finished like Saturday night before the show airs.
[Laughs] You’d think it would be done weeks in advance, but every production is the same, you work it until you have it taken away from you.
GRAVES: Yeah, there’s a battle in the tenth episode that is so VFX heavy and so complex, even on a feature level, that won’t be done until June right before it airs.
The other question is, nerding out for a second, what’s your typical equipment that you use? Do you guys shoot digitally and what cameras do you go with?
GRAVES: We shoot digitally and we shoot on the Alexa, which has really just become a great substitute for film, although nothing can substitute film, but the Alexa is incredible. But actually I had a battle this year where we wanted to have some of the cameras flying, and my son shoots a lot of stuff with a GoPro and I was looking at the GoPro and I was like, “You know what? let’s get a GoPro on this horse. Let’s put a GoPro on this deer.” And we actually started doing some amazing stuff that worked out really well.
I actually know a few other people that have worked with GoPros and I think it makes for interesting cutaways and interesting short shots.
GRAVES: Yeah, I mean the wide lens limits- it’s huge in terms of grammatically, visually, but to get it anywhere, and I needed camera in the ground and again, on the horse, it’s pretty easy to put it there.
Let’s jump into the second episode and be a little bit specific, because I’m not going to run this until after the episode airs. So talk a little bit about framing that scene and putting the whole wedding scene together. And talk a little bit about how was it scripted versus putting in your two cents on it.
GRAVES: Well the scripts are not rewritten and are damn near perfect when they come out, and that’s part of the fun of the show is just not only do you get to read these fantastic scripts, but you really don’t then have to then work on them. The job is really not to elevate to scripts, but to not let them down and that’s not always the case. The cast and the writing are my favorite part of the show and the most entertaining part of the show. The thing about episode two that was odd on so many levels is that there are a number of very critical scenes, like you would see in a normal great episode, and then there’s a thirty-two page scene. So half the hour is a scene. It’s actually eighteen scenes, but it’s written as one scene and that’s a weird thing to juggle, because to go from a driving narrative into a Robert Altman movie.
You’re at this party and everybody’s walking around and the point of that is suspense, because Game of Thrones is so tightly written that when you go to a wedding and all the sudden you’re visiting everybody and everybody’s there and they’re all talking and bumping into each other it’s like, what’s going on? [Laughs] Something feels odd. My job was to orchestrate and frame that in such a way that, as fun as it was to see Cersei cornering Brienne and Loras and Jaime bumping into each other, there’s another layer of like, why are we watching all this? What’s going on? Something’s going to happen. I had to get into that, it was kind of my job and that was very carefully planned out. Then you move into- nobody but a really brilliant production designer could design this set and put the setting together. Deborah Riley and her team did a fantastic job with it. The whole production did. As usual, the costumes were beyond belief and you got everything you need, but you’ve got to build it right and that’s before you mention the dwarf show and the doves.
GRAVES: That’s right. It was one of the most exciting things I learned in season three was that what was meant to be the cathartic follow up to the Red Wedding would be early in the season, so you could really have some catharsis.
[Laughs] The campaign all around LA and all over the posters is “All Men Must Die”, so as I said before, I haven’t read the books, but I can only imagine what this means for the rest of the season as well.
GRAVES: Well that’s a saying from all the books and all throughout, Valar Morghulis is the Valyrian translation, and they’re using it as a tag line this year I think really subconsciously to imply or tease what goes on in episode two. Obviously there’s the usual amount of killing in the season and people die and there will be some little surprises, but I think it has kind of- especially because that campaign is out during the first two episodes, it probably has more to do with Joffrey than anything.
This is also something that I think every fan of the show has wanted to see since they first met that fucking bastard. So talk a little bit about framing- did you pre-vis that whole sequence? How did you decide exactly where you wanted dot put the camera for his, if you will, goodbye?
GRAVES: Well I storyboarded the whole thing privately, there’s a lot of storyboarding done on the show, but I just drew my storyboard so that it was almost like a security blanket to know that I wasn’t going to blow it. So that I knew the build through the vignette into the humiliation of Tyrion into the release of the pie and the turning point when the drink is drunk. Then from there we brought Rob Bottin, the makeup effects master from The Thing and so many films, Se7en and so on. He worked with the visual effects team, the multi-Emmy award winning visual effects, who are so talented to kind of pull off the storyboard. It’s funny because we actually now live in a time where you’re in a meeting where one side of the table says, “Okay, we’ll be doing the blood.” And the other side of the table that’s visual effects says, “Okay, we’ll be doing the foam and we’ll be doing the veins.” You split it up, and that intertwining of practical, old-fashioned beautiful skilled effects married with the same in visual effects can now be spectacular enough to kill Joffrey with.
GRAVES: Yeah, certainly I would like to have gone back, they wanted me to come back, but David Nutter and I have a similar thing where when you do too many years in a row, you better be sure that your wife and kids are not really ready for you to do a third one. So I’m taking a break this year and I’m going to have some wonderful home time.
I know that you did or are doing this thing called Proof. What can you say about that?
GRAVES: Well Proof is a really cool pilot that I was lucky enough to read by Rob Braggin for TNT that’s about a surgeon who’s an agnostic, tough, grounded, scientific mind and she’s hired by a Steve Jobs-type who’s just been diagnosed with cancer to focus on near death experiences and what happens when you die. It’s a really brilliant script and we just finished shooting, I’m editing, and I think its going to turn into a really interesting show.
So I guess the big question is, this is obviously what you did for pilot season, have you started talking about other things you want to do this year? Or is it sill pretty much waiting for scripts and shows to come in?
GRAVES: I’m developing something with Peter Dinklage and Julian Fellowes, who writes Downton Abbey.
I’m very familiar with Julian’s work.
GRAVES: Yeah, and I’m putting together a movie I wrote that is a kind of a Killing Fields-esque buddy film set in Africa and that’s coming together fairly quickly with Omar Sy, who was actually in X-Men and who was in The Intouchables, the huge French hit. And then some other things. I’m turning towards movies hopefully.
I was going to say, you’ve been doing TV for a bit. It’s been about fifteen years.
GRAVES: Yeah, I’ve been doing TV since like ’98 for West Wing and I’ve done TV for two reasons, which is I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of really great people and have a lot of freedom creatively, and TV is a really good place to make money and movies are not.
Also, let’s be honest, TV also a lot of it shoots in LA and a lot of it shoots all the time and movies are a tough racket.
GRAVES: Well, it used to be that way, I think the weird thing now is that it doesn’t seem like anything shoots in LA and it’s very hard to get a job anywhere that shoots in LA. That was certainly true during West Wing. It all changed after the strike. Before the strike you could work in LA and make a lot of money and hopefully be doing stuff you’re proud of.
I’m hoping they’re going to expand the tax credits and get more production back to LA, but something like Game of Thrones it just could never shoot in LA. The real world locations are what add so much to that show.
GRAVES: No, I mean, I think that the locations that are chosen by the line producers and the costumes designed by Michele Clapton are like fifty percent of the whole show, the look of the show.
A hundred percent. There’s no way to recreate Croatia in LA.
GRAVES: [Laughs] No, you can’t go to Shutters.