The longest battle scene on film right now is probably Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. But the final season of Game of Thrones promises to beat that 40-minute epic with its episode-long battle at Winterfell where our heroes—”Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie)”—to name a few, band together to fend off the Army of the Dead.
To commit this battle to film, director Miguel Sapochnik, who previously helmed the big battle episodes “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards”, and his team put together “The Long Night”, a grueling stretch of shooting days that tested everyone involved. EW has details on what went into the shoot, and it sounded like a grueling experience for both the cast and especially the crew:
The episode required 11 weeks of grueling night shoots. Imagine up to 750 people working all night long for nearly three months in the middle of open rural countryside: The temperatures are freezing in the low 30s; they’re laboring in icy rain and piercing wind, thick, ankle-deep mud; reeking horse manure and choking smoke. The stars of Game of Thrones require some coaxing to get candid about their experience because nobody wants to sound like they’re whinging (as The Hound would say). But if you spend even a brief time on set you realize staging the battle was unprecedentedly brutal…
To get periodic warmth, actors occasionally huddle around a space heater in a tent or duck inside the production’s cramped, bare-bones trailers. But for the show’s crew there is no relief. “I heard the crew was getting 40,000 steps a day on their pedometers,” Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos Seaworth) says. “They’re the f—king heroes.” Sporadically, one of the crew members would get switched to the day shift where a different episode was being shot and you could instantly spot the gaunt, gray-faced battle episode workers. “It’s like seeing Nosferatu coming in,” Benioff says.
For Sapochnik, the trick to making the battle itself come together and avoid fatigue is, counterintuitively, less fighting. “It feels like the only way to really approach it properly is take every sequence and ask yourself: ‘Why would I care to keep watching?’” says the British director between takes. “One thing I found is the less action — the less fighting — you can have in a sequence, the better.”
Additionally, with so many different characters to focus on, you have to keep the timelines and motivations straight. So, for example, even if the camera isn’t on Samwell Tarley (John Bradley), you still need Bradley to keep his motivation straight and think about what Sam is doing even when he isn’t on the screen.
So why approach this battle scene with an epic 11-week shoot rather than breaking it up into smaller chunks like most action movies do? Sapochnik explains that in order to get the proper flow of the action, they couldn’t afford to break it up:
“We built this massive new part of Winterfell and originally thought, ‘We’ll film this part here and this part there,’ and basically broke it down into so many pieces it would be shot like a Marvel movie, with never any flow or improvisation,” Sapochnik says. “Even on Star Wars, they build certain parts of the set and then add huge elements of green screen. And that makes sense. There’s an efficiency to that. But I turned to the producers and said, ‘I don’t want to do 11 weeks of night shoots and no one else does. But if we don’t we’re going to lose what makes Game of Thrones cool and that is that it feels real.’”
The producers agreed. “When you have rapid cutting [in an action scene] you can tell it was all assembled in post-production,” Benioff says. “That’s not the show’s style and it’s not Miguel’s style.” So they approved a schedule that became infamously known among the team as “The Long Night.”
It will be interesting to see how it all comes together. “Hardhome” is an excellent episode, but “Battle of the Bastards”, despite being bigger, doesn’t have the same punch. The action is muddled and the structure of the battle depends on Jon Snow’s signature move, the Last Minute Save By Someone Else. It remains to be seen if the Battle of Winterfell is more “Hardhome” or more “Battle of the Bastards”.
Game of Thrones returns for its final season on April 14th.