Veteran TV director Jeremy Podeswa has helmed some of Game of Thrones’ moodiest, most striking moments over the past two seasons: Jon Snow’s resurrection, Sansa’s Winterfell wedding to Ramsay, and Melisandre’s jaw-dropping reveal of her true age, among others. For Season 7, he was tasked with both Sunday’s premiere and the finale — and the show’s biggest, most divisive musician cameo yet.
Pop singer Ed Sheeran appears midway through “Dragonstone” as a nameless Lannister soldier, serenading his comrades at a campfire with a little ditty about Tyrion Lannister and his secret, now dead ex-love, Shae. Arya Stark (played by real-life Sheeran superfan Maisie Williams, who inspired showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to cast him as a surprise) stumbles across Sheeran as he sings “Hands of Gold” and stops to chat with the group over roasted squirrel and blackberry wine.
The scene was meant as one of the show’s “grace notes,” says Podeswa — a rare offbeat moment of empathy and understanding between Arya and a group of young men that, in any other instance, she would have killed without a second thought. For many though, Sheeran’s instantly-recognizable face and voice proved too distracting. The cameo drew sharp criticism from myriad corners of the internet (not this corner; we were fine with it), and seems to have prompted a short-lived social media break from the singer.
All of which has baffled Podeswa. “I’m a bit surprised that people have made that much fuss about it,” he tells the Daily Beast. “To me, he does seem quite organic, in his own way, to the show.”
“The truth is, everybody on the show is famous now,” he laughs. “So it doesn't mean anything to me. It’s about, are they appropriate for the role? Are they doing a good job? And it was yes, yes, yes to all those questions with him.”
We talked to Podeswa about Sheeran’s polarizing cameo and fans’ responses, Arya’s triumphant revenge on the Freys, and what it was like to finally film Daenerys Targaryen’s homecoming to Dragonstone.
What was it like directing Ed Sheeran?
Delightful! Genuinely. He is a lovely person; he’s really down-to-earth. If you didn't know that he was a pop star or an entertainer of any kind, you would think he’s just one of the guys. And he is. He really just wanted to do a great job. He’s been acting for a little while; he takes it very seriously. And he was a real trouper, too. We were shooting in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ireland. He sat around outside with the cast and crew all day long, and just kind of hung out and was good-humored and lovely. He took direction well. He really could not have been nicer.
Maisie Williams cracks a very natural-looking smile when she sees him from the road. What was her reaction to the whole thing like as a superfan?
I think she was really happy to have him there, and they do have a lovely rapport. But the great thing is he kind of deserved to be there, in a way, because he’s a lovely performer. The role required gifts that he has. And he looks right in the show; he fits into the fabric of the show. And he was very happy to just kind of be a part of the ensemble. So Maisie obviously enjoyed working with him, but we all did. I think it was really lovely for everybody, for all the other Lannister soldiers who were sitting around spending the day with him, and for the crew. It was really, really nice. But it was also unexceptional, in a certain way. He didn’t bring any hoo-ha at all. He just brings himself and he’s very, as I said, eager to please and eager to do a good job. So it was a really lovely day actually.
I didn’t find him overly distracting but I know many other people did, saying it overshadowed some of the nuance of the scene. What did you think?
It is a funny thing because I really, genuinely believe that if you didn’t know who he was, you would have just thought he was one of the gang, effortlessly. And for me, I myself don’t bring a lot of baggage to who he is, or anybody on the show. And the truth is, everybody on the show is famous now. (Laughs.) So it’s like, it doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s about, are they appropriate for the role? Are they doing a good job? And it was yes, yes, yes to all those questions with him so, I don’t know. For me, I’m actually a bit surprised that people have made that much fuss about it. Because he… I don’t know. To me, he does seem quite organic, in his own way, to the show.
Apart from the Ed Sheeran of it all, that scene was kind of remarkable. It’s about these regular Lannister soldiers, the kind you usually only see in the background, connecting as people with Arya. Can you talk about what that scene meant?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, this is one of those lovely grace notes of the show — of which there are a number. I think the scene with The Hound at the farmhouse was another one. And these scenes, they advance plot somewhat but they’re not really plot-driven scenes. They’re scenes about character, and about tone. What’s lovely about that scene for Arya is she’s been so hell-bent on vengeance — the previous scene is her killing all the Freys — that you forget sometimes that she’s just a young girl who’s trying to make her way through the world and is becoming a young woman. And here she is with a group of guys who should be her enemies. In any other instance, she might just kill them all. But there’s a kind of unexpected identification she has with them because they’re all young men, like her in a way. They’re kind of thrown into this world and fighting somebody else’s war. But they are just like a bunch of kids, as she is.
So there’s an interesting empathy she finds in herself for these guys. And we see the commonality [between them.] It is one of those things about fate and about the wars that people wage that you are always fighting someone else’s war, and you’re just a pawn in this big gamesmanship that’s going on. And the fact that we can see Lannister soldiers and her having to grapple with many of the same things — they are both victims of other people’s need to have power — I think it’s a very interesting parallel. Dan and Dave wrote a beautiful scene there. It’s touching and it’s funny and unexpected. We all really loved it in the writing; we loved the execution. We loved Maisie’s performance. I think all the guys, including Ed, are great in it. It has a very lovely tone about it and I think it’s quite memorable.
This episode also started out with the rare cold open, with Arya’s revenge on the Freys. But it wasn’t originally filmed as the cold open, right?
Yes, in fact it was originally supposed to be the first scene after the credits and there was another cold open. Originally in the script, the army of the dead, Bran’s vision, was the opening. Actually, I’m not even sure I recall if that was meant to be before the credits or the first thing after the credits, but it was meant to be the first scene. But it was interesting because Dan and David and I independently came to the conclusion that the scene with Arya would be great as a cold open. I know that they were thinking that way, not knowing that I was also thinking that way. Because when we shot that scene, it was just so strong and then the editing was even stronger.
Also, the funny thing is this is actually one of the few times I really thought about an audience reaction. I thought about sitting at the premiere, and that scene playing on the big screen and the audience going crazy. (Laughs.) I literally thought about that when we edited it. And that’s actually what happened! We screened it at [the Walt Disney Concert Hall] a few days before the broadcast premiere, and the audience just so enjoyed that scene before the credits. People were cheering when the credits started, and I was just so happy about that. It was really funny that it felt like it would elicit that reaction. Maisie is so great in that scene and it has so many associations for people who remember the Red Wedding and are invested in the show and know what it all means. It has great twists in it, and I was so pleased with how it all played.
The other huge thing in this episode was Daenerys coming home to Dragonstone. That scene felt very reverential with her team marching in procession, and was left mostly silent—
It was completely silent. (Laughs.)
Right. That was like a holy grail moment, something the whole show has built to over six seasons. How do you begin putting that together?
Well, it’s interesting. Reading that on the page, it was one thing. It was very moving, her coming home. As a concept, it was really lovely. And then, again, it’s one of those things where people who follow the show and are really invested in it — everybody knows fully what that all means and what that journey has been for her to get back there. So we knew people were gonna bring a lot of emotional value to the material. And then it was a matter of like, OK well where are we gonna shoot it? And what’s it gonna look like? It’s got to have this epic quality about it. The return home should be as spectacular as you hope it can be. So then when I saw the locations that were being considered for it, I was blown away. They were so unusual and incredibly beautiful and they have a kind of specificity to them. They weren’t generic beaches or generic hills. Everything about it was so specific and almost looked like it was created by the visual effects department, but it wasn’t. It was stitched together by the visual effects department — not all those places exist in one place. But those actual places exist.
Just standing on that beach in Zumaia or standing in San Juan [de Gaztelugatxe] and seeing that incredible staircase that goes up that hill, it is magical. It was like, “This is exactly what it should feel like. It has to be this spectacular, and it is.” And then the sets that [production designer] Deb Riley built, which are really unique to the show, I don’t think they’ve ever built sets quite like that. They’re enormous and incredibly detailed. The conceptual architectural design is spectacular. I know it’s one of Deb’s favorite things that she’s built for the show. We were all blown away by what she came up with. So once we knew we had all those component pieces, I just felt it was gonna be a beautiful sequence. And of course, it’s really sold by Emilia [Clarke.] Her face — everything is in her face. That look that she gives when she’s on the beach and she puts her hand in the sand and looks up to Dragonstone, it’s all there.
And you’re also going to direct the finale this season, which is a big deal. What should we expect from that one?
Oh, that I can’t tell you. All will be revealed in seven weeks!