In his Game of Thrones debut, veteran TV director Matt Shakman left us all in awe.
“The Spoils of War,” an episode packed with Stark reunions, romantic tension between Jon Snow and his unwitting aunt Daenerys Targaryen, and Brienne and Arya’s exhilarating swordplay, also boasts the most jaw-dropping battle the HBO epic has ever staged.
It’s the first time we see the Mother of Dragons’ rage unleashed in Westeros, with the full force of a ruthless Dothraki horde and a dragon the size of a 747 exacting her revenge on the Lannisters. Jaime and Bronn mount a doomed defense as scores of young men and a crucial bounty of food burn to ash in a battle Shakman approached as its own mini-epic, a fantasy-Western complete with a three-act structure. Filmed on location in Spain, the battle came to life with the help of innovative camera technology, impressive stunt coordination, an army of props masters, visual effects, and an emotionally resonant throughline—all buoyed by affecting performances from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jerome Flynn, and Peter Dinklage, among others.
Shakman and his crew set a record while filming what they call “the loot train attack” for setting the most stunt performers on fire in a single go (20!), simulating the Lannister soldiers incinerated in Drogon’s 30-foot-wide column of flames. In the world of the show, Shakman says, this is the moment when war “changes forever”—when a dragon, the Westeros equivalent of a nuclear-grade weapon, suddenly enters the fray.
The episode also returns Arya Stark to Winterfell and pits her in a friendly match against the only warrior she might call her equal: Brienne of Tarth. Shakman says both Maisie Williams (who plays Arya) and Gwendoline Christie (Brienne) learned the entirety of the fight choreography themselves—and for the most part, it’s the two actresses you see onscreen duking it out.
The Daily Beast talked to Shakman (whose name may be familiar from his 44 directing credits on the Thrones team’s favorite live-action comedy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) about staging the impressive battle, whether we still root for Daenerys, Jon and Dany’s budding romance—and alas, the fate of the most maligned bard in Westeros, Ed Sheeran.
There’s a long-standing mutual admiration between It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which you’re primarily known for directing, and Game of Thrones. Is that how you came to work on this episode?
Yes, in a strange way. I mean, I’d worked with David Benioff on a film that never got made years ago—a Western, actually, ironically—and so I knew him and have always thought the world of him. So he ended up coming onto It’s Always Sunny last year to do a cameo and we reconnected. And it was during that conversation that he brought up the idea of coming to work on the show. At first I thought he was kidding. I was like, “Sure, of course, yeah. Anytime.” (Laughs.) It turned out he wasn’t, thank god. And it turned out to be just the highlight of my television-directing career.
The loot train attack is such a spectacle to behold. It’s the first time we see Drogon and the Dothraki at the full height of their power, and the three conflicting perspectives—Daenerys, Jaime, and Tyrion—really heighten the emotional stakes. A behind-the-scenes featurette highlights how much work from all departments went into the battle, but what was the hardest part of it from your perspective?
It was difficult from beginning to end. (Laughs.) Certainly when I first got that script in hand and kept turning the pages and seeing that the battle just never seemed to end, I knew my work was cut out for me. But it was so exciting—the chance to have a battle of that scale, but most importantly, a battle between people that we really like. Rather than hoping, you know, Jon Snow will defeat evil Ramsay, or watching Daenerys take out the Slavers, now you’re watching Daenerys and the Lannisters fighting each other. And Tyrion is sort of our point of view of that. He’s stuck between two people that he loves and is standing in for the audience that feels the same way. How will this turn out?
So for me, it was just about first of all, figuring out what the story of it was. It boiled down really to the point of view of being on the ground during a dragon attack. We’ve always been up in the air heroically with Daenerys, and now we wanted to feel what it’s like to be on the ground with people when war changes forever and death is around them. It’s a very different experience. That point of view kind of rooted it for me, and then from there I started to build it almost like a script on its own, with a three-act structure—a beginning, middle, and end—and how all those beats would go. Once that was all done, we storyboarded and turned it into an animated version of the sequence, then just tore it apart frame-by-frame in meeting after meeting with a tremendously talented group of people. And then we go out to Spain and actually shoot the thing, and that was also tough.
It’s probably among the more dangerous set of stunts the show has done, right? With setting twenty guys on fire at once—a TV record!—and having them hold for 12 seconds.
Definitely. The battles in general are dangerous just because you have stunt performers, horses, and you’re attempting to create something that looks incredibly dangerous while making it safe. But then when you add dragons to it, it changes completely. Now you’re dealing with fire close to actors and stunt performers and horses and those things don’t always go well together. So we had to be very, very, very safe. Thankfully, we were able to use visual effects to enhance fire that was really close to the performers and stunt performers. There’s just a certain limit to what you can do, obviously. Even just being 20 feet from a giant blaze feels like you’re gonna, you know, go up in flame. So getting really close to that kind of fire is impossible at times, so that’s what visual effects did to help us. But the stunt coordinator Rowley [Irlam] is incredibly good and safety was always our chief concern, so luckily no one was harmed.
So Ed Sheeran’s character is toast now, isn’t he?
(Laughs.) A few characters, for sure.
The battle also casts Daenerys in a darker light than we’ve seen her before, an effect of the sheer brutality of the dragon attack. Is it meant to shift the way we root for her?
I think it’s meant to ask that question. Certainly Tyrion has talked about it, Jon Snow talks about it on the beach in the episode. “If you take one of your dragons and you go and you burn people, be careful. People will see you differently than you want them to see you. Be careful how you use your power.” So the question is, is this beyond what she should be doing? And certainly she’s fired up. She’s lost her allies, she’s feeling pushed back by Cersei and concerned that she’s come to Westeros and is already losing the war before she’s even started. It is Daenerys who is fired up, no pun intended, coming into this battle. And there’s an intensity to her that we haven’t seen before.
This is also the first time we really begin to see romantic tension build between Dany and Jon Snow, who happen to be aunt and nephew. She smiles when Jon Snow shows up on the stairs at Dragonstone and Davos has that line about Jon staring at her “good heart.”
Yeah, I mean this is a relationship that, for me as a fan, having watched the show for many, many years, seeing these two come together, it’s a big deal for all of us who love the show. To imagine how that’s gonna develop is one of the key things we’re all watching, of course. Mark Mylod’s previous episode brought them together in a terrific way. It’s all very formal—they have all their attendants there sort of speaking for them. Then in this episode we get to see them unvarnished, in a way, without their attendants, and Jon takes her into this quiet, secret inner cave and offers her proof for what he’s been talking about. I think she sees that and takes it in, but is unwilling to move off her own political ask. So you have both the political dialogue of “will you bend the knee” and “will you come save us all from the White Walkers” balanced with this increasing intimacy and draw between these two characters that we all love and respect. We see them find that love and respect for each other.
Arya going toe-to-toe with Brienne was another great moment. It starts off as friendly sparring then ramps up into this dazzling display of both women’s swordplay. What went into putting that scene together with the actresses?
Maisie Williams is terrific. She and Gwendoline [Christie] just killed themselves getting ready for that fight. They practiced for close to a month, I believe. Then we spent a couple days shooting it. And they were just terrific. I mean, the fact that they were able to do the entire fight themselves—with the exception of a few shots that stunt performers did, but they were capable of doing the entire thing—really helped make that thing. Because so much of it is about the actor, not the stunt moves, you know, and seeing how they’re relating to each other. How surprised Brienne is to see this little ninja come at her and the respect Arya wins at the end of it, all the while you see Sansa taking it in: “Who is my sister now? Who is this person that looks like the Arya that I once knew but is clearly not the same person anymore?”
The camera also lingers on the Valyrian steel dagger that passes from Littlefinger to Bran to Arya, seemingly suggesting it will come back into play later.
I certainly couldn’t say about where it goes, but just to talk about it in the episode, the dagger is a gift from Littlefinger to Bran but it doesn’t go the way Littlefinger wants. He’s used to being able to woo people and get them to his side, and here he encounters this sort of unmovable force in the Three-Eyed Raven. And Bran, of course, cares not for these possessions and quickly passes it on to Arya. When Littlefinger sees his dagger having moved around the Stark children and all of a sudden, it’s now with Arya, he’s quite surprised. He sees that his meeting with Bran really didn’t go well at all. (Laughs.) And so yeah, he’s trying to figure out who Arya is and what her presence at Winterfell means for his plans, and how he’s gonna navigate the new power structure there with the Stark kids all reunited.