Here’s How Much Freedom Game of Thrones Directors Really Have

Jul 14, 2017

From the Red Wedding to Queen Cersei's brutal Walk of Shame to Daenerys taking flight, David Nutter is the director behind some of Game of Thrones' most memorable. Nutter has directed six episodes of the series. Nutter's work, including episodes of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, is noted for a steady hand with character even amidst chaos. In "Mother's Mercy," his Emmy-winning Thrones episode, for instance, we are locked in on Cersei (Lena Headey) as she undergoes a hellish walk amidst her subjects, and internally reckoning with her mistakes. For a cover story on Game of Thrones, whose seventh season premieres July 16, I spoke to Nutter in March. This is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

How much detail is there in the script? Does it leave room to improvise?

They give me the allowance to say, "Here’s the world" and then they really respect the director. They want the director to direct. I commend them. The great thing for me—I do a lot of pilots, and doing pilots I’m dealing with who are we going to hire as a designer, what the initial look’s going to be, the casting of the stars, which is another area where you’re getting involved with the studios or the networks. The great thing for me is the fact that there’s already a wonderful group of actors in place, and I can just worry about the director thing and not worry about the producing. It’s not a situation where they say, “Here, David, we’d like you to do it this way.” They give me all the freedom in the world to do that. I’ve never been on a show where they respect the director so much, and that’s why I love the freedom to be there so much.

The Red Wedding sequence, which you directed in the episode “The Rains of Castamere,” is to my mind the moment that Game of Thrones kicks into a higher gear.

I agree!

Knowing you’d direct such a pivotal scene, what was the thought process and the preparation?

Fear. Just because you’re given something so special and so important that you want to do your very best. I was fortunate that they liked the work I did in season 2, and in that period, they were thinking about me to direct the Red Wedding in season 3, that I didn’t even know about. So when I finished season 2, they said, “We’d like you to come back for a very special episode.” But the situation—when I get something like that, the most important thing to do is sit down with Dan and David and get a sense of intent, get a feeling about the characterization so I know what to focus on. That’s the most important part of any storytelling, point-of-view.

I’m such a big believer in rehearsal. It’s important to rehearse with the actors so they can understand where they’re at. A lot of times, it can be a situation where you’re working so much on so many different things, the actors have to come in and figure out what’s happening so the crew isn’t standing around waiting for them. I walk the actors through all the activity prior to that, so they can focus on their characterization and what they’re supposed to be doing in the scene and not worry about having to self-direct or “what am I supposed to do now?”

What worked out best was the last shot of the sequence and the last shot of shooting was Catelyn Stark’s death. It was really a personal experience for the crew and the cast because they’re losing such a loved character and we were all so moved by it. We were swept up in the Red Wedding, as far as the crew was concerned.

What were your responsibilities in terms of mood management? I imagine it must have been hard for everyone to do their jobs in the moment?

As the director, my job is to be the Pied Piper. My job is to make sure that I know what we’re going to do next. In some situations, people kind of wing it, and I understand that. But for me, I need to be prepared, and I need to know what the next ten steps are. As long as the crew feel like they’re in good hands and they feel like they’re moving in the right direction, then they can be more creative and be more free with what they’re doing. I want the crew to be emotionally invested. Part of my job is to make sure they’re feeling something, because if you don’t feel it when you’re doing it, I won’t feel it in the audience watching it. As Robb Stark is overlooking his slain wife, bleeding to death, he held the look for just a few seconds to allow the welling-up and emotions and feelings, and [assistant directors] were crying in the background, caught up in the emotion of it all. I think what’s important in this moment—if you work from your heart, and do it from that direction, I think that’s the only way to get anything done. I think it really showed that this wasn’t just a job, it was a mission to do something just and to give these characters a proper farewell and make this as shocking as it possibly could be.

Your friendship with Lena Headey dates back to directing her on The Sarah Connor Chronicles. What is it like to direct her through the pain of the Walk of Shame when she's being paraded through the streets of King's Landing?

I think it’s a situation in which everyone know what was coming, where it was headed, and what was happening, and my goal was to see her, as she did this. I wanted there to be empathy. I wanted us, as the viewer, to feel empathy for a character who’s so hated and so loathed. She’s not the bad guy—I always tell people in those roles never to feel that and never to think that way, but she’s a wonderful talent and you don’t need to talk to her about that.

Several days before shooting it, I walked the walk with her, so she had an idea of what would happen where. And I was very specific about, this is going to happen here, this is going to happen there, now you’re going to see the Red Keep, now you’re going to get closer to that, you’re almost done, and then you get the hate of the people, and you go deeper into the world of the city, and the scorn for you is barely bearable. It takes that part of you that makes you who you are—that last-ditch effort of strength. My total goal was that the audience would have empathy with a mother, something as simple as that—what she’s willing to go through to be that.

“The Dance of Dragons” was the first episode of Game of Thrones to depict Daenerys flying a dragon. What was it like to introduce that motion-capture technology?

Everything leading up to that moment has to feel real and you have to believe what’s going on. There has to be a credibility to it all. So I think that if everything leading up to that moment where the dragon appears is credible, then acceptance of what happens next—a lot of your job is done. So I think that, talking about storyboards and figuring it all out, figuring out what the emotional beats are—sometimes you’re in a story where you can’t find the emotional moments, or there’s an emotional beat that is not written, but that you have to feel and find as you’re doing it. Emilia [Clarke] is quite special in that respect of understanding what that’s all about. The whole ability to work with the actors relies on their knowing exactly what they’re doing in this situation. When a dragon appears, it’s all about that interaction with Daenerys. So as long as you get proper reactions from people as things are happening, then there’s a connection, as if the dragon’s in fact there.

For all the outsized spectacle of Game of Thrones, human reactions like the ones you’re describing are what make the show.

It’s nothing without that. We’ve all seen too many would-be Game of Thrones killers that have come to the fore. If you simply don’t care about the people you’re watching, it doesn’t matter. Size doesn’t matter in that respect. It’s about having a heart you care about and believe in. It’s the characters you can relate to—and if you find characters who can affect you in an emotional way, you’ll follow them anywhere.

How have you seen the experience of working on the show change between season 2 and season 5?

Only the room got bigger. The integrity and intensity of the actors stayed the same. They were given a bigger playing field, which is kind of my attitude. Back in the day, I directed for the first three seasons of The X-Files. We had no money at that time to do the show, so we realized that if the audience doesn’t see stuff, if they’re in the dark, it’ll be scarier. You don’t need to show them everything, you just need to create a world that’s real, create a world that they can understand. My mission statement is this: Create a world that’s real, whether it’s a fantasy word or [our] world, whatever that may be, create a world where what the characters are doing is just and believable, then you lean in to watch something and you begin to care. And when you begin to care, the rectangle of the television set diminishes. You become involved. That to me is the secret, to care about the characters. Then you can throw the wild and crazy at them, and it’ll affect them in a whole different way. It’ll affect them emotionally. The Red Wedding is the perfect example—three years of hard work, character development, interesting twists and turns. People were watching this with their heart and I find that to be the most important part of everything.

I’m a writer, and I don’t think I have a strong visual aesthetic at all. It's interesting to me that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are writers who do weigh in on the look of the show.

Very much so, and their writing is so visual. Their perspective and the description in their scripts, you can take so much from what they say and how they say it. Sometimes you’re working on a show and [the writers] kind of say “Create the rest yourself.” They have wonderful, specific ideas and thoughts about stuff. Once I pare that down to go through the step-by-step process of it all, we talk together. Sometimes I say “This may not work—what if we did this?” We go through each of the beats, and once you go through it, there’s so much support to go and make that happen. I’m always using them as a sounding board as it goes further and further.

Is there a sense of anticipation when you get the script? It’s “your” episode, and I imagine you have to hope that yours will feature more violence or big battles or plot movement.

As far as I’m concerned, I am so fearful and afraid of my own performance anxiety that I can’t think of anybody else’s stuff. There’s no ego. Ego is rather foreign to me. People like Miguel [Sapochnik] and Alan [Taylor], I so admire their work, and I really feel that, I’m really quite astounded by the work they do. It’s all about for me, how do I best tell the story? My goal as a director is to not get in the way or the middle of that. My goal is that everything I do with the camera and the action never should draw attention away from the heart of the emotional arc of the story and these actors. If I take away from that, I’ve failed. There never should be a situation where you’re watching a sequence and something happens and you go “What a cool camera shot that was!” I’ve failed, because that didn’t support the story. I’m supposed to be underneath. I’m supposed to be invisible.

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