“It’s interesting, because people always assume that these places exist already,” says Deborah Riley, the production designer for Game of Thrones. “But every single detail has to be mulled over again and again and again by all of us.”
Riley, who’s worked on the show since its fourth season and has won an Emmy each year since, is the mind behind the show’s sweeping sets — both at the show’s Belfast production hub and on location. Riley spoke about some of her favorite sets — from Meereen to Braavos — for TIME’s cover story on Thrones, whose seventh season premieres July 16. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
What’s the process like of starting the design at the top of each season? How many voices weigh in?
The first time that I read the outline [of the season’s plot] is immediately before the meeting with the writers that we have at the start of every season. It’s an opportunity for David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss, the two showrunners] to talk the producers and I through every episode. It may not have the final details of the shooting script, but it does, from an art department point of view, tell us everything we need to know. David and Dan are very conscious of the fact that we need as much information up front as we can get, for how the next six to nine months [will] play out. From that point on, I’ll start in Belfast, and usually there’s about 15 weeks pre-production with the art department. Depending on when a set is scheduled will obviously [determine] when we start building it, but if a set is a substantial build, we’ll get started as soon as we can. If it’s something that doesn’t appear later until later in the season, that’s something that we can sit on and do more prep for before we begin.
Essentially it begins with David and Dan’s description to me of how they see something, what they’re imagining, if there are any historical references that they want me to use or if there’s any images that they think are particularly strong. It’s all about research and finding as many images as I can to share with the group. It’s a very collaborative process, and there’s always a bit of give and take.
What are influences people might not know about?
Because I come from a background of architecture, that tends to be the real-world place where I always start. I always imagine buildings that I’ve been inside that have made me feel a particular way: What I find most interesting about set design is actually the psychological reaction to a space. A space can actually make you feel a certain way, and so I break down a scene according to how characters are supposed to be feeling when they walk into a certain space. Does it need to be vast and overwhelming? Is it a small and intimate space? Is it comfortable, is it not, is it cold, is it hot? With something like Meereen, we leaned very heavily on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in his modern revival period. For something like the House of Black and White in Braavos, that was much more of a fantastical space, the idea that you stored all those faces in this vast building. But at the same time, I’d also visited the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Hong Kong. And although I’d visited it years and years before, I did remember that there was a space with these thousands of Buddhas built into the architecture of the building. That’s something I wanted to explore.
There are so many locations the show visits, but beyond that, there’s no Westerosi architecture — it must be exciting to have that much possibility.
Yes, without a doubt. Although that place exists in my mind and the minds of the art department, is slightly off from reality, and clearly it’s not the world that we live in right now. It’s just to the left of it. It’s not that far away. It does give us latitude but we don’t go crazy with it.
You’ve been on the show since season 4. In that time, how have you seen the level of what you’re able to achieve change?
When I first arrived in season 4, as you can imagine, it was incredibly overwhelming. The great thing about Game of Thrones is that it is like nothing else. When you arrive, you have to leave everything you’ve been taught at the door, and work inside a framework that gets this show done. It’s nothing like anything else — when you look at the sets, they’re feature-film-quality sets, but they’re done on a schedule that relates much more to television.
Season 7 is the most original work that we’ve been able to do. I’ve been much more reliant on references in previous seasons, whereas in season 7, we’ve reached that point of developing our own original language. In Game of Thrones, it’s been really fun to see how far we can push it.
Talk about facing the logistical challenges of building sets on location.
The limits of the location are never an issue on Game of Thrones. If a location is stunning and perfect for the scene, despite the fact it might be up some inaccessible boat ramp, Game of Thrones will go there and shoot. I have known on previous productions that you would walk away, you would say “That’s too hard.” But we all grab a piece of equipment and we walk up the goat track.
For instance, in Season 5, we had the Vale Septry where the Hound was found, that wasn’t the most accessible piece of land in the world. We had a lot of rain while it was being built, but [we had] the machinery to go there and build it. The greens team had to go down and lay down new turf all the way around it in order to cover up all the machinery tracks that had been made because of the poor weather. And that’s just what happens. And if a road needs to be put in in order to access the place, if they need to lay down tracks for a car park, they do it. It’s really extraordinary and it’s really inspiring too, because the producing team will never say, outright, “no,” without exploring it as far as it can possibly go.
The communication process with David and Dan, the showrunners — what are their ideas about visual identity like? What’s the process by which they pitch in?
When I interviewed for the job, I was also very curious how they worked. It’s David and Dan, Dan and David? Do I talk to one person more than the other? And I was just told outright, “It just works, don’t worry about it.” And it’s true! Our process, really, is over email. Every single set and any major scene or image that we want to create is concepted and that image will come from the art department. Last year, season 7, we had six concept artists working full-time for most of the season and then one that worked all the way through with us. So there’s a lot of images being created and so Dan and David will weigh in on each of those images. And before we take it any further, start construction or anything like that, David and Dan have to approve that concept. We’re email pals during the season, because I write to them multiple times a day. I’ve found out is if they like it, they’ll reply immediately, and if they don’t, it’s going to be another day or two. They’re really honest people, and they’re very kind in their criticism [though] very clear in what they want. It’s very rare that we have to go back in multiple times to fix things. Most of the time we hit it, or close to it, quite fast.
It’s hit this position in pop culture. The world’s getting a bit darker and so’s the show, it’s paralleling it quite nicely. In terms of exploration of power, it’s right on the nerve.