Game Of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Daniel Weiss discuss the creation of the mother of all battles to take place in the series to date — and certainly one of the most ambitious attempted on television.
The duo spoke with EW about bringing ‘Blackwater’ to life; a feat which required a month of straight night shoots, a scramble to replace the director who dropped out at the last minute, a ship-load of visual effects, and a sizable budget increase from the HBO coffers. It’s particularly interesting to discover that the battle almost had to take place off-screen, as it did in the first season. Here come the quotables:
Spoilers for “Blackwater” follow
On whether “Blackwater” met their expectations:
Benioff: The episode has dramatically exceeded our expectations, and much of the credit for that goes to our superhuman [visual effects] team, lead by Steve Kullback and Rainer Gombos. When you look at the shadow demon Melisandre births, or the detailing on the dragons, or the beauty of Pyke, you realize you’re dealing with talents that could someday win an Oscar. “Blackwater” has far more VFX shots than any other episode we’ve done. We try to avoid excessive VFX on the show, but with “Blackwater” there was no alternative. Steve and Rainer look over a large team of tech wizards and what they’ve accomplished is, in our completely unbiased opinion, some of the best effects work in television history.
Weiss: And it’s not all visual. A big part of any battle scene is sound, and we’re lucky to have an amazing team. Ramin Djawadi, our composer, is equally adept at scoring a quiet, mournful scene or an explosive battle. And for this episode, we gave him an added challenge, the results of which people will hear in the episode.
Benioff: Then we have the sound designers, who have been working seven days a week, 16-hour days on this episode. It’s a monster episode, we all knew that going in, but foreknowledge doesn’t diminish the workload. Peter Brown, our sound designer, is our hero because he finally came up with the ice-cracking chatter we had in our heads when we imagined the White Walkers speaking Skroth. For “Blackwater,” he had to orchestrate a major naval battle and a land battle. And he had to come up with something very big and very loud, which would be a spoiler to explain but book readers will understand. Once Ramin composes his cues and Peter comes up with a sound design, we have the masterful Onnalee Blank and Matt Waters putting it all together on the mixing stage. “Blackwater” is essentially a short feature film, so their ability to get the job done on a TV schedule is astounding.
Weiss: And our colorist Joe Finley, who labors over each shot of Neil’s and Sam’s like a painting. And holding this whole team together is our post producer Greg Spence, who is a miracle. He works unfathomable hours, keeps 10,000 balls in the air at once and never drops one of them. Managing and coordinating the post-production workflow was a unique challenge here, and his perfectionism never flagged – not for this episode, and not for the whole season.
On whether there were any significant changes in the process of bringing the battle to life:
Benioff: Yes. First of all, we almost had no battle at all. For budgetary reasons we came very, very close to having all the action take place off-screen, the way plays have handled battle scenes for a few thousand years. The idea was [MINOR SPOILER ALERT] that we’d set most of the episode in Maegor’s Holdfast. Cersei and Sansa would be cooped up in there with the other noblewomen and children, hearing occasional reports from the battlements.
Given how good Lena and Sophie are, we could probably have made a decent episode, but we didn’t want to do it that way. Last year we had to cut a battle we wanted to shoot, and the Battle of Blackwater Bay is far more important. To our minds, the entire season builds to this clash, and if we didn’t see any of it, we were undercutting the story and short-changing the audience.
As we’ve mentioned before, we went pleading to HBO for more money. We made our case why we needed the battle and they obliged. That allowed us to do a battle. It did not allow us to do the battle from A Clash of Kings. It would be difficult for a $200 million feature to do justice to the battle from the book. We didn’t have a chance; there just wasn’t enough time on the schedule or money in the budget (even after our Blackwater bonus).
There was a good deal of pressure to turn Blackwater into a land battle. The Battle of the Blackwater Banks, I guess. And we understood the technical reasons why that would help our cause: land battles are much easier to shoot than naval battles.
Weiss: But we’ve seen so many pitched battles in epic fantasies, and relatively few naval battles (probably because most people making epic fantasies are smarter than we are and know to avoid them). And the split between army power and navy power is central to George’s story and the whole dynamic between Stannis and Renly (and indirectly central to the Tyrion storyline as well). Going with the exclusively land battle route would ultimately have meant rewriting the whole season.
So we had to perform triage on the battle, determine what we could save and what had to go by the wayside. Quite a bit had to go, including some stuff we absolutely hated to lose. But it was really about keeping the heart of it intact, preserving the core elements that would give the episode the impact we need. In our unbiased opinion, we think that we – the collective ‘we,’ the team of hundreds and hundreds of people who worked like dogs on this thing into the wee hours of many, many nights – we think that we created an intense, dramatic battle.
You can read more over at EW.
On the whole, I found the “Blackwater” battle to be an absorbing experience (I feel as though I’ve lived a thousand wars with Tyrion – slight exaggeration, but yeah) and certainly an improvement on the off-screen battle from the first season. It’s great to see the ambition and achievement of serialized drama, even if it did swing Cersei’s way.
Obviously it was produced on a relative budget to most movies attempting a similar feat, but television is gradually catching up in that arena and serialized drama provides the ongoing character and story development that is difficult to get in a 2-hour flick.