Neil Marshall specializes in long odds. From his 2005 modern horror classic The Descent to his 2010 Romans-vs.-barbarians action flick Centurion (starring a post-300, pre-stardom Michael Fassbender), the British filmmaker's work usually centers on outnumbered folks stranded in an inhospitable environment and fighting to survive against savage foes, human or otherwise. Perhaps that helped prepare him to helm "Blackwater," the now-legendary second-season Game of Thrones episode chronicling the battle for King's Landing; brought in as a replacement when the original director had to pull out, he only had seven days to plan what's arguably the most epic episode in television history.
Things went a little smoother for Marshall's return to Westeros for last night's spectacular "The Watchers on the Wall": This time around, he had half a year to prepare. But the struggle between the ragtag brothers of the Night's Watch and the wildling hordes was even more in the director's wheelhouse – even as the visual effects (giants and mammoths and scythes, oh my!) and death scenes piled up like snow on the ground. Rolling Stone talked to Marshall about how he dug himself out. (Spoilers abound here, you have been warned.)
How did you become the battle guy for this show?
I don't know, but it's a position I'm very happy with. [Laughs] I'm a student of military history and battle, and I bring that kind of strategy to episodes that I do. The battles have to make sense. The characters' aims have to make sense. Armies of 100,000 men can't just be standing around waiting their turn, they have to be doing something. What advantages should the army have? How are they gonna use them? Can they use them in a logical way? Can we do something nobody's seen before? I guess that's what's led to me becoming the battle specialist. I do enjoy this stuff!
It must have made a big difference to have months to prep instead of just seven days.
The major difference was the level of special effects. "Blackwater" was essentially a bunch of guys knocking the hell out of each other. There was a lot of that in this episode as well, but there were also the visual effects elements. This one had giants. [Laughs] And also a huge mammoth. From a visual effects point of view, the giants are real guys, seven-foot-tall actors, who we shoot against a green screen and double up so the giants are 15 feet tall. The mammoth is 16 or 17 feet tall, but that's 100% CGI. You're also dealing with a 700-foot-tall ice wall that doesn't actually exist anywhere, so we had to build sets and add those visual effects as well. Logistically, it's a lot more complex.
Last time around, you mentioned an exec encouraging you to show more nudity. Did you feel similar pressure this year to crank the violence up to 11?
I think it's just a question of what's gonna work for the story and feel authentic. If it feels forced? No. If it feels like it's being shoved in the audience's face, it's not gonna work for the show. That's not to say things aren't gonna get really bloody and nasty — but if it does there's a reason for it. Everything's led by the story.
How did you do that big shot of Castle Black?
When I walked onto the Castle Black set for the very first time, I noticed that it's a 360-degree set. You walk into that courtyard and it's standing all around you. Immediately, I thought the best place to have it all to take place was the catwalks and steps — it's more interesting than just two guys in a flat courtyard. At some point the idea came to me of doing a 360-degree shot of the battle going on all around.
Slowly but surely, the idea to motivate the shot came to me. What was the point of the shot, other than to show off? I realized you had five major characters involved, and at this point you needed to know where they were and how they were all interrelating with each other. That gave birth to that shot in thematic terms. It very literally put you in the middle of it.
In practical terms, it was the first shot we did for that night. We set it up for about an hour, positioning everybody, practicing the camera moves. We got it on the seventh take. When I said we had it, we all gave each other a big round of applause. [Laughs]
No CGI? That was actually one single take?
It was one take. It was all the work of the ADs — and the stunt guys, for keeping out of the way of the camera. The camera was on the end of a crane arm and swinging around at high speed. It doesn't necessarily look it from the camera's point of view, but if the camera had hit someone in the head, it could have killed them — it was moving that fast. That was one of the worries. But nobody got killed by the camera, so that's good.
What about that scythe on the ice wall?
David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss, the showrunners and writers] came up with that idea. I don't know how, but it certainly was a fun idea. [Laughs] When I came in, I wanted to make it as logical as possible, to design it so it would look scary and practical. There was discussion early on as to whether we needed it, but myself, David, and Dan really fought for it. It was a really cool idea to end [both] the episode and the attack.
In "Blackwater," some book readers complained that the massive chain Tyrion uses to block Stannis's boats from escaping didn't show up in the episode. Well, here's a chain.
[Laughs] I remember those questions. The chain for the boats was gonna be way too expensive to do. This chain was a lot simpler in that respect. Maybe that was the idea — to get a chain in to keep people happy.
Grenn's last stand against the charging giant was another big moment, and one where the special effects really fed the emotional power of the scene.
You've just seen this guy lift this huge gate up. You know he's powerful, you know his strength, and he's barrelling down this corridor like a bull. The guys did a really great performance, chanting the vows. I think it also had some power to it that we cut away at the point of impact. It all came together beautifully. I was really happy with that moment.
You had to film quite a few major-character death scenes this time.
More than "Blackwater," definitely. I'm killing Grenn. I'm killing Pyp — I thought his death scene was really horrific, killed by Ygritte. And then Ygritte gets killed. Yeah, a bit of a slaughterhouse.
It was shocking even to book-readers, since Pyp and Grenn don't die in that battle in the books.
It's good that there are a few surprises for the readers as well. Also, there are so many characters involved, and so many storylines, you have to clear away a few to make room for new ones. [Laughs]
It culminates in the death of Ygritte – the most classic-style death scene of any character on the show so far.
The hardest part of that was you have do it in the middle of a battle, and separate them, somehow, from what's going on around them — which I did by keeping it tight on them at first and then revealing that slo-mo pullback. That was a way of putting them in their own little bubble, which is what's going on in Jon's head. Doomed lovers…almost Romeo & Juliet. I wanted to play that for all the tragic romance I could get. Without the characters, the spectacle is meaningless.