Spoilers below, obviously.
Rowley Irlam may be a little-known name to most “Game of Thrones” fans, but he performed two of the hit show’s most important roles behind the scenes: coordinating Maisie Williams’ show-stopping leap, and making sure wights didn’t plop down on top of Kit Harington when they weren’t supposed to.
Irlam is the official “Game of Thrones” stunt coordinator, meaning that he and his team help manage the action in what has increasingly become an action-packed show. “The Long Night,” Sunday’s installment in the series’ eighth and final season, clocked in at 82 minutes ― most of which is spent tracking Jon Snow (Harington), Arya Stark (Williams) and their allies fighting the dead in the Battle of Winterfell, a massive endeavor requiring some 750 cast and crew.
Extra-special attention was paid to that dramatic leap, when Williams crept up on the Night King and lunged, dagger in hand.
“We shot that on location, and it was very, very cold and wet,” Irlam told HuffPost, explaining how the “boggy” ground made shooting tricky. An inside-the-episode video extra shows Williams hooked to a wire on the Weirwood set, making several controlled jumps toward Night King actor Vladimir Furdik. But it wasn’t perfect, so they moved to a green screen, indoors, for finishing touches ― so both characters were really “locked into each other.”
“She into him, and him into her,” Irlam said.
Williams had been training for more than a year before shooting began, she said in the video extras, so she was more than ready for her star turn. (So sorry, Kit.) Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss noted that they had known Arya would be the one to land the final blow in the battle between the living and the dead for “probably three years now.”
Combining slow-motion footage with a piano score from composer Ramin Djawadi ― using an instrument heard only at rare moments on the show ― created a “heightened reality” and “surreal nightmare” of a scene, director Miguel Sapochnik explained. And while she found it all a bit “tedious,” Williams said the end product was worth it ― even though she was afraid fans wouldn’t like her stealing Jon’s thunder. (In fact, they liked it very much.)
All of these efforts paid off of course, with “The Long Night” leaving plenty of fans in awe over the scope of the battle and its final twist. We spoke with Irlam about filming that moment along with the toughest parts of the episode.
What did you want the audience to take away?
The premise behind that was “total loss.” This needs to feel like, for everybody involved, the wheels have completely fallen off. How in the hell are they going to get out of this situation?
I think Miguel summed it up best when he said there were three genres of film in this one episode: The first act was suspense, what’s coming, the unknown, you know; the second part was a horror film when you’re in the crypt with Maisie, through the castle; and then when you get to the third act it just becomes a full-on action film. That was the aim, and I think the whole team was successful in that.
In particular, what made the Battle of Winterfell a challenging shoot?
In the past, we’ve done the Battle of the Bastards and probably the loot train were the biggest set pieces to date. And then, with every season and every battle, we always look for something we haven’t done yet. So to shoot a battle for 11 weeks at night in Northern Ireland in the months of January, February and March was certainly the most challenging undertaking. And I think on a technical and a choreography level, we were looking for new and exciting things to do, but we chose conditions in which to do them which obviously amplified the difficulty and the complexity of what we were trying to achieve.
The guys performing were shooting from sort of 8 at night till 6 in the morning. In addition to that they were enduring travel and an average of five hours of prosthetic makeup and fitting for costume prior to that. So very little time off the clock, and obviously that had a cumulative effect on them, given 11 weeks in those conditions in the wet, wet cold.
Any specific scene stand out in your mind?
We try and avoid cuts in a piece of action, you know? And I guess [it’d be] Jon Snow traveling through the courtyard, seeing his comrades up against it, and then ending up going through a corridor ― which is actually the Winterfell kennels, where Ramsay met his demise ― and as he enters there, all the zombies, the wights, start falling through the ceiling. To time that out and make sure no one accidentally landed on top of Kit, the camera operator, or myself was quite a challenge. So I was with Andy, who was carrying the camera rig, which was remotely operated; I was behind him, cueing the guys in through the ceiling.
So we know Arya did her own stunt there in the final leap toward the Night King. Did it take any special training on her part?
Yeah, but I think the training of Maisie has been ongoing since the show started ― before I even started. They’ve been sowing the seed of that story since the very beginning of Season 1. When I joined in Season 5, you know, she was ― we were starting to do her entering the House of Black and White and the start of her training. So we trained her, the department trained her, and developed her with the quarterstaff [the sticklike weapon she learns to use in Braavos]. Then this year, due to the fact that we were going to go inside of the castellations and the corridors, we actually then changed that into a quarterstaff that broke into two sticks. So that’s been ongoing. And then obviously we’ve done wire work with her before; in Season 6 she jumped over a balcony, escaping. So it was still a challenge, but she’s very good on a wire, and very confident and very professional.
Can you walk me through how that was filmed?
We shot that on location, and it was very, very cold and wet. It’s a really awkward place because it’s kind of boggy there, so you can only get cranes so far into the location. It was successful; however, it wasn’t as sharp as we wanted. We wanted the connection of the two characters to be, you know, they’re locked into each other. She into him, and him into her. And so we redid it on the stage because we just weren’t that happy with the end result.
Were any parts of that scene CGI?
No, it was an assisted jump and an assisted arrest, but what you see of her coming through the air and landing on Vlad, the Night King, is real and all on camera.
Did any notable stunts get cut from the episode?
There were probably takes of things that didn’t make it, but historically, I think the key to “Game of Thrones’” success is that everything we shoot, we plan for and it ends up in the show. There are no decadent second units that you might get on a big feature film. ... We don’t waste money like that. I would say 96% of the action ended up in the final cut.
I’ve read interviews where people say the most difficult thing about shooting “Game of Thrones” battles is just managing the horses. How many did you have at Winterfell?
So I think we had 70 horses this episode.
However, we already did the Battle of the Bastards in Season 6, so ... what we basically did was we did a replication of the charge, [but] we had the whole lighting of the arakhs [Dothraki swords] to do. What was challenging about it is that we did a lot of that against a green screen, because it’s replication, and it rained for four days solid before we shot it, so it was like being in a mini bog. And probably the hardest part of it was that we had about 170 meters [560 feet] in which to get going, get in sync with the tracking vehicle, shoot our action and then pull up. So it was tedious to say the least.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.