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HBO
What’s that on your face there, Jon?
FAINT OF HEART

Shooting an epic “Game of Thrones” battle sequence sounds unbelievably traumatic

By Adam Epstein

HBO appears to be doing all it can to maim or kill the cast and crew of Game of Thrones before its highly anticipated final season airs in April.

Entertainment Weekly reporter James Hibberd was on set in Northern Ireland last year for the filming of what is expected to be “the longest consecutive battle sequence ever committed to film.” Hibberd relayed several details from the 11-week shoot, which apparently pushed the show’s stars to the brink of exhaustion and insanity.

“There are moments you’re just broken as a human and just want to cry,” Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark, told Entertainment Weekly.

Shooting entirely at night over the course of nearly three months, performers and crew members battled freezing temperatures, icy rain, “reeking horse manure,” and fish-scented “choking smoke.” One unnamed actress fainted on set (she was fine and returned to work the next day). “It was the most unpleasant experience I’ve had on Thrones,” Iain Glen, who plays Jorah Mormont, told EW. “Everybody prays they never have to do this again,” added Rory McCann, who plays the Hound. Co-creator David Benioff said that crew members who worked on the battle began to look gaunt, like Nosferatu.

Fainting was not the only health-related incident. A smoke machine in one of the indoor scenes induced an asthma attack in a crew member, who had to be taken to the hospital:

The production’s cavernous Paint Hall hangar is kept full of smoke created by a machine that heats up paraffin and fish oil. Soon the cast and crew find themselves coughing up fishy candle wax. Protective paper masks multiply in popularity and one crew member has an asthma attack and is taken to the hospital.

And it was almost all for naught. When the battle was over, a helicopter flew over the set; One crew member referred to the mysterious aircraft as a “spoiler helicopter,” believing it to be paparazzi hoping to leak the secrets of the show’s final season to the world. It was later confirmed to be a police chopper making its rounds, but the panic it caused underscored how protective HBO is of its most valuable asset.

In total, the final season took 10 months to film just six episodes. That’s more than seven weeks per episode. (Usually a single episode of television only requires about two weeks to shoot.) Prestige dramatic TV may be embracing the 30-minute drama, but Game of Thrones decidedly is not, going out as big and expensive as is logistically possible. Each episode of this final season will be 60 minutes or longer.

The final battle, in particular, is going to be as elaborate as anything HBO has ever done. “There are sequences built within sequences built within sequences,” co-producer Bryan Cogman told EW, explaining the TV scene as if it were part of Inception.

That’s exactly what HBO is going for: A historic episode that rivals a major blockbuster movie release, like one from the auteur director Christopher Nolan, in both the size of its production and impact on pop culture. That kind of success might make standing ankle-deep in horse poop all night for 11 weeks worth any residual trauma the cast and crew were left with.