For many fans, the appeal of HBO’s Game of Thrones lies somewhere in the balancing act between epic battles, political intrigue, character-driven dialogue, sexposition, and the over-arching idea of valar morghulis. If you think the emotional roller coaster that comes with absorbing the twists and turns, size and scope of the show are almost too much, imagine being the one responsible for bringing the complex story to life.
Over the years, Alex Graves has directed some significant and successful television shows–The West Wing, Ally McBeal, The Practice–but even the whip-smart dialogue and style of Aaron Sorkin couldn’t completely prepare him for the televised version of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy. Graves first took his skills to Westoros in season three, directing the critical (and critically acclaimed) fourth and fifth episodes, and returns for season four to helm four of its 10 installments–including the season finale.
The first lesson in directing an episode of Game of Thrones is that it’s all about preparation. Graves began his season four work in March 2013 and wrapped up almost exactly a year later. “For you to be ready to direct it you have to start when [showrunners] David Benioff and Dan Weiss start,” says Graves. “I can tell you right now that at least two of the directors of season five are prepping somewhere in the world as we speak.”
Despite being a tightly scripted series already based on a hit book series, directors are given a significant amount of creative control. “It’s a great job creatively because you do come in and the expectation is, ‘Please go and direct your butt off,'” says Graves. “They’re wrangling so much that the producers want the directors to direct and envision their script.”
For the new season, part of that meant Graves was in charge of finding an entirely new city. “Season four started with a weird issue in that we had to find a city of Meereen for Danaerys and it’s the first time there really wasn’t a set or location sitting around that we could go in and use,” he says. “So we went on a long search for how to make what is in the story a really unique city. It’s the pinnacle slave state city, with a gigantic walled gate that’s almost a city unto itself that protects an enormous pyramid city, which has been in the trailers. I was basically flown to Croatia to meet with my producers saying, ‘Soooo, what do you want to do?’ which is part of the fun of the show.”
“For Game of Thrones, I realized immediately that it was about the characters,” says Graves. “The big thing you have to know to direct the show is you have to have a very strong idea of what happens that either people don’t know about or is in the books but not on the show, and you know where things are coming from.
I had to do Jamie talking about how he became the kingslayer in the bathhouse with Brienne. So you ask, what happened that night? You go to David and Dan and they can tell you, but you also read the books. That creates a bigger problem, which I dealt a lot with in season four, which is where in the world is all this going? I couldn’t direct a lot of what I did in season four without knowing what happens. I don’t mean next season, I mean in the rest of it. Because there are a lot of things that happen in season four that are tectonic and major. Some of it you don’t realize is major and some of it you do. So they were understandably very candid with what happened, so I spent half the season saying, “Oh my god, you’re kidding me!” and the other half thinking, “Oh god, I’ve got to direct this thing right.”
Graves says his primary objective when approaching a scene is figuring out the psychological point of view. “That’s the big thing I get really worried about,” he says. “Who’s point of view is in the scene and how do I get with the camera to be in that place?”
“I had a scene with Emilia Clarke (Danaerys Targaryen) this year, many scenes with Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) this year, actually a lot of people, where they’re in a very specific place in their lives, in their minds and in what’s going on. The Plaza of Pride scene from last season is a good example of that. That whole scene is about Dany having a crazy plan that she was going to pull off with no help at all from anybody. The tension was whether the plan would work, and grew into Jorah and others going, “What the hell are we doing?’ into about a 12-second turnover of power that was massive in its scale. She took control of an army with no help from her consigliere or her military advisor. That’s what the scene was. The VFX guys would suggest doing a shot with the dragons flying all over, but it wasn’t about the dragon flying around, it was about the dragon killing everyone when she says, ‘Dracarys.’ And there’s a difference.”
“Another scene I did last year was one with Varys and the box,” says Graves. “You read that scene and you’re like, ‘What the hell is this about? Good god!’ On one hand the scene is about Varys, and you get to know more about him than you ever have, but it’s also a secretive preview of something that has a lot to do with Tyrion. I directed that scene, in my mind, like it was the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the air traffic controllers think the UFO is coming, it comes by and passes and you realize what just happened, and the whole thing was utterly abstract. It was that kind of filmmaking in one room and it was really cool.”
Given the wide swath of characters and settings that make up the seven magical kingdoms of Westoros, it can be a challenge to jump from one to another. How can the snowy expanse of the wall transition seamlessly to the elegant chambers of King’s Landing? “There’s always the pressure on the director of how to transition from one scene to another, especially when it can really be oblique on Game of Thrones,” says Graves.
“You don’t want to get bumped with, ‘Oh I’m in a new scene” you just want it to happen. But how the hell do you get out of the Jamie/Brienne bathhouse scene, especially if you’re cutting to something in the North? I scouted Iceland looking for water, so what I did was create this Rhett Butler-Scarlett O’Hara, Han Solo-Princess Leia embrace where Brienne is on the top with heat on her back and it was hot, you could see the water around them and know it was a spa type thing and–I don’t even know if it’s still cut this way–but I cut to the water surrounded by the snow in Iceland. I have to say, cutting from Jamie and Brienne in a tub to Jon Snow’s world in the North is not easy. But! It’s also close to the scene where Jon and Ygritte end up in the cave making love, so thematically there is some flow.”
It doesn’t matter who your favorite character is, who you think deserves it or not, death is a constant cloud that hangs over every movement in Westoros. Graves says that while all the deaths he’s directed are different, the most important thing is knowing its purpose.
“Death is either an incredible ending to a story or, more often than not if you ask the right questions, it’s the beginning of a story,” he says. “One of the things that happens in the fourth season that I was fascinated by, not only in death but the entire arc of the season, the politics of power, which is so much of what the show’s been about, are forced to give way to the politics of reason. The Red Wedding marked, as they talk about, a new low where the common reaction is that something fundamental has been violated by that massacre. It unsettles the landscape of Westoros. It sets into motion what happens in the season. So there are some vengeful killings, but there are some that aren’t, and everything is affected by the fact that we’ve gone from a mindset of fighting to win to a mindset of fighting to survive. And that’s different for some of the characters.”
According to Graves, the seasonal structure of the show changes up in season four. “The finale this season is the first real finale they’ve done,” he says. “It’s not the model of episode nine as the big thing and episode 10 as the follow-up. This season, episode nine will be wonderful but the big one is episode 10. Episode 10 is the biggest episode ever made on that show and it is one shock after another.”
So it would make sense that the pressure ramped up a bit. “Benioff would say something like, ‘I think the reason I wanted to do this entire series was this next scene.’ And I’m like, ‘Gee, I hope I get it then.’ And it’s even worse because I like them so much as people, so you want to make it perfect. Sometimes I wish I hated Weiss and Benioff so it would take some of the pressure off.”
“The thing is, it’s filled with so much–pardon me–fucking cool stuff that you would think it would be ‘yippee!’ as a director,” he says. “But what is going on dramatically is so big and intense and weird and dangerous and exciting that every time we’d shoot a scene from episode 10–you could shoot a scene from episode two in the morning and then one from episode 10 in the afternoon because of the way the schedule works–the actors and I were really doing more takes, really trying to figure it all out because the characters are growing and changing and having things happen to them that are unimaginable, so it was much harder.”