Emmys 2019: How Miguel Sapochnik Did the Unimaginable in Game of Thrones’ Eighth Season
A look behind the curtain at the most ambitious production endeavours in Television history.
Written by Dvir Ben Asuli.
Pretty much every Game of Thrones fan who’s been around the internet enough has heard of Miguel Sapochnik, who made history and directed the “Battle of the Bastards” in 2016. While usually in television people pay much less attention to the directors’ names than in movies for example, everyone was talking at the time about the man who brought to life the biggest and most impressive battle episode in television history (that featured not one, but two of the biggest battles yet depicted at GoT at the time), so much that he also had his good run at award shows that year such as the Emmys and the Director’s Guild of America. Many fans were disappointed to not see Sapochnik coming back for the seventh season of the show, but he definitely made up for that with two feature length episodes in the final season, “The Long Night” and “The Bells”, that presented two of the most important event in the show’s entire run. The former is nominated for an Emmy Award this year for “Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series”, and although it’s facing stiff competition, even from two other great episodes from the same season of GoT, in my opinion no director this year deserves the award as much as Miguel Sapochnik does.
The first time Sapochnik’s name popped up on a GoT episode was on season 5, for the episodes “The Gift” and the fan-favorite “Hardhome”. “The Gift” was more of a (quite literally) calm-before-the-storm episode, although it was still very well liked. Hardhome on the other hand remains one of the most ambitious endeavors on the show’s entire run- featuring the first large scale battle where characters had to fight against the Wights and the White Walkers. Even then, Sapochnik was no rookie, having directed amazing episodes in Cinemax’s “Banshee”, for example, or “House M.D.” and the movie “Repo Men”. The show-runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss was already impressed enough with his work to let him helm one of the show’s most difficult challenges to date, and after how well he has done they invited him to direct the big one- Battle of the Bastards. Sapochnik also gets credit for not only directing this big battle episode, but also the next episode “The Winds of Winter” (the one with Cersei’s trial, Jon Snow’s coronation, the Tower of Joy flashback, among other iconic scenes), which until this day considered among many fans (me included), as the best hour Game of Thrones has ever produced.
Luckily for Battle of the Bastards, it’s ending was rather cathartic and didn’t have a divisive conclusion that clouded some people’s judgement regarding everything that came in the hour-and-a-half before. Naturally while approaching the ending of this years-long story, things are coming to an end and in a show as popular as GoT, it’s bound that some people won’t like how things are eventually turning out, especially with constant internet-poison dripping in the background. But whether you agree that Arya’s eight seasons arc training as an assassin and an hour-and-a-half of excruciating apocalyptic battle were enough of a buildup for the Night’s King demise or not, it doesn’t change the fact that just like Hardhome and the Battle of the Bastards, the Long Night presented an unprecedented showcase of television, and Sapochnik’s work deserves the highest possible level of praise. According to Sapochnik himself, in an interview he conducted with Entertainment Weekly, even he was hesitant at first to helm the episode, to which David and Dan simply replied that possibly no one will ever want to helm this episode, but he is the best possible man for the job. He never denied the fact that doing the Battle of the Bastards was already extremely exhausting, and the expectations from show-runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss were much more ambitious this time.
“The thing for me is that everything should be appropriate for the job” said Sapochnik. “[D&D] asked if I could come back for season 7. I said I couldn’t do season 7 and 8, I could only do one. And thankfully, they said season 8. It meant I had a year off and got to miss Thrones, which is good, because you don’t miss Thrones as much when you’re on Week 6 of night shoots. So I was eager to come back. And yeah, there’s always a bit of trepidation because now there’s this expectation that you have to beat yourself, which I loathe. I wanted to do 3, 4, and 5 and there literally just weren’t enough days because we shoot two units. Then I said “4 and 5” and they said, “No, you have to do 3 and 5.” What I really like about 3, 4, and 5 is they’re a complete piece with a beginning middle and end. I try to approach all these [episodes] like they’re one. Like in season 6, [episodes 9 and 10], were to me one thing”.
We’ll get to episode 5 as well in a second, but let’s focus now on “The Long Night” at first. Filming this episode required 55 night shoots and an unknown number of days shooting in indoor stages, with around 750 cast and crew members all participating in the effort while enduring the extreme Northern Ireland cold. Several actors described this episode as the hardest thing they ever had to execute in their lives, with Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) saying “Nothing can prepare you for how physically draining it is. It’s night after night, and again and again, and it just doesn’t stop. You can’t get sick, and you have to look out for yourself because there’s so much to do that nobody else can do… there are moments you’re just broken as a human and just want to cry”. As we all know by now, Arya had a huge part in the battle against the Army of the Dead, not only in finishing the entire war but exhausting herself through the entire Long Night. When the episodes was in initial states of planning, almost a complete year before the shoot Miguel had to phone Maisie and tell her she should start getting in shape for what’s about to come. Apparently, she even had more to do in filming since it was stated that they even filmed a scene of her making her way through an army of Wights to get to the Night King, which eventually they preferred to cut to preserve the element of surprise and the dramatic effect of the 9-minutes sequence as a whole (not expecting unfortunately some viewers will absurdly just disregard the entire endeavor claiming Arya ‘jumped out of nowhere’). Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont) described it as a “real test, really miserable. You get to sleep at seven in the morning and when you wake in the midday you are still so spent you can’t really do anything, and then you’re back. You have no life outside it”. Rory McCann who plays Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane concurred: “Everybody prays they never have to do this again”.
While preparing for the shoot, Sapochnik tried to find a longer battle sequence in cinematic history and simply couldn’t. Writing the episode, D&D intended it to be the longest battle sequence ever presented in a film or a television series. Eventually, it was not only the longest one on television history, but also the longest overall running episode in the entirety of Game of Thrones, depicting action from start to finish. The closest battle Sapochnik found was the 40-minute Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, which he studied to determine when the audience would get “battle fatigue” from too much meaningless action. His conclusion was that it’s not necessarily all about blood pumping action, but rather “the less fighting you can have in a sequence, the better”.
In another interview from Entertainment Weekly, Miguel described that one of the main challenges he had to face while making the episode was to try and figure out on which character (characters, rather) he should put his focus during the battle, since pretty much every major character except maybe Cersei Lannister was there fighting with the Stark army.
“The [GoT battles] I’ve done previously were generally from Jon’s perspective,” Sapochnik says. “Here I’ve got 20-some cast members and everyone would like it to be their scene. That’s complicated because I find the best battle sequences are when you have a strong point of view, and here the point of view is objective even when you go from one person’s story to another”.
One might think the trivial answer is just to not make it about anyone, and just show the team effort or the entire army. Problem is it turns out that in reality, it’s a very hard thing to execute. “When you’re cutting back and forth, [the perspective] becomes objective whether you want it to or not. I keep thinking, “Whose story am I telling right now? And what restrictions does that place on me that become a good thing? We may not have seen Sam for 10 minutes but something has happened to Sam in those 10 minutes” he said. “You’ve been fighting, or you’ve been running, or you’ve been hiding. How has your story developed? You have to hold in your mind what’s happened since we saw you last.” He used to surprise the actors asking them how they got to the certain predicament they are in a scene that was filming for example to help cover that territory, at least in the actors’ mind- in a goal to achieve a much more reliable performance. Dividing the screen time each warrior gets and keeping track for continuity between different shots in different locations in Winterfell was not an easy task as well. And we haven’t even mentioned the Dragons.
According to Sapochnik, he was involved in the pre planning of the episode ever since June 2017, before we, the viewers, even got to watch the first episode of season seven. The actual shooting span around 130 days, which is more than the amount of time it gets to film a lot of the big Hollywood movies of that sort. During these seven months the crew worked six to seven day-weeks with sometimes 18 hours of filming and/or prepping each day. In this particular battle the production took GoT’s well known realistic style of filmmaking to the next level, wanting to shoot as less as possible in front of a green screen. For that reason the Winterfell set was built almost like an entire actual castle, with halls, courts and alleys- in a way the actors could actually interact with their surrounding while faking the fight, and not just imagine themselves in a battlefield while they are actually in an air conditioned green room. “The Winterfell set is unlike anything I’ve seen in my life,” Jacob Anderson, the actor who plays Grey Worm told EW. “It’s not like most sets you walk through a door and you see [a wood panel] and equipment. You can walk into rooms and cross into tunnels and find yourself in another part of the castle. It’s really immersive. Especially when there is haze and snow and people running around, you can get genuinely lost. There were a few moments where I forgot it wasn’t real, which is bizarre.” Sapochnik added on the subject “I was walking around [the Winterfell set] thinking, “This is a really cool set. I can find angles I would never have found beforehand.” I turned to producers and said, “I know it’s 11 weeks of night shoots, I know it’s shitty and going to be cold. I don’t want to do 11 weeks of night shoots and no one else does. But if we don’t we’re going to lose what makes Game of Thrones cool and that is it feels real — even though it’s supernatural and we have dragons.”
In my opinion, all the hard work put in this episode really added up to a masterful product, with the most amazing spectacle I’ve yet to witness on television. While as an episode I like the “Battle of the Bastards” a little more, in the term of directorial achievements that’s like the most impressive I’ve ever seen on television, if I’m one to judge anyway. “The Long Night” is the episode Sapochnik rightfully chose as his submission in the Emmys this year, but looking at his work on the Eighth season of GoT as a whole, except him even being added as an executive producer of the show, one cannot simply ignore his other episode, “The Bells”. I rather not get into the subject of why I think Daenerys’ ascent to madness made absolute sense in the context of the events of the season, but I rather focus again on the directorial effort that had to be done from Sapochnik and his crew.
First I’d like to start by suggesting a round of applause for Sapochnik frequent collaborator cinematographer Fabian Wagner, that did an amazing job with everything regarding filming this episode. The cinematography in the eighth season was even better than usually, and I think episode 5 is a great example for that. Much like “The Long Night”, the crew of the show built an entirely new set especially to when Miguel and his fellas arrive, this time for the Battlements of King’s Landing. Here too, it was extremely important to preserve the authenticity of everything that’s getting shot, even if it means blowing up much of what you spent weeks building once Daenerys’ Dragon sucker punches the Golden Company from behind.
Facing the same challenge as in “The Long Night”, Sapochnik had to choose which character will be the audience’s anchor to the scene. In an interview conducted with IndieWire, Miguel described that one of the decisions they made was that after you see everything that led Dany to her breaking point in the beginning of the episode, she and the Dragon “becomes one” and the point of view will not focus on her furthermore, but on the people on the ground experiencing the destruction, with the question of “what have we become?” constantly looming in the background.
“Iʼm meant to direct you towards caring for a character you know well,” said Sapochnik. “What I wanted to get to in Kingʼs Landing was the idea that every single fucking one of these characters matters. Not just the characters, but the extras, and the people you donʼt know, and all the people youʼll never see, and never know about. They all matter. Thatʼs maybe me, or maybe thatʼs Dan and David [Weiss and Benioff], I donʼt know. But it was something that evolved out of the need, or my desire, to not just add to the equation of violence in television, but rather to at least propose, ‘Think about it.’ This idea that every single person that dies in this story, every single person that is buried by rubble, every kid, that little girl, they are people, and they have mothers, and fathers, and lives, like us. They had aspirations and dreams, and they got cut short by this event. That feels like what we were trying to do there.”
Almost similarly to what he’ve done before “The Long Night”, Miguel studied several videos of colossal destructions, real ones and cinematic fictional ones all the same, to try and see where his eye is going and what’s capturing his attention the most. He also intended to put a mirror in front of the viewers eyes, criticizing the cynicism that surrounds violence in entertainment these days;
“The destruction of Kingʼs Landing, for me, has always been an audience participation event. You wanted this, you wanted this, you wanted this. Here. Is that really what you wanted?” He asked. “I felt like there was this thing of this bloodthirstiness that exists in the fans, for revenge, for this payback that is personified by Dany. I just wanted to get to the core of what that actually means. Because even though the characters that donʼt exist in the end, what youʼre looking for, as an audience member, is death and destruction. I wanted people to know how bad death and destruction can be in the safe environment theyʼre living in.”
On a more personal note, I was very satisfied with both of Miguel’s episodes in season 8, and consider them two of the greatest episodes in GoT’s entire run. The War for the Dawn was just as spectacular as I always imagined it would be, and The Bells was a more extraordinary climax for the entire series than I have ever hoped for. I remember literally shaking the first two times I watched it. Ever since season 5 Sapochnik was my personal favorite director from GoT, and I was extremely relieved (yet not really surprised) he delivered everything that was promised from this season, and then some.
Let’s talk about the Emmy’s system of voting for a second. In the past, the system used by the Emmy voters was in the form of preferential ballot where for example if there are total of 5 episodes, each voter ranks all 5 episodes in his preferred order of winning. These days, each voter chooses only 1 episode he wishes would win the category, and that’s it. There are many pros and cons for both systems, but the new system, especially with the current lineup of nominated episodes in the Directing category, could be the thing that will frustratingly cost Sapochnik his win. Let’s look at the 2007 Emmys ceremony for example, in a slightly different category.
It’s not a secret nor surprise the Academy loves “The Sopranos”, and it’s really not surprising that on that year David Chase, Terence Winter and Matthew Weiner were all nominated for a writing Emmy for 3 different episodes from the same season of “The Sopranos”- both because it was the last season of the show, but moreover because it’s possibly the best written show in television history (depends on who you ask of course). All three episodes were great- but not only great, they were so great that’s it’s not hard to imagine that as an Emmy voter, one couldn’t possibly know for sure which episode is the one that deserves his vote, among all great three. So in that case, what’s better than the option to rank? That year, under the preferential ballot system, and assuming a lot of voters just had few of the nominated Sopranos at the top spots of their ballots, David Chase’s “Made in America” had the slight edge and it eventually won among all 5 nominees that year, despite facing strong competition from his associates in the writing staff.
This year from Game of Thrones, we have Miguel Sapochnik nominated for “The Long Night”, David Nutter nominated for “The Last of the Starks” and David Benioff & Dan Weiss nominated for the series finale, “The Iron Throne”. David Nutter is a highly acclaimed director in the industry, having won 2 Emmys already, and wearing a legend’s status as the “pilot whisperer”- all of that on top of doing a damn fine job with his episode this year in GoT. There’s also plenty of reason to give David and Dan a vote for the Series finale, if it’s a goodwill overall achievement vote or a vote strictly on merit- based on the fact they only have 3 episodes under their “directors” resume yet they managed to do so well directing the ambitious series finale of a large scale show. So, even if GoT as a whole will have an edge at the Emmys (which is merely an optimistic speculation from my side)- it’s still very plausible that the votes will be split between the Game of Thrones episodes, and none of them will have enough to win (since now it’s not about ranking favorites, but only choosing one). According to the Emmy experts (and general users alike) on Gold Derby, while I truly believe all directors made a fantastic work and all deserving to win under the “Outstanding Drama Series” category as co-producers, the only one that has a probable chance at triumphing not only among his in-house peers but also among all 7 contenders is Sapochnik. We mustn’t neglect another really strong option here, which is Adam McKay’s nomination for the Succession pilot. Last year it won the Director’s Guild Award, which could play a factor here- especially since the amazing 2nd season of the show airing in the same time voting took place, reminding people how good this show is. There are also strong contenders like Killing Eve and The Handmaid’s Tale, so to avoid a scenario where GoT’s excellence becomes it’s undoing, I really hope Sapochnik will manage to overcome the split and win the coveted award despite the harsh circumstances.
Game of Thrones is famously known for it’s unprecedented scale, and for presenting us with episodes we’d never thought we’d see on small TV screens. After amazing battle episodes such as “Blackwater”, “The Watchers on the Wall”, “Hardhome”, “Battle of the Bastards”, “The Spoils of War” and “Beyond the Wall”, in it’s final season GoT took everything to the next level with Miguel Sapochnik’s “The Bells” and moreover “The Long Night”, and after such a long history of magnificent spectacle episodes it was only right that the final season will manage to top it all in terms of ambition, effort, scope and vision. While one might have his own issues with story choices in the final season of Game of Thrones, the work Miguel Sapochnik did this season was undeniable and a monumental directorial achievement for television. A spectacle like that requires a story that will demand it, and that’s why i’m not exactly sure when will be the next time we’ll see something like that again on television, despite the high level television have reached these days. One thing’s for sure though, i’d be extremely interested in whatever Sapochnik does next, and more importantly hope he will get his due in this upcoming awards season, to cement his groundbreaking work and achievements in history. “If Miguel lives through this it will be the hardest thing he’s ever done”- executive producer Bernadette Caulfield was quoted saying during production. “The hardest thing all of us have ever done”.
Note: the story published originaly on HBOWatch in August 2019. Since then the Emmys took place and unfortunately, Sapochnik did not win the award.