Last night’s Game of Thrones season finale, “Winds of Winter,” is already being hailed as one of the greatest episodes in series history. That’s no small feat considering it follows the previous week’s incredible “Battle of the Bastards,” which stunned viewers and critics similarly declared a series-best. But where “Bastards” offered up a terrifying, intimate and brutal depiction of warfare unlike anything seen on television since HBO’s The Pacific and Band of Brothers miniseries, “Winter” was all intrigue, bloody war conducted by other means as the show’s cast was decimated, along with a narrative reorganization that by the end sees the series clearly headed to its eventual endgame.
If “Bastards” was the culmination of years of building out the show’s depiction of action that began with earlier episodes like season 2’s “Blackwater” and of course season five’s stand-out entry “Hardhome”, “Winter” was the complete opposite, a sharp divergence in tone and aesthetic that stands out for how different it was from previous episodes as “Bastards” was their fulfillment. The plotting, scheming, and mass murder at the beginning and the series of triumphs by both good and evil characters at the end recall nothing short of The Godfather by way of The Empire Strikes Back. Backed by the subtle use of vivid colors and textures along with an understated, highly atypical score, “Winter” is a beautiful achievement and an urgent declaration of intent for Game of Thrones‘ final two seasons.
Much of the credit for that achievement goes to director Miguel Sapochnik, who along with “Winds of Winter” also helmed last week’s “Bastards” and the earlier “Hardhome”. With the season now over and the fate of Westeros as ambiguous as it’s ever been, Deadline was able to talk to Sapochnik about how the episode came together.
DEADLINE: ‘Winds of Winter’ has several explicit aesthetic departures from what is normal for Game of Thrones, particularly the understated score based around small strings and piano. Can you talk about the choice to go with that lighter touch as opposed to something with more bombast considering the events that unfold?
SAPOCHNIK:Once we’d cut together a basic assembly of the sequence we started to search for a piece of musical accompaniment that would work to both increase the jeopardy and the suspense but also detail the emotional inevitability that something is going to happen without being too focused on the ‘dread’ aspect.
There’s something fated about what happens and I thought it would be better to play that than the ‘oh shit’ aspect. We found this piano piece that I really loved and although we knew it would never fly because it was piano, we thought, leave it in there for now and change it later. If you have ever edited anything, you’ll know that’s a big mistake. Because you fall in love with temp music and then its really hard to get it out of your head.
Anyway we kept editing, whittling down the sequence etc and all the time looking for a replacement that was more ‘game of thrones’. But we just couldn’t find something that hit all the notes we needed it to hit, in particular the emotional one. Piano is unique in that way, it can be both percussive and haunting.
We almost went with something else at one point but in the end I submitted my cut to Dan and David with a note explaining that while I understood that this was not Game of Thrones, I really wanted them to hear the sequence with this emotional underpinning to understand the tone I was going for and then do what they will.
Four months later I receive the final cut and mix to look at and am slightly dreading what they might have changed the music to and instead I hear Ramin’s score and it put a huge grin on my face because they’d not only taken the idea on board but Ramin had also produced a piece of music that surpassed the original temp music, and believe me that’s saying something.
DEADLINE: You came to the series late, but you’ve already directed two episodes – Bastards, and Hardhome – that are considered essential, and it’s looking like Winds of Winter will join them. How did you approach coming into a show this long into its run, and how did you put your personal stamp on the show despite that.
SAPOCHNIK: I try to approach everything I do the same. Do the best you possibly can. Don’t fight the material but embrace it. Give them what they want but not in the way they were expecting. I must admit I don’t try to put my stamp on anything, it just happens. I don’t really know how to think another way. That doesn’t mean I don’t analyze my work or what I’m doing as I’m doing it but like anyone, we all have things we like and don’t like, preoccupations in art that either attract or repel us and the moral ambiguity of Thrones is fascinating to me.
I was also lucky enough to get two battle sequences that required to be shot in a different way than the ones previous and so the material demanded a different approach. I don’t believe in trying to impose a style on something that doesn’t warrant it. It quickly feels contrived and takes you out of the story.
Anyway point is, I didn’t really think anything of coming in late except: don’t fuck it up. And style wise, I didn’t choose a style, the sequences called for it and I just had to figure out how to execute it.
DEADLINE: Despite the lack of any major traditional battle set piece, much of this episode had a very martial aesthetic, particularly the use of black and red colors, and the montage at the beginning of the episode in which you treated several characters dressing in the same way one would don armor before battle. There wasn’t a similar scene in Bastards. How did you come to the choice to emphasize battle dress in an episode full of sneakier, less direct confrontations, and was it a deliberate mirror to the lack of similar scenes in Bastards, or Hardhome?
SAPOCHNIK: Starting the episodes has always been a thing for me. In Season 5 episode 7 (“The Gift”) we started with details of the Night’s watch loading their horses in preparation for the long journey to Hardhome. In “Battle of the Bastards” we began with the detail of the Masters loading a trebuchet fireball then hurling it into Meereen. In “Winds of Winter” I was interested in watching these different characters getting dressed in detail. I guess because however small, it’s something that they all had to do at the beginning of that day. It was a common theme for all of them and for us, an opportunity to get some time alone, to have a bit of a non-verbal, private moment with each of these characters before throwing them into the firey pit.
So there was a mirror in that. On this show so far I’ve found that starting small is a good way into what quickly becomes a vast world. At the same time, it felt appropriate in this episode to return to the details after such a big episode nine. Ideally one would watch nine and ten as a single piece and this would be the middle of the movie in that case.