‘Game of Thrones’: Neil Marshall details ‘Watchers on the Wall’ strategy

June 08, 2014 | 11:00 p.m.
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Arya (Maisie Williams) and the Hound (Rory McCann) meet some unexpected travelers. (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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Meera (Ellie Kendrick), Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn) on their way to the sacred tree. (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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A scene from "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of Season 4 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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A scene from "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of Season 4 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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A scene from "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of Season 4 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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Rose Leslie as Ygritte and Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

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Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) and the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) in battle. (Macall B. Polay / HBO)

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Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) speaks harshly to her once-trusted adviser Jorah (Iain Glen) while Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) looks on. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) rewards his bastard son Ramsay (Iwan Rheon). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) sits on the Iron Throne as judge at Tyrion's trial. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) advises his brother (Peter Dinklage). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) is crowned king by the High Septon (Paul Bentley). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Arya (Maisie Williams) shows the Hound (Rory McCann) her sword-fighting moves. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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The lead mutineer (Burn Gorman) threatens Bran's friends (Ellie Kendrick and Thomas Brodie-Sangster). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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The Lannisters pay their respects to the fallen King Joffrey. With Lena Headey, Dean-Charles Chapman, Jack Gleeson and Charles Dance. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) to the supposed rescue of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) gives Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) a lesson on his power. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

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Natalie Dormer in Sunday's episode of "Game of Thrones," "The Lion and the Rose," written by George R.R. Martin.

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Natalie Dormer and Gwendoline Christie in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Macall B. Polay / HBO)

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Jacob Anderson and Nathalie Emmanuel in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Macall B. Polay / HBO)

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Michiel Huisman, Nathalie Emmanuel and Emilia Clarke in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Macall B. Polay / HBO)

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Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage in a scene from "Game of Thrones." (Neil Davidson / HBO)

It’s an interesting niche Neil Marshall has carved out for himself in the cutthroat world of HBO’s lavish fantasy, “Game of Thrones.”

“I seem to be the go-to guy for battles and extreme carnage and special effects,” said Marshall, who stepped behind the camera for Sunday’s epic installment, “The Watchers on the Wall,” and who previously helmed Season 2′s equally spectacular “Blackwater.” “You’re kept on your toes trying to come up with new ways to kill people.”

The director, whose feature film credits include the horror films “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent” and the wild futuristic adventure “Doomsday,” certainly appears to have found his calling. In “The Watchers on the Wall,” the crushing Wilding attack that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has been predicting for much of the show’s fourth season finally arrives, and the brothers of the Night’s Watch are sorely matched against the invading forces.

(Anyone who hasn’t yet watched the episode might be advised to stop reading now.)

While losses are suffered on all sides, the death of Snow’s Wilding love Ygritte (Rose Leslie) arrives as a heartbreaking moment amid the carnage.

Shot over the course of two-and-a-half weeks on location in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the episode required at least 100 extras and an army of stuntmen; an additional week and a half of green screen work was needed to add the show’s towering Giants to the mix, Marshall said.

Hero Complex caught up with the director late last week to discuss the installment, and the finer points of building a better battle. Check out what he had to say in the interview below, and click through the gallery above for a detailed look at the season so far.

Director Neil Marshall. (Courtesy of Neil Marshall)

Director Neil Marshall. (Courtesy of Neil Marshall)

Hero Complex: How do you even begin to approach staging these sorts of episodes? It must be similar to organizing an actual military campaign.

Neil Marshall: It’s similar to “Blackwater” in that it’s one of those few episodes that takes place in one location. It’s centered around Castle Black and the Wall and it basically deals with Mance Rayder [Ciarán Hinds] and his army of 100,000 men and Giants and Mammoths storming the Wall and lighting the greatest fire the North has ever seen, with the other Wildings … leading an attack on Castle Black at the same time, and the Night’s Watch being stretched pretty thin….  Logistically it’s complex.

The first thing that I do when I come to the episodes — the same as I did with “Blackwater” — I look at the scripts and I bring my own sense of military strategy to it. I’m a student of history and a student of military history particularly, and sort of apply that to [determine] what is the logic of this battle? What is each side trying to achieve? What are their assets? What can they use against each other? What can I bring that somebody else hasn’t thought of before? With the Battle of Blackwater, I invented a boat which turns upside down and becomes a canopy for a battering ram. They can use this battering ram on the gates and not be hit by rocks and arrows from above. As far as I know that didn’t exist in history. Maybe it did, but I’ve never seen it. But it seemed logical.

HC: Did you invent anything similar for “The Watchers on the Wall”?

NM: One of the problems we had was that the Wall is 700 feet tall and regular bows and arrows and anything that Mance Rayder’s guys had would never reach the top of it. They can’t do any damage, so the guys on the top of the wall are essentially safe. And I didn’t want them to be safe. There’s no drama in them being safe. There has to be a threat to those guys. So I came up with the idea that the Giants would also have bows and arrows, and Giant bows and arrows are like artillery — they’re like field guns — so they can go much, much further. They’re much more powerful and can go much, much further, so the Giants can shoot arrows to the top of the wall. That puts the guys on top of the wall in danger — these arrows are like spears or javelins, they’re massive things. That’s one of the things I brought to the episode.

QUIZ: Test your ‘Game of Thrones’ knowledge

HC: How do you ensure you’re tracking the emotional journey of these characters amid so much action?

NM: All the action in the world doesn’t matter if your characters are meaningless. I have to follow the character threads and work on that first and foremost and design the action around those characters and around their stories. There’s one shot in particular that I’m really, really pleased with – I think it’s my favorite shot ever. In the battle for Castle Black, I wanted to do a 360-degree crane shot of the entire battle going on in the castle, but I thought, “What’s the purpose of the shot?” Well, the purpose of the shot ultimately is to link together all the  main characters and see where their individual stories are at that moment and see where they are geographically at that moment, so it doesn’t just look good, it serves a dramatic and narrative purpose. I’m dealing with five different main characters with five different stories within this one battle sequence and you’ve got to keep track of it. If you can do it in one shot and the audience gets it as well.

HC: What was it like to direct Ygritte’s death scene?

NM: Rose and Kit were both absolutely fantastic. The passion that they bring to their characters, it made for a very heartbreaking scene. My biggest concern was, “How do I do this heartbreaking scene in the middle of a battle?” My instinct was to keep them in a little bubble to themselves so I could get all the emotion out of that moment because it is heartbreaking. They both played it beautifully.

Rose Leslie as Ygritte and Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO)

Rose Leslie as Ygritte and Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
(Helen Sloan/HBO)

HC: How would you characterize the atmosphere on the set when you’re filming something so somber?

NM: Everybody’s so professional. There’s a great atmosphere on set, it’s a real family that they have there of incredibly talented people. Obviously you have to get into the gravity of the drama going on, but at the same time, but it’s done with a great deal of enjoyment and pleasure. There were a few tears shed when we finished the scene – Rose kind of came around to everybody and gave everybody a hug to say goodbye. She’s not just wrapped for the season, she’s wrapped for good.

HC: There are some truly brutal moments in the episode. I would imagine it’s difficult at this point in the life of the show to find new and horrific ways to kill characters?

NM: You have to be constantly inventive about it. You’ve got to keep it fresh somehow so that you feel these deaths, you have to feel the emotion from them. There’s nothing I like better than shocking people with something gratuitous. That’s my horror background coming through.

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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