Arguably still the most impressive battle put to screen is that of Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”. It took 120 days of filming at night and in the rain (real and artificial) to yield twenty hours of footage which was cut down to a 40-minute spectacle.
In the years since others have done some similar impressive work but haven’t quite matched it, including HBO’s “Game of Thrones”. Filmmaker Miguel Sapochnik was in charge of the battle-heavy episodes “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” both of which took a month each to film. Sapochnik returns for the upcoming eighth and final season of the series for an episode containing the biggest battle in the show’s history and the longest consecutive battle sequence ever committed to film – the Battle of Winterfell.
Set to run the entire episode (which itself could be anywhere from 60-90 minutes long), the battle will see Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) among others banding together to fend off the Army of the Dead. The trade dubs it “arguably the most difficult-to-produce episode in television history”.
EW has done a feature piece on the episode which required eleven weeks of gruelling night shoots with up to 750 people working nights in freezing open rural countryside: “they are laboring in icy rain and piercing wind, thick, ankle-deep mud; reeking horse manure and choking smoke.” Co-star Liam Cunningham says: “I heard the crew was getting 40,000 steps a day on their pedometers. They’re the f–king heroes.”
So why shoot it all in one big block? Sapochnik says it was necessary:
“We built this massive new part of Winterfell and originally thought, ‘We’ll film this part here and this part there,’ and basically broke it down into so many pieces it would be shot like a Marvel movie, with never any flow or improvisation. Even on Star Wars, they build certain parts of the set and then add huge elements of green screen. And that makes sense. There’s an efficiency to that. But I turned to the producers and said, ‘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 that it feels real.'”
Co-executive producer Bryan Cogman can’t praise the cast and crew highly enough and teases the sheer complexity of the whole episode, which is unofficially dubbed ‘The Long Night’ at this point:
“What we have asked the production team and crew to do this year truly has never been done in television or in a movie. This final face-off between the Army of the Dead and the army of the living is completely unprecedented and relentless and a mixture of genres even within the battle. There are sequences built within sequences built within sequences. David and Dan [wrote] an amazing puzzle and Miguel came in and took it apart and put it together again. It’s been exhausting but I think it will blow everybody away.”
The article also teases that one of the three episodes David Nutter helmed this season is the episode immediately preceding this and it’s a “calm-before-the-storm entry that might surprise viewers with its play-like intimacy”. Meanwhile, the showrunners themselves helmed the mysterious series finale which will go to air on May 19th.
“Game of Thrones” returns for its final season on April 14th.