'Game of Thrones' director Alex Graves on filming Joffrey's wedding
Alex Graves is one of television's best directors, having jumped from "The West Wing" to be a sought-after director of pilots like "Fringe" and "Terra Nova." Last year, he joined the "Game of Thrones" directing rotation and made an immediate impression with his debut episodes, "And Now His Watch Is Ended" (which concludes with Daenerys leading a slave uprising in Astapor) and "Kissed by Fire" (which features Jaime's intimate confession to Brienne in the bathhouse).
He returned to the series with last night's "The Lion and the Rose" (I reviewed it here), which features perhaps the longest single scene in the show's history as well as one of its most pivotal story points. Spoilers for that, and then a long discussion with Graves about what went into directing both this episode and "Game of Thrones" in general, coming up just as soon as we give all the leftover food to the dogs...
So, as you know if you watched last night's episode, the entire second half of "The Lion and the Rose" was taken up with the wedding reception for the sadistic King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), which featured a large chunk of the show's cast interacting, having fun, making threats and then eventually becoming uncomfortable with Joffrey's taunting of his uncle Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), then stunned when Joffrey keels over from death by poison. Here's me and Graves to talk it out.
The second half of this episode is essentially one long scene, albeit with all these little vignettes between different subsets of characters. What was your reaction to getting this assignment, and how did you want to approach that, given that this is a show that's usually very piecemeal?
Alex Graves: I knew I was going to do it when I got the outline, and I knew I was going to do it about a month before I officially started a full prep. And yet when I got the script, I had no idea it would wind up being a 32-page scene. Obviously, I was thrilled and completely intimidated to be handling his death, and also Jack's exit — just because Jack is such a beloved person on the show that, as was the case with the Red Wedding, you need to be sure you pull off everything on camera and off. We started planning, and we had to plan the entire wedding ceremony in the Sept of Baelor, the entire wedding reception with hundreds of people. The set direction and production design, the whole production knocked it out of the park; they're some of the most talented people I've ever worked with. And then you have in 32 pages, 18 scenes that are all part of one scene, that I basically was just ripping off Robert Altman and moving from vignette to vignette to vignette. Because you're never really sure why you're greeting everybody. The show tends to be so focused, and yet I knew I had to take these slow-building vignettes and build up a sense that something's wrong, and there's a suspense to it. So you assume that when Joffrey starts to humiliate Tyrion, it's what I've been building towards. And I wanted to gear it towards "something is going to happen to Oberyn Martell, Sansa or Tyrion," and misdirect the audience.
Is it easier or harder to do a sequence like this as opposed to an episode where you're in one location for five minutes, the next for 10, and on and on?
Alex Graves: You don't compare it to other things, because you're just reading the text in terms of what should this be. For me, I'm always trying to visualize what I experienced the first time I read it, emotionally. Where you go, "Oh, wow, Cersei and Brienne, that's fantastic." And, "What the hell? It's a dwarf show!" And the shock of it. I was always trying to hold onto that first experience.
You mentioned Cersei and Brienne, and when I interviewed Dan and Dave before the season, they said one of the things they liked about the sequence was that it allowed them to put together characters like those two who had never met before, and you had actors who hadn't worked together before, and in some cases may not have met. What was it like on the set, all these new pairings?
Alex Graves: It was a real blast, because they're all really wonderful. We were in Croatia, and everyone was excited about what they'd be doing next. It was really fun for them. I think Lena (Headey) and Gwen (Christie) were totally giddy that they got to do a scene after we all know, and Cersei presumes, that Brienne and Jaime have — whether you'd call it "love" or not — a very strong connection.
How many days did it take to film the reception, and what percentage of the episode production was that?
Alex Graves: We shot that scene for five days. I shot four episodes over 101 days, so I can't tell you how many days that episode actually shot, because it was all mixed up through the 101 days.
What was the atmosphere on the set like for Joffrey's death scene? Was that actually Jack's last day of filming, or did he have more to do?
Alex Graves: No. The line producers, as usual, were brilliant, in that they scheduled it so that he had more work in Belfast after that. So I followed their lead and scheduled the shooting of his death to be the day before we were done in the sequence in Croatia. So basically, we killed Jack, checked the gate, went home and came back the next day to do more shooting with him alive. And it actually took some of the pain out of it, because we could joke around about it. We had a lot of fun, and there were some laughing fits while we were doing the choking. Certainly, whenever Jack said, "This pie is dry," Lena and Peter could not keep themselves together — they would burst out laughing every time he said it. So everybody managed to make it fun and pleasant. It's hard for it not to be fun and pleasant, because in a cast of incredibly nice, professional people, he's actually the nicest and most professional. He's amazing.