G.O.T. Milked

Molly isn’t a Game of Thrones character, but with one brilliant blue eye and one gloomy brown, she looks like she should be. As she sashays from room to room of the show’s sprawling costume department at Painthall Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland, she seems largely disinterested by the forest of outfits that surrounds her. She’s been around too long to still be impressed by the hundreds of bodices, jerkins, gowns, mantels and cloaks. The dozens of heavy Wildling costumes bending the clothing rails? She sniffs at them and moves on.

In fact, Molly seems more interested in me, a visitor to this vast world of make-believe; I am foreign and unusual, she is the on-set dog and it seems my shoes hold more wonder than the garments of George RR Martin’s universe.

I’m visiting in mid-October, halfway through the production of the fourth series. By this stage, there’s not much need to create things from scratch, a cosmopolitan group of designers instead making changes and alterations, most with wacky haircuts and earphones buried deep in their trendy skulls. This is a sweatshop populated by happy hipsters. I’m told their Halloween parties are staggering.

They have a vital role in making a project long-thought unproducible look convincing on screen. Martin had been a moderately successful TV writer, but was often told that his ideas were too big and impractical for film. He decided to leave the business to a write a series of epic fantasy books, creating a universe unbound by earthly constraints. The result was Tolkien-esque: huge, complex tomes that borrowed enough familiar ideas (dragons, giants, warring clans) to be popular, while creating a mythology all of its own.

That the costume department is so enormous is testament to the show’s dedication to creating everything Martin imagined. Every house, every race, every lord and lady – each stitch for all of them is made here before being sent out to sets in Croatia, Iceland or other parts of Northern Ireland, Game of Thrones’ spiritual home. They have to make costumes that reflect seasons, ceremony and battle, but whatever the occasion, they have to be practical. In a show with such an eye-popping number of sex scenes (there were apparently 4.2 boobs per episode over the first two seasons) some garments have to be able to come off in a hurry, but mostly they have to be suited to fighting.

Tousle-haired bastard and ladies’ favourite Jon Snow knows this better than most. For three years now, he’s been swinging swords, saving puppies and breaking hearts in costumes tailored in Belfast. But while Jon is generally a picture of grim, occasionally dull, determination, today Kit Harington, the man charged with playing him on screen, is worried.

Harington doesn’t have his glasses. He doesn’t have his contact lenses either. This would be inconvenient at the best of times, but this morning it’s a potential disaster as Jon Snow must train new recruits to the Night’s Watch in Castle Black. The set is in a disused quarry in Magheramorne just outside of Belfast; his eyesight is somewhere back in the city.

“I’m basically fighting blind,” he tells me between takes and puffs on a cigarette. It’s extremely strange to see Kit Harington like this: he undoubtedly looks like Jon Snow and his leather jerkin appears suitably battle-worn, but the distinctly southern English accent, the occasional squinting for focus and the ciggy are definitely not part of Westeros. I’m not sure I like it.

But Kit Harington, handsome and charming, is a pretty magnetic character, far easier to like than the dullard Jon Snow. He looks at me intently when I’m asking questions, and continues to do so when answering them. He’s interested, not aloof, and at this stage in his career he still doesn’t mind talking about the small stuff. Like many of Game of Thrones’ gargantuan ensemble cast, this isn’t just Harington’s first HBO show – it’s his first major work of any kind. Unsurprisingly, in the early days he was nervous. He had to double check where to stand and found it hard to get used people touching his face and hair between takes, especially when he had to wear a wig. “I hated the wigs. Now it’s pure Harington hair – I never knew it would be curly. Everyone says [he puts on an American accent] ‘Oh I love your hair…’” He shrugs and smiles. “And this is my first beard too – I didn’t know if I could grow one.”

Perhaps one day he’ll become an unbearable prima donna as his fame inevitably increases, but for now, he’s unabashedly enthusiastic and grateful for his unlikely opportunity. “I’ve had it before where I’ve been walking along the street and someone has come up and said: ‘You know nothing you bastard!’ And I’m next to a friend who hasn’t seen the show and they say: ‘Are you gonna take that?’ And I’m there saying [he offers his hand with a smile]: “’Well, thank you very much.’” Ah Kit Harington – never change.

But already he’s finding he has to. These days, to walk around Belfast in peace he wears that lovely hair in a bun and tries not to forget his presently absent glasses as a kind of disguise. Next year Pompeii, his first full-length feature, will make him even more recognisable. From the trailers it seems his character spends as much time fighting as Jon Snow, but prefers to do so bare-chested. In preparation for this exposure, he spent months while Game of Thrones was dormant working out and eating, packing on as much muscle as possible. It didn’t go unnoticed by the show’s creators David Beinhoff and Dan Weiss.

“I came off Pompeii and back into this, but at the beginning of the season you see I’m quite frail,” says Harington, referring to Jon limping back into Castle Black riddled with arrows loosed by his jilted Wildling lover Ygritte.  “I had to buff up for the movie so I came back quite muscly. But when I looked at the script it said ‘Jon Snow looks frail and weak, as though he hasn’t been working out for months.’”

But what of this year? What’s next for everyone’s favourite bastard? Harington, like everyone involved with the production is sworn (and contractually bound) to secrecy. He’ll only commit to fairly vague statements like “I honestly think this is our biggest season yet” and “There’s a lot more fight stuff this year” and “I fucking love Sigur Ros,” in reference to the Icelandic band’s upcoming cameo in the show.

Will he be told he knows nothing again? “You might hear it, you might not.”

Does he worry about being killed off? “Well as long as it’s a good death.”

What would that be? “I dunno, but something epic, taking out a dragon maybe.”

Before I have a chance to press him for more, Harington is rushed back into Castle Black for more sword-play. Did he smile at me before he turned away? Maybe. I hope so.

On the conditions of absolute silence and discretion, I’m also invited into the castle to watch the show being filmed. I’m directed to a small wooden gallery overlooking the courtyard where I can scribble notes and try not to giggle every time one of the Night’s Watch does something cool.

Today the director is Michelle MacLaren, director of 12 episodes of Breaking Bad as well as four of Game of Thrones. Below, the scene is one of bustle and preparation. If I had to guess – no one will actually tell me – I’d say Castle Black was making ready to be attacked. Men stuff archery dummies with hay, others carry timber hither and yon, Jon Snow surveys the scene. Absolutely everyone has a beard.

After the umpteenth take, a man directed to swing a hammer into a mound of dirt tires and beckons me to come down and take over. I signal that I don’t have enough facial hair for the task. He looks glum and starts swinging again. A minute later MacLaren shouts “Cut!” and the props are altered for a different shot. During the break someone hands Kit Harington his missing glasses. He puts them on as though Christ has just delivered him from darkness, then smiles and waves up to the gallery. Hello Kit!

It’s an inconveniently sunny morning in Northern Ireland, so a huge screen has been drafted in to darken the sky. Just outside the castle, an entire wall of the quarry has been spray-painted white to resemble the frozen north of Westeros. And while the castle itself may look like an unsafe fairground ride from the outside, inside it is convincingly mediaeval, solid, impregnable.

When writing duo Beinhoff and Weiss read Martin’s books, they immediately wanted to adapt it for television. It was a big risk. The author is like a balloon salesman, holding a thousand plot strands that float into the sky. The writers had to separate and prepare them for the small screen, choosing which to keep and which to let go. Things were further complicated as Martin hasn’t actually finished writing the series of books yet and that, once a year, he writes an episode of the show.

Yet the project has been an enormous success, making high fantasy cool again for the first time since the Lord of the Rings franchise ended. It’s been nominated for a slew of Emmys every year since its 2011 debut and made stars of its largely unknown, largely British cast.

Part of that success comes from the show’s strategy of using as little computer trickery as possible. Only when they absolutely have to (with Daenerys’s dragons or faces of the White Walkers, for example) do they submit to technology. To this end, back in Belfast, the armoury is as extensive as the costume department. Thousands of weapons have been made for the show – it looks as though an army is quite literally ready for war. And not with fake, light-weight weapons either; everything is made to scale with adequate heft. Weapons master Tommy Dunne explains that most of the actors prefer it that way. “What, even with this claymore?” I ask of an enormous blade the size of a man. “Yeah,” says Dunne with a serious look on his face. “That you’d use for ceremonial beheadings, chopping at the legs of horses, things like that.”

As with the costumes, the attention to detail borders on obsessive, thanks, in part, to the forensic, occasionally frothing analysis the show undergoes from fantasy fans. A slight error can draw pedantic letters and furious messages on unfathomable websites and forums before an episode has even finished airing. But in a way, that pressure provides quality control – no matter how many thousand props are being used by however many hundred actors, the makers of Game of Thrones must strive for authenticity.

Nothing on this scale has ever been done before. HBO’s Rome and Band of Brothers were massive, layered shows, but their casts weren’t so huge, their locations not so varied and extensive. Game of Thrones is the biggest TV show ever created because of the sheer numbers of people and sets involved. And it could run for ten years in total – we might not even be at the halfway point yet.

It has grown to be a behemoth, essential television, requiring more concentration than the average drama. Yet at the start it hardly seemed worth it. Beinhoff and Weiss have conceded that they “made a bunch of mistakes” with the early episodes. Their original pilot was little short of a disaster and is regarded as something of an embarrassment. (Listening to the way people talk about it, I imagine it’s now buried deep in the HBO vault, next to John From Cincinnati and the real reasons for cancelling Deadwood.) When the first edit of the first season came together it was 92 minutes short of its minimum required run time. The New York Times chimed in, saying the network shouldn’t be making the show at all. Across the board things were not going well. Then it started airing, and initially it was hard to believe that Game of Thrones anything more than a group of amateur British actors standing around on a hillside in fancy dress. Back then, people weren’t so sure about Game of Thrones.

However, even in those early episodes, when the actors were still working out their accents and facial hair, there was a butterfly effect in the storytelling. This is a show in which deeds matter –if there is an action there will always be a reaction, even if it is not equal or opposite. Re-watch it and it’s possible to see ominous ripples from the first moments of the first episode. When young Bran Stark was pushed from the tower by Jaime Lannister, it became clear Game of Thrones would not easily be predicted. By the time Bran’s father, Ned, was executed at the end of the first season, viewers didn’t know what would come next. Martin, Beinhoff and Weiss have apparently had no issue with popping their most popular balloons.

“People always talk about the violence, but it’s violence with consequences… it’s not a cartoon,” says John Bradley, better known as Jon Snow’s rotund sidekick Samwell Tarly, when I catch up with him in a Belfast hotel. “If a sword is coming down, you’re going to die [and] your death will mean you’ve left a family or friends behind, people who need you. If Ned Stark had been saved at the last minute it’s a completely different show. He had to die for everything else to happen.”

HBO has become synonymous with award-winning drama, but virtually all of its hit shows have included eye-watering levels of violence. To pick a tiny sample from over the years, there have been rapes and mutilations (Oz), decapitations and eviscerations (Rome) and assassinations and torture (The Sopranos). Game of Thrones has had all of these things (and a notable castration besides) but in HBO’s 17 years of making high-end drama, there has never been anything quite so revolting, so utterly malevolent as the Red Wedding in last season’s penultimate episode, The Rains of Castamere.

At a stroke (several strokes to be precise, mostly aimed at the jugular) four members of the beloved House Stark (three human, one lupine) and dozens of extras were killed in a barbaric ambush at The Twins. It wasn’t just the gallons of blood spurting from the necks and stomachs of so many, but the sheer cruelty of the slaughter, made all the more traumatic by the lecherous gloating of the repugnant Waldo Frey.

In a show that already had viewers feeling unbalanced and unable to predict the future, this was the ultimate demonstration that nothing is sacred and no character, however beloved, is safe. I ask Bradley how the surviving actors coped with the dreadfulness of it all. He pauses to consider it. “It wasn’t only Caitlin, Rob and Talisa leaving the show, but it was Michelle [Fairley], Richard [Madden] and Oona [Chaplin] going as well. When you see that, the finality of it…” He pauses again. Bradley is a student of the show. The cast is divided between those who have read the books and those who have not. Like his friend Kit Harington, Bradley has read every page Martin has published. “People who had been on it since absolute day one weren’t going to be around any more, so it was hard to detach yourself from that in a meaningful way. It was traumatic and a very brave step to get rid of those characters, but you have to trust in George that it’s necessary. These things happen for a reason, nothing is in just for shock value. But I hope people were shocked by it because of the wider reaches of that act.”

Having spent two years dealing with the fallout of Ned Stark’s death, one can only imagine what will happen in the wake of the Red Wedding. If their heads were still attached to their shoulders at the end of the last series, it’s reasonable to assume the major characters will be back this year, at least for a time. Many will have to adapt to survive, but not Tywin Lannister. If anything, the great puppet master will harden his position as the most ruthless man in Westeros. The prospect amuses the actor who plays him, Charles Dance.

“I can’t help but laugh at Tywin, he’s enormous fun,” says Dance with a chuckle that is as foreign as Kit Harington’s cigarette. “There is the usual number of challenges for him and he rises to them in his own inimitable way. You’re in for a treat with season four.”

Unlike the less experienced cast members, the 67-year-old hasn’t looked at the original texts, preferring instead to trust the scripts sent to him each year. “With each successive season I look at what David and Dan are writing and say ‘My God, really?’ Tywin is pretty bloody awful. There was a time when I thought he had some redeeming features but now I think they’re only very superficial ones. He probably feels the cold from time to time, but that’s about it.”

When Dance speaks, I see the levels on my Dictaphone jump, his sonorous voice rippling up the walls and around the ceiling like a creeping fire. He speaks with the same theatrical cadence as Tywin, with a slight irritation and a hint that if I were to ask a particularly stupid question he would have a henchman disembowel me while he examined his nails.

In a universe of make-believe, Tywin’s Machiavellian wickedness is utterly convincing, but a lot of what Dance says is actually rather lovely. He’s never worked on anything so large and elaborate, nor did he think it would be possible for TV to be regarded as equal or even superior to film. He is effusive about Belfast and speaks fondly of his fellow cast, reserving special praise for Maisie Williams (Arya Stark, “It was like working with someone who’d been doing the job for 30 years”) Jack Gleeson (the despicable Joffrey Lannister, “He’s the sweetest guy”) and Peter Dinklage, his on-screen son, Tyrion: “I’m so fond of him, he’s a terrific guy, wonderful to work with, a fantastic actor. I love him dearly and I just have to apologise after every scene – I treat him like shit. It’s awful.”

When it’s time to wrap things up I want to tell this embodiment of evil that he’s nowhere near as scary in real life as I always feared. When I saw Last Action Hero as a ten-year-old, Dance’s bombastic baddie Benedict had scared the shit out of me. Few of his roles in the intervening 20 years – especially Tywin – have done much to ease my suspicions that he is, on some level, a real villain. I stumble over my words trying to explain this to him, but he interrupts with a hearty handshake: “Bugger off you silly sod – I’m an actor.”

Versions of this piece were published in TV Week and Foxtel’s magazine in April 2014.

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