“Game of Thrones” brought out its big guns for Season 4, episode 9, “The Watchers on the Wall.” Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had Neil Marshall, who directed Season 2’s “Blackwater,” return to the show to helm the Battle at Castle Black.
Like the Battle of Blackwater, the Battle of Castle Black was the only “Game of Thrones” plotline to play out during the episode. Marshall essentially directed a short film for “The Watchers on the Wall,” and one that was on the scale of a “Lord of the Rings” movie. Zap2it spoke with Marshall about returning to shoot the most expensive episode of the series, and whether he will be back for another in the future in addition to his work on “Black Sails” and “Constantine.”
Zap2it: This was one of the two shortest episodes this season, clocking in at 51 minutes. What was behind the decision to cut it a bit short?
Neil Marshall: To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that one. I do my cut pretty much right after we film it, and I think my cut came in at like 59 minutes or something like that. Since then, it would be the producer’s cut, the network’s cut. So I don’t know, honestly. From what I could tell, there certainly wasn’t anything dramatically missing.
So no larger scenes cut?
No, there were no missing scenes. I think stuff was being tightened up.
At what point did you know that you would be back to shoot the Battle of Castle Black, and that it also would be the single storyline of the episode?
It was quite early in the year, because I shot it last October. They contacted me maybe early May  and said that they would like me to come back and that they had a huge battle for me to do, and I started going for visits to Belfast to start early prep pretty much June/July, and kept on going backwards and forwards to see how the sets were coming along and see how storyboards were coming along, and finally went over there in mid-September, and it’s four weeks prep and went right into the filming. That’s a lot of prep for a TV show, but we needed every moment of it because it’s so huge. Mainly to work on the pre-visualization of the mammoths, which was always going to be the most logistical and complicated part of it.
My favorite shot of the entire episode was the tracking shot around the interior of Castle Black. Was that the most difficult shot of the episode?
Actually, I came up with that shot as soon as I walked onto the Castle Black set, which was a 360-degree set. I knew we were going to be doing battle, and I just said I want to do a camera movement that takes us all around Caste Black. Initially it was like, “Well, what’s the movement and what’s the point of it?” And then I figured out, what a great way to link all the characters together and show where they are at that particular point in the battle and kind of bring it full circle. I planned it out, we rehearsed it for an hour, and then we got it in seven takes.
Yeah, only seven takes. We all gave each other a big round of applause when we got it, because it was like, “Yup, it’s great. Move on.” We could have spent all day on it, but it would have lost its energy, and we didn’t have time in the schedule to do it. We got it in seven takes, and I’m so, so proud of it. I think it’s my favorite shot that I’ve ever done. That ultimately proved to be quite easy to do.
The stuff involving the mammoth and the giants, that was very difficult because we didn’t have a mammoth. And our giants, although they’re real guys, we still have to shoot them against green screen because the two actors playing them, one is 7-foot and the other one is nearly 8-foot tall, and they’re still only half the size of the giants. So we have to shoot our Wildlings on location. They’re regular-sized people in a regular location. And then we have to shoot our giants against green screen, and we double them up in size on the computer and incorporate them into the live action. And then the mammoth itself is entirely CGI, so then that goes in last.
The main thing is you have to make sure there’s room for them to fit in. What we had was we had this green metal framework thing, very lightweight, but it was roughly the same size of the mammoth, and we had four guys, one on each leg, in green lycra suits. They would have to run around in amongst all these Wildlings to represent where the mammoth was going to go, and the Wildlings would interact with this big green thing. Then we take that out of the shot and leave a big space, and we put the mammoth into the shot there. It’s complicated and it’s very time-consuming, but it seems to be very effective.
Was there a specific reason why you didn’t show Grenn’s fight with the giant?
That was not my choice. That was from the scripts. I actually think it’s kind of nice doing it that way. I think it would have been a very difficult fight to conceive, in some respects. In some respects, it’s nice to leave it to the imagination knowing that he’s going to do this heroic thing, and it’s a great way to finish that scene where they’re doing the oath of the Night’s Watch and the giant’s smashing into the gates, and leave it there and come back and find them all dead. I don’t know, I thought that was more powerful than had we actually seen it.
Coming off “Blackwater,” was there anything you learned shooting that for “Game of Thrones” that you applied to this episode?
Just about the use of extras, the use of the sets. We were filming in very similar conditions; it was usually pouring with rain and freezing cold and it was in the mud, so there’s a lot of lessons learned from “Blackwater” on that front. But then the other thing is just dealing with a whole other set of characters, a whole other set of situations and battles and things like that, so every episode brings its new challenges. It’s different. You’re never doing the same thing twice. It may seem like it because it’s a battle, but the logistics of that battle are so totally different.
How did you find the balance between portraying the Wildlings as villains but also people the audience is connected to and don’t necessarily want to see killed?
It’s something I learned while I was making “Centurion,” because that deals with things in a very similar way. I told the story from the Romans’ point of view, who were the invading army, and the supposed villains were actually just people defending their homeland. You got to see both sides of the story, and it got to be more shades of gray than black and white. I was very fascinated by that idea.
I think this is very similar that when you understand the grievance of the Wildlings and you’ve spent some time with them, then you get to appreciate their side of it. Maybe not sympathize, maybe not agree with it, but you certainly appreciate their side of the story. We inherently support the Night’s Watch because they’re outnumbered, they’re the underdogs and they’re doing what they do to the death. There’s honor on both sides, but there’s also kind of dishonor as well. There are some unpleasant characters in the Night’s Watch, and there’s also some unpleasant characters amongst the Wildlings. Certainly Styr and stuff like that are more ruthless and decidedly cold-blooded killers. But we know there’s something more to Ygritte than being a savage.
Did you conceive more ideas for how to shoot Ygritte’s death scene than the one that played out on screen?
We went through some different ideas about how to play the scene, but the scene itself was always going to be what we had. It was mainly the moment where Jon first sees Ygritte and how he responds to her. We tried it two ways: One where he kind of saw her and he was in shock, and one where he sees her and kind of lets out this strained smile because, regardless of everything that’s happened, he’s actually relieved to see her. That’s the one that I liked best, and that’s the one that we ended up using. It’s a very subtle little moment. Even though she’s aiming this arrow at him and she’s already shot him before, he can’t help but be pleased to see her.
Episode 9 has always been known as the biggest episode of each season in “Game of Thrones.” Did that present a challenge coming into “The Watchers on the Wall”?
It certainly was a challenge, but it was something that I absolutely embraced. I know that episode 9 of last season created quite a stir, and it was a tough act to follow — and “Blackwater” was a tough act to follow as well. I just wanted to deliver something that would have its own impact in its own way.
In this series, there’s another big battle coming up a season or two down the road. Is that something that you would be interested in coming back and shooting in the manner that you did this and “Blackwater”?
Oh, I’d love to be their go-to person for battles on “Game of Thrones.” That would do nicely. Yeah. [laughs]
Also, a fan insisted that I ask you when we are getting “Doomsday 2.”
[laughs] I wish, I really do. I don’t know. Unless there’s some huge campaign on behalf of that, I don’t see it ever coming to life sadly. I have plenty of ideas for “Doomsday 2.” I don’t know that there’s a big enough audience out there.
Would it be a straight sequel? Or maybe even a TV show?
It could be a TV show. It could certainly be a TV show. I think it could be a good TV show, yeah.