"Game of Thrones" director David Nutter is no stranger to tackling some of George R. R. Martin's book series' most shocking moments -- after all, he helmed the Red Wedding episode, "The Rains of Castamere," back in season three.
But when Nutter was given the task of bringing Sunday night's (June 7) episode, "The Dance of Dragons," to life, he had to deal with both a jaw-dropping, straight-from-the-book adaptation, as well as a brand new, sure to be controversial scene involving the death of a child.
MTV News caught up with Nutter over the phone after the episode, to find out what it was like to direct the "Game of Thrones" episode with literally the highest high -- and of course, the lowest low.
MTV News: "Game of Thrones" has become famous for its game-changing episode nines, but the biggest battle of the season actually happened during eight this year. Did you guys see this as being in line with other episode nines, or did you discuss approaching this season differently?
David Nutter: The Red Wedding was, for myself as a director doing this, such a mammoth experience. But then, being given this season five, episode nine was about ten times bigger than that. It was quite a gargantuan task... both the camera crews and the people behind the scenes made it happen; made it unbelievable.
MTV: Did you always know you’d keep the camera off Shireen, or was there some debate about that?
Nutter: I spent a lot of time with Dave [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] in pre-production, and got great guidance from them. But also too, they gave me a lot of freedom to do the things that I wanted to do, to tell the story visually -- so we had a great partnership on that front, which was really wonderful. With respect to the killing of Shireen, what was most important was the pain on the faces of the people who put her in that situation; how it eventually touched them, and how they reacted.
MTV: I’m guessing you didn’t know when you shot it that they would take a similar route with Sansa’s assault just a few weeks before. How did it feel seeing that; knowing that your similarly shot big scene was coming?
Nutter: All I know is that what I was doing, what ended up in the episode, felt very appropriate. So to me, dramatically, that’s the place you want to be.
MTV: A lot of the discussion yesterday was about what this means for Stannis moving forward – he was always more of an ambiguous character. As a director, how do you think this changes Stannis' characterization?
Nutter: Everyone’s trying to make their mind up about who he is. I fall back to the adage of, judge people by what they do, not what they say. Everything Stannis has done has led to this stuff that’s happening now, and it’s a pretty clear path in terms of where he’s headed, and what he’s willing to give up and to sacrifice for it. So it’s a situation where I’ve been judging by his actions, and what takes him to the next step is quite a self-evolving adventure.
MTV: How was the mood on set that day compared with, say, the Red Wedding? Was it different, killing off a child?
Nutter: I think it’s a situation where we all knew what we were trying to portray -- we’re very sensitive to that. I needed to make sure I was prepared as possible, so that the actors weren't just sitting around waiting for stuff to happen... It was a cold day, and I wanted to make sure that Kerry, who plays Shireen, did not get cold.
Also, I made it very clear to all of the extras and even the secondary players what was going on, and what they’d been through to get to that situation, so it was on me to make sure what they knew what they were reacting to, and the heinous nature of what was going on. I think a lot of Stannis’ own soldiers were disgusted by where this had taken them... many of them had looks on their faces like they didn’t sign up for this. I think that was very self-evident. The actors were very aware of what was going on, and understood the massive importance that this had to be done in a sensitive manner. It was important for them to relate; to sell the madness and the terror of it all.
MTV: So... darker than the Red Wedding?
Nutter: It was as dark as anything I’d ever done, yes.
MTV: This season has featured a lot of "women in peril" plot lines, largely written and directed by men. With scenes like Arya in the brothel and Shireen's death, is extra attention paid to adding female input behind the scenes?
Nutter: I think that the extensive cast and crew of the show... there are a lot of women and men involved in every aspect of the show. Also, what’s important is guys can be sensitive, too, and Dave and Dan have understood -- with respect to the direction of the show and where it’s going this year -- that it was important that they explore these particular avenues with some of the female characters that needed some more in-depth storytelling. They were very open to, and very interested in... displaying each of those characters’ strengths and their courage, and their weaknesses.
MTV: Moving on to Daenerys... you were given a very daunting task bringing that to life. What did you think when you first found out that this scene was yours, and looking at the final product, what stylistic decisions are you most proud of.
Nutter: Whenever I get any of the “Game of Thrones” scripts, it’s always like, “oh my God, how am I going to do this?” It’s a sort of performance anxiety about being able to do a good job. So that’s the first thing on my plate. The second part is like building a pyramid -- it’s preparation, preparation, preparation.
It’s very important for me, especially for something that is conceived as a riot... is making sure the audience never gets confused about what is happening. It’s easy to just show a lot of stuff out there and have them not know who’s who or what’s what or where they’re headed and what’s the direction of the sequences. So that, to me, is a very important part of the story, to keep the geographical direction of the scene clear so the audience can follow the scene with their heart. And with that, of course, making sure as much as possible to play with the intimacy of the characters, and what they’re going through emotionally in those sequences, and getting the camera in their to sell the close-ups, and sell the turmoil that each of the characters is going through in their own special way.
MTV: Was the touching moment with Missandei in the script, or was that something you added in the moment?
Nutter: That was something that I had talked to, quite extensively, Dan and Dave about. David Benioff and I refer to it as [Dany's] Cleopatra moment. She knew that this was the end; she was going to hold her head high and accept what her fate was... that was a real act break in the multiple acts of the sequence itself.
MTV: What's the biggest challenge, acting with a giant dragon? Is Emilia Clarke just used to it by now?
Nutter: She’s quite amazing... it’s a lot of holding up puppets and tether balls high in the air, and saying “this is happening now, that’s happening there,” so there’s a lot of yelling, and telling the crowd what to look at and where their eyes should be headed towards...
My team and the visual effects team -- which is outstanding, of course -- understood, for instance, the talons that she’s grabbing, and how that’s going to be interfaced with her hands, so that was all worked out ahead of time in pre-visual effects and storyboarding, which we were all involved in. Each step of the process there’s a way to do it, a way to make sure that Emilia’s clear about what’s happening and where she’s headed. And once she gets it in her head, she’s fantastic.
MTV: Finally, you directed next week's finale as well, and without spoiling too much, there's a big moment for Cersei on the horizon. How did you approach this daunting, almost sexually charged scene?
Nutter: All of these actors, and everyone involved in the show... they signed up for this show and what it’s really all about. The books help to guide the show, as well as outline where Dave and Dan are going. This is what [Lena Headey] signed up for, and everyone understood really well where it was headed.
So it’s a situation where there’s an outline and a ground plan for all of this, which is really good to have. Dave and Dan have been able to -- so brilliantly -- forge in new directions where the books have not headed yet, and create their own bible that they’re building on as well. There’s never been any question about what their thoughts are, and so forth, because they’re such amazing storytellers. [Cersei's scene] was not so much a “why is this happening," it was more of a “how are we going to do this; and how are we going to physically portray this to make it digitally arresting?”