Game of Thrones: The Last Watch highlights what it takes to make one of the greatest TV shows of all time
Game of Thrones: The Last Watch shines a light on the organised chaos that goes into making of a TV series of this magnitude.
In Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, a documentary on the making of the HBO fantasy epic's eighth and final season, filmmaker Jeanie Finlay follows Vladimir Furdik — the stuntman-turned-Night King actor — around set.
Furdik talks about his life: growing up in Czechoslovakia, being a stuntman for 33 years, always in the background, until he was asked if he wanted to be the Night King. In the sequence where he shoots the Long Night, Furdik expresses how confusing it can seem to be part of the crew and the cast at the same time — not knowing quite where you belong. Later, as he guides the actors Rory McCann (the Hound) and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (the Mountain) individually through their moves for "Cleganebowl" (the episode 5 sequence that had the Clegane brothers face off in a crumbling Red Keep), he speaks of how as a stuntman he could not have had too long a career, but as a choreographer, he can go on and on.
In Spain, where the crew is filming the Dragonpit scene (where Tyrion's trial takes places and Bran's kingship is conferred), Kit Harington (on set purely as a decoy, along with certain other cast members) drives in at a Seville hotel. To the waiting fans who call out "Keet, Keet", Harington waves and blows kisses before heading inside. Furdik, taking a smoke break, wonders how surreal it must be, to receive so much attention and adulation on a day-to-day basis. Then, he walks out to the crowd, and asks if they recognise him. As the fans pose for selfies with him and get him to sign posters, Furdik lifts his arms in the now iconic gesture of the Night King raising the dead, and the crowd cheers and performs the same action.
Back in the studio at Belfast, he shoots his final scene: plummeting off Viserion's back during the Battle of Winterfell. In the greenroom, taking off his prosthetic makeup and costume and back in his regular avatar, he looks to the camera and says, emotions tightly under check, "Back to normal".
Back to normal.
It's a sentiment the actor Andrew (Andy) McClay — who's been an extra on the show for several seasons now (playing the soldier Aberdale Strongbeard) expresses after his last shot. Setting down his sword and taking off his armour after having been part of Jon Snow's "honour guard" — among the few Stark soldiers who nearly get into a skirmish with the Unsullied, as Jon protests Grey Worm's execution of Lannister prisoners — McClay quips, "Just back to normal life now."
Fans of Game of Thrones — with an average of 43 million tuning in for each episode of this eighth season — have probably been feeling the same way for just about a week now. 'The Iron Throne' aired on 19/20 May, wrapping up the storylines for characters we had followed since 2011 — and a world that was a stunningly realised vision of George RR Martin's words. The Last Watch shows you what it's been like for those who worked on bringing this vision to life, and what it has meant to say goodbye.
While we get some of the big stars — Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, director David Nutter, executive producer Bernadette Caulfield — for the most part, it is the-near invisible cogs in the wheel that The Last Watch focuses on. The art department, the hair and makeup teams, the prosthetics crew, the location manager who makes sure everything is in its right place at the right time, the "head of snow" whose job it is to direct the most cunning use of paper and water to give the North its wintry atmosphere, the caterers who keep this floating population fed and caffeinated.
Along the way we see how the crew builds a King's Landing set in seven months, only to have it destroyed by "dragonfire" within two days as per the demands of the script. We see a whole army of extras performing their sequences against a giant green screen, working over 55 nights, to shoot the Battle of Winterfell. Charred bodies, dismembered heads, grisly wounds are all created in the most realistic fashion possible, and there are intense discussions over whether or not a particular costume will allow one of the extra's hands to be chopped off (as required) during a particular scene, or if the wights in the Winterfell crypts look mummified enough. Meanwhile, some of the horses have a pink dye on them (fake blood from the previous night's shoot that couldn't be washed off). It's all a day's work (or night's) on the Game of Thrones sets.
Most of The Last Watch is set around the Titanic Studios on Belfast, Ireland. This is where a major portion of the Game of Thrones season 8 shoot takes place, although there are very brief forays into Dubrovnik in Croatia (which usually serves as King's Landing), Seville in Spain (for the Dragonpit scene), and Iceland (far North/ lands beyond the Wall). Apart from Titanic Studios, there is Magheramorne Quarry, where the Battle of Winterfell was shot, as have been other major battle sequences like Blackwater Bay, Hardhome. And another location close by, for the Castle Black set.
At Titanic Studios, we get the full benefit of the behind the scenes treatment. Bernadette Caulfield and the other producers sit in tiny offices and pore over the endless flowcharts and colour-coordinated schedules that help them keep track of what's what. It is here that we see the cast sit down for their season 8 script reading with showrunners Benioff and Weiss. They run through a few scenes with producer Bryan Cogman: Jorah Mormont's death (Iain Glen sits stoically through this part), Arya killing the Night King (there is a whoop of cheers around the table at that), Varys' execution (Conleth Hill consoles a teary Lena Headey), and Kit Harington breaks down when the scene where Jon Snow murders Daenerys Targaryen is read out. There's even a small flashback to the time when there were far more actors in the room during the first-ever script reading: Jason Momoa and Richard Madden and everyone else who was cut off along the way.
The first day of filming, Emilia Clarke is in for her wig fitting by 4 am. The scene being shot is of Daenerys being introduced to Sam in the Winterfell library by Jorah Mormont, and Sam then finding out that his father and brother have both been executed after the Battle of the Goldroad.
Other days, other scenes being filmed. The actors are guided through their bits; and all the while this ceaseless, seamless machinery is in motion around them — shaping almost magically what we see on screen.
At one time, we hear a crewmember articulate the scale of the task: Each episode, she points out, "is as much work as one feature film — but with a lot less money and time".
Lost in the spectacle of what unfolds on screen, it is easy to forget what it took to get there. The Last Watch shines a light on the organised chaos that goes into making of a TV series of this magnitude. It brings forward so many human stories — the domestic and health issues or the hardscrabble existences or the crises that people who worked on Game of Thrones have shrugged aside to be able to continue doing their jobs.
It doesn't always feel like the most well-defined or tightly narrated viewing experience, but The Last Watch certainly humanises the Game of Thrones experience. In choosing the stories it highlights, it makes as much of a well-deserved hero out of an Andy McClay as it does of a Kit Harington/Emilia Clarke or David Nutter or his assistant Patrick Strapazon, or Bernie Caulfield.
The Last Watch tries to capture what Game of Thrones has meant to so many people all over the world, and what a labour of love it has been for those involved in its making. It also highlights the once-in-a-lifetime nature of this experience, something these folks are all well aware of. You can tell how glad they all are to have been part of it, how bittersweet this ending is. How close they've grown. How difficult it will be to move on.
As the credits roll, we see Andy McClay leading a Game of Thrones tour through Belfast, pointing out locations of interest and the scenes they corresponded to. With him are a busload of fans, many wearing t-shirts with the show's logo. They're here for their pop culture pilgrimage. More will continue to come.
It may be time to get "back to normal" but surely a trip back, now and then, can't hurt?
Game of Thrones: The Last Watch premieres in India on Star World at 8 pm on 28 May, Tuesday. It is also available to stream on Hotstar Premium.
The first four episodes of the series will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on 15 October with new episodes will dropping weekly, leading up to the season finale on 12 November.
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