The last ever episode of Game of Thrones aired on the 20th of May in India and we just can’t cope. After a maniacal week of discussions, dissecting the events that took place, the could-have-beens and the should-have-beens, the bones have been buried to rest for now. GOT Season 8, despite its lacunae, was undoubtedly the biggest season yet with no less than two battle sequences, a multitude of deaths of major characters, and some of the most drastic plot trajectories that we had ever seen. Once the ashes of the deplorable script had settled, you could clearly see the labour of love that had gone into the production. HBO’s new documentary The Last Watch takes you behind the scenes to the hundreds of faceless people who worked tirelessly for a decade to make the show possible. Film-maker Jeanie Finlay interacted closely with the various teams involved for over a year, getting to know their experience of working on this gargantuan project, the challenges that they faced, the sacrifices that they had to make, and the emotional connect that they had with the show.
Finlay tells her story through candid conversations that she has with the crew members around the various sets spread out from the rainy and freezing Irish weather to the sunny skies of Spain and Croatia. In Belfast where most of the shooting was done in Titanic Studios, including the Battle of Winterfell, Finlay provides glimpses of the everyday challenges that the show’s producers have to tackle with from the logistics of props and equipment, to more creative puzzles like CGI considerations based on how particular characters would need to be portrayed on screen. Things that we take for granted such as Jon not petting Ghost at the end of Episode 4 do actually cut into production time where things would need to be broken down to getting the proportions of the prop right and the CGI team spending hours to get that prop converted into a gigantic dog on screen for a few seconds. Executive Producers Bernie Caulfield Brian Cogman made sure that the thousands of cogs in this intricate wheel worked together day in and day out.
To bring authenticity to the show which was based on medieval Europe, hundreds of costume designers and fitters worked behind the scenes with prosthetics and make-up artists, creating that Westerosi look that we have all come to be familiar with. With multiple battles and long sequences with White-walkers, Season 8 was highly demanding from a practical effects perspective. To authentically recreate a battle scene, one needed dead bodies, mutilated limbs, facial injuries, and lots of blood. Now extrapolate this for two tonally different battle scenes – one with white-walkers where the undead are supposed to rise, filmed in a dark environment, and one in broad daylight where a city is being destroyed by a dragon and the casualties have been burnt to a crisp. Although a lot of the effects would be added in post-production, the basic groundwork still has to be manually laid out by the make-up and prosthetic artists. Makes you appreciate the amount of detailing that goes into making every shot.
As emotional as the end of show would be for everyone, it is all the more emotional for the actors involved who have grown to become a family with each other and the crew. In a table-reading scene where the actors get to read the last outline for the season, finally getting to know the fate of each of the characters they had played for years, it was interesting to see the reactions of various cast-members. Finlay, however, doesn’t dwell on the dynamics of the actors involved. She rather plays the narrative from the perspectives of the extras who had been with the show for a long time playing various roles such as wildlings, bannermen, soldiers, walkers, etc., sometimes all by the same person. Even though they played imaginary roles, the essence of the houses they stood for would inadvertently seep out into the real world.
Many of them felt pride in playing Stark Bannermen which goes to show the power even a fantasy show could have on people. Many of them came from very humble beginnings and becoming a part of this wildly popular show gave them the time of their lives, perhaps the highlight of their careers. Finlay follows Andrew McClay (who had been with the show for five years) through many candid moments as he banters with his fellow extras – “Are you wearing a Bolton sweatshirt ? Get outta here, man!” or try to eat their lunch as delicately as possible so as not to disturb their White-walker make-up. Talking about White-walkers, Finlay also captures behind the scenes footage of our very own Night King as played by Stuntman Vladimir Furdik as he choreographs fight scenes for the Battle of Winterfell, and then shifts gear to get into the garb of the Night King, the only individual on set who has been an actor and crew at the same time.
In the drama that had ensued about the screenwriters not doing justice to the character arcs, we completely dismissed the directors who brought together some of the most cinematic episodes to us yet. Finlay takes us behind the camera to David Nutter (The Red Wedding; S8 – E1, 2 and 4) and Miguel Sapochnik (Battle of the Bastards; S8 – E3 and 5) who collaborated in Season 8 for the last time. In never before seen videos, we see David Nutter explaining his vision for the episode to the crew, handing out his screenplay notes in an old-school style. As you go back and re-watch the scenes just for the production value, you appreciate the nitty-gritty and the nuances that had been portrayed and taken for granted. Miguel Sapochnik, who has given us some of the best battle scenes in the series, gives us some of the most haunting scenes this season in Episode 5 with streets that reminded me of a devastated Warsaw in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Even the last episode that was directed by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had some of the best symbolisms that we had seen yet – with dragon wings shadowing Dany as she walks out of the Red Keep to address her army. Writing aside, Season 8 would remain to be one of the boldest fantasy finales that has ever been filmed.
Seeing the amount of hard-work that has gone into making the last season, the way the show ended makes it even more painful for ardent fans who never got closure. This goes to say how immensely important writing is. You can have the best people working on your project – the best artists, the best actors, the best directors, and yet, if the writing suffers, all that hard-work would find it difficult to justify itself. Having said that, we are indebted to the makers of GOT for bringing Westeros to life exactly as we had imagined it to be from the books, introducing us to the perfect cast, and being so close to perfection.