‘Game of Thrones’ Director on Ghost’s Departure, Brienne’s Collapse

This article contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Season 8 of “Game of Thrones.”

Barack Obama once teasingly told the director David Nutter that he had killed off all of his favorite characters on “Game of Thrones.”

No wonder, since this is the man who oversaw the slaughter of the Starks at the Red Wedding, the burning of Shireen and the Night’s Watch’s murder of Jon Snow. Nutter’s installments during the final season of “Game of Thrones” — Episodes 1, 2 and 4 — have been a little less violent, focusing on classic character reunions and goodbyes.

During a phone interview on Monday, Nutter shared what insights he gave the actors to help make these moments so special. Following are edited excerpts.

[Read our recap of Season 8, Episode 4.]

So a lot of fans were upset that Ghost didn’t get so much as a goodbye pet. I’m guessing that was a CGI issue …

Very much so. It’s all about how to balance that all out, and making sure it’s done properly, and reminding you of the characters and what’s at stake and what’s happening at any particular moment. Jon saying goodbye to the direwolf was so very powerful and rich because of the actors. They’ve spent many years doing this, and it’s the culmination of their characters in some respects, so it’s manipulating how much you want to give them. All that kind of stuff, we play with. It’s about finding the best idea and being able to rally around whatever that idea is.

“Game of Thrones” actors have said you bring out something unexpected from their performance by giving them a fresh insight or a new take. Can you share any of the notes you gave actors over the years that shaped their overall performance?

Sure! When I first started on the show, Rory McCann, who plays the Hound, was someone who had a lot of promise. He was fantastic, but he had some issues with his performance. He hadn’t done a whole lot of acting. So I basically sat down with him, sat down across the table from him, and we read through a couple of sequences together. Ten minutes later, I looked at him and I said, “O.K., here’s the deal. Stop acting. Just say the words like Clint Eastwood would say them.” Once he started to do that, at that point, it was basically all done.

Sometimes, when actors reach out to their characters, they’re nowhere in sight. They need to find something inside of them. And then the characters are right there. As a director, I want them to find the character that’s already inside them, instead of trying to manufacture or manipulate or make something up. That’s not really honest or true.

What about something from Season 8?

One thing I did this season was tell Sophie Turner about how Sansa should interact with Dany. There was a bit of trepidation about it, because they have a big scene where they meet in Episode 1, but they’re also facing off as well. I had to remind Sophie to think of Winterfell as Sansa’s house: This is her house that Dany’s coming into. I wanted to give her all the confidence in the world, so she could give back as well as she got, and not be intimidated in any way. I think she did a really tremendous job of doing that.

There may be a sequence where one person sees another person, and I’ll have the actor say something that’s not scripted that might be more akin to the emotional state the character is in. That can sometimes surprise the other actor.

What’s an example of that?

One I thought worked very well was in Sunday’s episode. I told Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau] that when Jaime is telling Brienne about how everything he’s done, he’s done for Cersei. And as he was saying his lines, we went into Brienne’s close-up, Gwendoline Christie’s close-up, and there was a moment where she is just watching him, at the very end. And I walked over to Nikolaj and I said, “The last thing I want you to tell her is that you don’t love her anymore.” And of course, he was essentially saying this to her anyway, in some respect, but she didn’t expect to hear it directly. Gwendoline didn’t expect that moment, and she just lost it. It was something very special. Sometimes surprising an actor in a good way like that can actually create a response you’re not expecting. And with those two, they’re very close as well, so I knew something like that would affect her character as well.

What about the final moments between Tyrion and Cersei, when he’s trying to appeal to her better nature?

I think there’s a moment where Tyrion is trying to touch Cersei’s sense of being a mother, her real love for her family and her children. That really affects her, in a very strong way. There was a sequence we shot with Lena Headey and Pilou Asbaek where he basically leaves her alone in the room, and all I said to Lena was, “He leaves you, and we’re just going to hang on to you for a long time, and I want you to have a chance to, in a sense, validate what you just did, and be disgusted by what you just did.” And it was a shot used in one of the trailers from the episode. It was one of the longest shots in the sequence, where you saw the door close, and you saw her go through this range of emotions in about three seconds, which I thought was quite exceptionally powerful and really special.

That’s when Euron Greyjoy discovers Cersei’s pregnant with what he presumes is his child. There is a very subtle moment when Tyrion is talking to Cersei and he mentions that pregnancy, and Euron gives Cersei a look like, “How on earth would he know about this?”

Right! The acting is so incredible that the thing about directing is really just to give them the space to do their thing, and create a setting where they can use their own natural instincts. And also so very much of what I do as a director is handled by the amazing editing on the show. They’re master magicians at knowing where exactly to hit the note, and how to play it beautifully.

Emilia Clarke’s reactions in this episode run the gamut, especially as you help set the stage for Dany’s Mad Queen vibes.

There’s really the sense that her character is getting a sense of isolation. Realizing that Jorah Mormont is no longer there. That moment of overhearing Tormund talking about how Jon is a king because he jumped on a dragon and fought with a dragon, when she’s done that multiple times and she’s not being recognized for it. I think it’s an interesting reference point for her character to deal with. And also seeing Jon after the feast, there’s really a situation where we see how that affected her, and her desperation to make Jon listen to her, and to not be such an angel.

I think by the end of that sequence, she has a real sense of determination that is so important and powerful, but also one note, so that when we see Varys and Tyrion in the map room, and they’re begging her to not really do what she’s doing, she has an almost calm, cool, collected quality about her: “This is the decision I’ve made. This is how it’s going to be. This is my calling.” And I thought that was a much scarier way of protesting, rather than getting hysterical or anything like that.

I also wanted to save that ability that Emilia has, to use her face to morph into different shapes and phases, for the end of the episode, to reflect how her character feels. There is an anger that comes out of Emilia, out of Dany’s character, at the end of this episode that I’ve never seen out of Dany before. I’m actually quite scared about what she’s going to do next!

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