‘Game of Thrones’ director Alex Graves on filming Joffrey’s wedding

Alex Graves is one of television’s best directors, having jumped from “The West Wing” to be a sought-after director of pilots like “Fringe” and “Terra Nova.” Last year, he joined the “Game of Thrones” directing rotation and made an immediate impression with his debut episodes, “And Now His Watch Is Ended” (which concludes with Daenerys leading a slave uprising in Astapor) and “Kissed by Fire” (which features Jaime’s intimate confession to Brienne in the bathhouse).

He returned to the series with last night’s “The Lion and the Rose” (I reviewed it here), which features perhaps the longest single scene in the show’s history as well as one of its most pivotal story points. Spoilers for that, and then a long discussion with Graves about what went into directing both this episode and “Game of Thrones” in general, coming up just as soon as we give all the leftover food to the dogs…

So, as you know if you watched last night’s episode, the entire second half of “The Lion and the Rose” was taken up with the wedding reception for the sadistic King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), which featured a large chunk of the show’s cast interacting, having fun, making threats and then eventually becoming uncomfortable with Joffrey’s taunting of his uncle Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), then stunned when Joffrey keels over from death by poison. Here’s me and Graves to talk it out.

The second half of this episode is essentially one long scene, albeit with all these little vignettes between different subsets of characters. What was your reaction to getting this assignment, and how did you want to approach that, given that this is a show that’s usually very piecemeal?

Alex Graves: I knew I was going to do it when I got the outline, and I knew I was going to do it about a month before I officially started a full prep. And yet when I got the script, I had no idea it would wind up being a 32-page scene. Obviously, I was thrilled and completely intimidated to be handling his death, and also Jack’s exit – just because Jack is such a beloved person on the show that, as was the case with the Red Wedding, you need to be sure you pull off everything on camera and off. We started planning, and we had to plan the entire wedding ceremony in the Sept of Baelor, the entire wedding reception with hundreds of people. The set direction and production design, the whole production knocked it out of the park; they’re some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. And then you have in 32 pages, 18 scenes that are all part of one scene, that I basically was just ripping off Robert Altman and moving from vignette to vignette to vignette. Because you’re never really sure why you’re greeting everybody. The show tends to be so focused, and yet I knew I had to take these slow-building vignettes and build up a sense that something’s wrong, and there’s a suspense to it. So you assume that when Joffrey starts to humiliate Tyrion, it’s what I’ve been building towards. And I wanted to gear it towards “something is going to happen to Oberyn Martell, Sansa or Tyrion,” and misdirect the audience.

Is it easier or harder to do a sequence like this as opposed to an episode where you’re in one location for five minutes, the next for 10, and on and on?

Alex Graves: You don’t compare it to other things, because you’re just reading the text in terms of what should this be. For me, I’m always trying to visualize what I experienced the first time I read it, emotionally. Where you go, “Oh, wow, Cersei and Brienne, that’s fantastic.” And, “What the hell? It’s a dwarf show!” And the shock of it. I was always trying to hold onto that first experience.

You mentioned Cersei and Brienne, and when I interviewed Dan and Dave before the season, they said one of the things they liked about the sequence was that it allowed them to put together characters like those two who had never met before, and you had actors who hadn’t worked together before, and in some cases may not have met. What was it like on the set, all these new pairings?

Alex Graves: It was a real blast, because they’re all really wonderful. We were in Croatia, and everyone was excited about what they’d be doing next. It was really fun for them. I think Lena (Headey) and Gwen (Christie) were totally giddy that they got to do a scene after we all know, and Cersei presumes, that Brienne and Jaime have – whether you’d call it “love” or not – a very strong connection.

How many days did it take to film the reception, and what percentage of the episode production was that?

Alex Graves: We shot that scene for five days. I shot four episodes over 101 days, so I can’t tell you how many days that episode actually shot, because it was all mixed up through the 101 days.

What was the atmosphere on the set like for Joffrey’s death scene? Was that actually Jack’s last day of filming, or did he have more to do?

Alex Graves: No. The line producers, as usual, were brilliant, in that they scheduled it so that he had more work in Belfast after that. So I followed their lead and scheduled the shooting of his death to be the day before we were done in the sequence in Croatia. So basically, we killed Jack, checked the gate, went home and came back the next day to do more shooting with him alive. And it actually took some of the pain out of it, because we could joke around about it. We had a lot of fun, and there were some laughing fits while we were doing the choking. Certainly, whenever Jack said, “This pie is dry,” Lena and Peter could not keep themselves together – they would burst out laughing every time he said it. So everybody managed to make it fun and pleasant. It’s hard for it not to be fun and pleasant, because in a cast of incredibly nice, professional people, he’s actually the nicest and most professional. He’s amazing.

This show has afforded you the opportunity to do all kinds of sequences, like the Altman riff at the wedding, or the very quiet Jaime/Brienne scene at the baths, or these huge action set pieces like the sacking of Astapor, the duel between the Hound and Beric. As a director, what’s it like to work on a show that lets you do all these things?

Alex Graves: Well, it’s heaven. One, the writers are friends. They’re great to have around. The scripts are incredible. It’s impossible not to become obsessed with the books and what Martin wrote once you read it. And as a director – I grew up loving “Star Wars” and “All the President’s Men” – so I get to do a bit of each. It’s perfect. It’s like you’re getting to direct “The Lion in Winter” with sci-fi mixed in. It’s a blast. Everything anybody would love to do, it’s got. And the scene with Jaime and Brienne in the bathtub is like you’re shooting a film with a lesbian and a knight, she’s a knight, he’s a knight, they’re in love and don’t know they’re in love; where else would you get to film a scene like that?

The sacking of Astapor has already become this iconic sequence. How difficult was that for you to put together, given that it’s practical action mixed in with a lot of computer effects?

Alex Graves: It’s very complicated, and I started prepping in Morocco two or three months before. In a way, it wasn’t complicated, because all it really was, and I think it’s true of any scene we’ve had on the show, which is, “What’s going on with this character?” The whole thing was making sure you understood her experience, which was “I’m not relying on anybody. I’m playing a huge gamble. I don’t know how it’s going to go. No one knows what I’m doing, including my own guys.” And it starts to unfold and work, and then she takes it. And at the end of the day, no matter what you plan, you can never equal what Emilia (Clarke) gives you. It always gets finished off with a cherry on top because she’s in it.

How do you make the action look as good as it does in the time you have?

Alex Graves: You work morning, noon and night. You do nothing but work on the show seven days a week. And you have, more than anything, great texts, and the best group of people you could possibly have ot make it, who are just as passionate about it as you are. I’ll tell you, the biggest fans of the show by far are the people who make it. They love it, and they’re very precious about it in a great way, and I think that comes off on screen. Really, you do your best, and you have a lot of wonderful people to lean on.

Logistically, how does it work filming pieces of episodes in different countries? Since you’re doing back to back episodes each time, do you film all the Croatia scenes for both in one stretch, or are you going back and forth to just do the parts of episode 2, and then episode 3?

Alex Graves: The schedule’s built entirely around the idea that we’re in Belfast filming locations while we build sets. When we’re done in Belfast everyone goes to Croatia, the sets are being built. When you’re done in Croatia, you go back to Belfast and start shooting on all the new sets. You’re prepping Iceland while you’re in Belfast shooting. You were in Belfast at the beginning prepping Croatia, and if there’s a third time, you’re prepping that. Normally what I would do is shoot four or five days a week, then get on a plane the next morning, fly to Morocco, prep for two days, fly back, and keep shooting. It’s really built shooting everything out location by location and continent by continent.

So you’re shooting those episodes over a very long period of time and then it’s meant to be compressed back into an hour.

Alex Graves: On day 1 of shooting, let’s say I’m shooting a scene from episode 2. On day 100 of shooting, I’m shooting a scene from episode 2. The first thing we shot in season 3 was a piece of the finale, and the last thing that was shot on the final day of shooting was part of the opening scene of the first episode. So you literally spend six months jumping in and hoping you remember where you are in what you’re shooting.

And how do you make sure that both you’re in the right head space for that, and that your actors are in the right place for their characters, when it’s done this wildly out of sequence?

Alex Graves: One of the things you’re doing besides planning your shots and hoping to put together, is you’re really becoming a bibliography and a road map. You can’t do anything you don’t know what’s going on, but then you have to tell your actors what’s going on, and they’re incredibly grateful for it. A lot of that comes down to sitting down with Dave and Dan and saying, “What happens in season 6? Because I don’t know what I’m doing.” And they’ll tell you what you’re doing. I’ve had many moments with the actors where I’ve taken them aside and told them, “This is what happens next season” or even at the end of the whole series. And they’ll go, “Oh, thank God you told me that. Now I know how to play it.”

Are there any actors who don’t want to know that sort of thing in advance?

Alex Graves: They only want to know if they’re playing something wrong. But otherwise they don’t want to know anything about it, because they like to be fresh and energized.

This is a very major development in the life of the series that you got to direct here. Have you at any point spoken with either Alan Taylor, who got to chop Ned’s head off, or David Nutter, who directed the Red Wedding, about what those experiences were like and what you might expect from the fans as the man who killed Joffrey?

Alex Graves: I didn’t talk to Alan, because Alan was on “Thor 2” when I was working on the show. But I loved what he did and was very affected by his work in the first and second season. I think he really helped hone it. David and I are friends, and I did the show because of David. When David was doing his first episode, they asked, “Are there any other directors out there like you?” And he said, “Alex Graves, you’ve gotta hire him right now.” And, yeah, I’ve talked privately about the Red Wedding with David. (laughs) We’ve shared some stories.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com